American pop culture knows how to reinvent anything that may, at first, seem strange or foreign and turn it into something familiar, safe and accessible so that the consumer will buy it.
Christmas and Hanukkah are only two examples of how our appetites for trendiness and our fears about non-mainstream cultures motivate American ingenuity to extract the original meaning from a holiday or a religious tradition and reduce it to a commodity. The sad result is that the original purpose of the holiday or the ritual becomes irrelevant, even as more people become interested in the sanitized version.
I thought about this after I finished a tour of the Michael C. Carlos Museum on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta. The special exhibition was about the role and theology of the shaman in South American Indian culture. Along with tarot cards, crystals and Buddhist meditation bells, I used to think of a shaman as an exotic and mystical religious novelty, because it is another gimmick that entrepreneurs in new age giftshops and bookstores market to seekers of alternative religious experiences.
The museum has more than 2,300 pieces in the ancient Americas collection, including Mesoamerica, Central America and the Andes, and artifacts from the Mayan and Inca civilizations. These items -- consisting of pendants, burial urns, jewelry, musical instruments, goblets, figurines, effigies and incense burners -- not only reveal the beautiful artwork of the craftsmen of the time but also teach the world views of the universe and religious beliefs in these cultures.
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The focus of this exhibition was on shamans, a type of religious leader. The shaman was not only a priest. He or she was, according to scholars, a channel for the supernatural through ecstatic trance and spiritual possession. The shaman achieved this heightened state through dance, ingesting hallucinogens and deprivation.
The shaman interacted directly with the spirit world. Scholars maintain that the term itself came from the Tungus language that originated in Siberia. When shamans entered that altered state, they transformed themselves into animals and communicated with human and animal spirits. The most powerful representation of the shaman in this exhibition is the jaguar, which in the Mayan culture represented the human alter ego portrayed as a human face covered with a jaguar skin on top. The bear is also a powerful symbol of the shaman. It was believed the shaman could become any animals. Women also could be shamans. One of the artifacts in the exhibition was a Peruvian effigy of a woman in a trance with painting and tattoos indicating she could become a whale shark. Just think of the power and authority a shaman would have among her people.
Underlying this kind of religious leadership is the belief that nature itself was integral to the world view of humans. The shaman could mediate between the animal and human worlds, thereby demonstrating how they were tied together. The shamans were able to teach the meaning and purpose of their lives by their ability to transcend the physical boundaries of animals and humans. The worlds of the living and the dead were not far apart, but simply different sides of existence. People sought out the shaman to better understand the spiritual dimension, hoping for insight and guidance. In that regard, the spiritual leaders then may have used very different modalities of prayer and meditation than spiritual leaders in the mainstream religions of today. Yet, despite profound differences in theology and world views, ancient and contemporary religious leaders all try to teach and experience the fundamental questions that religions address -- such as why am I here and what is my purpose in life?
One of the best ways to learn about the role of the shaman, ancient religions or any other kind of history of human civilization is to visit a museum and see the artifacts themselves. The shaman should not be relegated to New Age bookstores. Shamans and their religious systems can teach us about how religions strove to respond to the universal quest for understanding the role and purpose of humankind in another time and place.