The Wild Hunt for the Other God

The ghostly stag flees, and I give chase, compelled as if by some enchantment or curse to follow. Drawn by the silent movement among the half-bare trees, like memory through dream, driven by the longing for that which is only half-glimpsed, half-imagined, an elusive intimacy, a wilderness so ancient it is unshakable, yet hidden, soaked into the bone. I am on the hunt for my god…

The Waincraft tradition names this god a Power, Father Wild, the primal power of Wildness itself. This deity was originally addressed as the Shaman-Father, but later the name was changed “in recognition of the plights of indigenous populations in which the term [shaman] originated.” There is an otherness to the Wild One, a seed of strangeness in the soul. It is anotherness so Other that it is even stranger to itself at times; and in experiencing itself as stranger, as Other, so it also participates in and shares the experience of the centered Self, looking out on its own elusive being stalking the edges of the liminal, in search of that which is everywhere and nowhere. Nothing is certain when you are face-to-face with the White Stag. That is the ambiguity of the term “shaman” as applied to this god, and the ambivalence the term provokes among modern Pagans. And so the hunt begins…

stilllife_modified

The etymological origins of the English word “shaman” are complicated (no, more complicated even than that), and arguably the term may not have originated among the Turkish-Tungusic speaking tribes in eastern Siberia, those indigenous populations that the Waincraft tradition refers to in its honest expression of respect. The English term “shaman” comes, through the German “Schamane,” from the Russian “sha’man” — a phonetic borrowing from the Evenki “šamán,” the word used among some of the indigenous peoples of eastern Siberia for their priests.

However, to say that the word “šamán” originated in and is native to Evenki or the Tungusic language family is inaccurate. As best as linguists can tell, the word “šamán” in the Evenki language is itself a phonetic borrowing from Chinese, “sha mén” (meaning, a Buddhist monk), and the Chinese term is a phonetic borrowing from Sanskrit (through Pali) of the word “sramana-s” (a religious devotee or ascetic). Since the Evenki term “šamán” is most accurately translated as “priest” rather than “monk,” it seems the term had already begun to change in meaning as a result of cross-cultural borrowing by the time it entered the Evenki language.

In discussing the constructed nature of terms like “shamanism,” author Mariko Namba Walter notes that, “When these terms are applied to non-Western communities, then, as in the study of shamanic art, the approach must be self-consciously critical and sensitive to diversity among indigenous and prehistoric communities.”* Walter continues:

[T]he generic shaman […] has currency, so long as (1) it is clear that it is not a fixed, nonnegotiable, value-free term, (2) indigenous art is not directly compared with Western art, and (3) the “art” in question is examined in its specific social context.

While considerations (1) and (3) seem reasonable enough, (2) drives a wedge, invoked by the specter of scare-quotes, that continues to separate “us” from “them,” their “art” from our art. In her book Druid, Shaman, Priest: Metaphors of Celtic Paganism, scholar Leslie Ellen Jones examines how these kinds of assumptions have influenced the academic study of the ancient Celts**:

Malcolm Chapman argues that the label “Celt” is in fact nothing more than a marker used by the civilized world of Greece and Rome — the center — to designate “those savages to the north and west of us” — the Other on the periphery. “Because ‘the Celts’ have consistently been peripheral,” he states, “they have always seemed backward and strange to the center, from which our theories of the social world were typically constructed”. […] However, the inherent fallacy of “center and periphery” anthropological analysis is that the anthropologist invariably places himself at the center and the people being studied at the periphery. The whole notion of conducting fieldwork is based on the premise that the anthropologist makes this journey outward, bringing back insight from the realms of the fringe.

We see this fallacy repeated in the deconstruction and use of (or refusal to use) the word “shaman.” To claim that the English term “shaman” originated among the indigenous tribes of Siberia — and not from the Chinese, or the Sanskrit — is to draw a sharp dividing line between what we consider to be legitimate and illegitimate instances of language borrowing. Further, drawing this line at this particular point in history highlights Russian imperialism but ignores the extensive contact of Siberian indigenous tribes with Chinese culture prior to their contact with Western colonial powers (during which the Tungus and Mongolian peoples were just as often aggressors and conquerors as they were those being conquered).

In other words, this interpretation of the word “shaman” only serves to reinforce a version of history defined by the Western/European perspective, in which Russia is a competing and/or allied imperial power, and indigenous peoples are assumed to be culturally isolated, unsophisticated and perpetually in the process of being conquered and disappearing. This version of history is most often put forward by the very Western academics who are themselves striving to be both accurate and sensitive to the cultures they’re studying. Yet, as Jones points out, they also often operate from the assumption of a “center and periphery” worldview in which the studied cultures are peripheral — the eternally marginalized Other. There is an irony in the fact that the modern Pagan’s desire to avoid using the word “shaman” out of respect for the indigenous peoples of Siberia ultimately rests on a foundation of Western academic navel-gazing which nevertheless (perhaps inevitably) perpetuates certain Western-centric biases.

deerskull_AlisonLeighLilly

Do we give up the hunt? Do we retreat into conceptual titles — such as Wildness, the Horned One, Lord of Animals — and risk losing the immediacy and intimacy of the god? Or do we seek out the culture-specific names — such as Gwyn ap Nudd, Herne, or Cernunnos, itself a reconstructed pan-Celtic etymological puzzle — and in doing so lose touch with the thrilling pulse of shared relationship that beats in our veins? I don’t know what to think — except that this absurdly complicated and almost-impossible-to-reconcile history of a name actually reflects the nature of this god (who might, perhaps, be well pleased to embrace the word “shaman,” if only to lampshade this complexity). In a sense, as a modern American Pagan, it will forever be impossible for me to “think my way out” of my cultural heritage. The navel-gazing of educated and culturally sensitive Western academics can still only take us so far. We cannot even safely assume that the indigenous peoples themselves can provide us with a clear-cut answer, for to do so would be to project onto them an overly simplistic, monolithic, reductionist view of these diverse tribes, as if they speak with a single voice, instead of acknowledging that they themselves contain diverse and unique individuals each with their own opinions and perspectives. There may be no straight-forward consensus.

My husband the linguist suggests, “Still, it might be better if we could find a native English word for the same idea…” and in the very same breath asks, “But, then, what is ‘native English’ anyway?” The word shaman entered the English language nearly 500 years ago. There are certainly plenty of words that are more recent borrowings which we consider to be unproblematically “native English” without batting an eye, usually due to our own ignorance about where those words come from. (My favorite — which is to say, most tragic — example is the word bikini, the skimpy two-piece bathing suit named after an island where the U.S. carried out nuclear bomb testing starting in the 1940s, after the forced relocation of its original inhabitants to another island where many of them later starved to death, unable ever to return home. Ad campaigns for the new swimsuit style bragged that it was “so hot, it’s radioactive!”)

How long does a word need to be incorporated into the English language in order to be considered “native”? Indeed, it is our very knowledge of the complicated history of the word shaman — highlighted and preserved by the very Western academics so often accused of its appropriation and misuse — that prevents us from considering it to be English in any uncomplicated way. But then, this is true of almost any word. English, especially American English, is particularly good at incorporating and borrowing from diverse other languages, and these borrowings are not always negative or the result of imperial insensitivity. The more knowledge we have — the more linguists can accurately trace the complex histories of words — the more English ceases to be a discrete and easily defined category. The idea of a “native English” seems to falter and lose meaning.

The language I speak is not even my language anymore. I am othered from my own native tongue.

Our knowledge, instead of leading us to certainty, betrays us — guiding us deeper into the confused complexity of the forest, the dark wilds of unknowing. This is holy bewilderment. This is the horizon that is forever receding and can never be reached; the periphery that is everywhere and nowhere. We cannot move from the center to the periphery without, in some way, bringing the center with us. We cannot reconcile ourselves to the perspective of the Other without becoming Other to our own selves and our own perspective — and yet, even this is not really to unite with the Other in its perception of itself, precisely because the Other is not other to itself. And so the very act of Othering ourselves in order to understand that perspective undermines our ability to do so.

We find ourselves spinning in circles. We look for a centered self that isn’t there, and when we find it, it is deeply bizarre. We are confronted by an Other that can never be centered or normalized, and because of the very fact that we cannot pin it down, we experience that Otherness as everywhere.

This is the nature of the hunt. It is the call of the Wild One.

Welcome to the chase…

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*from Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, pp. 21-22

**pp. 27-28


Photo Credits:
• “Still life,” modified by Alison Leigh Lilly, original via Barn Images (CC)
• “Deer skull,” by Alison Leigh Lilly © 2015
• “The Horned King,” (CC) Mark Cummins [source]

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

5 Comments

  1. Juniper
    Oct 16, 2015

    It’s interesting when you write about “native English” as, anyone who studies language and European history knows, English is essentially the result of conquest. A garbled mix of Celtic languages, Latin, Germanic languages, and a dash of French.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Oct 16, 2015

      Yes, exactly! Have you seen some of the awesome videos of people reading Old and Middle English (like this one)? I find the way languages evolve through the centuries, responding to the ebb and flow of cultural and political change, to be both fascinating and humbling.

      Thanks for your comment, Juni. I hope you’ll take the time to read my post again. :)

  2. Stormwise
    Oct 17, 2015

    You bring up some good points here, with lots of solid information … a tip of the hat to your husband, the linguist, as well :-)

    We spend a lot of time giving everything a name. This enables us in many ways; but it is also one of the traits of ours that distances us from the very Nature we are driven to describe (we are often so busy describing, we forget to feel and experience, for example – it’s often a filter).

    What is a shaman? A shaman is someone who fulfills a specific role within a given community – that role being determined as much by the community as the shaman. If I am being plagued by angry ghosts, I’m just happy to find someone who can help me (and help the ghosts): you could tell me to go find the local shaman; or you could say, “Up the road for ten minutes, turn left at the old tree, then on for another six minutes or so … when you see the green shack, stop and you’ll find Henry probably already waiting for you – he can help you with your ghosts, and he makes some great apple cider.”

    Titles are secondary, I think. In this day and age, I think I might even consider Henry more reliable without the title, if the people close to him say he can help.

    (sorry for the long-winded comment … your post provoked some thought!)

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Oct 17, 2015

      No need to apologize for the long comment! Honestly, I love them more than the short ones — yay for good conversation! :)

      I see what you’re getting at… but I don’t think I entirely agree. I think the idea that language/words obscure reality and distance us from nature is one of these ideas that goes hand-in-hand with the claim that, f’ex, animals don’t have language or names for each other, that humans are a weird (or special) kind of animal and our self-awareness separateness us from nature, and so our language as an expression of self-awareness is an expression of or aid to that separation. But now even scientists are learning that these claims aren’t true: animals *do* have language, they even have names for each other, they are not blindly instinctual or mindlessly enmeshed in the world and self-awareness is not a uniquely human trait. So this idea that language hides reality from us…. I don’t see much evidence for that.

      Personally, I think language gives us just one more way to experience the world, like another kind of sensory engagement. Our earliest forms of human language were bodily, visceral imitations of the sounds of the world around us — bird song, the noise of wind and rain, etc. Language can be used to hide reality, sure, but light can be used to blind — that doesn’t mean that this is an essential and unavoidable property of the thing, though. Poetry and metaphor can evoke patterns in our minds that draw our attention to new ways of looking at the world, they can teach us to notice things that we might otherwise have overlooked. Or, they can draw our attention away from things that don’t fit the pattern. That doesn’t make language the problem, though — any more than a child screaming in the backseat distracting you from watching the road means that your sense of hearing obscures your sense of sight. When our senses work together, when we try to find a way to harmonize them and integrate them, then they help to enhance and heighten each, and we have a richer experience of the world around us as a result. I think that’s what language can do for us — if we let it. :)

      • Stormwise
        Oct 18, 2015

        Someone who doesn’t mind long comments – hooray! And thank you for responding – dissent is as educational and engaging as agreement :-) With that in mind, I had the following thoughts to your reply ….

        I have no problem with the notion that other animals also have names for one another and language – I’m not unknown to head out and commune with trees, for that matter; so I am definitely not posting from the perspective of someone who considers other animals to be merely ‘blindly instinctual.’ I’m not certain that this goes hand in hand with the point I raised about definitions filtering our experiences; except in that what I think is peculiar to humans is not language or names, but rather how we put it to use and how we sometimes preoccupy ourselves with it. We (as humans, in general) have the ability to interest ourselves so much in the definition of something, that the actual, or deeper, meaning seems to sometimes escape us. I’ve caught myself doing the same thing – but I would find it difficult to credit other animals (particularly those in the same spirit of wildness your original post refers to) with allowing a preoccupation for definition to filter out the meaning of something. In many ways, I see the comparison as one between sophistication and wisdom; and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that I feel like the other animals in this world are way ahead of us when it comes to this.

        Our definitions – as enabling as they can be – can bog us down. In your original post, I think you quite eloquently described the heart of where I’m coming from, when you described the Otherness … defining it would do more to limit our experience of it than it would to enhance it, at least this is my feeling, and my take on what you were writing at that point. When it comes to shaman or witch, or even priest, I think trying to define these people / roles in our community is chasing a will-o-wisp that keeps our focus turned in the wrong direction. You wrote, “Nothing is certain when you are face-to-face with the White Stag;” then went on to connect this with the ambiguity of the term, ‘shaman.’ Here I almost feel like we see eye-to-eye … I think the difference is that I prefer, at least in this case, the ambiguity, the Otherness, the strangeness, as much as possible. I say this, having myself journeyed to places where mystery presents itself as a sacredness that should not be defined; and was grateful that, despite education and a predisposition for language, science and philosophy, I could still sometimes be blindly instinctual :-)

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