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Phoenix & Arabeth


Bill Moyers:
"Who interprets the divinity inherent in nature for us today?
Who are our shamans? Who interprets unseen things for us?"

Joseph Campbell:
"It is the function of the artist to do this.
The artist is the one who communicates myth for today."

Nearly always archeologists attribute finds of ancient art to a religious or cult function. This is so, not just for major centers like Egypt and the Indus Valley, but for areas that vastly pre-date them. Intriguing artifacts 10,000 to 40,000 years old are becoming more common. How and why did man (and woman) become an artist?

All of the arts owe their origins to the spiritual craft of shamanism. Shamanism is the ancient universal tradition whereby personal and tribal healing and empowerment is nurtured, supervised and accomplished through the special skills and services of a charismatic individual. This shaman may be male or female. He or she may be called medicine wo/man, witch doctor, sorcerer/ess, magician, witch, psychic, yogi, yogini, kahuna, medium, seer and various other names around the globe.

The shaman can transcend normal human consciousness and travel among different cosmological planes. As an intermediary between the visible & invisible worlds, this powerful wise one is guardian of the tribe's psychic and ecological health and welfare. All over the world, shamans encountered in the last 200 years have functioned in the same basic manner using similar techniques.

In shamanic cultures many strong individuals also might fulfill at least some spiritual and healing needs for themselves and other members of their family. There is a general shared awareness of the unseen world. And certainly the community's professional shaman would take care of his family first, as they probably supported him/her economically.

Shaman has entered our vocabulary from the study of the Tungus people of Siberia, where a living tribal healing process was thoroughly observed and documented in the 19th Century. The process itself is apparently a very ancient technology, the practice of which predates writing and all "civilization" as we know it. Some variation or form of it is indigenous to all parts of the globe.

"Even in the historical literature from the Classical Mediterranean, or from medieval and Renaissance western Europe, one finds evidence that the same basic shamanic knowledge once existed there until it was largely eradicated by the Inquisition."1

The primary purposes of shamanic tradition are (a) to promote and increase order, health, wealth and happiness of the individuals and the whole tribe, (b) to instill a common vision with individual motivation, (c) to appease the ancestors and protect against evil influences (demons of illness & bad luck), and (d) to divine hidden truths and/or the future. The shaman presides at the soul-rituals of birth, marriage and death, and conducts the annual tribal ceremonies and community sacrifices. These seasonal festivals promote harmony and balance within the tribe, between men and women, and with the natural elements, the plants and the animals.

Shamanism functions in a fertile, supportive, positive social context. Within the tribe it is revered as a reliable source of essential wholeness, energy and power. It is the source of mental knowledge available to cope with the serious challenges to health and survival. "In order to effect a cure of the patient, belief in what is happening must be held, reinforced, and intensified, not only in the patient, but in the audience as well, for their experience contributes directly to the effect."2

The shaman is disciplined, courageous, tenacious---a mind/body specialist, master of kundalini, communer with spirits, supernatural healer, magical athlete, masker, artist & craftsman, herbalist, ecstatic traveler between the worlds, spiritual power-broker, cosmic metaphysician, tapper of infinite universal energy, creative illusionist, skilled performing-artist.

"...Medicine-men...are of immense social significance, the psychological health of the group largely depending on faith in their powers..."3 The shaman's personal power is amplified by a visionary guardian spirit: the tutelary, nagual, familiar, companion, assistant totem, power animal (etc.); and he/she may have a number of additional spiritual helpers as well.

Desert Dancer
by Phoenix & Arabeth 1987

A shaman derives his/her unlimited power to serve the community directly from divine source, while the priest/priestess derives limited power from service to a cult or church. Organized religions, sponsored by warrior class power, have historically co-opted the tribal spiritual base. They have taken over the magical crafts and arts developed by shamans, to serve their own economic and military ambitions.

By dividing and undermining group faith and support, by discrediting the shamans' divine credentials, and by offering a glamourous (militarily imposed) alternative to an economically powerful elite, missionaries have succeeded in devastating many shamanic tribal cultures world-wide. They still do this!

There is clearly a supportive, practical and interactive connection of the arts to spirituality and religion. The arts have a capacity to create illusion and/or to manifest the impossible, the invisible, and the unknown. They can visualize and then make the fantastic real. This is miraculous magical power, and all spiritual traditions have employed the magic of the arts in one way or another.

Various art forms were developed by shamans to create a receptive atmosphere, a supranormal context for spiritual healing rituals. They are also used as sensory triggering mechanisms to expand consciousness and/or induce shamanic trance states (both personally and for the group).

It was discovered that recreatable multi-artistic experiences can be keys to access the inspiration of the higher self, and to reprogram the powerful instincts of the lower self. Tattooing, piercing or scarification are used as the permanent reminder of a particularly important life lesson, healing or initiation.

Shamanic ritual is high theater! "Professional cure by a shaman who is the central actor usually involves careful preparations, full publicity, and an eager audience; impressive setting and lighting, costume and makeup, theatrical properties and sound effects. Actual performance includes dramatic invocation of evil or benevolent spirits, or both, for diagnosis and advice as to treatment; possession of or battle with the shaman by the spirits through ecstasy or frenzy which may be considered a supreme example of dramatic impersonation, often with elaborate use of voice, dialogue, and body pantomime; concretizing the disease demons, and driving them away, often with sucking out, sleight of hand, and display of disease objects; and luring home of the sick person's soul. The performance may require the help of stage assistants, and active participation by the patient and the audience..."4

While many different forms of music are used in ritual around the world, drumming is particularly effective. Rhythm and percussion typically are used to trigger trance states in the Barong dances of Indonesia and possession dances of Africa and African diaspora traditions in America such as Macumba, Santeria and Voudon.

Everywhere shamans make masks. The mask embodies the spirit, and donning it the shaman accepts the presence of the spirit into him/herself. The Tlingit and Tibetan shamans alike "utter the words of the spirit" when wearing the mask. Elaborate masked pantomime dances punctuate the sacred calendar in South India with Kathakali, in Japan it's Bogaku, in Tibet Cham, in Pueblo land the Kachina dances. Such masked dances are also witnessed in Africa, the Pacific Islands, North & South America as well as ancient civilizations like the Egyptian, Mayan, Inca, etc. Architecture was originated by shamanic cultures. So called "primitive" tribal peoples all over the world have built sophisticated giant structures and statuary to serve the community. Natural cultivation of mental faculties enhanced through their shamanic traditions, enabled them to cut, shape and move heavy stone with simple tools. Their impressive creative abilities can be attributed to a greater group consciousness, sense of cooperation, adaptability, intuition and psychic awareness.

Mahakala and the Spirits of Transformation
by Phoenix & Arabeth 1997

The cycles of nature were keenly observed and respected by early man because they had such an impact on people's ability to survive and thrive. Stonehenge and other earth and stone circles & alignments measured, symbolized and celebrated the ritual Wheel of the Solar Year---the medicine wheel, the 8-spoked Wheel of Dharma---with its solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days.

In Europe megalithic monuments thousands of years old (shamanic cultural architecture with practical and spiritual purposes) were defaced, dismantled or built directly upon by the Christian church. The knowledge of their function and use was systematically banned, scrambled and eradicated as the shamans, Druids, and "witches," were brutally exterminated. Their followers "voluntarily" converted, if they wanted to survive. Shamanic magic was dismantled and the spoils were divided between the forces of religions and the minions of science---both getting shortchanged in the bargain. To this day neither religion or science can muster the pure positive communal transformative energy exhibited by the ancient shamanic high cultures.

Curiously, circus arts also began as ritual effects. In Japan the Saragaku tradition wove together the presentation of acrobatics, magic, divination, fire-eating and other circuslike acts. The two-man dancing lion figure, now seen at kung-fu demonstrations and Chinese New Year parades, was commonly used in exorcism ceremonies throughout Asia. In Tibet it was the protective snow lion, in China the temple-guardian Fu dog. The dancing dragon, commonly seen in Chinese New Year parades, was often its companion.

The expulsion of the bad luck demons of the old year was accomplished annually in Tibet at Losar (New Year), a grand and national exorcism celebration. "Amongst the festivities at Lhasa is the spectacle of 'Flying Spirits,' by performers who glide down a rope stretched from the summit of the Potala palace to its base."5 This feat was also performed in medieval Europe, with rope-dancers stretching incline ropes from the steeples of cathedrals. It could only be described as an awesome sight.

At one time the European Christians enlisted actors & entertainers to present passion plays and morality pageants. Later jugglers, magicians, dancers, mimers and all performers were persecuted by the Church. They were all considered to be in league with the devil because of their special "powers" to exhibit fantasy, illusion and impossible feats. Any power not administered by the Church was labeled as evil. Theatrical performances were banned for hundreds of years, along with herbalism, midwifery and all kinds field & forest rituals.

In 16th century Mexico the Spanish found the Aztecs exhibiting a high-flying stunt. Four men descended upside-down on ropes from a wheel rotating on top of a 50 foot high post (a trimmed straight live tree). This spiritual spectacle is still done today. The flyers play music as they swing down in a slow spiral. This uniquely combines the prime shamanic symbols of the tree, the pillar or axis, the spiral and the wheel.

The Aztecs displayed the upside-down art of foot-juggling. This was also mastered by the ancient Chinese, along with object-balancing, acrobatics and animal training. The horse was domesticated in the shamanic hotbed of Central Asia.

The Tibetan state oracle would often bend a hard iron sword in half with his bare hands while in trance. Fire-walking and fire-eating have been recorded in shamanic contexts all over the planet for thousands of years. The Native Americans practiced it, as well as poisonous snake-handling, arrow-swallowing, puppetry, ventriloquism, the "shaking tipi" ceremony and numerous other impressive shamanic feats and vision-inducing ordeals.

Dolls or puppets were animated and used in divination by Eskimo and the Javanese. Statues embodying the spirit which possessed the shaman/medium have been revered in China, Tibet, Africa and ancient Egypt.

"Among the most important objects used by the [Tibetan-Mongol] shamans are the so-called lekan, simple effigies representing spirits...and made of wood, pieces of cloth, and furs. These effigies are regarded as the receptacle or prison of an ongon [spirit], and in case the latter causes some harm, his representation will be beaten or even destroyed."6

Beautiful intricate sand painting mandalas are used by the Tibetans, the Nagas, and the Hopis for healing and empowerment rituals. They are destroyed during or after use. Thread-crosses used by Tibetan and Nepali nagpa lamas for weather-making and demon control are nearly identical to the traditional yarn god's eyes made by the Huichol people of Mexico.

The arts originated by the world's shamans include: drumming, music, dance, acrobatics, costuming (& clothes), masks, theater, architecture, models (dolls & mineatures) sculpture & carving, painting, sand-painting, body-painting, tattooing, mudra, sign, seal, & talisman, writing & literature, plant cultivation, astronomy, metallurgy and sea crafts. Additionally there are the "circus arts": juggling, sleight of hand, illusionism, puppetry, ventriloquism, clowning, rope-walking, fire-eating, sword-swallowing and, of course, animal training. (Modern shamans can also use photography, audio recording, film, video, computers, holography & CD-ROMs)

1 Michael Harner, Way of the Shaman
2 E. T. Kirby, UR-DRAMA The Origins of Theatre
3 A.P. Elkin, Aboriginal Men of High Degree
4 Lucille H. Charles, Drama in Shaman Exoricsm (in Journal of American Folklore, #66)
5 Waddell, in Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics
6 Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles & Demons of Tibet

"We are made by magic.
All of us in general are magicians.""
-- Andre Pierre
(Haitian artist)

Tibetan Art & Symbolism Visionary Arts Museum
Arts & Media Workers ManiFesto

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"Art is an alchemical technology.
It must be used positively to impact personal transformation,
human transformation and planetary transformation."

----Phoenix & Arabeth

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