Kenny Klein: Tales Of The Rambling Wren.
Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
Taking A Stand
Words are magic. Words have power. Unlike the octopus, which can communicate by subtle changes in the colors of its skin, or the lightening bug, attracting mates with its glowing tail, our major means of conveying our needs, our thoughts and our feelings are words. We use these to convey our intentions and desires not only to each other, and to our animal companions and familiars, but also to the elementals we call upon to aid us, and to the Gods/Goddesses we worship and serve. If these entities do not understand our meaning when we speak, what we hope might be a miracle could easily become a disaster!
In the Tarot card of the Chariot, a magician (evidently a Ceremonial Magician by his masonic apron, imbued with occult symbols) guides his chariot, which is drawn by two sphinxes without the use of reigns or harness. The charioteer must use only words to guide the mythical beasts: a wrong word, and the magical creatures will pull his conveyance apart. In Paul Foster Case's system of Tarot, based on Quaballah, the card is assigned to Cancer, the crab, a creature encased in a shell. The Hebrew letter assigned to the card, Cheth, means a fence. In essence, the figure, the fenced structure and the Zodiac sign embody the concept of words themselves: units of meaning encased in a shell, a unit of sound. Alter the meaning, and the shell of sound becomes useless. As much as I do not like to quote the Bible, you have the myth of the Tower Of Babel: words may have meaning to the speaker, but their meaning is lost to the listener.
This is an issue, for me at least, in the Pagan community. I'll elaborate in a moment. First, let me tell you a story.
I was at a festival on my tour recently, and found myself attending a workshop I was less than comfortable with. How did I end up in that situation, you may ask? Glad you asked. I was asked to play fiddle for a ritual, and as I feel very committed to sharing whatever gifts I might have with the community, I agreed. But, I was told, you need to attend the workshop. It will explain the premise of the ritual.
It turns out the premise of the ritual was the work of Matthew Fox, excommunicated Catholic priest who has worked since his “fall” with the likes of Starhawk and eco-theologian Thomas Berry to develop a system he calls Creation Spirituality. Derived from Buddhism and Quaballah, it's a fine system of thought. My discomfort comes from the fact that like Fox himself, and like the very lovely woman who presented the workshop and priestessed the ritual, the system is very obviously rooted in a monotheist's desire to expand their spiritual horizons and embrace the wisdom of other spiritual systems while remaining a monotheist. Nothing wrong there...except that staunch Wiccan polytheist that I am, (and while I respect anyone's right to be monotheistic), hearing about monotheism for two hours makes me feel itchy and a little squirmy. Maybe that's why I'm Pagan...
But all that aside (the woman was an excellent workshop presenter and the system itself is well thought out and very heartfelt...just itchy), there was a Q and A period at the end of it all that made me end up scratching away like a bear in a patch of poison oak.
At the workshop's end, several people asked questions, some good, some that had actually already been answered. But one question hit me like a ton of bricks, and the response was even worse. Afer the subject of Shamanism came up, and all the while being a discussion of Christian monotheism, a guy way in the back of the attendees asked: “was Jesus a shaman?” Oh, my skin crawled. What made it worse was that the presenter turned to the resident “expert,” and said to her “you're a shaman, what do you think?” and our expert answered “why yes, Jesus was a shaman!”
The first thing this whole impetigo-esque exchange got me to thinking was about an attitude I often encounter in the Pagan community, an attitude I call “everyone-is-everything.” While I'm all for eclectic Paganism, and the gaining of wisdom from various and disparate sources, reading a book on AmerInd spirituality does not make one an American Indian. Going to a workshop on Hinduism does not suddenly allow one to access the complex religious and ethnic words and ideas that are unique to Hinduism and to the Indian subcontinent and its myriad language groups. Again, it's a very beautiful aspiration to learn as much as you can about Hinduism, but it doesn't make you one. And I see a lot more people defining themselves as Pagan-Hindu-Buddhist-Christo-Pagan-Druids these days than I used to. I call it, as I've said, the “everyone-is-everything” principle.
Again, read Be Here Now, and gain the wisdom of a drug-addled college professor guru, or go to Sedona for shamanic workshops all you like, but it just addles me a little that people claim to be things that their knowledge and experience does not merit. I have heard people say “you can be anything you want to be,” and to an extent that is absolutely true (with exceptions...my dream of being a fabulous Black woman in gold skin tight pants and six inch wedgies may have to wait for another lifetime). But the “everyone is a Shaman is a Witch is a Druid is a Buddhist” ideal just really bothers me.
Which brings me back to the Chariot card, and the question at the workshop...was Jesus a shaman? What does the idea encased in a shell of sound, the word Shaman, actually mean?
I know many eclectics hate my die-hard staunch Wiccan attitude, but just hear me out. I worked my tushy off to get those Wiccan initiations----which meant truly learning Wicca. Not the Wicca you find in Scott Cunningham books (bless his pointed little Pagan soul), but the Wicca most people don't even know exists: the Eight Paths of Power, the Seven Tenets of Faith, the Baneful Rune, the true Drawing Down, the difference between the Saxon Wheel Of The Year and the Celtic Wheel, cleverly disguised as one Wheel: even the correct pronunciations of Mabon and Pwyll and Blodeuwedd ... as well as the mounds of Ceremonial Magical and Quaballistic thought and ritual that informed Gardner when he codified this stuff (and the history of how all of that happened, and the ways in which my own tradition began weeding the Ceremonial Magical elements out of our ritual...don't worry, I'm working on the books now. Just hope that Llewellyn is in a good mood when my first three chapters are ready for submission). I dedicated myself heart and soul to learning, and to the service of my Wiccan Gods and Goddesses---not the amorphous, undefined “Goddess” and “God,” but the very unique Gods of the Wicca.
No I don't deserve any medals (I did deserve a Third Degree, and I got that), but just keep bearing with me because I'm getting to the point.
I struggled to become a Wiccan because a Wiccan is what I am, and I endeavor to make my community blessed by my presence in it each day. I attend Voodoo fetes (in my neck of the woods you sorta' have to), I study Quaballah, I talk to my Druid friends, and I even host Pirate parties. But none of that makes me a Druid or a Voudon or a Quaballist (I do claim Pirate...but I know what “shiver me timbers” and “gone off half-cocked” actually mean). I have never earned the right to call myself those other things, and I respect those traditions and their elders/clergy/mambos/clerics way too much to claim that right. Sure, I can explain to you what these systems are about, but my job as a Wiccan High Priest is to direct you to a real practitioner if you feel one of these is your path.
So, back to Jesus. Was Jesus a shaman? My answer to the “expert's resounding “yes” is twofold: that's amazingly disrespectful to Jesus (who I don't really care much about) and amazingly more disrespectful to the Mansi and the Khanty and the Lapps and the Sami (who I do care a lot about!).
Let's start with the Jewish carpenter. Beside being able to build an amazing cabinet, Jesus was a rabbi (Mark 9:5 “Peter exclaimed, "Rabbi, it's wonderful for us to be here! Let's make three shelters as memorials--one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” John 4:31 “Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something.”). To be a rabbi has a very specific meaning. Rabbis are teachers, whose principle job is to explain the Torah in ways that make it relevant to Jews of their time and place. In the case of Jesus, whatever else he may have been, he had an amazing knowledge of Torah scripture, and an amazing facility in explaining its relevance to the Jews of the Roman era. Many spiritualists, on both sides of the Abrahamic equation, believe Jesus must have studied Quaballah. Whether or not that is true, Jesus certainly did what most Torah scholars do during those missing thirty years: sat in a schoul every day and studied the Torah. To those “everyone-is-everything” types that suggest Jesus went off to India to study in that missing time: why would he? Judaism is a deep, mystical, beautiful religion! It takes years of study to understand its most important concepts. Why would he go to India to learn his native spirituality?
There is so much to study when approaching the Torah, and so much more---a lifetime's worth---when studying Quaballah. But the main thing is, this makes you a Quaballist. NOT a shaman! Jews of all times and places have found a lifetime of Jewish Mystic study complex, deep and meaningful. Few have gone off to India (which I'm sure is a very nice place: and by the way, studying Hinduism in India likewise makes you a Hindu, NOT a Shaman!). But there seems to be an American ideal that India is far off, mystical and magical (most people who think that, have, I'm sure, never been there to see people begging in the streets or the multitudes of the dirty and desperate); Judaism is just something you see all the time right here in America, so how mystical can it be? Well, that thinking is both incorrect and limiting! The most mystical things, I think, are the ones right under your nose.
In fact, rather than jaunting off to mystical India, let's go visit Siberia to continue this discussion...Siberia, home of the Mansi, the Khanti, the Sami, the Lapps, and the Inuit: the peoples whose spirituality is actually meant by the word Shaman. These are the native peoples of Russia and Siberia, Iceland and Alaska; the Russian version of American Indians. In fact, these are the peoples whose ancestors, some ten thousand years ago or so, crossed the Bering Straits and became our American Indians (at least some: there are many theories about how our AmerInds got here, but this one figures into most proposed accounts).
Now in these cultures, only a very few people become the magical, holy people of a group or village: the Shaman (and this is the only place on earth where that word is used for what these individuals are). It takes a lifetime of study and work to become a Shaman, but the main element of the Shamanic experience, gained after years of hard work and learning, is a “bear vision.” The Shaman goes into a deep trance (kids, don't try this at home) and is led by a bear to his/her totem spirit. This is why the bear is such a looming figure in Germanic and Slavic folklore and folk tales, such as Snow White And Rose Red, Goldilocks (dumbed down a bit by the time it got to English storytellers), Beauty and the Beast. In each (whole) tale, the bears leads our hero/heroine to a vision, and to riches.
Now these cultures take Shamanism very seriously: the Shaman serves the community, shares the fruit of their visions, and administers medicine and council (the Shaman also has a reputation of being very creepy: i.e. Baba Yaga). To just decide that anyone is a Shaman, including a Jewish carpenter, is, to me, extremely disrespectful and demeaning of the process and devotion people in these cultures put themselves through to assume this title (think it's easy? Ever hear of the Sun Pole?). I'm sorry, but if someone represents themselves to me as a Shaman, my first question is, can you tell me about your bear vision? How did it occur? How much time passed while you were in your trance state? Oh, can't answer those questions? Hmm...and you think you're a Shaman?
Again, I know it's a beautiful thing to believe that anyone can be anything. But where do we, as Pagans, take a stand, and say “don't call yourself by a title unless you can back that title up!” If someone tells me they are Wiccan, I ask their initiatory line. Don't have one? Then maybe you observe Wicca, but you are simply not a Wiccan. (Jason Mankey argues with me that there are enough books with Wicca in the title that people no longer understand the meaning of the word, or it has evolved to mean something new. But I may have mentioned above that I am a staunch and curmudgeonly Wiccan, remember?). So many people in our community claim to be something they are not, and use the platform to manipulate, to try to get sex, to ask for money in return for teaching, and to spread disinformation. None of this would be allowed to happen if we simply said “you're a Shaman/Witch/Druid/Priestess? Prove it!” Proof is easy: do you know things that are not in the books? Have you served the community in tangible ways? Do you have an initiation that can be verified? (In the case of Wicca, we take vows that we will NEVER charge money in return for teaching personal students the Craft. I can charge for lectures, readings, performances, writing, but once I take you on as a personal student of my coven, no money may pass hands other than legitimate expenses for candles, incense, rent on a space... so if you're Wiccan, and took the same vows I took, why are you charging for your teaching?). This type of proof allows us as a community to have valid, respectable teachers and clergy who are in their profession to serve their Gods, not to scam or manipulate. It allows sincere students to learn valid traditions. It gives us the credit and respect of our own community, and of those outside our community who seek to claim that we are crazy, whacky and disillusioned (or delusional). And it begins with respecting the people and traditions we draw from, whether those people and traditions are Roman Catholics or Mansi Siberians.
Words are magic. Words have power. Words are meanings encased in the shell of a sound. When we as a community stop taking people's word for what they are, and start defining words by their actual meaning, we can respect ourselves more. And from my perspective, no! Jesus, rabbi, Quabbalist, Torah scholar and teacher, was a rabbi, Quabbalist, Torah scholar and teacher, but NOT a Shaman! These words have actual meanings. Just ask the Charioteer.
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