Shaman with drum
painted with her visions
and spirit allies.
Maria Sabina, the renowned
Mazatec curandera of Mexico.
Her incantations as she entered
the shamanic ecstasy were poetic,
devotional, and yet subverted the
patriarchal theologian's insistence
on a masculine god by calling on
a "padre santísima."
Vrachka (female healer)
giving medicine, from a mural
at Rila monastery, Bulgaria.
Several church murals
in Bulgaria and Macedonia
show clear propagandistic intent,
to turn the common people away
from their (typically female) healers
who often incorporated pagan and
in their chants and ritual.
Thus, the artist depicts demons
defecating into the herbal brew.
Here as in the rest of Christian Europe
devils were imaged as dark-skinned.
A machi drums on her kultrún.
Most shamans are female in the Mapuche Nation of southern Chile.
An ecstatic dancer brandishes sistra
flanked by waterbirds in flight.
This Spanish bronze shows Egyptian
influence (note the Hathor hair)
by way of the Phoenicians,
with a Celt-Iberian twist.
Women drummers at a kut,
the shamanic ceremonies officiated
by the female shamans called mudang.
Shamanic rites are very much
a living culture in Korea,
although a strong social stigma
has grown up against the powerful
women who run the ceremonies, heal,
prophesy, and commune with ancestors. Confucian and Protestant influences
both militate against female
Click arrow to view clip of "Shamans and Seers"
from Women's Power dvd by Max Dashu
This is a brief
summary of a visual presentation, first shown in 1986, which was given
in September 2005 at the Shamanic Studies Conference in San Rafael,
A Chukchee proverb declares, “Woman is by nature a shaman.”
(1) Yet the female dimension of this realm of spiritual experience has
often been slighted. Mircea Eliade believed that women shamans represented
a degeneration of an originally masculine profession, yet was hard put
to explain why so many male shamans customarily dressed in women’s
clothing and assumed other female-gendered behaviors. Nor does the masculine-default
theory account for widespread traditions, from Buryat Mongolia to the
Bwiti religion in Gabon, that the first shaman was a woman.
In fact, women have been at the forefront of this field worldwide, and
in some cultures, they predominate. This was true in ancient China and
Japan, as it still is in modern Korea and Okinawa, as well as among
many South African peoples and northern Californians such as the Karok
and Yurok. There are countless other examples, including the machi of
the Mapuche in southern Chile and the babaylan and catalonan of the
Images, oral traditions, and historical descriptions show women as invokers,
healers, herbalists, oracles and diviners, ecstatic dancers, shapeshifters,
shamanic journeyers, and priestesses of the ancestors. The Chinese Wu
were ecstatic priestesses who danced to the music of drums and flutes
until they reached trance, receiving shen (spirits) into their
bodies, healing and prophesying under their inspiration, speaking in
tongues, swallowing swords and spitting fire. The power of the shen
gathered around the whirling dancers was said to cause objects to rise
into the air, to prevent wounds from forming when the dancers slashed
themselves with knives.
Similar descriptions were recorded by Greco-Roman visitors to Anatolia:
"At Castabala, in Cappadocia, the priestesses of an Asiatic goddess,
whom the Greeks called Artemis Perasia, used to walk barefoot through
a furnace of hot charcoal and take no harm." (2)
Certain female burials from ancient Central Asia have been designated
as shamanic priestesses by archaeologists Natalia Polosmak and Jeanine
Davis-Kimball. The priestess of Ukok (fifth century BCE) was buried
in a three-foot-tall framed headdress adorned with a Tree of Life, with
gilded felines and birds on its branches. Similar finds have been excavated
at Ussun’ in south Kazakhstan, and from the Ukraine to the Tarim
basin, with recurrent themes of the Tree of Life headdress, amulets,
incense, medicine bags, and sacramental mirrors. Such mirrors are also
seen in the Bactrian region of Afghanistan, held facing out against
the body, and they still figure as initiatory devices wielded by female
adepts in Tibet. The overwhelmingly female mikogami of Japan also kept
the “sacred mirror” of the sun goddess Amaterasu.
My visual presentation Woman Shaman includes a sequence of
women shapeshifting into animal form or riding on the backs of shamanic
steeds. These themes recur in many shamanic traditions, and are vividly
illustrated in modern Arctic carvings. An Aleut ivory (circa 1816) shows
a woman shaman wearing an animal mask. Other examples from the mid-20th
century include "Woman Riding a Bear" by Cecilia Arnadjuk,
Repulse Bay, Canada; "Woman/Polar Bear" by Odin Maratse, Greenland;
a walrus-tusked "Woman Shaman" by Nancy Pukingrnak of Baker
Lake; a half-woman, half-walrus piece titled "Woman Shaman Transforming
Herself"; and "Medicine Woman" by Kaka of Cape Dorset.
The darwisa or maraboutes of North Africa bear Islamic
titles, but practice much older North African customs. Among the Tunisian
cave-dwellers, the darwisa cures sick people from possession
from the jnun. In the ritual, she plays drum rhythms to discover which
jinn caused illness; when she hits the right one, the person begins
to dance. Then the darwisa talks to the spirit about what caused the
illness and what is required to cure it. (3)
Codices produced by Aztec artists shortly after the Spanish conquest
show women presiding over the temescal (sweat lodge). One of the invocations
sung by such a priestess was recorded: "Mother of the gods and
us all, whose creative and lifegiving power shone in the Temezcalli,
also named Xochicalli, the place where she sees sacred things, sets
to right what has been deranged in human bodies, makes young and tender
things growing and strong, and where she aids and cures." (4)
Invocatory chants have remained an element of Mexican Indian shamanism.
One of the great master was Maria Sabina, “the woman who knows
how to swim in the sacred,” whose incantations seem to have acted
as a means of entering into deep states of consciousness. Laying on
of hands was part of her healing practice. Further north, in California,
Bernice Torrez of the Kashaya Pomo, healed by touching and removing
spirits of illness from the body of the sick person. She was the daughter
of Essie Parrish, the great yomta, a title which means “Song.”
This prophet-seeress carried chants for ceremonies, healing, and control
of the elements.
Chant and shaking a sacred rattle are important elements in the practice
of Katjambia, a Himba medicine woman in Namibia. As she shakes the rattle,
she calls out Njoo, Njoo, in a "secret language from Angola."
After absorbing the negative energies into her own body, Katjambia returns
to the sacred fire of her ancestors, who release them. A song by the
Chilean composer and folklorist Violeta Parra celebrates the powers
of the Mapuche machi, describing how she presides over the guillatún
ceremonies and how her shamanizing cures the sick and brings a crop-threatening
rain to an end.
The healing power of female shamans was occasionally stated to have
been so far-reaching that they were described as being able to restore
life to the dead. So it was told of Pa Sini Jobu, great Tungutu of the
Bosso people in the middle Niger region. Her method of dancing to ecstasy
and shifting into the form of a great bird echoes the story told of
Isis. Both the goddess and the Tungutu are described as beating their
wings over the dead (a ram, in Pa Sini Jobu’s case) and bringing
them to life. (The Colchian sorceress Medea is also pictured bringing
a ram to life, using a cauldron, herbs, and incantations.) In western
Africa, the sorceress Kulutugubaga has the power to heal all and bring
the dead to life. She is the last of the legendary Nine Sorceresses
Reviving the dead was one of the marvels performed by Yeshe Tsogyel,
a foundational figure of Tibetan Buddhism. In Lady of the Lotus Born,
she says, "... In Nepal I brought a dead man back to life... My
body journeyed like a rainbow in celestial fields..." (5) This
8th-century poem is loaded with shamanistic content, recast in a Buddhist
mold. The shamanic Bönpo religion is known to have contributed
many elements to Tibetan Buddhism.
A Manchurian epic, Nishan Shaman, turns around the story of a woman
who is the most powerful shaman in the country. She is called upon to
revive the son of a rich man after countless others had failed. She
beats her drum, chants, and sinks as if lifeless herself while journeying
to the Otherworld, where she meets up with Omosi-mama, the "divine
grandmother" who "causes leaves to unfurl and the roots to
spread properly," who is the giver of souls and protectress of
children. It was she who ordained that Nishan would become a great shaman.
Of course, Nishan finds the soul of the dead boy. But she is pursued
by her long-dead husband, who demands to be saved as well, but she calls
for a great crane to seize him and throw him back into the city of the
dead. The shaman is hailed as a heroine when she comes back to the upper
world and showered with riches. Later she faces repression from Confucian
authorities who accuse her of not being an obedient wife, and they burn
her shamanic regalia and drum. (6)
In much the same way, Spanish colonials persecuted women shamans in
the Philippines, calling them “devil-ridden old women” and
“witches,” and destroying their shrines and sacred objects.
(7) Maya oracles and shamans faced the same treatment; the Tzoltzil
priestess María Candelaria raised an insurrection in Chiapas
in 1712 to resist the repression of the indigenous religion.
Several hundred years ago, the Jesuit Acosta wrote that Peruvian witches
were shapeshifters who could journey through the skies and foretell
the future "by means of certain stones or other things they highly
venerate." He and other Spanish sources agreed that the witches
were mostly old women.(8) The colonials imposed their own preconceptions
on Peruvian shamans, notably that of the devil and flying ointments,
and persecuted these Quechua and Aymara women shamans as witches.
The Peruvian Inquisition forbade seeking knowledge through dreams or
signs in the sky or through vision quests: "the said women other
times go out to the country by day and at night, and take certain brews
of herbs and roots, called achuma and chamico and coca, with which they
deceive themselves and numb their senses, and the illusions and fantastic
scenes which they experience there, they think and claim afterwards
as revelations, or certain news of what will happen." (9)
Inquisitors tried the curandera Juana Icha for healing with the power
of the old Quechua gods. She had offered corn meal, coca and chicha
to the mountain spirit Apo Parato. An Indian informer told the monks
that she "worships the earth and the stars and cries to the water."
This is necessarily a truncated synopsis
of a presentation which has not yet been committed to writing, but I
hope it conveys a glimpse of a very international spectrum of women’s
shamanic experience – and leadership.
1. Czaplica, M. A. (1914) Aboriginal Siberia, a study in social
anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p 243
2. Frazer, James (1955) The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.
London: Macmillan, Vol. XI, 14
3. Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries
(1988) ed. Henningsen, G, and Ankarloo, B, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, p 211
4. Nuttall, Zelia (1901) The Fundamental Principles of Old and New
World Civilizations: A Comparative Research Based on a Study of the
Ancient Mexican Religious, Sociological and Calendrical Systems.
Cambridge MA: Peabody Museum
5. Dowman, Keith (1996) Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of
the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel. Ithaca NY: Snow Lion
6. Nowak, Margaret (1977) The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: a Manchu
Folk Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press
7. Brewer, Caroline (2001) Holy Confrontation: Religion, Gender
and Sexuality in the Philippines, 1521-1685. Manila: Institute
of Women’s Studies
8. Silverblatt, Irene (1987) Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies
and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru, Princeton: Princeton University
Press, p 171
9. Contramaestre, Carlos (1979) La Mudanza del Encanto. Caracas:
Academia Nacional de la Historia, p 204