Claude Levi-Strauss - Structural Anthropology (chap X and XI)
Sept. 30, 1998
Jim, a man with rotting teeth and a long pony-tail of prematurely gray and smoker-stained hair who claims to be a medicine man, once invited me to the slopes of Mt. Shasta in northern California. He said it was for a "healing circle", which I knew nothing about, but intended to attend as an anthropology major, curious and open-minded. When I arrived I became aware that the circle was primarily held to heal a rift inside his family of a sort that I never really understood. On the designated evening, as the sun was setting, we arranged the environment, complete with different sorts of crystals and deference to the great spirit of the mountain. We beat stones and drums and danced and sang, and Jim's parents prayed for healing of their family. That night, after the ceremony, everyone sat around the meager campfire dinner and talked about their experience, how much happier they were, how grateful that they had gotten together in this way. I didn't believe in the other-worldly claims of healing, but they were right, it had been significant, it made them cry. I am starting to understand why.
The psychological connections Levi-Strauss makes to the actions of shamans make sense of ideas I have stumbled with. He brings to light the power of subconscious knowledge as a tool of belief, which is in turn the tool of the shaman. The trick of healing is in augmenting the reality of a patient, adding elements that were not there before. By giving the sick person vocabulary, both verbal and conceptual, the shaman teaches that a sickness is only something new, the existence of which was previously questioned. If it can be understood then it will no longer seem arbitrary or alien, and can then integrated into reality, where it can be controlled. This knowledge is not intellectual knowledge - it is at deeper levels where the brain deals with the truths of reality, in the subconscious. After all, by reverse proof, just because we can logically understand something does not mean that we believe it to be true. True things are better felt than reasoned.
So Jim's family felt that there was something unseen, not fully understood, that was keeping them from being as close as they would like. By bringing them together in a ceremony they symbolically passed though whatever barrier was keeping them apart, and once they knew that this crossing was possible, they knew its limits, and they could control it or ignore it as they pleased. In this way the healing needed a Jim as a leader, to show them that their bonds could be strong and give them a place and time to realize it, and the rest they did themselves, by believing in him and in the ceremony.
While The psychoanalytic explanation for a shaman's power appeals to me at first, I feel like I can't truly give up on the idea of unexplainable forces, spirits and divinities. After all, myths also temper society by giving them vocabulary to fit forces of nature into some understandable communal reality, yet this does not explain why a rain dance may bring about rain. I hate to give up on the shaman and disregard any possible sensitivity to or connection with other planes. Without this hope, I, as a human, would never be able to put faith in things that I can not consciously understand. Mine would be a rather flat and wonder-less world. That wouldn't be very fun, now would it?