Women’s history scholar and Mago contributor Max Dashu released a DVD this year called Woman Shaman: The Ancients. It contains two discs of early art work showing goddesses and female shamans from around the world. Recurrent themes are explored in depth, such as serpents, drums, staffs, and mirrors. The DVD documents the rich variety in worship patterns and artistic expression in ancient history, as well as the pervasiveness of female spiritual power. The following is a discussion with Max about the DVD.
I’m wondering what inspired you to create this DVD.
I’m really interested in the subject. I’ve done a lot of research on it. It’s also part of my spiritual practice. The recovery of these ways is something I think is really important. A lot of people have been denatured of their ancient cultural heritage and aren’t really quite sure how to follow that back, how to retrace it. It’s part of my overall women’s history research, where I have a concept of female spheres of power, and this is one of them. We have stereotypes of what women are about, the conventional ideas of what women’s place is, and what women have done in the past has been misrepresented. One of the major spheres of power for women in a lot of societies was various forms of spiritual leadership. That would include everything from medicine women, priestesses, oracles, diviners, healers and prophets to formal roles that involved community leadership. I use the word “woman shaman” as an overall term that might cover those most exhaustively.
Can you give us a generic definition of shaman?
The original source is a Northeast Asian term out of Evenk and the Tungusic languages, Manchu and a lot of other related cultures. It referred to a person of any gender who was able to enter transformative states through incantation, drumming, dance and other practices, and work with spirit helpers in the states of dreaming which allowed them to access wisdom from the spirit realms. And so you have precognition, prophecy, divinatory powers, the ability to heal, to retrieve souls—this is the classic definition of shaman. Because English became so impoverished in words describing all of these realms and states and acts, scholars began borrowing terms from indigenous societies—“shaman” from Siberia, “mana” and “taboo” from Pacific island cultures.
What part does the natural world play in that?
It plays a huge part, because the whole cosmology is based on the idea that nature is alive and conscious. We’re living in this matrix of being, and so trees and rivers and mountains, all the animals, the birds, the plants all have powers. We can interact with those powers, relate to them and they can help us. The shamanic world view talks a lot about people offending powers, like they uprooted a tree or did something that angered the guardian spirits of a particular place. And so a lot of times shamanic healings have to do with removing these obstructions that are laid in the spirit world as a result of acts like that or offenses to ancestors. The shaman will be carrying on back-and-forth dialogue between them and whoever the spirit being is, attempting to discover what is the cause of the illness or whatever misfortunes that are happening.
There are the academics in anthropology and other areas who would say the word “witch” is not a shamanic term and witchcraft has nothing in common with shamanism. What are your thoughts on that?
Academia pulls on the old witch hunter stereotypes, so they define “witch” the way that the witch hunters defined witch: as a magical harm doer who goes by night, even sometimes incorporating the diabolist ideologies in Christianity as basic to the concept. They say that because that was how it was all written down, that that must have been the entire cultural reality of who the witch was. Now some researchers have gone deeper into the etymologies. Even Jacob Grimm looked at the etymologies and saw that there were all these ancient meanings embedded in that term “witch.” It was related to ancient Anglo-Saxon terms going back to older Indo-European terms having to do with bending and turning and twisting and twining. There’s an underlay of transformation implied. What we have between us and the original tradition is the witch hunts and the persecutions that went on for a thousand years in the early Middle Ages and forward. So we’re dealing with a huge cultural blockade that separates us from some of the core traditions. There are all kinds of aspects of the witch that have to do with shamanism. The incantation over herbs, the use of smudging, the use of running water or clear spring water in cleansings. There are sometimes invocations to ancestors. There are whole layers and layers of things that I’m documenting in my book, Secret History of the Witches, that I’m trying to pull forward out of what remains of the cultural record: documentation for this other pagan and ecstatic reality in the folk culture during the period of Christianization.
You say in the DVD that shamans have been assumed to be men for as long as this discipline of studying shamanism has existed. Now today a lot of people are saying it doesn’t matter if the shaman is a woman or a man. Why look at the woman shaman?
It matters because we have had a denial of female leadership and participation in this sphere, and this denial has been systematic and pervasive. I mean, not that everybody denied it, but that’s the general read off of most of the literature up until very recently. Then to turn around and say: well, the playing field was completely skewed before this but now we’re going to pretend it’s all level, you know, I find that disingenuous at the very least. Because in fact there are entire bodies of knowledge that haven’t seen the light of day in any systematic way—no integral analysis of these patterns of female spiritual leadership. And this is what I’m attempting to do in bringing together all the visual resources in the video. To show there are bronzes from China and Japan, and there are rock paintings from the Sahara, Australia, Baja California, South Africa. There are Mexican codices, there are figurines from Ecuador and Central America, and on and on with archaeological finds which have never been brought together in any way to say, Look! There are patterns here. There is evidence for female leadership in this area. Women drumming, women with rattles, staffs, ritual fans, ritual bundles, and mirrors. We need that information. To say it’s all even and it doesn’t matter is to deny the omission of women from this discussion, and it basically perpetuates an injurious status quo.
Is there anything else you wanted to say about the Woman Shaman DVD?
Yes I would like to send people to the website www.suppressedhistories.net, and there’s a link there on the left for the Woman Shaman DVD. You can read a description of the chapters and you can also view two trailers which are samples with some of the material. It’s two discs, almost 3 hours of material.