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?