A shaman is a man who has immediate, concrete experiences with gods and spirits; he sees them face-to-face, he talks with them, prays to them, implores them … the majority of these familiar and helping spirits have animal forms. Mircea Eliade
Although shamanism exists around the world in many different cultural forms, three things are the same in shamanic experience everywhere: the journey, or soul-flight, that the shaman makes, the role of power, and the essentiality of spirit helpers. On one level, who a shaman is and what she does cannot be separated, the shaman is only a shaman because, when she heals the sick, casts out intrusions or asks for information, she is working with and through the power of the spirits, usually, but not exclusively, the power of her own spirit helpers. No shaman works alone; anyone working alone is by definition using their own power and is therefore not a shaman.
When teaching or working with clients I am often asked “what is a spirit helper?”, or “what is a power animal?”. These seemingly straightforward questions, if answered in depth, touch on the sophisticated and paradoxical nature of shamanism itself. My understanding of spirit help is that it is a part of the universal energy that animates everything; it is also the thing it appears to be e.g. a lion, a seal and squirrel; it is also myself. When, during a journey, I ask for help of any kind, I am making an approach to that energy. The response that comes back will be directly related to what was asked for, and for whom.
It is in this space, between the universal and the personal, that the true wonder and excitement of shamanism lies for me; this is the place where archetypes are born and where time, in the linear sense, ceases to have meaning. I ask, and I am answered but because my understanding and spiritual perception of the essence of universal energy is limited by my own nature as a human animal, I perceive the response in a form that is recognisable, acceptable and contains a teaching about the help requested – in other words, as a spirit helper. The helper may be in human form, a wise teacher, an ancestor or even a mythological figure such as a Green Man; it may be a rock or a tree, or Gaia herself. As Eliade points out above, many spirit helpers take animal form – a reminder of our own nature and genetic past. Spirit helpers in the form of animals are commonly referred to as ‘power animals’.
Next time I’ll talk more about what happens when I make a journey to find a helper for another person and explain in greater detail how power animals bring universal and personal meaning to someone receiving healing.
Dr. Zoë Brân
email [email protected].
Dr. Zoë Brân has worked with creativity for fifteen years and is the author of eight books, which include travel literature, guides to sexuality, and fiction. Zoë was a Writer in Residence at London’s University of the Arts from 2004-2008 and lectured in both Creative Thinking and Travel Writing at City University in London. As a travel writer and journalist Zoë travelled extensively, focussing on troubled areas of the world such as Burma, Bosnia and most recently, Cuba. She has been a speaker, teacher and presenter at conferences, academic institutions, charitable organisations, companies and businesses and has worked with media on topics as diverse as AIDS – the subject of her doctorate – sexual behaviour, Vietnam and shamanism. She has appeared on BBC TV and national and local radio, including ‘Panorama’ and ‘Woman’s Hour’. Currently director of Shaman UK, Zoë has been involved with Core Shamanism since 1998 and is one of the UK’s leading practitioner/educators. She offers one-to-one shamanic counselling and healing and leads shamanic seminars and workshops on a range of subjects, including: Sex and Gender, Death, Soul Retrieval. Her weblog is among Europe’s foremost resources for contemporary shamanic practice and has a worldwide readership. Zoë lives in London with her lurcher, Arlu.
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