Dance of the Shaman

Is There Evidence for the Reality of the Spirit?

As many readers who are familiar with my work surely realize, in many ways I straddle a couple of different communities—indeed, different worlds. I am a trained and “card-carrying” academic. I earned a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University and I am currently a full-time, tenured faculty member at Boston University. Yet, I take a deep and serious interest in various topics that the majority of my fellow academics find, to put it mildly, loathsome. I have challenged mainstream status-quo dogma and studied topics that, I have been advised, are best left unexplored if I want to have a successful university career.

A realm I have researched, and which has piqued rather than endeared me to my academic colleagues, is what might be loosely termed the “spirit world.” I have long had a serious interest in psychical research, the paranormal, and subject matter that is generally termed more technically, parapsychology. My interest arises in large part from my studies of ancient civilizations, for ancient peoples consistently included psychic and parapsychological phenomena among their core belief systems. And, whether we care to acknowledge it or not, humanity in today’s world of modern technology is still shaped and influenced by our cultural inheritance from remote ancient times.

One aspect of this very ancient inheritance is a set of beliefs and practices that in recent times has been broadly termed “shamanism.” Classical shamans and their belief systems are centered in the region of Siberia (see the masterful 1935 study by S. M. Shirokogoroff with the evocative title Psychomental Complex of the Tungus). A Siberian shaman was illustrated in print by the Dutch politician and explorer Nicolaes Witsen (1641–1717) in 1692.

The core of shamanism is the belief in, and acknowledgment of, spirits and the spirit world. A shaman is a person (male or female) who has become “a master of spirits, at least of a group of spirits” (Shirokogoroff, p. 271; italics in the original). According to shamanic beliefs, spirits inhabit the cosmos that can at times interact with and affect humans. There is a world of spirits, a world that exists simultaneously with the ordinary physical and material world we all take for granted. Some humans, such as shamans, can converse with and visit the spirit world. Through an “altered state of consciousness,” a shaman can purposefully journey to the world of the spirits, interacting with them. Such fundamental shamanic beliefs can be traced back tens of thousands of years, and were common to the ancestors of all living humans. (See E. J. Michael Witzel’s insightful 2012 tome, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies.)

In order to visit the spirit world, the shaman enters a trance state, or a state of ecstasy—that is, a state associated with mystic insight or, for the shaman, travel to the spirit world (see A. Hultkrantz, 1988, p. 38, in Shaman’s Path, edited by Gary Doore). The importance of this route to the spirit world and insight into the world beyond the ordinary world was stressed by the great philosopher and historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) when he wrote, “A first definition of the complex phenomenon [of shamanism], and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy” (Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1964/1992, p. 4; italics in the original, comment in brackets by R. Schoch).

Traditionally the trance state, or state of ecstasy, is achieved through drumming and dancing, where the monotonous and constant beat of the drum is of prime importance in inducing the trance state. The skin-covered drum has, indeed, become symbolic and iconic of shamanism in the minds of many modern observers and practitioners, but in certain regions other percussion instruments are used as well, such as gongs, bells, or simply sticks hit against each other. In some cases, drugs such as psychedelics are used to induce the trance state, but as noted by anthropologist Michael Harner, in Siberia and elsewhere “real shamans” do not need to resort to drugs. As Harner has written,

“…in doing fieldwork with Northwest Coast Indians, who use only the drum in their shamanic work, I discovered that the drum could in fact take a person to the same place as the psychedelics, just by itself. And, of course, it can do so more safely and in an integrated way, without the side effects and other hazards associated with drugs. Its effects are much more controllable and precisely predictable than those of strong psychedelics.” (Harner, 1988, p. 13, Shaman’s Path)

If one is to be a “master of spirits,” as the true shaman is, then it is disadvantageous to use drugs—the effects of which can be unpredictable and uncontrollable at times, no matter how familiar one is with the drugs. To master the spirits and enter the spirit world on an equal footing with the spirits, it is absolutely essential to be in control of one’s own mind and soul, even in a trance or ecstatic state. The accomplished shaman can move from the ordinary world to the spirit world, and back, at will—without being dependent on the effects of a drug either setting in or wearing off. Furthermore, the shaman must be able to remember correctly what the spirits did and said; and in particular cases the shaman may need to be conscious of, and operate in, both the spirit world and the ordinary world simultaneously.

From a conventional academic perspective, it is acceptable to study primitive belief systems, such as those of shamanism, but one must never take such “superstitious nonsense” seriously—that would certainly be crossing the proverbial line at the risk of exile to the academic equivalent of Siberia. But there was in recent times a well-known and distinguished anthropologist who had crossed this line: Edith Turner (1921–2016; she was in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, at the time of her death). In various publications Turner testified that during a traditional curative ritual in Zambia she witnessed firsthand a spirit form. As she described it, “the traditional doctor bent down amid the singing and drumming to extract the harmful spirit” . . . “I saw with my own eyes a large, gray blob of something like plasma emerge from the sick woman’s back” (E. Turner, “The Reality of Spirits”, published in the journal Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997). This, I dare suggest, is hardly an isolated incident. Many people have had similar experiences, but such persons and their testimonies are simply dismissed by traditional academics that consider it all a matter of delusions, self-delusions, or downright fraud. The average anthropologist may record such stories told by informants but will certainly not take them as literal accounts of what really happened.

The serious academic study of spirit phenomena falls under the realm of parapsychology (also known as psychical research). Going beyond the study of spirit phenomena as simply primitive nonsensical superstitious beliefs that might serve the function of bonding a society together or relieving social stress, but rather considering “spirit phenomena” objectively, parapsychologists may ask whether or not such phenomena are genuine; and if they are, what might be the underlying causative factors. Are the spirits real? Is there a true spirit world?

Not surprisingly, parapsychology is generally considered a fringe discipline by other academics and is often dismissed out of hand. Yet over a century of serious scholarly studies of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, unconventional medical cures, “ghost sightings,” poltergeist occurrences, psychokinesis/telekinesis, and so forth, have demonstrated that these types of phenomena genuinely occur; although, granted, there are also numerous cases of fraud and charlatanism (see the 2008 anthology that I co-edited, The Parapsychology Revolution). Such phenomena have been traditionally attributed to a spirit world. Many parapsychologists hesitate when it comes to hypothesizing that spirits might be the explanation for the strange phenomena they study. Instead, they may invoke new discoveries or exotic phenomena in other fields, such a quantum entanglement, in an attempt to explain the telepathic transmittal of information or other paranormal incidents. But is this ultimately any more “scientific” than postulating, at least as a working hypothesis, that there might be a spirit world? Indeed, it strikes me that postulating a spirit world is not incompatible with postulating “exotic” physical processes to explain paranormal phenomena.

Maybe a spirit world exists, genuinely exists, in another realm or dimension. This is an idea that is hardly new. Across Siberia there is an often-told story about a person who accidentally visits the spirit world. Through a hole in the ground or some sort of cave, a man unknowingly enters into the realm of the spirits, not realizing where he is. Wandering along, he comes upon a camp where there are people gathered. He attempts to interact with these people, but they step on him and bump into him. It becomes evident that they cannot see him. When the man touches any of the people, and in one version of the story when he teases some girls, they become ill. The dogs in the camp bark at the man, apparently sensing his presence. The people suspect that something is wrong, and they hire a shaman to rid them of the “evil spirit” that is plaguing them. The human man slowly comes to understand that he is among spirits, he has entered the spirit world, and from the perspective of the spirits (who consider themselves human), he is considered an evil spirit. The spirit shaman is ultimately successful and drives the human from the spirit world and he returns to the world of humans (a version of this story is recounted by Charles Stépanoff, Inner Asia, volume 11, number 2, 2009, p. 292).

One of the lessons that might be drawn from this story is that, as a group, spirits are neither all good nor all bad—just as not all humans are alike. An “evil spirit” may be nothing more than a spirit “out of place” and interacting, perhaps inadvertently, with the human realm. An accomplished shaman can redirect the misplaced spirit to the world where it belongs. Of course this does not preclude genuinely “good” or “evil” spirits, but it may well be that such appellations are often inappropriate and the majority of spirits never interact with the human realm (or vice versa).

Returning to the question of whether or not spirits might be real, might be genuine, this widespread story leads me to ponder the possibilities. Is it conceivable that there is literally a spirit world, either very different from our world, or perhaps parallel to the world of humans (as depicted in the story from Siberia)? Might a spirit world exist in another dimension or time frame that only occasionally or under peculiar circumstances intersects with, or interacts with, the world with which we are familiar? Could the spirit world be composed of some form of exotic matter that we cannot readily detect, such as the hypothetical dark matter or mirror matter of modern physics?

The concept of mirror matter is something that I find particularly fascinating (for an introduction to this subject, see my article in Atlantis Rising #115, January-February 2016). To greatly oversimply the concept, our world is composed of particles that are said to be “left-handed” at a fundamental level, and theoretically there could be matter that is “right-handed.” Such right-handed matter, or mirror matter (also known as shadow matter or Alice matter; mirror matter is not to be confused with antimatter) would create a world unto itself that is very similar to, or from a physics point of view, virtually identical to, our own world. That is, mirror matter particles would interact with each other in the same manner that ordinary particles interact with each other. But, very importantly, mirror matter particles and ordinary matter particles would barely interact with one another. A wall composed of mirror matter would not only be invisible to you, but you would be able to walk right through it. If a spirit world were composed of mirror matter, we would not normally be aware of it. (It can be argued that we should be able to detect mirror matter via gravity anomalies, but depending on the density and distribution of mirror matter, such anomalies may either effectively cancel out or be negligible, possibly beyond the reach of the most sensitive equipment currently available.) But perhaps under incredibly unusual circumstances, for we still do not actually know if mirror matter exists—although there is some compelling evidence that it does—or exactly what all of its properties might be, we could just possibly interact with mirror matter organisms.

Could a spirit world be composed of mirror matter? Could the interaction of a mirror matter world and our ordinary matter world occasionally give rise to balls of “plasma” (essentially electrically-charged particles) by a process referred to by physicists as “kinetic mixing” of mirror photons and ordinary photons, or some other interaction of mirror and ordinary subatomic particles? Could this be the explanation for the “gray blob” that Edith Turner observed emerging from the sick woman’s back? One might argue that the energies involved to create observable interactions between mirror matter and ordinary matter would be much higher than the energies observed in everyday life, but then again we really do not know, given that we do not have a good handle on the properties of mirror matter vis-à-vis ordinary matter—that is if such matter even exists.

The notion of mirror matter as the “stuff” or “material” of the spirit world brings to mind another common traditional shamanic belief, also found among many mystics, that the spirit world is in some ways the “reverse” of our ordinary world (see discussion by A. Hultkrantz, 1988, p. 38, in Shaman’s Path, edited by Gary Doore). The spirit world may be viewed as a world of negations, or as an upside-down world that is the opposite of ours. In a modern physical sense, this might be a way to describe a world composed of mirror matter. Modern science may once again demonstrate the truth of the insights of ancient traditions.

But here, once again, I am treading on dangerous ground—at least when it comes to academic respectability. To even discuss such matters raises suspicions amongst many of my conventional academic colleagues. It is taboo. But what about the global belief in spirits, a belief that can be traced back tens of thousands of years? All nonsense? Or, as the cliché goes, where there is smoke there is fire; is there some underlying basis for the acceptance of the spirit world? And then we have the direct testimony of Edith Turner. Perhaps the spirits do exist, but as we have accelerated our technological developments we have also pushed the spirit world ever more into the background. Then again, perhaps ultimately technology will fully reveal the realm of the spirits to us. I am not sure what to think, but it definitely makes me think.

 

Robert M. Schoch, Honorary Professor at the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy and a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. Best known for re-dating the Great Sphinx, he is the author of Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, and many other books. Website: www.robertschoch.com

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.