Shamanism and Ancient Greece

So what does shamanic journeying have to do with ancient Greek or Roman religions? In fact many of the most broadly learned and brilliant scholars have perceived “shamanistic” currents in ancient Greece, most prominently including E. R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), Louis Gernet’s Anthropologie de la Grèce Antique [Anthropology of Ancient Greece] (1968), and Walter Burkert’s Weisheit und Wissenschaften: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaos, und Platon [trans. into English as Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism] (1962). We should also mention here the recent works of Peter Kingsley, an independent scholar whose first book (Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic, 1995) was aimed at academics, while his later books (In the Dark Places of Wisdom, 1999; Reality, 2001) were written from an avowedly Sufi perspective. (His website announces that he’s currently working on a book called Catafalque: Carl Jung and the End of Humanity.)

All of these works combine debatable assertions with real profundity in similar ways to “core shamanism.” As Ronald concisely notes in an earlier post, core shamanism’s claims about a universal archaic spiritual practice, lost in “the West” but now “rediscovered” by Michael Harner, rest on shaky historical and anthropological foundations. Let’s set aside the historical question about whether all archaic cultures shared a universal spirituality. Let’s grant that lots of cultures today share a series of practices and cosmic ideas, such as practices of purification and altered states of consciousness, the belief that non-human beings have perspectives similar to our own, and the belief that the shaman is an expert in accessing and communicating with those non-human perspectives. The objection might be formulated as follows: if we reduce the lifeworld of — for example — a Buryat shaman to a few practices and ideas such as these, sure, it becomes comparable to the lifeworlds of Amazonian practitioners, core shamans, and maybe some ancient Greeks. But we’ve lost a lot of what gives meaning to Buryat shamanism. As Pierre Hadot asks, Did Socrates “take on the form of an animal for the duration of the ritual…? Did he bellow and leap about, like a male animal fighting his rivals and preparing to couple with his female?” (pp. 182-3). (Hadot is drawing on the fieldwork of Roberte Hamayon, who is probably the world’s leading expert on Siberian shamanism.)

So I think we have to be cautious about calling ancient Greeks “shamans,” just as I agree with Ronald that shamanic institutes ought to be cautious with claims about the history and anthropology of religion. But core shamanism has become a powerful and profound spiritual tradition, whose leading practitioners now engage in a dialogue with indigenous shamans in many parts of the world. Analogously, I believe we can have transhistorical dialogues between core shamanism and the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greek-speaking Italy. Empedocles is a particularly interesting figure here, because new evidence for his ideas has come to light recently, so that we can reconstruct his vision of the universe, human nature, and the gods relatively fully. Traditional historians of philosophy have often distinguished between his “rational” physics and his “magical” claims, such as healing, prophesy, and even the resurrection of the dead. (Precisely what that means requires further discussion!) The idea of shamanism has been very important in helping us to see Empedocles holistically again. In the next blog, I’ll reflect also on how Empedocles’ philosophy lends itself to comparison with influential esoteric philosophies today, such as the non-dualism that has emerged from the correspondence between Carl Jung and the physicist Wolfgang Pauli.

Thinking about shamanism and ancient Greek philosophy continues. There’s a good discussion of Plato and shamanism by Robert Fermi from 2007 here.


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