Victoria Karr June 22, 2009 Ashford University Cultural Anthropology Female Spiritual Leaders – Healing and the Woman Shaman In a world of male dominated cultures and societies, it is fascinating to find that female spiritual healers have been a constant part of history. Their place in this powerful and spiritual history dates back to drawings on cave walls, with high priestesses and shamans in cultures around the globe.
The female shaman and spiritual leader’s strength throughout the ages has long been downplayed and ignored, but there has been a turnaround in recent times and the female shaman and her spirituality and teachings are returning in ancient cultures as well as in modern society. A Chukchee proverb declares, “Woman is by nature a shaman. ” Yet writings and acknowledgements of the female participation and contributions to this realm of spiritual experience has often been downplayed and ignored.
The powerful hierarchies of men over women encouraged the belief that women shamans represented a degeneration of an originally masculine profession. Researchers are still hard put to explain why so many male shamans customarily dressed in women’s clothing and assumed other female-gendered behaviors. The theory that shamans ought to be masculine rejects traditions in every culture, from Buryat Mongolia to the Bwiti religion in Gabon, and also the story that the first shaman was a woman (Dashu, 2006). Because of this fear and hunger for power, many imperial and feudal societies suppressed women’s open exercise of religious authority.
For example, in Asia government and religious sects stamped out women spiritual leaders, witches were burned in Europe and other societies labeled the followers cults. This drive for power executed by male religious and government leaders led to barring women from ritual leadership and religious authority. These acts have been committed all through history and there has always been a key focus in the drive to undermine female power. Scriptures were rewritten to ban priestesses and female religious authorities.
All traces of these relationships were rewritten to demonize the powerful women (such as turning Mary Magdalene from the foremost Christian disciple to a prostitute). Any divine female images were also expunged, such as with an early saying of Muhammad which embraced the three great goddesses of Arabia as “daughters of Allah. ” The original version of this hadith was denounced as “the Satanic verses,” and was revised in the written Quran (Dashu, 2006). In spite of this, women have continued to be involved leaders in the shaman tradition worldwide, and in some cultures, they still predominate.
This is true in modern Korea and Okinawa, as well as among many South African peoples, northern Californian tribes such as the Karok and Yurok, and in Indonesia and Siberia. There are countless other examples, including the Machi of the Mapuche in southern Chile and the Babaylan and Catalonan of the Philippines (Conway, 2006). History shows through various writings, pictures and stories that women were spiritual leaders, holistic healers, herbalists and speakers. The Shaman woman or priestess invoked spirits of their ancestors, interpreted advice and led her followers in the way of their ancestors.
While drums and flutes played they danced themselves into trances and received the spirits into their bodies. While under this influence they healed and prophesied. Many stories were told of Chinese Wu priestesses, where the spirits’ power was seen emanating through the priestess and objects elevated, wounds healed instantly and other miraculous events occurred (Conway 2006). Shamans in Today’s World Shamanic rites are very much a living culture in today’s world, although government and other organized religions promote strong social stigmas against the powerful women who run the ceremonies.
The fact that they heal, prophesize and commune with ancestors is frightening to them. Both Confucian and Protestant influences continue to militate against female shaman leaders (Donnelly, 2005). They reject their spiritual and healing powers even though modern day science has identified and backed the healing properties of many of the herbal remedies commonly used. Today’s female shamans continue to promote healing through body wisdom, herbal remedies, dreaming and relaxation techniques (Donnelly, 2005). In the last twenty years, a growing appreciation has returned in many nations for the old, tribal, ancient beliefs of the world.
In 1993, the United Nations declared it the “Year of the Indigenous Tribes”. This included an acknowledgement of spiritual beliefs previously viewed as superstitions and myths. Scholarly articles and researchers began acknowledging the fact that tribal shamanic spirituality is more than this and deserves attention. The shaman religions’ common beliefs and spirituality today, as in the past, include many of the same elements. They regard Mother Earth and all upon her as valuable and interrelated with energetic levels of consciousness.
All things, including animals, rivers and oceans, plants and earth, and even the stars and planets are valuable, alive and to be respected. There is a common belief that all creatures have spirits and we are connected with them, whether alive or passed on The shamans teach that there are energies emanating from everything and by learning to recognize and feel these we can connect with all creatures. Another common teaching is learning to go into an altered state of consciousness, through dancing, drumming and chanting, where a believer or leader will receive information, power or guidance from the passed on spirit world.
Healing and Nurturing Remnants of ancient healing, shamanic traditions still linger in the Peruvian Amazon and in the high Andes of the Incas. Women shamans are the spiritual leader and are well versed in the world’s constant suffering. They realize that there has always been illness, loss and pain in their villages and in the world. Their role is to “create order from disorder, to invite healing, cleansing, purification, and a realignment of the soul in a world where there is disorder, toxicity, and misalignment of living, thinking, feeling and being.
These traditions are universal, transcultural, and pre-religious. Love, nurturing and healing is the shaman’s main concentration and the women shamans excel in this power (Townsend, 2001)”. These ancient traditions have been dismissed by religious and medical leaders of all walks as magical, imaginary, delusional or meaningless collections of superstitious beliefs and behaviors. Since most of these cultures continue to suffer from a machismo attitude this is not surprising. Shamanism is an integrated system of mind-body medicine.
It was the first mind-body medicine, yet it contains more than methods to calm the mind or to shake off stress in a mechanical way. It provides a cosmology and architecture for healing not only the mind but also the soul, for navigating the confusion, injury, pain, or trauma we encounter as human beings walking the earth. Most modern attempts to adopt mind-body medicine such as biofeedback, breathing techniques, muscle relaxation and massage may briefly relieve the symptoms of stress, but they do not address the root causes of suffering and stress (Hyman, 2007).
While conventional science has accepted plant medicine and even now seeks cures from the 80,000 plant species of the rain forest jungles, it sees no relevance or context for shamanic practices for the suffering masses of the 21st century. How can the singing of songs, waving of feathers, or shaking of rattles solve any of our modern ills? (Townsend, 2001) Female leadership and symbolism were never choked out of indigenous traditions and persisted even as these cultures absorbed elements of colonial religions.
For example, the Baluchis of Pakistan/Iran modified the Muslim creed to say, “There is no god but Allah and the mother of Muhammad is his prophet. ” (Dashu, 2006). Mazatec curandera Mar’a Sabina subverted patriarchal theology by invoking the Female Divine in her entrancing chants. She revised the prescribed masculine identity of the Christian god as padre santisima — “most holy (feminine) father. ” (Dashu, 2006). Such challenges have always been raised, even if they don’t make it into the historical record — or are omitted by scholarly gatekeepers who interpret the primary sources to everyone else (Inge-Heinze, 1994).
All over the world women are mounting powerful challenges to masculine domination of religious institutions. Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist women are campaigning for full female ordination in their traditions. Muslim feminists are asserting their right to interpret the Quran and hadiths. The daughters of Sarah are demanding to be counted as Jews (literally) in the Orthodox minyan and rabbinate, and for women’s right to lead services at the Western Wall of the ancient temple of Jerusalem. Loud voices are crying out against sexual abuse by clergy (and the institutional cover-ups that protect the rapists).
The case for restoring female authority gathers strength by the breaking of these age-old silences (Dashu 2006). An insurgence of feminist spiritual leaders is preparing the groundwork for a new round of feminist spirituality movements of goddess belief and female spiritual leadership. American Indian women are voicing their desire and right to be a part of the powwow ceremonies, and females in the diasporica culture in Africa have reclaimed Conga dn djembe areas as their right (spiritual practices).
Priestesses of the Lucumi have come back in recent years and are showing a huge increase in female power in West Africa (Dashu, 2006). The Machi of the Mapuche tribe in southern Chile has nourished their ancient culture and society. This patrilineal society is kinship-based and exists by farming while they continue to speak their old language. Women are valued for their farm work, domestic abilities and having children. Herbal healing is left to the women and the Machi is their connection to the spiritual world.
While still a masculine led society, the female shaman, Machi is revered and respected. They are generally from a family of Machis, and have gained their powers from lower level deities (Conway, 2006). Another culture that continues to support its female spiritual leadership is the Karok Indian Tribe in northern California. The believers and the female shamans continue to search and ask the question, “What is Spiritual Healing? ” They endeavor to find new answers and new results for the problems of our times, as well as answering age old questions.
The shamans of the Karok tribe continue to use their ancestors’ spiritual healing processes. They chant and go into trances and use herbal remedies in order to discover the secrets hidden from them and held in nature. They seek to become one with nature and to understand the various energies of every life source. Through these methods and with this understanding, they seek answers, wisdom and the path to healing. The shamanic teachers and leaders of the tribes of northern California, and there are more than a few, work together to find new holistic remedies and spiritual connections. Hatfield, 2009). Shamans are evolving and emerging again today in greater numbers, with a majority number being women. As we discussed, historically the shaman used her mind and spirit to enter a higher plane. These non-traditional activities are not easily accepted into our technology driven, fast paced world today. However learning and understanding some of these techniques and by listening to the teachings of a spiritual leader that is attuned to nature and higher levels of beings may be so useful in our modern day life.
To relieve stress, pain and the spiritual emptiness many suffer, learning to use our intuition, by opening ourselves to accepting that movement to a higher plane and listen to our spirit guides as the shamans suggest, we may experience a great sense of peace, understanding and health. References Dashu, M. (2006). Woman Shaman. Priestesses, Power and Politics. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from http://www. suppressedhistories. net/articles/womanshaman. html Anna M Donnelly. (2005, March). The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming The Feminine in Religion and Medicine.
Library Journal, 130(5), 90. Retrieved June 6, 2009, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 810470771). Vogel, Karen. (2003). Female Shamanism, Goddess Cultures, and Psychedelics; . ReVision, 25(3), 18. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 592371211). Conway, T. (2006). Our Religions’ Future: Truths, Trends and Challenges for Old and New Spiritualities. Santa Barbara, CA: Wake Up Press. Inge-Heinze, R. (1984). Proceedings of the International Conference on the Study of Shamanism and Alternative Modes of Healing, Berkeley, CA Joan Townsend. 2001). Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing. Review of American Anthropologist, 103(1), 253- 254. Retrieved June 6, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 81493416). Mark A Hyman. (2007). THE FIRST MIND-BODY MEDICINE: BRINGING SHAMANISM INTO THE 21st CENTURY. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 13(5), 10-1. Retrieved June 6, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 1336143881). Hatfield, A. , (2009). Body Spirit Awareness, Retrieved June 6, 2009 from http://www. bodyspiritawareness. com/