Saturday, October 6, 2012

Communing With The Dead

Shamanism is a common term used in a variety of anthropological, historical and popular contexts to refer to certain magico-religious practices that involve a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world. A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing. The exact definition and use of the term "shamanism" has been highly debated by scholars, with no clear consensus on the issue.

Let's look at two cultures today (Japan and the Native Americans (First Nation people) who have/had unusual ways of calling forth the dead.

Communing with the dead in Japan

An itako is a traditional, blind, usually female shaman from northern Japan. Itako are said to have the ability to communicate with the dead, even to evil spirits due to their intense spiritual power. They also are said to have the power to remove evil spirit from one's body and mind. Usually, older Itakos are considered more powerful than younger Itakos.

In training for initiation, itako dress in a white kimono 100 days before the ceremony. Austere purification is obligatory to achieve an extreme state of mind. Rites where she must pour cold water over herself, usually in the cold of winter, occur and she is required to practice chanting. Three weeks prior to the ceremony, she is not permitted to consume grain, salt, meat and must avoid artificial heat.

This practice is flailing since the turn of the century. Once the itako were a common phenomena and now that part of their culture is slipping away.

Native Americans: Communing with the dead through the Ghost Dance:

Native American and First Nations cultures have diverse religious beliefs. There was never one universal Native American religion or spiritual system. Though many Native American cultures have traditional healers, ritualists, singers, mystics, lore-keepers and "Medicine People", none of them ever used, or use, the term "shaman" to describe these religious leaders. With the arrival of European settlers and colonial administration, the practice of Native American traditional beliefs was discouraged and Christianity was imposed upon the indigenous people.

About 1888, a mass movement known as the Ghost Dance started among the Paviotso (a branch of the Pah-Utes in Nevada) and swept through many tribes of Native Americans. The belief was that through practicing the Ghost Dance, a messiah would come with rituals that would make the white man disappear and bring back game and "dead native Americans." This spread to the Plains tribes, who were starving due to the depletion of the buffalo. Some Sioux, the Arapahos, Cheyennes and Kiowas accepted the doctrine. This form of shamanism was brutally suppressed by the United States military with the death of 128 Sioux at the massacre of Wounded Knee.

During the last hundred years, thousands of surviving Native Americans, First Nations youngsters from many cultures were sent into Indian boarding schools to destroy any tribal, shamanic or totemic faith.


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1 comment:

Caroline Clemmons said...

Interesting post, Keta. I didn't know about the Itako.