BY HENRIK DAHL
Like many others, I first learned about shamanism by reading books by authors such as Castaneda and Eliade. But after several years of reading about the subject, I decided it was time to learn about it from a practical point of view. In the winter of 2009, I read an article in a Swedish newspaper about a woman who was leading shamanic courses. She had just published a book on the subject and was presented as an authority in Sweden. A workshop was scheduled to take place just outside my hometown, and I jumped at the opportunity to go. I figured the course would be a perfect chance to get a glimpse into Swedish neoshamanism. Yet my enthusiasm would soon be replaced by mixed feelings and increasing doubt towards the organisers.
After a short walk I got to the address where I had arranged to meet with the organisers for a ride to the location of the workshop. I got into a van with the leader of the course, her sidekick and two other people, one of whom was also acting as the chef of the workshop. They looked… uhm quite normal. No “weird” clothing or anything outrageous, just normal looking people. The woman leading the workshop was also the one driving the van. She didn’t know the way in the Southern part of the country and had to ask the chef for directions. I would estimate the leader to be in her sixties. She wore black jeans and a black sweater, and had crow’s feet around her eyes with little or no make up. We passed a square while still in the city and one of the participants, a young woman in her twenties of Chilean origin, pointed and said to the sidekick: “That’s were the Scientologists are trying to enlist new members. They’re using neurolinguistics to convince people to join them.” It seems there’s rivalry rather than tolerance between the New Age groups, I thought to myself. The van was soon out of town and we entered the Swedish agricultural landscape. We drove by enclosed pastures with several horses in them. It didn’t take long before getting to the place for the retreat. The van pulled up to a red brick house, which during the weekdays was a school, but this weekend was the place for a course in shamanism.
We got out of the bus and in the yard outside the school building most of the other participants were greeting us. There was a woman who was wearing a black beret, a black coat and rubber boots. At her left side was another woman who seemed to be in her mid-thirties. She had blonde hair almost down to her shoulders and was wearing tie-dye pants, which made her kind of hippie looking. Next to her was a young woman, about twenty, who had dyed her hair red which she wore in dreadlocks. She too looked somewhat hippie and had a small fabric bag with a big colourful badge depicting a mushroom. Next to her was a man probably around forty or so. He was red-haired, rather tall and turned out to be from the United Kingdom, but he understood and spoke Swedish. He was normal looking wearing jeans that were slightly worn out. Standing a few arm lengths to the left of him was a Chilean man with brown leather pants and very long black hair in a ponytail. It was hard to estimate his age at first but I would guess he was in his late forties, maybe fifty. I found out later that he was the boyfriend of the woman wearing tie-dye pants. A few other participants were also expected to arrive.
The day ended with a final exercise: Dance your power animal.
After saying hello to everyone in the courtyard, we started to carry the bags and food that had been brought along for the workshop into the building. We all sat down around a table in one of the rooms, for a moment of coffee and tea and getting to know each other’s names and faces. Three other participants had also joined us by this time. One of them was a young woman in her early twenties. She had curly, long brown hair and glasses. She gave off an intelligent and friendly impression. Two men, probably in their early twenties, had also joined the group. The two were friends with each other. One of them had long hair and looked like he was into rock bands. The other guy had his hair combed back in a nice hairstyle. He had big sideburns and was quite good looking.
While sitting at the table with the group on that first morning, I asked myself: How did we all end up here? Over the weekend my question was at least partly answered. The brown-haired girl with glasses had been given the workshop as a birthday present, and the two young men had read about the course in the same article as I had. Several of the participants had been on shamanic workshops before and knew the leader. The Chilean man and his girlfriend had been on courses in the past, and so had the chef and the British man. I never found out how the beret-wearing woman got to know about the workshop, but I got the impression she was a first timer. Oh, how could I forget, there was also another person there. She was a friend of the woman wearing the beret. I got the impression she was in her fifties. Judging by her voice she must have been a chain-smoker. She was sitting with her face in her hands. When she looked up one could see she was very pale. In fact she looked awful. She said she had a very bad cold and explained that she had overdosed on cough medicine the night before. Instead of taking one hit she had dosed herself with the double amount. I never figured out what type of medicine she was taking, but it was clear she was feeling really bad. “Are you sure you want to stay?” the leader of the workshop asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. “Maybe you should go home and get some rest,” the leader said. After a while it was decided it would be best if the ill woman went home. She took her bag and got out to her car and drove away. She said she lived really close by, but I still couldn’t help but think it was a bad idea to drive home alone in the state she was in.
It was only afterwards I started thinking about the ill woman. Why didn’t the leader of the workshop, a person who claims she is healing people with shamanic techniques, offer her services? During the course we talked a lot about the ability to heal using shamanism. Still, when there was an opportunity to actually do so, the leader decided not to offer her help.
On the morning of the first day at the workshop, we gathered in a large room that was cleared of furniture. Each one was given a mattress and was either sitting or lying down in a circle. In the middle was a single tea-light burning. For some reason the leader did not use a mattress and was using a blanket instead. Behind her was a table where she kept two shamanic drums and maracas. She was talking for long periods, explaining shamanic practices, with some of the group asking questions, myself included, or making comments once in a while. The first exercise was explained something like this: Lie down on the mattress. Put your arm over your eyes or use a scarf or something else to cover them. Imagine a place somewhere in nature where you can go down to the underworld. When the drum starts pounding, go down an imaginary hole into the underworld and try to meet your power animal. The type of shamanism practiced by this Swedish group is called Core Shamanism. The method was originally created by Michael Harner in the 1970s, a former anthropologist who left the academic world for a life dedicated to training others in making drum journeys and meeting their power animals. Harner’s The Way of the Shaman has become a key work for Westerners practicing shamanism.
The leader took her maracas, raised her arm and faced it to the north, shaking it a little then proceeded to make the same gesture to the east, south and west. This was a ritual intended for opening the gate to the spirit world. She then took one of her drums and positioned herself in the middle of the circle. Holding the drum in one hand and a drumstick with a leather ball at the top in the other hand, she started to hit the drum monotonously in a fast manner. It was hard to estimate how long the drumming continued. Was it 15 minutes or 30? It felt like it went on for a long time. The drumming suddenly stopped, but continued again in a new way. This was meant as a signal for us to leave the underworld and return back home. She hit the drum five times, and then stopped, then five times again. She repeated this for a few times and then started to hit the drum very fast, finally stopping and picking up her maracas, and facing them to all the points of the compass in order to close the gate to the spirit world.
During the day we did several similar exercises as the one just described, with lunch and dinner breaks in between. It was a long day of hard work. The day ended with a final exercise: Dance your power animal. We cleared out the mattresses and stood in a circle. Apart from the single tea-light burning in the middle of the room, there was no other light. For the dancing session there was going to be two drums used instead of a single one. The Chilean man with the long ponytail volunteered as the second drummer. He seemed to really enjoy this role. They started to pound on the drums in the same manner as in the previous exercises. Using two drums made the sound more powerful. At the start some of the participants didn’t move around much, but after a few minutes the dancing got more animated. The girl wearing dreadlocks was beginning to dance wildly, running around the room with her arms in the air. It was kind of liberating to see her being so uninhibited, having fun. At this point I was having fun too, although it was hard to get to grips with the fact that here I was with a group of people I’ve never met before dancing my power animal. Who are these people? I thought to myself. And who am I? The dancing lasted for half an hour or so, and by that time we were all tired. It was time to get some sleep. I found a private space in the library. Lying in my sleeping bag, I looked around at all the books. For some reason I felt safe in that environment. I missed my girlfriend and sent her a text message saying goodnight. We were told the next day would be filled with several exercises, and that we had to get up early. Breakfast would be served at seven o’clock. Some of the group were still out in the main room talking. They didn’t seem to care about getting up early. I heard their voices, but it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep.
On another occasion while sitting in the dining room, she started talking about the use of cannabis: “Hashish is extremely dangerous. We’ve done shamanic journeys on this and we’ve found out that people smoking cannabis get big holes in their souls, like a Swiss cheese.
The next morning I woke up from the sound of a man snoring. It was the red-haired English guy. He too had decided to sleep in the library. I heard people making noises in the kitchen. I got up, dressed, and helped the others make breakfast. After a somewhat silent meal, with only some of the group talking, we went into the room that was used for the shamanic exercises. Some of these were done in pairs. First I got to work with the woman wearing tie-dye pants. She was friendly and had a warm smile. During the exercises, we were supposed to go and find a power animal for the other person. Later I worked with the young man with the big sideburns. He had trouble finding his power animal, and I was asked to help him find it. I must point out that I took these exercises seriously. Although I was secretly doing fieldwork, it would be unfair of me not to respect these people. I also discovered that the shamanic techniques are very powerful. What I experienced on the drum journeys felt real.
“Have you read The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman?” the guy with the big sideburns asked as I was sitting next to him on the mattress. The leader was eager to continue with the exercises, and I never got a chance to discuss the book with him. Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule is dealing with the extremely powerful yet short-acting psychedelic drug N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, abbreviated DMT. The drug is the main active ingredient in ayahuasca, a highly potent brew used by shamans in the Amazon. I was curious to hear what the leader felt about using plant-based psychedelics in shamanic rituals. Since psychedelics are an integrated part of shamanism in many cultures, I knew the subject would be brought up sooner or later in the workshop. In one of the breaks from the exercises I came into the dining room and there was a discussion about the use of psychedelics. It was clear the leader strongly opposed to the use of any plant-based psychedelics: “In Siberia there is an A team and a B team. The B team, which is the less skilled of the two, is the one using drugs. The other team doesn’t have to,” the leader explained. On another occasion while sitting in the dining room, she started talking about the use of cannabis: “Hashish is extremely dangerous. We’ve done shamanic journeys on this and we’ve found out that people smoking cannabis get big holes in their souls, like a Swiss cheese. These holes are very hard to repair. It’s almost impossible. In fact, by merely sitting in the same room as someone smoking hashish, one risks getting holes in one’s soul.” The sidekick nodded and said: “It’s very dangerous.” Several of the participants looked confused, but no one protested. Now, given the fact that the course took place just outside of Malmö, right at the very South of the country and close to the rest of Europe’s considerably more relaxed views on so-called soft drugs, it’s very likely that at least half of the group had either tried cannabis, or at some point in their life been in the same room as someone smoking it. “But alcohol is fine. We never saw any problems with that,” she continued in her Northern drawl. At this point I could feel myself distancing from the leader and her sidekick. I thought of them as scary people, with a surprisingly dogmatic approach to shamanism. Being on the course was a great study and experience, but I was starting to feel that I had had enough of it. Thank God when this is over, I thought.
In the afternoon after several exercises we had a final meal together. We cleaned up the place and after that those who wanted, could leave for the city and take part in a divination ritual called seidr. Several of the group decided not to go. The two young guys took their chance and left, at least that’s how I saw it. The young woman with brown curly hair was going to celebrate her birthday with her boyfriend and left too. We said goodbye to everyone who were not taking part in the ritual and got into the van. The leader drove us into the city and to the apartment where the seidr was going to take place. It was the home of the sidekick of the leader. There was a kind of New Age aesthetic to the place, but it was lacking in warmth and cosiness. After drinking a cup of tea it was time for the ritual. Some people showed up that didn’t take part in the workshop out in the countryside. There was a young, beautiful Hispanic looking woman with long dark hair. I overheard how she explained to one of the participants that she didn’t have the money to take part in the workshop, but was glad to be able to join us for the seidr.
We all sat down on chairs that were placed in a circle. In the middle was a table and on it there was a chair. This was where the person leading the ritual was going to sit. For this occasion it was the leader of the workshop. She went up there and sat down with a long wooden stick in one of her hands. She had some sort of scarf covering her eyes. We were told to sing in an improvised way using no words. The singing could be in any way we liked. To the right of me was a woman in her forties, dressed all in black. To my left was the leader’s sidekick. I was the only male in the room. We were eleven people in total. The leader told us that when she hit the wooden stick one time on the table where the chair was placed, we should sing louder, and when she hit it twice she wanted us to sing more quietly. The light was switched off, leaving the room near pitch-black. After the singing had started, one after the other was allowed to go up to the leader and ask a question. The question could be pretty much anything, apart from details of one’s death and such. When the question was asked, the leader leaned back and took part of her visions. After a while she leaned forward and told the person asking the question what she saw. The woman wearing a beret obviously asked the wrong question. “I cannot answer that,” the leader said. “You and I have to talk later.” Since the question was of a private matter, the other participants, myself included, never got to know what it was. During the ritual the person sitting next to me asked about what is going to happen in the year 2012, which is when the Mayan calendar is ending. I don’t know if she was happy with her reply.
I must admit the ritual was powerful. The dissonant and loud singing in a dark room with a group of strangers was in itself an interesting experience. I was glad I took part in the seidr, but also somewhat shaken by the ritual. It was a fascinating finale after a long weekend of exhausting shamanic work. I bought a copy of the leader’s new book, and left at the same time as the young woman with red hair and the bag with a mushroom badge. “So what did you think of the course?” I asked her when we got out onto the street. “It was interesting,” she answered shortly. For some reason I didn’t think she sounded very convinced. “Maybe I’ll see you around,” she continued. “Sure. Have a nice evening,” I said and started to walk up the street heading to my apartment.
By Henrik Dahl