Often the journey — the tale of where we have been — has much to tell us about where there is to go. What we’ve seen and learned, how those strange places have given us unusual vantages in which to see the world: History unites us with the land, and its mysteries reveal and guide the subtle relations between the three worlds.
For healers in primitive societies, the shaman was the mediator of the realms, having gained knowledge of the various afflictions and their cures. His or her education was a brutal one, delivered through a frequently deadly initiation. The shaman-prospect suffered a disordering event, went off into the wild and experienced an initiation dream where they journeyed to the ends of heaven, earth and the sea. There the spirits tore h/her apart and ritually reassembled the shaman with the extra singing bone. Then came apprenticeship to an old shaman who instructed in practical matters of drumming and dancing, building a ritual tent, learning the songs and performing the rituals. All of the shaman’s future work was rooted in that singular journey.
As agricultural societies slowly took over, the shaman evolved into a poet-priest deeply rooted in the oral culture but whose initiation was more culturally conducted, through the long education in the oral literature, its spells and songs.
The following initiation dream of an Avam Samoyed shaman, recounted by A.A. Popov and related in Mercea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archiac Techniques of Ecstasy is rich with instruction and delivers it in a whale of a tale. As you read it, be thinking of how your own unique story as a person, poet and animal on this earth and how it has provided gifts for all. Did a dream once open so many doors for you? Was there an experience on your road which implicated so many doors, or was the journey itself an undulating road of portals?
Sick with smallpox, the future shaman remained unconscious for three days and so nearly dead that on the third day he was almost buried. His initiation took place during this time. He remembered having been carried into the middle of a sea. There he heard his Sickness (that is, smallpox), speak, saying to him: “From the Lords of the Water you will receive the gift of shamanizing. Your name as a shaman will be Huottarie (Diver).”
Then the Sickness troubled the water of the sea. The candidate came out and climbed a mountain. There he met a naked woman and began to suckle her breast. The woman, who was probably the Lady of the Water, said to him: “You are my child; that is why I let you suckle at my breast. You will meet many hardships and be greatly wearied.”
The husband of the Lady of the Water, the Lord of the Underworld, then gave him two guides, an ermine and a mouse, to lead him to the underworld. When they came to a high place, the guides showed him seven tents with torn roofs. he entered the first and there found the inhabitants of the underworld and the men of the Great Sickness (syphilis). These men tore out his heart and threw it into a pot. In other tents he met the Lord of Madness and the Lords of all the nervous disorders, as well as the evil shamans. Thus he learned the various diseases that torment mankind.
Still preceded by his guides, the candidate then came to the Land of the Shamanesses, who strengthened his throat and his voice. He was then carried to the shores of the Nine Seas. In the middle of one of them was an island, and in the middle of the island a young birch tree rose to the sky. It was the Tree of the Lord of the Earth. Beside it grew nine herbs, the ancestors of all plants on earth. The tree was surrounded by seas, and in each of these swam a species of bird with its young. There were several kinds of ducks, a swan, and a sparrow-haw. The candidate visited all these seas; some of them were salt, others so hot he could not go near the shore.
After visiting the seas, the candidate raised his head an, in the top of the tree, saw men of various nations; Tavgi Samoyed, Russians, Dolgan, Yakut, and Tungus. He heard voices: “It has been decided that you shall have a drum (that is, the body of a drum) from the branches of this tree.” He began to fly with the birds of the seas. As he left the shore, the Lord of the Tree called to him: “My branch has just fallen; take it and make a drum of it that will serve you all your life.” The branch had three forks, and the Lord of the Tree bade him make three drums from it, to be kept by three women, each drum being for a special ceremony — the first for shamanizing women in childbirth, the second for curing the sick, the third for finding men lost in the snow.
The Lord of the Tree also gave branches to all the men who were in the top of the tree. But, appearing from the tree up to the chest in human form, he added: “One branch only I give not to the shamans, for I keep it for the rest of mankind. They can make dwellings from it and so use it for their needs. I am the Tree that gives life to all men.” Clasping the branch, the candidate was ready to resume his flight when again he heard a human voice, this time revealing to him the medicinal virtues of the seven plants and giving him certain instructions concerning the art of shamanizing. But, the voice added, he must marry three women (which, in fact, he later did by marrying three orphan girls whom he had cured of smallpox).
After that he came to an endless sea and there he found trees and seven stones. The stones spoke to him one after the other. The first had teeth like bears’ teeth and a basket-shaped cavity, and it revealed to him that it was the earth’s holding sone; it pressed on the fields with its weight, so that they should not be carried away by the wind. The second served to melt iron. He remained with these stones for seven days and so learned how they could be of use to men.
Then his two guides, the ermine and the mouse, led him to a high, rounded mountain. He saw an opening before him and entered a bright cave, covered with mirrors, in the middle of which there was something like a fire. Then he saw that there was no fire burning but that the light came from above, through an opening. One of the women told him that she was pregnant and would give birth to two reindeer; one would be the sacrificial animal of the Dolgan and Evenki, the other that of the Tavgi. She also have him a hair, which was to be useful to him when he shamanized for reindeer. the other woman also gave birth to two reindeer, symbols of the animals that would aid man in all his works and also supply his food. The cave had two openings, toward the north and toward the south; through each of them the young women sent a reindeer to serve the forest people (Dolgan and Evenki). The second woman, too, gave him a hair. When he shamanizes, he mentally turns toward the cave.
Then the candidate came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it, entered an opening, and came to a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a cauldron “as big as half the earth.” The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice had time to think, “I am dead!” The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything into the cauldron. There he boiled his body for three years. There were also three anvils, and the naked man forged the candidate’s head on the third, which was the one on which the best shamans were forged. Then he threw the head into one of the three pots and stood there, the one in which the water was the coldest. He now revealed to the candidate that, when he was called to cure someone, if the water in the ritual pot was very hot, it would be useless to shamanize, for the man was already lost; if the water was warm, he was sick but would recover; cold water denoted a healthy man.
The blacksmith then fished the candidate’s bones out of a river, in which they were floating, put them together, and covered them with flesh again. He counted them and told him that he had three too many; he was therefore to procure three shaman’s costumes. He forged his head and taught him how to read the letters that are inside it. He changed his eye; and that is why, when he shamanizes, he does not see with his bodily eyes but with these mystical eyes. Then the candidate found himself on the summit of a mountain, and finally he woke in the yurt, among his family.
Now he can sing and shamanize indefinitely, without ever growing tired. (pp. 38-42).
I’ve always related to the shaman’s initiation-dream, its telling and journey, mainly because my own story is finned with it. I was a mess at age 18, lapsed from the faith of my upbringing, in and out of college, drinking like a madman and suffering an onslaught of petit-mal seizures in the depth of a Northwestern winter. I should have died of it — committed suicide or drank myself to death — but didn’t, and through the bowels of that experience emerged the person I became, fitfully, wrong-headedly, bereft of any decent instruction until at age 30 I gave up drinking and entered AA. Lots of installments in that journey since, but suffice here to say that I come to see it as shamanic in nature and has provided a deep reservoir — a well, if you will — for poetry.
But enough of my journey: what of yours? How would you compress that journey into a poem? Is there an installment, an island-shaped episode which is crucial to the whole? How has your telling aged, perhaps matured or gone weedy and strange? And importantly, how is your journey meshed with this world’s? We are products of the time yet children of a god: the history and mystery of it is fascinating, at least to poetry. I don’t think the digitally-disrupted, fin-de-siecle dystopias of the media world are sufficient nor really true: they neglect the ocean of song and all the journeys swimming there.
For this challenge, write a journey-poem. If you were a famous explorer, what new worlds could you say you’ve found? What treasures hard to find have you come back with? What have you learned about story-telling? Where do tellings fail? And what of the Earth’s own journey into this strange, post-Holocene era? How is your journey entwined with that tale?
Write of THE JOURNEY.