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The Medium as Shaman

In food-gathering societies where shamanism prevails, the shaman is a medium, his familiars are his controls, and, together, they bridge the chasm between the two universes. Spiritualistic traditions are deeply rooted in shamanism, and, as such, are perhaps the oldest forms of religion.

The medium is the modern urban shaman. In the séance she enters into a deep trance. While she is in that state, a control from “the other side” takes possession of her vocal chords and sense organs. The control is also a medium, a departed spirit who has capacities analagous to those of the psychic. Those who have “passed over” are thought to be still embodied, but their bodies are much more subtle than ours, though not perfect. Some occultists speak of the “beyond” as the “astral plane” inhabited by “astral bodies.”

This idea is very much like that discussed by the nineteenth-century ethnologist E. B. Tylor in his theory of “animism.” There is another world parallel to our own, though invisible to us and not accessible to us in our state. However, all forms of organic life as well as inorganic matter is eternal and is translated from one sphere of reality to the other. The connecting link is the psychic, the person endowed with exceptional sensitivity to the hidden or occult dimension, who experiences visions and revelations. Only a few have this capacity.

This belief can be rationally explained, as Sigmund Freud did, as a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Would it not be wonderful to know that those whom we love, not only our human relatives and friends but our animal friends as well, are still living and waiting for us “on the other side?” Would it not be wonderful to know that when we die we do not cease to be, but simply cross over to another existence? The belief is obviously bound up with the universal dread of death. However, for all we know, perhaps the mediums are right. We cannot prove that they are wrong, though fraud is often associated with their séances.

Shamans usually exercise great personal authority, often in very undesirable ways. There is a relationship between shamanism and psychotherapy in that both the shaman and the psychotherapist (especially those of the psychoanalytic or Freudian school) are effective because of transference. The patient literally falls in love with the therapist and, for a time, there is a strong bond between them that facilitates healing. However, the good therapist breaks transference when it is no longer needed by disclosing more and more of his or her own personality, the goal being independence for the patient. More often than not, however, shamans exploit the transference situation by perpuating dependency, and by so doing, exercise great psychological power, manipulating others for their own purposes.

Because there are both “black” and “white” shamans, there is a connection with another occult phenomenon, witchcraft. Witches are the evil-doers, the hateful foes who are motivated by maleficium. Witchcraft will be discussed presently, but first a few words about the pre-Christian religions of Western Europe, collectively known as “paganism.”

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