Singing the Soul Home
In this article I will share a vision for the role of the musician within community. It is a vision informed by research into the wisdom of our ancestors.
Shamanism’s sophisticated relationship to techniques of ecstasy1 contains virtually infinite layers of technical and symbolic depth. In the shamanic worldview life is found everywhere one looks. Writing about the subject I have tendency to be seduced by the endless tumbling associations. I will streamline my focus on the shaman, his drum and his community. I will also make a case for how this relationship can inform the musician's role in his community.
The drum used by shamans is often decorated with complex symbols of the microcosm: rainbows, the axis mundi, sometimes trees and animals and for the Altaians (Mongolia), horses. The horse is inhuman travel because horses can go at speeds and distances humans cannot. The horse's relationship to space and time is otherworldly from a human perspective. But the horse also condescends to men riding him so he lives in two worlds2. The horse depicted on the drum indicates that the drum is the "shaman's horse". Altaians literally call the drum exactly this. The drum is to the shaman, what the horse is to the rider what the shaman is to the tribe what the tribe is to the world and the whole world is contained within the drum. The poetic beauty of this cycle of being deepens when one remembers that the horse beats a rhythm on the earth as he moves. It is rhythm which wakes the inhuman world. The rainbow as well is of two worlds in that it links the earth and the heavens which is a link between the profane and the sacred. The same goes for axis mundi or "world tree" which links the underworld and the heavens from root to branch. The meaning emerging from this dizzying array of associations is that the drum and the shaman are a bridge between worlds. This “of two worlds” condition is important. At some fundamental level the role of the shaman in his community is to make a contribution of his bi-worldly condition. I find the full depth of this associative dance virtually impossible to articulate. Though I have attempted to do so in poetic form.
Thum, thum, thum beats the drum. Sound of thundering heaven. Sound of hooves rapping at the dirt. A singer sits at a crackling fire. A throbbing circle of light at the center of the world. The smoke rises to the stars and the singer sings a wordless song. And beats the drum. Thum, thum, thum.
From the drum hang feathers. There is an image on the skin pulled taut. A rainbow, a horse, a tree whose roots dig in the damp dirt where the ancestors dwell. The dirt is their flesh. The branches scrape heaven where only birds and gods go. But sometimes men, with their song. The tree bridges heaven and dirt and grows at the center of the world. The drum is made of the tree that the fire burns at the center of the world. And the smoke rises to the stars.
The song is the rainbow plunging from heaven into the dirt where the dead dwell. A bow launches an arrow. Thwack! It hits the target at the center of the world where the tree grows and the drum beats and the fire crackles and the smoke rises to the stars.
You are ill. The song of the drum beats the ground as a horse's hooves in pursuit of the soul that is lost. The song is an ember calling the soul home to the center of the world where the tree grows and the drum beats and the fire crackles and the smoke rises to the stars.
Important to remember is that the shaman's calling is not one typically seen as prestigious. Whatever prestige may be associated with the position comes at the cost of the ordeal suffered in the initiation process - which is commonly life-threatening - as well as the cost of losing the normative human condition. The new dual condition of the shaman casts him to outsider class. Fortunately his community is equipped to test3 and integrate the value of the outsider's contribution. So we learn here that the recognition of a value one does not generate is key to the mutual flourishing of the shaman and the community.
To define the role of the shaman more precisely one could say that his chief function is that of healer. In his community the principal cause of illness is soul violation. Individuals are said to possess many souls4 and each piece is necessary for the person to be whole. The shaman heals by retrieving souls that have been stolen or lost. The etymology of the word "heal" is related to the word "whole". To heal then is to make whole. So the shaman’s abnormal spiritual and social condition and the techniques of his practice heal by unifying5. This is reflected in the paradoxical manner in which he integrates in his community - he is an outsider who belongs. So we see that he unifies even things that are opposite. The technique he uses to perform this function is primarily the ecstatic state (facilitated by drumming). In this state the shaman travels to where the soul is lost and he finds it6. The soul however by virtue of being a person, has agency. The shaman must call the soul back home. The implication is that the soul wants to come home. The way the shaman guides the soul is by singing and drumming. The song is the familiar thing in an alien environment that the soul recognizes as home. The song bridges the separation between man and soul. The shaman restores wholeness by singing the soul back home.
This is a vision for the role musicians can have in their community. They can be outsiders that belong. And they can call back the soul of their community for healing. Imagine a world where the musician is valued for the ecstatic skill of his craft. Imagine communities seeking to benefit from this contribution. I believe in my heart that the world wants to heal. The soul wants to come home and it does when we sing.
But please, don't take my word for it. Take Henry's.
1 Definitions of ecstasy will have to wait until I have completed my research project on this particular topic.
2 These mythemes are discoverable in many places. Even in pop culture. Note how Frodo in "Fellowship of the Ring" was stabbed by a Morgul blade. This stands in as his initiatory ordeal. This initiation would not have been survivable without Arwen taking him to Rivendell via the swiftest horse. So we see here how the horse represents otherworldly healing. Without inhuman speed, Frodo does not survive and the ring of power remains. Also note how Christ enters Jerusalem by donkey. Which is far from the only parallel he has to archaic patterns of being. For instance, he undergoes a death/rebirth initiation and goes to the land of the dead in the process. Note also the winged horse "Pegasus".
3 Even within a cultural context that is constructed in such a manner as to facilitate the integrating of the "of two worlds outsider" archetype there are requirements to meet. Specific markers of initiation are looked for. And even after initiation is completed a candidate must not appear to the community as presumptuous, ill-tempered, or unintelligent.
4 Soul multiplicity is not widely disseminated amongst archaic/shamanic cutlures. Soul violation as a cause of illness however is.
5 We can see the shaman’s life story is reunion. There is a prevalence of the myth of "the fall" in shamanic cultures. In this myth man used to be of a divine condition but an incident caused him to be separated from his divine nature. So the calling back of the soul takes on another layer of meaning. When the shaman "makes whole", man’s divine condition is restored. From a perspective informed by the shamanic worldview, the character of Christ the Redeemer seems less unique but perhaps even more poetic. We also see in shamanic cultures, a preponderance of therianthropy and shape-shifting (changing from human to animal) which further reinforces the shaman's role as unifier of opposites.
6 In the Altaic descent to the underworld the shaman negotiates various “subterranean” levels until he reaches Erlik Khan. Erlik is a sort of trickster boss of the underworld. Reaching his location is fraught with obstacles which must be “crossed” as one crosses a bridge. The shaman uses the magic power of song to reach Erlik: “By the power of song we cross it!”. He negotiates with Erlik for the release of the soul in exchange for an ox that was previously slain for this purpose.