Respect for the Dead and the Living

My father-in-law recently had a remarkable experience, one which strongly shows the mutual affinity between all shamanistic religions, as well as the value of religious diversity and tolerance.

definingPaganism1My father-in-law volunteers at a local archaeology museum, where many artifacts from local Native Americans and indigenous cultures around the world are carefully preserved. He is frequently employed in sifting and cataloguing these artifacts: totems, masks, pipes, sheilds, and the like.

Recently the museum added a new wing. A great many treasures were to be moved from storage into the new wing, where they could be displayed. But it occurred to the museum curators that they should check with the cultures that produced the artifacts to make sure that their display would not be offensive.

Among the treasures to be moved were Maori artifacts, created by the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. Unfortunately, there are very few Maori living on the eastern searboard of the United States. The museum made a call to New Zealand to ask for advice.

“It would definitely be offensive to display the artifacts without acknowledging and thanking the ancestors,” said the Maori consultant they contacted.

“But what can we do?” asked the museum curators. “We can’t perform a Maori ceremony ourselves, and we have no local Maori we can ask.”

“Get some local Native Americans to do it,” suggested the consultant. “They will know what to do.”

So they did. A local elder was asked to come, and he graciously agreed. Since there were not enough local Native Americans to perform the complete ceremony, a number of people of European descent were asked to participate. My father-in-law was among them.

The ceremony opened with purification via smoking sage, and continued with pipe smoking and salutation to the various directions. For my father-in-law, whose religious feelings are a very private matter (he was brought up Protestant, but his own daughter has little idea of his leanings), it was a powerful and moving experience. Then the group asked permission of the Maori ancestors to display the holy objects, giving respect where it was due.

For me, the fact that the Native American ceremony was sufficient for the purposes of the Maori shows the deep similarity between all shamanistic, ancestor-based religions. Despite the fact that these religions evolved completely independently on opposite sides of the world, still they were similar enough to be substitutable in important ways. The same can’t be said for, say, Christianity and Zen. They are different kinds of animal entirely. Why this might be, and what its implications are, will become clearer later in the “How to Choose a Religion” series.

My second take-away message here was how important it is to foster tolerance of different religions. This whole situation would have been unthinkable just a couple of generations ago. The rights of the followers of the shamanistic religion would simply have been ignored. As this example shows, religious diversity is good not only for the minority, but for the majority.

7 responses to “Respect for the Dead and the Living”

  1. What a moving post you’ve written, on multiple levels. I’m very keen in reading the implications you draw from this experience, as I have a few in mind, myself. One thing that I’m struck by is that the Maori had full and automatic confidence in the Indians (of which nation were they, if you don’t mind my asking?); and an equal amount of confidence that Christian-bred Westerners would not understand how best to honor and speak with the ancestors. I say this because your description of events leaves out any reaction of surprise from the Maori adviser. Despite some very primal and even shamanic elements of Christianity, I think this incident illustrates quite well just how far away from its roots Christianity has moved. Christians might be inclined to see that as a good thing, and would see it as an evolution or even divinely-inspired development…as a Heathen, I’m not so sure.

    I’m also glad you pointed out that a few generations ago, this whole scenario would have been unlikely – I have a lot of respect for the people in the museum who were involved in making sure that the display would not be offensive to the Maori!


  2. Thanks, Bernulf! Yes, the Maori advisor was not surprised at all. It’s a telling incident, all around.

    I wonder if you could say a little more (or point me somewhere) about the shamanic roots of Christianity? I ask because, to my knowledge, most of the markers of shamanistic practice — reverence for and communication with ancestors, “astral” travel, ritual sacrifice, ritual scarring or mutilation, deep connection with the natural world, the “shaman sickness”, etc. — are missing even in early Christianity. Jesus said that ancestry was not important to reach the kingdom of heaven, and neither was sacrifice or circumcision (actually, on that last point, was that Jesus or Peter?); and the material world was unimportant. Subsects of later Christianity (e.g. Celtic Christianity) adopted some of these things as it spread across Europe, but the Church has always struggled with the tension between the original Doctrine on the one hand and evangelists and faith healers on the other, who claim to be doing the work of God but act an awful lot like shamans. At least, that’s been my impression.

    The Indians in question were the Lenni Lenape, frequently called “Delaware” Indians.


  3. The Lenni Lenape I remember from my days in the Boy Scouts, but beyond that I’m not very familiar with them. Good that they were involved – shows not just respect for ancestors, but respect for current cousins on behalf of the Maori.

    With shamanism and Christianity, I’m also including the Jews…some might see that as a mistake (to consider the two traditions as one), but there is a specific reason. In an article from Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, titled “Shamanism in the Jewish Tradition,” [1] Rabbi Gershom relates how he was taught by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi that for the shamans in Jewish tradition, one should look at the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Rabbi Gershom posits that there are two different kinds of prophets in the OT and other preserved stories of Jewish tradition, and that Elijah and Elishah were of the variety that healed, raised people from the dead, sweetened the water, and spent little time on ‘soap-boxes’. The nature of the vision is well-attested throughout the Bible, and is something that the prophets of both varieties are engaged in.

    If you look at the Jews as a tribal people, which I’m pretty certain at least the earlier Jews did, the examples you were asking for become more readily apparent. The reverence for ancestors can be seen in the common reverence for Abraham and David, as an example. Ritual sacrifice was certainly known, Exodus and Leviticus even describe which animals bring the most pleasing odors to YH’WH…and to go without food for the purpose of ritual sacrifice is also known to this culture. The story of Moses, wandering alone in the desert, communing with his god by way of vision of burning bush, parting the water so that his people could pass into a better land is something I think many shamans would identify with. All of this is the tradition from which Jesus sprang.

    The words attributed to Jesus, in cases where he says that ancestors are of no importance, or that sacrifice is of no importance – and even the emphasis that all of his ‘miracles’ were performed because he was, himself, god…these could (and in my opinion probably do) result from the same Church struggle you point out, in which the Church tries to remove itself further and further from any hint of tribal, shamanic, or ‘magic’ association. When all is said and done, these same faith healers you speak of are emulating the example of Jesus – who healed, advised, communicated with spirits, journeyed to the Underworld, raised others and himself from the dead (for examples of shamanic rebirth), and was certainly himself quite acquainted with sacrifice. If he actually said that the ancestors were not important (keeping in mind that we have the accounts of his apostles, or accounts of the apostles’ accounts, but not the actual words of Jesus himself), then we have to also remember that Jesus was trying to lead his people away from the theocracy of the temple. This is, ironically, why I include Christianity with Jewish tradition…Jesus was trying to reform the Jewish tradition, not create his own, and I think the way he went about doing so was in keeping with the ways of the early Jewish prophets, who exhibited shamanic behavior.

    I hope that sheds a little more insight into where I was coming from with my talk of primal and shamanic elements within the Christian tradition 🙂

    [1] Nicholson, Shirley, “Shamanism” (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1996) 181-182


  4. Bernulf, I think you’re absolutely right about Judaism and shamanism. And I think you’re also right about Jesus-as-shaman, to an extent. Jesus’s actions parallel those of a shaman a great deal, and no doubt he did so because of the Judaic shamanistic traditions underlying his ideology.
    However (I’d argue) he also shows a huge influence from further east. He wandered from place to place teaching, he emphasized love and compassion for all regardless of ancestry, he urged a separation of worldy and otherworldly affairs, and he spoke of the suffering in this world versus the joy of the next — all of which sounds more like the Buddha than a shaman.
    You could, of course, suggest that all of these elements were introduced afterwards by the Church, but on the face of it it seems that from the very first Christianity was infused with many non-shamanistic elements. If I had to guess, it’s because Jesus himself knew a certain amount of eastern philosophy and attempted a fusion of eastern and Judaic ideas.
    Afterwards, when Jesus’s message was exported to the wider Empire, it was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and Roman heirarchical control, so that, as you say, the shamanistic elements were suppressed.
    Nevertheless, throughout the history of Christianity, shamanistic elements have crept in again and again, in the form of faith healers and the like — partly because that was, as you say, Jesus’s example, and partly because (I think) the human spirit calls out for such things.


  5. I’m not sure that Jesus’ Eastern influences negate the similarity to shamanism of many of his actions; and I think it’s important to remember that shamans differ from one culture to another in function and expression, and it’s difficult to adopt a definition to which all shamans would fit. It could be argued that, since there are no references to the prophets using a drum, that they weren’t really like most other shamans…yet there are no references to Odin and drums, either, and quite a few regard him as an almost archetypal shaman.

    None of this is to say that Jesus was actually a shaman – this hasn’t been my contention – but I do think that all of these things point out shamanic roots and elements within Christianity from its earliest times. You raise a pretty good point in your belief that there is a fundamental need for humans to have shamanic elements as a part of our lives – is this one of the conclusions you’ve drawn from the museum incident?


  6. I think we’re basically in agreement, and I think you’ve shown me that Jesus’s example was more shamanistic than I’d supposed before — thank you! It’s a shame, as you say, that Christianity has been so twisted.

    The museum incident strongly reinforced some conclusions I’d already drawn based on linguistics, and yes, a basic need for shamanism is one of them. And if I’m right about my suspicions, Christianity will fully return to those roots one day. But of course, those are topics for later posts. 🙂


  7. Consensus! I’ll be looking forward to your later posts, especially your development of how Christianity might one day return to its shamanic roots 😀

    As for how it’s been twisted, I think this is a matter of political involvement – but then that’s an outsider’s perspective.


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