Quotes on PNW Shamanism: Spirits

On the shamans’ spirit familiars & spirit work:

Native woman in a ceremonial costume of hemlock boughs

Western Hemlock was believed to draw the spirits and foster communication with them

McIntyre Jorgensen, Grace Miri. A Comparative Examination of Northwest Coast Shamanism. University of British Columbia Department of Anthropology and Sociology, 1970.

“Although initiation was supposed to require visionary or hallucinatory experience and subsequent ‘instruction’ by the spirit through dreams or visions, curing ceremonies did not necessarily involve a trance and shamans were not believed to be ‘possessed’ by spirits in the sense that the spirit took over control of the body. Shamans were thus spirit masters more than they were spirit mediums.” (p.9-10)

“At no time were shamans believed to be possessed by their spirits. The spirit came close and instructed or directed them, but remained subordinate to the shaman’s will.” (p.10)

It was not a master and slave relationship. The shaman didn’t have to agree with or listen to their spirits and the spirits didn’t have to do what the shaman wanted if they didn’t want to. In the relationship, both had free will to negotiate with each other. One could not control the other. This doesn’t discount other forms of possession however, which were practiced and very much believed in.

“The fact that spirit contact was exceedingly dangerous meant that shamans were usually those individuals who had power within themselves to withstand the power of the spirits.” (p.13-14)

“Contact with a malevolent or powerful being could be fatal unless the individual was sufficiently pure.” (p.43)

PNW purification methods are similar to those found throughout the world and usually involved fasting, bathing, drinking special teas, and smudging oneself with plant-derived smoke. Ritual purification was also used to enhance the shaman’s own powers by giving power to the spirit over the physical body.

“The token — a rattle, a bit of dyed cedar bark, a bundle of medicine leaves, a painted pebble, or whatever it might be — had to be preserved… All the power of this spirit now resided in this fetish — should it be lost, the finder lost control of the spirit, and consequently his shamanic power.” (p.44)

“Shamans differed from those who acquired other types of power in that their relationships with spirit beings is ongoing, continuous and intense.” (p.45)

“Supernatural beings behaved in certain ways and had particular attributes which made them of specific interest to men. They could endow men with extra-human powers or highly prized crests and ceremonial prerogatives, or they could harm men by bringing death and misfortune. Since they conformed to certain laws and principles, by knowing and using these laws men could hope to influence supernatural beings to attain their own ends or to avoid harm. […Supernatural beings] could be offended, shamed or insulted, gratified, flattered or amused, or moved to pity or compassion… Menstrual blood and various other substances [sweat, urine, excrement, etc] were repugnant to them. Lack of respect and courtesy could anger them, while they were likely to be pleased by those who made themselves ritually clean by eliminating all taint of polluting substances.” (102-3)

“The primary means by which [Tsimshian] men hoped to influence supernatural beings were propitiation including prayers, purification and sacrifice, and by spirit contact. […]Prayers were addressed to supernatural beings. Sacrifices were also offered to please and placate supernatural beings, including food, tobacco, bird’s down, and red ochre.” (p.103-4)

McIlwraith, T.F. The Bella Coola Indians. 2 vols. University of Toronto Press, 1948.

“…his [the shaman’s] greater acquaintance with them [the shaman’s familiar spirits] renders it more likely that they will grant his requests.” (p.572)

Meaning: the better relationship built up with trust and love over time with your acquired spirits, the better they will serve your wishes and aid you in your rites and magic. The more you give, the more you receive in return.

Jenness, D. “The Faith of a Coast Salish Indian”. Anthropology in BC Memoir no.3. BC Provincial Museum, 1955.

“Every living creature in man’s neighbourhood emanates its power, which travels about and frequently attaches itself to the vitality of a human being. The power of an individual wolf, for example, may enter a man, making him a good hunter; the man gains and the wolf itself loses nothing. Each creature has its special power that it can bestow.” (p.37)

This is a different form of possession that does not involve control of the body or of the mind. An individual spirit, usually an animal or ancestor, will enter a person and stay with them for the rest of their life to confer their power, abilities, and knowledge to the person they attach themselves too. The will of the spirit never overrides the will of the person if both parties are willing. A Tlingit shaman had to master eight spirits (eight being a sacred number of ritual completion for the Tlingit) in this and other ways before his community and peers would give him the title of shaman.

Drucker, Philip. The Northern and Central Nootkan Tribes. Smithsonian Institute, 1951.

The Nootka believed “…that odours of warm, sweaty humanity were repugnant to the spirits. By bathing in cold water til the body was chilled, however, and scrubbing away grime and sweat with pleasant-smelling or magically potent plants one could approach the spirits without their being aware of his presence.”

This is also reflected in the tales of Baba Yaga (“I smell Russian blood!”) and Jack the Giant-Killer (“fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”). If you’re going to sneak into the den of an otherworldly being, you had better take a bath first!

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  • Wow, I love all the research you got going on here (I am a historian by trade)~! You should write a serious book or academic article on this topic! =3

    • I obsessively researched this topic for myself while I had free access to academic libraries. I didn’t really know what to do with all the research as it was just for my own interest… but maybe off in the future after I’ve written the other handful of books in the works first.

      • sounds like a plan :) Currently, I am working on a book entitled, “By Pyre, Bone, and Raven’s Claw: History, Lore, and the Traditional Cornish Year,” which obviously is about Traditional Cornish Witchcraft. As I am a pellar I know it well; Raised by a pellar none the less, heh. In any case best to you with your studies! :) btw, I tried to add you on facebook :)

  • Really interesting! Though ritual purification is a good idea, do you think that all spirits are repulsed by human secretions? The Greeks called the dead back with blood, though they were once human and likely sympathetic with it. I’d like to know your thoughts on this topic, especially since seeing your wickedly lovely bloodletting device 😉

    • The natives did separate spirits into different types. The purification wasn’t necessary for working with one’s animal and ancestral spirits (although normal hygiene is respectful), but with plants there was much more importance placed on purification. Supernatural beings had a different classification, they were often powerful inhuman spirits not of this world. Some would consider them gods, angels, demons, giants, trolls, monsters… some are from our world and some are from far far away. Soul-devouring, soul-collecting, dangerous powerful supernatural beings. There are terrifying local legends of such things and I certainly wouldn’t want one to know I was walking by it in the woods!

  • hagofnaedre says:

    Thank you for sharing these excerpts. That thesis sounds like it’s a serious gem, you’re so lucky to get your hands on it!

    I also wanted to say thank you for dropping Christina Pratt’s name in your shamanic conference post. I had NO idea she was local! I attended a discussion group of hers recently and really enjoyed it and I’ll probably be going to them regularly, which is good for my ol’ hermit ass!

  • greycatsidhe says:

    Neat post. I’ve read about other cultures’ taboos surrounding menstrual blood. As a woman, I always find it interesting… I wonder if all spirits feel that way. I definitely don’t get that impression from Brighid. Her association with domesticated animals, healing, and childbirth make it seem that she would be less insulted, especially if you were in need. That said, I’ve always felt that washing up is important when working before my altar. I would never go out to meet a friend looking my worst with a smelly breath… I shouldn’t do it with my Gods and spirit allies. Well…unless I was truly desperate!

    • Most of the menstrual blood and body fluid/scent taboos come from hunting traditions. Animals can smell stinky humans miles away if the wind is right. There are so many legends, folk tales, fairy tales, and old verses where a hunter spots a deer and washes himself with water or dew in order to make himself pure so he can kill the deer.

      Unfortunately when the missionaries came, they fed on the pre-existing menstruation taboo and used it to help convert the Natives and it was twisted into something much worse than it had originally been.

  • Anon says:

    Sounds like an excellent book and consistent with what I’ve read in the past. Good points made for “who’s controlling who” when it comes to shamanic healing for example. A shamans power not only comes from his power animal, but from helping spirits and power objects (others too). For example in some cultures it is known that a shaman will place a piece of a plant that is his spirit helper in his mouth and used it in the extraction of an invasive spirit. Shamans may have many spirit helpers so, for example, he/she would be capable of dealing with a multitude of invasive spirits. Thanks for sharing.