Shamanism, Philosophy and the Discovering of America

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes…Yo no sé! Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos, la resaca de todo lo sufrido se empozará en el alma…Yo no sé! Son pocos; pero son… Abren zanjas oscuras en el rostro más fiero y en el lomo más fuerte. Serán tal vez los potros de bárbaros atilas; o los heraldos negros que nos manda la Muerte.

— César Vallejo

1. Introduction and General Overview

One of the most interesting remarks about the field of Philosophy is that it has deeply been damaged due to the action of a conservative and an analytical perspective. This analytical perspective deals with the western-European as well as the American concept of reason and reality. In the same way, if Christendom, at least political Christianity, held to exist just one God, and that one-God was the only existent and true; Philosophy then, has constructed its building on the pillars of reason and rationality as a parallel to the values in Christianity. This concept of reason and rationality is innerly connected with the concept of reality, just as one valid reality. To not accept what philosophers consider as reasonable and as real, means to be relegated from the philosophical land. Philosophy has been handled many times from an orthodox point of view. This orthodoxy consists in seeing the classic philosophers, as well as the moderns, as “innocent” people with a weird love for wisdom, but without the blessing of our progress and of our technology. Analytical philosophy has vulgarized Philosophy. Thus, historians of Philosophy have created “models”, and below these models they have shaped Philosophy. Additionally, some philosophers are seen as emblems of a source of “school”, a branch of “philosophy” which has been dramatically shaped. For instance, Plato is a follower of “ideas”, while Aristotle is a follower of “experience”. Descartes is a rationalist, while Hume is a skeptic. Kant is considered to be the king of reason. Fichte the person who believed in a transcendental subjectivism. Nietzsche, of course, he is “the killer of God”. And, voilá Heidegger is the creator of Dasein, and for some people, he is just a “Nazi”. All those are just labels, which do not say too much about the man and his philosophy, about the effort they made in order to grasp the meaning and structure of our world. All this has contributed to weary the mind of students, who do not understand a single-word thank to the brilliant effort of those historians for “vulgarizing” Philosophy.

My focus is interdisciplinary. My aim is to show that since the discovering of America, Philosophy could be treated as a facet of shamanism. It is necessary to show that from the discovery of America, Philosophy can be treated like a variant of shamanism. What I want to expose is that the origins of the philosophical thinking is clearly shamanistic, and that these origins could be analyzed if we study the “indígena” thought of the “primitive” tribes, in this case of America. In few words, what Plato said and what a Huichol shaman says currently, is the very same thing: Philosophy. Maybe, in Plato’s mind the best man is that who become a sophós, perhaps to the huichol shaman is to become a marakame. It is a matter of words. May be, Plato used kykeon to grasp his ideal world, actually the Huichol shaman uses peyote for grasping the same world: the meta-physical realm. Who can disagree that the “primitive” Greeks were divided into tribes, and that such as tribes had “shamans”? Or may be, sophós?

Current philosophy does not want to admit the parallelism between shamanism and the origins of philosophical thinking. These origins, actually shamanistic, have been present even in the way of thought within our modernity. Unfortunately, it has been the field of Anthropology the only one in showing that different cultures had different patterns of thought. I said — unfortunately — because on the one hand, it blessed us with the gift of revealing the shamanic thinking and its connection with the magical plants; but on the other hand, Anthropology has reduced human beings to a single “thing” just for the sake of methodology and research. Such as Octavio Paz remarked once, the anthropologists have continued the labour of the missionaries. The only anthropologist who really “kicked the ass” of regular Anthropology was Carlos Castaneda. And such as Octavio Paz said, he did so applying a different “method” of study, and for it Castaneda had to turn into an anti-anthropologist.1 All the models that philosophy and science have sealed as cognizable were reduced to the sphere of experience. Now, being my focus that Philosophy is a variant of shamanism, and that this issue can be shown thank to the labour of the anthropologists, the next step is to explain how the concepts of experience, perception and reality have been taken wrongly, and from a dogmatic point of reference.2 I believe the study of shamanism, and the study of the use of magical plants (called “hallucinogens”, I rather prefer the term entheogens)3 have furnished the understanding of different concepts of reality, as well as environment.

2. Anthropology and philosophical thinking

First of all, we need to analyze the importance of Anthropology within the field of Philosophy. Beginning mainly during the Enlightenment, anthropologists did not take care too much about folk-lore, but rather about how to frame the concept of race. The next step was to frame what race was the perfect one. Obviously, Europe and Europeans values were the main and better candidates. To know how to write and how to read, to dress correctly, and to dedicate yourself to politics were the top of being “civilized”. Civilization, true civilization was Europe and its sociopolitical and internal values, among them the (political)-Christianity, science and philosophy. Thus, a naked “indian” in the middle of the forest was called “savage”, an illiterate, a non-European, a person without culture and civilization, because what they had it was simple “customs”, “traditions” and “superstitions”. In this way, Europe thought in itself as the banner of wisdom, but: What kind of wisdom kills, rapes and exterminates?

Now, the biggest step was to try to find a way, a path in order to justify the murders and the exterminium. For it, scientists and philosophers could interpret the variation of humanity as races, as different “cultures”, but with a different status quo within the world. Hence, the European culture named itself the emperor of all the cultures all over the world. In this sense, Europeans wanted to find an origin, a “father” who was the responsible of all our science, philosophy and politics. And this “fatherhood” was assigned to Greece. It is said, our culture is a direct descendant of the old Greek values. This is basically nonsense, and I am going to explain why. Greeks did not exterminate any culture; on the contrary they learnt from them. What did Plato, Pythagoras, or Aristotle, or even Alexander the Great? The concept of searching was quite different from ours. The concept of war for them, was related with the pursuing of wisdom. I do not mean it is legitimate. I do not excuse them, I just explain them. I just say it was what it was, that is. But the discovery of America was just for the sake of gold. What could a high-prided European learn from a bunch of “savages”? The difference between Alexander and Hernán Cortés is that the former wanted to learn, to progress in the path of wisdom. Maybe, his concept of wisdom was wrong, and he paid for it. But the latter, Cortés, was basically an intelligent student with a poor concept of love for wisdom, a person who throw up his possibilities of studying Law, just for the sake of military life. As the chronicles speak, he just wanted to find gold:

As soon as the Spaniards had quite settled themselves, they questioned Moctezuma about all the city’s shields, emblems, and treasure; they continually importuned him; with no rest they sought gold.4

If European culture was the descendant of the Greek values, of the old fashioned love for wisdom; how can we stand ourselves holders of such as values with this kind of deeds?:

Then they (the Spaniards) charged the crowd with their iron lances and hacked us with their iron swords. They slashed the backs of some…they cut into pieces the heads of others…spitting their bodies open; or at their shanks, or at their thighs, or at their abdomens, breaking out their entrails, which dragged as they tried to run.5

It is true that the old Greeks killed people too, and that the old wars were very cruel as well. But this is not the point, the point is to hide this fact, and to hide the fact that Europeans killed. The point is to hide our bad deeds telling everybody our “deeds” are based on the old Greek culture. Are there the values of the Enlightenment? Kant already pointed about our “love” for enlightenment. When this happen, we, for sure, have lost the perspective:

The blood of the young warrior (Aztecs) ran like water; it gathered in pools. A fould stench arose from and spread about the carnage. Blood and entrails lay everywhere…Meanwhile, the bodies of the brave (Aztecs) warriors who had died were brought forth from the courtyard of the temples and identified, their mothers and fathers standing by and wailing.6

No conquest is good. If the Greeks also conquered and also killed in this way, it is not praise worthy. Yet, the fact of doing a “temple” of wisdom, of philosophy and of love for the advance of knowledge, this, of course, deserves our attention. But, Europe did not want to accept that the concept of conquest was wrong, and if we heir that in some way from the old Greeks, we should have changed it. Europe was willing to hide the most occult aspect of this process of political crap. I need to add that when the first Europeans conquered America, they all were unwilling to accept and to understand the native religion and thinking. When the first Christian priests saw the “indians” eating peyotl, the interpretation was imminent: “the indians talk to the Devil.” Europe and European values not only did not want to recognize the wisdom of the native priests and their philosophy, but also nowadays current philosophers and scientists see them as a mere thing called “primitives”. My focus is that our philosophical arena, is a field where each of our great philosophers, like Parmenides, Thales, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Plato, Schelling, Descartes, etc, all of them were visionaries, no matter if they are “primitives” or not, and through their visions they constructed their philosophical system. The first in treating Philosophy as a vision process was William P. Montague. In his own words:

The distinctive glory of the human mind is its power to detach itself, not only from the here and now but from the there and then of existence, and bathe its tired memories in ideal waters. So it is that the great visions of philosophy, even if considered merely as visions, are precious and imperishable possessions of our culture. Even when their content has been proved false to the world of fact they lend to that world depth and richness of meaning, and norms for appraising its values which otherwise could never come.7

3. Conclusion

All this was stressed after the research on “hallucinogens” during the Sixties. Then, the regular shaman appeared as a prophet, a kind of “hippie” and visionary with extrasensorious powers. But, if some anthropologists missed the point doing of mysticism a thing to be researched from a scientific perspective; philosophers, on the other hand did not realize at least, that our common and sage-presocratics could be presented as shamans, and in its default as followers of the shamanic tradition. Plato followed the Orphic tradition, and that folk tradition had a very high shamanic base. The Eleusinian cults were shamanism as well. In fact, the regular philosophy we pretend to be the emblem of reason, it is only the riot of philosophers against the shamans’ secrets on knowledge. In the old Greece to be sophós meant to be considered like a “shaman”, and it was Plato precisely, the one who said that the only thing remaining for us to become nowadays, it will consist in being a lover of wisdom, that is, a philo-sophos.

  1. Octavio Paz, preface to the Spanish version of Castaneda’s book The Teachings of Don Juan, in the Mexican publishing house, Fondo de Cultura Economica. ↩︎

  2. See my article “The Concept of Perception and Reality in Science”, Dialegesthai, Sept. 2000. ↩︎

  3. This term belongs to R.G. Wasson, and means “god within”. ↩︎

  4. A.J.O. Anderson and C.E. Dibble, eds.: The Aztec’s Own story as given to Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City: 1978; pg. 35. ↩︎

  5. Op. cit., pg. 43-44. ↩︎

  6. Op. cit., pg. 44-45. ↩︎

  7. W.P. Montague: Great Visions of Philosophy; Varieties of speculative thought in the west from the Greeks to Bergson. Open Court Pub. Co. La Salle, ILL: 1950. ↩︎