The Art of Divination
“People must be awakened or it could happen that they sleep forever. And they need to be awakened not only through everyday education, however important this may be, but also through personal, heart-related, spiritual cognition. Deep insight into the interconnectedness of all things. May we work together – as fast as we can.“ (1)
Michael Harner wrote these words in 1986. The concrete background was the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl. The actuality of the call for swift cooperation seems unchanged, even if the external causes are different. At least on the surface. The gap between nature and man, but also between us humans, still seems to be large, too large. Shamanism can be a great help to us not only to postulate the connectedness indicated in many places, but to experience it in a very concrete way.
„The shaman took office when needed and gave up his daily life role as a family man, husband, reindeer nomad, fisherman, hunter etc. for that time. Then also the equipment of the shaman was taken out. The most important item in the equipment of the Saami people was the magic drum (goavddis), including its accessories. These included a T-shaped hammer made of reindeer leg and the ‘frog’, a small object that moves on the membrane of the magic drum during divination and was usually called ‘Los’ in the Finnish part of Lapland. Often the ‘Los’ consisted of metal rings that were bundled together.” (2)
Divination is concerned with the collection of information that is usually not available using the traditional five senses and the tools of science. Michael Harner speaks in this context of the so-called ‘hidden information’. This information comes from the spirits, the key instances in shamanism and primary sources of strength and wisdom. The shamans have the ancient task of mediating between the worlds. They work in a (slightly / strongly) altered state of consciousness and open themselves to the knowledge of the spirits or undertake a shamanic journey to their allies. It is the shamans’ responsibility to handle the received knowledge carefully and to communicate it to the client in a beneficial way.
Shamanic oracles and divination
The concrete way in which divination has been or is carried out is subject to immense variation. By means of ‘Los’ on the drum in the case of the Saami people; 41 stones in Tuva; the skull of a dead shaman within the Yukaghirs’ of northeast Siberia; shoulder bones or other animal bones in other parts of Siberia, North America and the polar regions; chants within the Navajo of North- and the Yaminawá of South America or the stars in the case of the Ainu in Japan. (3, 4)
The underlying functional principle is always the same. The shamans are in contact with the spirits, ‘read’ the answer and pass it on to the client. Often special ‘holy’ objects are used, which were collected or produced specifically for the divinatory work – among other things: plants, stones, crystals and artefacts made of wood, clay, stone, metal or animal bones. It is reported that the objects sometimes warm um physically during the work, that they ‚heat up‘, just like the shamans do. (5) Divination objects are carriers of power and are usually connected to specific spirits, are important working tools, part of the shaman´s paraphernalia.
In the so called West the shamanic divination seems to be underestimated or not to get the place it deserves. Shamanic work in Europe, for example, is characterized by a strong focus and emphasis on healing work – especially in terms of the concrete application of relevant techniques. Not so in indigenous cultures. In parts of Siberia, for example, the novices’ first piece of equipment is the drum mallet, which is made well in advance of the drum (6). It is not only used in the actual context of the drum, but also – as for example in Tuva – for divination. Future shamans must master the art of divination before they start working with the drum. Divination is to be understood as fundamental to shamanism. At its core it means communication with the spirits, it is the basis for any form of healing work and it initiates solutions for dealing with insecurities, imbalances, seemingly hopeless situations, desperation or the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness.
Shamanism yesterday like today
Shamans serve their community. They consult the spirits when it seems necessary, when a secure and fruitful existence of this very community is threatened. This may concern the search for security, shelter and food; dealing with revolutionary changes and the insecurities and fears that accompany them; resolving conflict, terror and war; or the alienation of people from each other. This applies to indigenous cultures as well as to postmodern societies. The concrete form may be different, the topics are the same. Yesterday and today.
Divinatory work should deal with the great necessities of life and coexistence, but it should be directed where immediate and sustainable development can best be initiated: on the ground, in the local community. In the end it is always about the personal contribution to the greater whole, in shamanism and in life in general.
(1) Harner, Michael (1986): Editorial. Center for Shamanic Studies Newsletter. Summer 1986 Issue. S. 1. (Übersetzung RU)
(2) Juha Pentikäinen (1997): Die Mythologie der Saamen. Berlin: Reinhold Schletzer. S. 170.
(3) cf. Hoppál, Mihály (2002): Das Buch der Schamanen: Europa und Asien. München: Ullstein, oder Hultkrantz, Åke, Ripinsky-Naxon, Michael, Lindberg, Christer (2002): Das Buch der Schamanen: Nord- und Südamerika. München: Ullstein.
(4) For a detailed example of a work with a chuvanaak oracle in Tuva, consisting of 41 stones, see Oelschlägel, Anett C. (2004): Der Weiße Weg: Naturreligion und Divination bei den West-Tyva im Süden Sibiriens. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag. 97ff.
(5) William S. Lyon (2012): Spirit Talkers: North American Indian Medicine Powers. S. 211ff.
(6) Hoppál, Mihály (2002): Das Buch der Schamanen: Europa und Asien. München: Ullstein. S. 134.
Mag. Roland Urban is director of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.