Shaman & Priest: How America’s Cultural Landscape Shapes Its Religious Institutions

solstice_offerings2a— This morning, I was up at quarter of five, a good half-hour before my alarm. My bladder full, my lower back stiff with tension, I shuffled to the bathroom to begin my daily ablutions. I steadied myself, blinking awake, washed my face and hands, brushed my hair and bound it into a tightly-wound bun pinned high against my skull. Not a hair loose. An earring glinting in each ear. I slipped on the smooth black slacks and polo shirt, the work uniform, the ceremonial costume.

After a quick bowl of cereal and some juice, I sat in the dark living room, my only light a flickering candle amongst the clutter on the coffee table. I sat still. I gazed into the flame. I prayed for heat, for the warm fingers of the coming day to work the tension out of my body, to loosen the muscles, to soothe the ache. Then, as the dawn beyond my window slowly lightened, I grabbed my apron and my name tag, threw on a sweater and headed for the door. Stalking the twilight of early morning, slinking through intersections, startling the rabbits still grazing, dark round figures shivering in wet front lawns…. I was off to the hunt.

The Hunter & The Farmer

For several years now, I have thought of waiting tables as a hunter-gatherer kind of job. Each morning, I stalk my prey at their usual watering hole, serving up coffee and eggs with a sleek and casual smile. I am quiet, unobtrusive. I bide my time. My earnings are gifts from the gods of generosity and good luck, coming in unpredictable floods and trickles. I gather the silvery coins from the tabletops, I fold the bills into my apron pocket, and I move on again, cleaning, preparing for the breakfast rush, the lunch rush, the next herd to come and go.

Hunter Gatherer to the Office! - (cc) 2014 - 70023venus2009
Hunter Gatherer to the Office! – (cc) 2014 – 70023venus2009

I’m no agriculturalist. Most of my houseplants are scraggly at best, clinging to life despite my ineptitude and reaching for those few hours of sunlight that slip in among the surrounding apartment buildings looming tall on all sides. My parents would have liked to think they were preparing me for a steady-income career, what with my good grades in high school, a solid list of extracurricular activities, distinguished honors at the top of my college class.

But in all this cultivation, they never quite understood: I was hunting, always hunting, stalking my passions, following my bliss, lingering long hours in the familiar territories of my needs and desires, hoping to catch the scent. And so, when money became necessary, I found a job that let me hunt it down, working for the customers rather than the company, relying on my skill, speed and patience to get me what I need.

That’s the nature of serving: it’s a kind of entrepreneurial career. Although waiting tables is usually a low-income working-class job, many contractors and consultants these days can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year taking on projects and hiring out their services to individual clients, juggling several commitments at once, balancing workload with financial goals. With global online networking and increased mobility and travel, people rarely spend a lifetime working the same job at a single company. They’re far more likely to change careers, holding three to five different jobs over the course of their lives, while continuing their education or pursuing hobbies that can lead to small business opportunities. Freelance writing and other kinds of art are like this, too (and in many ways, always have been).

The days of gradual progress up a single corporate ladder, putting down roots, prizing stability and rewarding loyalty… these days are giving way to the hunt, not just for artists and waitresses, but for all of us. The cultivator has again become predator, the agriculturalist has become quick-witted, light-footed. Risk and fortune hum taut between the skilled hands of the hunter, drawing his bow and holding his breath.

The Shaman & The Priest

Is it any surprise, then, that the priestly orders of our familiar organized religions are giving way once again to the prominence of shamanistic traditions and individual spiritual experience? Joseph Campbell, in his book The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, writes that in agriculturally-based societies,

There is a rigid relationship not only of the individual to his fellows, but also of village life to the calendrical cycle; for the planters are intensely aware of their dependency upon the gods of the elements. One short period of too much or too little rain at the critical moment, and a whole year of labor results in famine. Whereas for the hunter — hunter’s luck is a very different thing.

To plow, to plant, to cultivate and harvest, at precisely the right time, in obedience to the seasons and the cycles of weather — such practices require the discipline of a community, and the knowledge of tradition, of the cycles and seasons of the past. The religious life speaks to and reflects this cultural structure. Ordained priests carry on the traditions of the previous generation, preserving the knowledge of the changing moods of the gods, remembering the appropriate rites and rituals needed to please, praise and appease them. The priest is the shepherd of the flock, the good farmer cultivating and reaping souls.

Indian Shaman (cc) 2010 - hidde beekman
Indian Shaman (cc) 2010 – hidde beekman

But the shaman — the shaman, like the hunter, goes out into the wilderness, alone, to seek her own truths. Practiced skills and passed-on techniques may be helpful, but in the end, what matters is the moment, the immediate presence of the here-now through which the prey, the White Stag of Spirit, is moving. No amount of community support, structure or tradition can replace her personal experiences, her individual capacity for attention and response, receptivity and creative activity. In a hunter-gatherer culture, people’s spiritual lives naturally echo the needs of their mundane lives, shrugging off organized tradition in search of meaningful personal experiences. The individual, the present moment, the activity of the hunt itself — these become nodes of meaning in a chaotic, often unpredictable world.

Warrior, Shaman, Lover, Queen: A Druid Priestess

While I was at work waiting tables this morning, stiff and flinching against the noise and fluorescent lights, my boyfriend sent me the following email:

In my dream just now, you had climbed up a little way into a tree, and were wearing a gorgeous white and cream colored dress covered with flowers, and white flowers were in your hair, and the garden and the air and the light all around were like the perfect afternoon of an impressionist painting, and you said to me, The central question is, ‘Is Druidry Earthly?’

Young Druidess Old Print Reproduction Celtic Ars Naturans
Young Druidess Old Print Reproduction Celtic Ars Naturans

Is Druidry Earthly? The stereotype of the old, bearded Druid priests in white robes, collecting mistletoe from the oak with a golden sickle according to some mysteriously complicated astronomical timing, catching the harvested plant in a white cloth so that it would not touch the ground… such an image might raise some doubt. And yet, even the structure and tradition of organized religion grows and evolves out of culture, out of our relationship with the land and its seasons. The growers, the farmers, are no less connected to the earth than the wild huntsman tracking deer through the woods.

The vision of me, dressed in the impractical white of purity, suspended among the branches of the tree like the lightning-seeded mistletoe itself, gives me pause. Am I earthly? Do I sometimes try too hard to be that ideal image of the priestess? What is my connection to the land, to the community and to the past? But the dream also makes me smile, for it reminds me of another vision, one that I myself had several years ago during meditation when I first embarked on this Druid path:

I was wandering through a dense woods, the trees all thin and straight and touched with the bright, young green of full spring. Entering a clearing, I sat down in the mud and grass, spreading my gray-green dress around my folded legs. I stretched out my arms, feeling the wind raking my unbound hair, and felt — for an instant — the fiery blue lines of energy, interwoven connection spinning out in all directions around me, dodging and twining through the trees, opening to the sky, sinking deep into the earth and arcing all the way to the sun.

There is room in Druidry, I think, for the shaman and the priest. In a culture that still clings to the social traditions of agricultural society and dismisses hunter-gatherer lifestyle as inherently “primitive” even while adopting some of its characteristics, Druidry can find a place of balance and harmony, acknowledging everything priesthood and shamanism have to offer. Individual experience, the intensity of the moment, the essential nature of creativity and spontaneity and play; and the deep roots of tradition, the ancestors, the accumulation of wisdom and meaning, the vital participation in community.

The Druid priestess can be lover and warrior, shaman and queen. She can weave these roles together. She can become something new.

"I am in love with this! This is the most beautiful thing I have read ..."

Fox Steals the Dark – a ..."
"Thanks for this reminder that we need to do what we can, and also recognize ..."

Thankful for the Infinite that Holds ..."
"What a lovely story! I so much appreciate the viewpoint that darkness is its own ..."

Fox Steals the Dark – a ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment