This month we take a look at shamanic practises both ancient and modern, with a classic academic work on Japanese shamanism and a 2017 release on animal spirit guides. Our other books this month are on the Greek mysteries, and witchcraft within the queer, trans and intersex community.
The full list of this month’s reviews is as follows….
- Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (3rd edition)
- Robin C. Douglas, Greek Mysteries: An Introduction to the Ancient Esoteric Traditions
- Rachel Patterson, Pagan Portals – Animal Magic: Working With Spirit Animal Guides
- Pat Mosley (editor), Arcane Perfection: An Anthology by Queer, Trans and Intersex Witches
The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (3rd edition)
(Routledge, 1999; first edition 1975)
★★★ Read of the Month! ★★★
Carmen Blacker is something of a legend in British Japanese Studies circles, thanks to her extraordinary life and significant contribution to Japanology. A student of Japanese language at University of London’s School of Oriental & African Studies, she worked as a code breaker at Bletchley Park and became a leading scholar of Japanese folklore and spirituality. Since her death in 2009, annual lectures about Japanese religion and folklore called the Carmen Blacker Lecturers are held in her memory in the UK. Her most celebrated work, The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan, often crops up on essential reading lists for English-speaking students of Shinto. It’s neither the easiest, nor the cheapest book on Shinto to obtain, but prompted by the recent release of Blacker’s biography by Sir Hugh Cortazzi, I thought I’d get round to reading The Catalpa Bow at last.
The Catalpa Bow is an account of the vanishing world of shamanism in Japan. It’s pretty exhaustive, covering every example of shamanic practices that Blacker could find: the shamanic female rulers of ancient Japan, shamans who communicate directly with kami and Buddhist deities, individuals regarded as deities in their own right, and blind women who turn to shamanism as a profession, to name a few. These accounts are unique, fascinating and intimate. I don’t think you are likely to find such detailed descriptions of Japanese shamanism in English anywhere else. For those used to reading about more standard forms of Shinto, in which the kami are soberly venerated in stately shrines, The Catalpa Bow reveals a startlingly different side to Shinto: a more ecstatic and esoteric form, in which the lines between kami, ghosts and other supernatural entities are overlapping and blurred.
Anyone with an interest in shamanism, especially those who have only read modern works by contemporary Western practitioners of shamanism, would do well to read The Catalpa Bow. For the world it reveals is not the New Age, sanitised version of vision quests and friendly animal guides that we tend to see in modern popular works of shamanism. On the contrary, traditional Japanese shamanism has historically been a world frequently filled with cruelty, suffering, persecution and exploitation. Being a professional anthropologist Blacker never describes assigns such value judgements to her subjects, but her readers may find they cannot help but do so. To become a shaman of the Japanese mold, one must generally undergo intense hardship – through self-inflicted or mentor-imposed austerities such as extreme fasting or cold-water purification, or through personal mental and physical illness. Reading about some of the torturous ordeals that Japanese shamans have undergone in order to acquire their powers, I felt a mixture of revulsion, horror, pity and admiration at their willpower and strength. Additionally, while Blacker herself never explores this, one also has to wonder how much of what these shamans experience is down to genuine contact with spiritual forces, and how much is simply hallucinations and delusions brought on by trauma and mental breakdown.
One of the most fascinating, but also among the most disturbing, chapters in The Catalpa Bow is that on the subject of animal-spirit familiars (generally foxes) that certain families are said to own and use to attack their neighbours. Very similar accounts can be found in European and African folklore as well, and in these cases the result is often the same: the accusations against such families have been used as justification to scapegoat, ostracise, banish and, on rare occasions, murder them. It’s a sobering reminder that one should always be careful when romanticising folklore. Those same stories of magic and witchcraft that Pagans find so beguiling have been employed out of malice and spite to cause very real harm to people.
With its careful and easy writing style, nonjudgmental approach and fascinating selection of highly personal stories of shamans and those who have been treated by them, it’s easy to see why The Catalpa Bow has made such an impression on academics and laymen alike interested in Japanese folklore and religion. Although it describes many practices and concepts that have all but disappeared in modern Japan, this book is still highly relevant as a tool for understanding the many complex facets of Japanese spirituality.