The woman had spent the day fishing the rock pools along the coast. She had been successful, catching plenty of fish and even a few crabs for that night's meal. However, now that her belly was full, she moved away from her companions, a small band that made their livelihoods around the cave they called home. Since her child had died, merely a few days after it had been born, she often sought the solitude her grief needed. She sat by a fire and stared at the flickering flames, letting her mind wander. She knew that strange shapes would soon start to appear in the darkness and then a tunnel would open up before her. Forcing back her fear, the woman allowed her mind to enter the tunnel and began to follow where it led. She already knew what she would find at its end; for it was there that her baby would be waiting.
The grieving woman lived almost 70,000 years ago along the shoreline of the Cape of Africa. She was part of a small band that fished the small pools that lay along the rocky shore and found sanctity each night in a shelter known as Blombos Cave. Despite living so long ago, the woman was just like you or me and had the same capacity to feel emotions, such as love and grief, as we do. She also shared another trait that we still retain today but with which we may be far less familiar: she could enter trance and visit the strange realm to which this gave access, what we would today call shamanism. In fact, this was so important to the people of Blombos Cave that they drew some of the images they encountered whilst in trance on small pieces of colored stone. They are the earliest examples of art anywhere in the world.
Trance clearly began at a very early stage in our development as humans and, since the inhabitants of Blombos Cave lived at a time when our species had only just begun to colonize the world, it underwrote everything that has happened since. Our ability to enter trance made us what we are. As the people of Blombos Cave would have realized, trance helps develop thought and it expands the mind, literally forming new neural pathways, and also improves the immune system. It gave early people the advantages they needed to succeed. It also joined them to the ebb and flow of forces beyond this reality, providing a wellspring of strength and power. The grieving woman knew this as she entered the tunnel that formed in her mind, but just where did she go after that?
The people of Blombos Cave did not draw what they found at the end of the tunnel. For that, we have to wait another 40,000 years or so until hunter bands roaming the south of France descended deep into caves (itself probably replicating the movement through the tunnel of trance) and painted the walls with their visions. Great herds of animals thunder about the caverns, their feet kicked up in a whirling maelstrom of flesh and fur. It makes the mind dizzy just to look at them. This is what people saw at the end of the tunnel: a different world inhabited by a swirling mass of animal forms, some entire and fully-formed, and some ephemeral and ghost-like, seemingly disappearing into the confines of the rock. To the people that painted the images, however, these were the spirits that they encountered in the otherworld of trance.
In among the great herds were other animals, the odd hunting bear, or a crouched lion ready to pounce. These were predators and it is likely that people sought the help of these hunting spirits when they entered the caves and conversed with their representations on the walls. People even made models of the most fearsome killers and, as if to emphasize that these were spirit animals, they marked them with the same patterns the people of Blombos Cave had drawn on the colored stones: the patterns that had their origins in trance. Over time, individuals probably sought out one special animal that he or she felt a special affinity with and provided them with the most help. These became power animals, spirits who befriend and help those who seek them out. I have a power animal and so do you, even if you do not yet realize it. To find it, you need to follow your earliest ancestors and journey to the otherworld of trance. This is a lot easier than it sounds and is a talent that every single one of us possesses. Your animal is out there waiting for you and perhaps now is a good time to acknowledge its presence.
Close your eyes and let your mind still. After a few moments, repeat the words "Come to me my power animal, come to me." Do you feel anything ahead of you in the darkness? Could something be waiting to connect with you, however faint? How would it feel to reach out and touch what lies before you? This is your power animal, the source of your shamanic power.
A few, extremely rare images in the caves depict humans, but these are not like any ordinary people. Caught in the moment of turning from human to animal forms, these are individuals whose mastery of the otherworld allowed them to take on the characteristics of their power animal, shapeshifting into its form. The power this gave them must have been immense, as shapeshifting was a technique to which people constantly returned, sometimes even acting out their experiences by wearing masks and headdresses of animals. Even after people settled to a farming life, shapeshifting retained its importance and people recorded their encounters on their pottery and, later, metal belongings. One silver goblet, from Bronze Age Trialeti, in Georgia, shows a whole array of shapeshifting individuals, all overseen by a figure sitting at the base of a tree. Could these have been initiates, undergoing training in the powers of the otherworld? As the novices will have found, shapeshifting is another technique that comes naturally. Once you have found your power animal, taking on its form and feeling what it is like to live within its skin will provide you with a source of power and wisdom that cannot be found in any other way.
Other images from the Bronze Age, this time from the frigid shores of Alta, high above the Arctic Circle in Norway, also show people drawing on the powers of the otherworld, this time sailing in boats and furiously pounding upon drums. Listening to the steady beat of a drum is one of the safest and easiest ways to enter trance and people still use this method today. The boat represents the journey undertaken by the drummers, although this is no ordinary jaunt and people slowly rise from the boat and fly upwards, into the sky. In addition to moving down, into the earth, it is also possible to travel upwards in trance and enter a different part of the otherworld. To differentiate the two, people familiar with these places call the former the lowerworld and the latter the upperworld. Our ancestors were familiar with both.
Visiting the upperworld is another technique that is easy to master and, if you go there yourself, you will find teacher spirits ready to help you with the problems of life. In fact, the help available in this realm is probably why the drummers at Alta attached such importance to it and depicted how to get there on the rocks. It was a road map that others could follow.
The upperworld is also where you might come across dead relatives, and certainly the woman at Blombos Cave felt drawn to this place as that is where the spirit of her baby resided. People who regularly visit the otherworlds do not fear the dead and, in fact, they can be a source of incredible power, providing a wealth of experience and wisdom that we can apply to our lives. However, the interaction is not always one-way; sometimes the dead need our help.
During the Stone Age, people understood that death comes in two stages. First, people leave the land of the living and, secondly, they join the ranks of the dead. In between, their souls wander and, without care from the living, can easily get lost. This is why, in burial chambers such as Newgrange in Ireland, people initially left newly deceased corpses in the entrance corridors. Waiting until the flesh had disappeared and they could separate and clean the bones, it was only then that people would move the remains to the back of the tomb to join the piles of bones that formed the ancestral lineage of the tribe. The time between these two events was likely marked with vigils and ceremonies, helping the soul on its way.
Today, we treat death differently and there is little care given to the newly departed soul. On occasions, this can lead to spirits becoming lost and even trapped in this world. We might call these disembodied forms ghosts and call the places they inhabit haunted, but, in truth, they are merely wandering spirits caught in an existence that is pitiful, and desperately needing our help to find a way out. For those that follow a shamanic path, midwifing the soul to the afterlife is an important part of the calling.
Caring for others also extends to the living and there are various healing techniques associated with shamanism. To understand them, however, requires a different view of the nature of illness and a focus on the underlying cause of dis-ease, rather than concentrating solely on the symptoms. Moreover, illness, like everything else, has a spirit.
Spirits are legion; everything in this world has a spirit in the otherworld: humans, animals, trees, and also other items such as rocks, the oceans, and even the computer on which you are reading this. To those versed in shamanism, everything is alive and has a spirit that they can approach in the otherworld. This was why people in the Bronze Age treated their swords with such deference, birthing them in special shelters, attributing great status to the feats they accomplished, and finally laying them to rest in a watery grave with great ceremony. To the people of the time, swords were as alive as they were.
If everything has a spirit, then this is true for illness and, when we take ill, it is because its spirit has entered our body and is lodging there, causing us to show signs of disease. Extracting these unwelcome visitors is easy once you know how and you can return the unwanted spirit to the otherworld, which is its true home. In the Iron Age, healers would pass the intruding spirit into model body parts and then throw these into springs, so that the spirit could follow the water back to the otherworld. The source of the Seine, in France, is full of such models and, even today, healers throw extracted spirits into water to dissipate their power.
In addition to illness entering our bodies, other experiences might cause things to depart, such as part of our soul. This often happens in trauma, where people put a part of themselves in a safe place in order that they have protection against whatever assails them, either physically or mentally. It is a sensible and very healthy technique to use. Problems only arise when the soul part does not come back, even once the trauma is over. People suffering from such soul loss might describe themselves as "not all here," and they are right. Without their missing soul part, they can never be complete. Their energy depletes, their health suffers, and they enter a downward spiral that only stops once they regain their soul part. This is why soul retrieval—finding lost souls as they wander adrift in the otherworlds, then bringing them back, and restoring them to patients—is one of the oldest and most important of all shamanic practices. In the Iron Age, silversmiths even engraved the technique on the side of a huge silver cauldron, from Gundestrup in Denmark, perhaps as a guide for those new to the healing arts.
Maintaining health extends beyond human and even animal patients, and also applies to the places we inhabit, such as our homes and workplaces. Negative energy can invade houses just as easily as human bodies, and we can extract it in much the same way. In the Iron Age, people went further still and arranged their dwellings according to principles that kept energy flowing, joining each house to the wider forces of the world. In a way, this was ancient Feng Shui, and you can apply many of the techniques to your own house to make it a more healthy and positive place to live.
Aligning ourselves to the wider patterns of the world is an important part of shamanic practice, whether it is the ebb and flow of the seasons or the changes in the natural world. There are many festivals celebrated by our Iron Age ancestors that can still have resonance in our lives today. They remind us that our own footprints upon the earth must be light and in harmony with the rest of existence. We all have a duty to sustain the planet that sustains us and shamanism reconnects us with these ancient ties to the earth.
The world, however, is not empty, and we must also consider those with whom we share our lives: our community or tribe. In the Ice Age, when existence was brutally harsh, belonging to a tribe is what helped people survive. People readily assisted others, knowing that what they gave one day they might need in return on another. Modern life often disintegrates tribes and forces each of us to stand on our own; it is something our Ice Age ancestors would have observed with horror. The bonds between each of us are the bonds that make us human.
Following a shamanic path draws upon great power (and it will certainly em-power you to be all that you are capable of becoming), but then you must let go and use your strength to help those around you. The motivation to help comes from compassion, an emotion innate to each of us, drawn forth from our suffering. We have all suffered and carry its effects with us and yet, by opening our wounds to the power of shamanism, we can draw strength from our darkest times as we seek to alleviate such suffering in others. It gives a point and a purpose to the pain we endure. How far you go in helping others is a decision only you can make. At the end of the Iron Age, however, those who walked a shamanic path were prepared to die gruesome deaths, entering the otherworlds permanently to watch over the tribes they had cared for their entire lives. It is a sacrifice that still commands awe.
Whilst reading these words, have you felt the tug of the spirits? Have you heard their faint call, the first stirrings of shamanic power deep within you? Keep an awareness over the next few days and see if the spirits beckon further. It might not be much, a (power) animal crossing your path or a cry for help from an old friend. If you do hear the call of the spirits, will you follow where they lead, claiming the destiny that is your birthright? I hope so and I wish you every blessing on your journey of discovery.
Mike Williams, Ph.D., is a shamanic practitioner and teacher trained in soul retrieval, spirit extraction, divination, and assisting the dead and dying. An elected Druid and tutor/mentor for the Order of Bards, Ovates, ...