At first glance, it would seem that Americans ignore death. We’re often uncomfortable talking about it or even thinking about it. Some people won’t attend wakes or funerals even if a friend dies because they hate being around death. We grow up with strange customs like holding our breath when we pass a cemetery. Is this because the dead are dangerous? Could they hurt us if we inhaled cemetery air?
We want everyone reassuringly young and good-looking. Those are the people who fill our media. They smile and we smile. We like it that way.
And yet, curiously, the dead are fairly common in our entertainment. Characters die on television programs every night. Some shows depend on a murder for a plot. Horror movies use corpses to frighten us. Zombies and vampires, both very popular at the moment, share peculiar states between life and death. Even mainstream entertainment often features the dead. Consider movies like “Ghost,” wherein Sam (Patrick Swayze) is dead but needs to warn Molly (Demi Moore) of the danger she’s facing. Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg) is the intermediary who gives Sam a voice in the world of the living, much to her surprise. Or there’s “The Sixth Sense,” which features a boy who sees dead people.
Even classics like “A Christmas Carol” feature the dead. Poor Marley’s Ghost is the one who is compelled to change Scrooge’s behavior. In Disney’s “Mulan,” Mulan’s ancestors decide to protect her by sending out a guardian spirit. In The Lord of the Rings films, Gandalf the Grey is defeated by the Balrog and dragged down into the Underworld, but he returns as Gandalf the White, a superior being for having visited death. Later, Aragorn calls on an entire army of the dead to fight for him against Sauron’s legions, and indeed, they make the difference between victory and defeat.
In “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke (the apprentice shaman) learns from Yoda (the senior shaman) how to face the forces of evil (Darth Vader and The Empire in general). The struggle is complicated by the realization that evil lies very close at hand: Darth Vader is Luke’s father. At the end of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” Darth Vader, Yoda, and Obi Wan, all of whom are dead, appear surrounded by glowing light to reassure the hero of the righteousness of his victory.
All this is to say that even a culture that claims to ignore death actually recognizes its importance.
Now, imagine you belonged to a world long ago. You saw death frequently, and you needed to understand how death was part of life. You knew there were certain people who had amazing powers. They weren’t called doctors and didn’t keep strange office hours, but in a way, they held a similar position of respect. They were people able to cross the barrier between life and death and to influence the course of events. They were shamans.
Shamans were highly trained individuals who were able to leave life, and in a kind of half-death, they were able to travel to the spirit world, but it wasn’t easy. In many cases, what ensued after the transformation was a battle between the forces of death and the forces of life. In some cases, the shaman was trying to heal a sick person, so he had to battle the force that created sickness, a terrifying fight.
Sometimes, the shaman won, and the spirit of the sickness was driven away. Sometimes, he lost. Sometimes, even though he had done everything correctly, God wanted the person to sicken and die, so intervention was impossible. This creates a hierarchy of power. The lower levels are subject to change, so a spirit of sickness might be overcome in battle by a skilled shaman, but the highest power was beyond any of them.
What was given to the shaman, in return for his or her brave exploration of the world beyond this one, was power: knowledge of powerful plants and rituals, ability to converse with the dead, understanding gained through ecstasy, freedom from individual personality achieved through trance, recognition of specific animal and spirit guides, ability to transform into another being, to fly into the heavens, to swim in the ocean depths, and most importantly, to understand the meaning of these journeys.
It was because these people were beyond this world that they were recognized as special. San trance dancers could bring rain by dream-hunting the rain animal, a scene often portrayed in San rock art in South Africa. In the rock art panel in the photo, trance dancers surround the rain beast. As hunters, they would use their skill to kill the dream beast, whose blood would become rain.
In the next diagram, the San shaman-hunter stands behind the dying eland, which is bleeding from the nose. The shaman in trance also bleeds from the nose. His legs are crossed, just like the dying eland’s. In order for the rain to come, the eland must die, and the shaman, whose feet are now like the eland’s feet, must die also. That’s the only way he can enter the realm of the spirits and plead his case for his people. He has entered a trance brought on by hallucinogenic plants and long practice, allowing him to reach, after great pain, shuddering, even convulsions, the state between life and death. There, with his old life left behind, he can seek to rebalance what was in peril: a sick person, a land without rain, a fight between clans or tribes.
He can, in some cases, see the course of events to follow. In the second book of the series, Misfits and Heroes: East from Oceania, the shaman sees the path of the future very clearly, but it is a vision so dire that he chooses not to share it with the people even though they asked him for it.
But let’s go back to the idea of holding your breath as you pass a cemetery. There is something frightening about the dead because we don’t know how they feel about the living. For that matter, we don’t know what the dead do. In the movies, they walk into the shining light or roam the earth until their individual wrong is righted. Then what?
In some cultures, the dead actively threaten the living, and it’s the shaman’s task to fight them. In others, the dead are honored as continuing members of the family. Their bodies are brought out for special occasions, offered favorite foods, and consulted in important decisions. Then it’s the shaman’s task to interpret the dead’s wishes.
This question is central to the third story of the series, Misfits and Heroes: Southwest from Europe, in which one character has been refused a place of honor with the ancestors and sent back to the world of the living to try to lead a better life, and another character voluntarily chooses to leave with a group of people who died at sea.