If the idea of making a trip to the underworld brings images of demons and lakes of fire, you wouldn’t be alone. Way back in time Christianity launched a smear campaign, transforming what is a powerful and transformative realm into a place only the evil could and should tread. If we can sift through all that, and start thinking of the Underworld as a form of collective unconscious transcending time and space and tapping into a pure cosmic energy source, we will discover a beautiful, sacred and powerful world. The world of shamanism, and faery.
Many people have the idea that shamans just dance around shaking rattles. Unless they look deeper, that will be all they see. Shamans were the original wiccans – powerful priests who could command the gods and spirits of nature, who could heal or curse, bind or banish. The difference is, they worked alone and without the safety net of the magical ritual contemporary wiccans use today.
The magical ritual is there not only to keep undesirable energy out, but to contain the energy raised so it can be transformed for use in the outer world. Shamans don’t raise energy, although the end result of their work has the same effect. Magical ritual is also often performed with a group, who follow a particular guided visualisation in order to combine their individual perceptions into one powerful and focused intent. A shaman works alone. He has no ritual. He has no protection. Shamen enter into the raw astral plane and interact with the energies they encounter directly and completely.
Astral energy has no form, shape or colour. Fortunately, everyone has this amazing tool at their disposal called an imagination, which is linked to their audio-visual cortex. A shaman must rely on this tool to interpret the energy they encounter, and interact with it, but to do it they must first understand what they’re dealing with. While the underworld itself will appear differently to each shaman, depending on their cultural background, experiences and beliefs, the energy is from the same source. A native American might encounter a totem beast, a British shaman might perceive that same energy as an imp or dryad. A Siberian shaman might journey across an otherworld tundra, an Australian aborigine might find him or herself wandering the bush.
Knowing what the landscape, or that creature, represents and how it should thus be treated is paramount to achieving the shaman’s goal. Get it wrong, and there could be a horrible outcome.
But how does a shaman get there to meet that creature in the first place? The answer is the shamanic trance, which takes them on a journey past the walls which separate this world from the underworld. Shamanic trance is the reason for the rattles and drums. The repetitive beat bores the conscious mind and activates the unconscious, without the practitioner going to sleep. Once they reach this mental state, they lose awareness of their physical body and experience a profound out-of-body experience.
Rattles and drums aren’t the only vehicle for a shaman. A structured meditation can be all that is needed, specifically developed to trigger the same psychological responses the drums activate. Some people, and some cultures, will use psychoactive drugs, which make the journey much harder to control, but have a far-reaching effect. There is dervish dancing, ecstatic shaking, and physical duress such as a sweat lodge, or even physical mutilation. The latter being a bit extreme, in my opinion! Each method has its pros and cons, and each will take the shaman time to master, but once that is achieved, the work can start.
Shamanic work, that which is done during trance, is often referred to as a journey. Depending on the tradition and culture, there will typically be tasks to complete, obstacles to overcome, people or beings to interact with and an end to achieve. As with magical rituals, there will always be an objective or intent to this work. The shamanic quest is always done for a reason. The underworld is far too dangerous to go there awandering, just for the fun of it.
Maybe, given the whole discomfort and danger thingy, it’s no surprise our ancestors opted for the magic circle method, which, while fairly limited in effect when performed by an individual, is known to have powerful results when carried out by a group or coven. However, this prevents them encountering a world which is magical in its truest,rawest sense, and which can transform the outer world, and themselves.