The Shaman King

Once upon a time — “a time that is, a time that was, a time that will be” — kings and rulers were selected for their ability to intercede with the gods and spirits of nature, particularly when these gods and spirits of nature were very angry with humans (as was the Green Man of my dream, retold earlier). When the gods and spirits were angry, the omens of their anger became manifested in the terrors of drought, flood, pestilence, volcano, earthquake, or abnormal weather patterns or anomalous terrestrial events — in disharmonies of the things of heaven and the things of earth.

When these events did occur, and the shaman king proved unable to reconcile and pacify them, he was simply deposed (that is to say, sacrificed). Such disturbances were manifest proof that his intercessory powers and his fund of charisma, his mana, his teja, his majestythe gift of divine favour — were spent, and that he no longer had the favour or the ear of the ruling powers. To propitiate the anger of the gods, the shaman king was ritually sacrificed, then duly replaced with another shaman king.

Once upon a time, it was very precarious to be a king. And whoever came up with the slogan that “the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind is king” was very foolish, very blind.

Of all the persistent aberrant superstitions among human beings, this one is perhaps the most persistent and most aberrant (and for me the most embarrassing of all human superstitions), and whether the shaman king is today an elected ruler of a democracy, an abstract partisan ideology, a dictator, a monarch, an oligarch, a plutocrat, etc is somewhat irrelevant. This magical thinking about the shaman king with his charisma, his mana, his majesty and his unique intercessory powers to bring an end to suffering and set things right between the gods and man — between heaven and earth — persists.

At least democracy has done away with the literal sacrifice of the failed shaman king. The modern shaman king of an electoral democracy goes to extraordinary (and quite costly) lengths to prove to all that he still has the necessary charisma (charm), mana, majesty to continue as shaman king and bring an end to suffering and secure his own “political survival”. This is called “managing the optics” or “confidence building” (or “perception management”). But when he is no longer perceived as being effective in currying the favour of the gods or providence — when his fund of mana and majesty and charm is spent — he is no longer sacrificed and beheaded as in “once upon a time” except symbolically and ceremonially. Today, if he does not prove his unique power over entropy, and “make the trains run on time”, he is only voted out of office (even if it feels like being beheaded).

“Making the system work” is the phrase now used for pacifying the gods and spirits and reconciling the affairs of earth with the will of the gods. This is, today, in the context of the mental-rational consciousness, formally known as “ergonomics” — pacifying and reconciling the contradiction of human and system.

“Superstition” is a most peculiar word. “Super-stare” in Latin — that which stands over or stands above  or supersists. The counterpart to that is sub-stare or “subsist” which, literally translated, means “under-stand”.  Superstition and understanding are an odd pairing, corresponding to the supernal and the infernal, the supersisting and the subsisting, the higher and the lower, the above and the below, or heaven and earth.

Or, the object and the subject.

Now, I do not want to denigrate the magical or the shamanistic. It is useful in its proper setting. The placebo effect (or its counterpart, the nocebo effect) are valid and effective in the maintenance of health (or contrariwise, as necromancy, for inflicting harm and injury). There is here the question of the use and the abuse of enchantment or the fascinum — the spell-binding power. The very word “grammar” is connected with the act of spell-casting (grammarye or a “glamour” or “glimmer”). Speech, in that sense, is also magical power, for both good or ill, for placating or imprecation, blessing or cursing. And like the golem of old, men still believe they can enliven or animate dead matter by speech, which “wizards” today are called “computer programmers”.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

My embarrassment at finding myself in a human frame and form would be much relieved if we could just drop this childish superstition of the shaman king.  For this was also the role into which Christianity eventually cast Jesus himself (and to which tendency he objected in his own time, too). The “Good Shepherd” was elected to the role of the universal Shaman King, the Rain-Maker and the Cloud-Splitter. In the “all-to0-human” mind, figures like the Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammad have also been recast in the old role of Shaman Kings. The office of the Pope is also the office of a shaman king. Hobbes’ Leviathan is a shaman king. Hitler was a shaman king. The fascist dictator who can supposedly “make the trains run on time” is the shaman king. Presidents and prime ministers are shaman kings. Canada’s Stephen Harper is a shaman king.  Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a shaman king. As shaman kings, they perform the embodiment the collective ego or “Wego” (in David Loy’s useful term. See his “The Suffering System“). The French once deposed King Louis, but then installed Emperor Napoleon.

It really is embarrassing. The child who perceived that the “emperor has no clothes” — that the shaman king is a hoax and a mass hallucination– was far more mature than the adults who played make-believe.

One must point out that, quite contrary to the prevailing “common sense”, Jesus, Buddha, Nietzsche, Blake, Rumi did not teach of a transcendental “other world” or of a separate supernal realm of apartness to which the infernal realm stood in contradiction, which required to be synchronised or coordinated through the mediumship of shaman kings (“powers and principalities”) or ritualistic thinking in the form of  ideology (scientism, economism, rationalisation, etc).  “The kingdom of heaven is within you” (Jesus), “nirvana and samsara are the same” (Nagarjuna), “Heaven in a wild flower” and “eternity in the hour” (Blake).  “Otherwordliness” is not what these men taught, but the inherent presence and latency of the divine or sacred within “this world” and within life itself.

Shaman Kings are very poor substitutes and diversions for “cleansing the doors of perception” and dropping “the scales from one’s eyes”.


One response to “The Shaman King”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    “the three roots of evil—are greed, ill will, and delusion. To end dukkha, these three need to be transformed into their positive counterparts: greed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, delusion into wisdom.” – David Loy (The Suffering System)

    Words of wisdom.

    The way children are raised, especially having been raised under the wings of a domineering father figure, has – in my opinion – a significant influence on the need of many for a “Shaman King” in order to feel secure as political adult citizens. It seems to me the more patriarchal a society the more attachment there is to the myth of a Shaman King.

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