“Let us go forth, the tellers of tales…”
I have learnt shamanic work from three perspectives since 2006. Indigenous (Ojibwa & Cree), Celtic (Irish, Scottish and Manx) and then from a Core Shamanism perspective which tries, with varying degrees of success, to separate spirituality from a cultural context.
In all three perspectives, there is one big similarity: A reliance on stories to transmit knowledge.
To study shamanic practice of any kind is, in essence, a study of stories. Through the stories, knowledge is imparted slowly, subtly, yet
methodically. We are not spoon-fed data; rather, we take from the stories that which is important for us to know at the time.
This sounds quite simple in theory, but in our modern ‘get to it’ way of operating, where knowledge is taught via structured programs in accredited institutions and tested by way of carefully written examinations,
the concept of sitting back and simply listening, without expectation,
judgement or interruption is foreign, and for many, downright uncomfortable.
In Shamanic work, the stories are not ‘fluff’, the stories are the work.
Indigenous Story Telling
When I was in the Indigenous community, all the teachings were transmitted either informally “well, Kim, this is how we do it and this is why…” or, when at a teaching circle or a ceremony with others, the medicine person would share stories to illuminate or explain a belief or practice.
I also learned from others who were courageous enough to share their personal stories. These kinds of stories are great gifts, carefully and generously given, and deeply respected. Discretion is valued. What happens in ceremony stays in ceremony.
In time I came to understand that every action within a traditional life had layers of teachings and storytelling behind it, and to know these stories is the doorway to traditional wisdom.
I remember when my son was taught the story of how the drum came to be by a wonderful drum teacher in our community.
Roman was never a great student in school, and had trouble expressing himself. Never, ever, would my son communicate via telling a story.
One day, at the weekly drumming social, the drum teacher shared a teaching by way of a story with my 14-year old boy.
Roman came home afterwards, sat on the couch, and for 30 minutes, told me the story of the drum. How it came to be, what it means to drum, the different roles men and women have with the drum, etc.
He carefully explained why drumming is a sacred and spiritual act.
When he learned the drum stories, he learned about his own culture and identity. He learned about his own sacredness and the sacredness of the men and women in his community.
He is 23 now, and I don’t know what part of these stories and teachings have remained with him, but I do know that the way he learnt them – at the foot of an elder in his community sharing a story, and the other men having the patience to listen carefully thus setting the example – made all the difference in his life at that time.
Story Telling in Insular Celtic Culture
I tell people that I studied Celtic spirituality with Tira Brandon-Evans, but that’s not entirely true. Or it is. It’s a matter of
Technically, I signed up with Tira to study the lore of the Insular Celtic counties:Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
For two years, I poured over the stories of Fionn and the Salmon of Wisdom, of King Cormac and Manannan Mac Lir, and of Etain and her
husband, who pursued her over multiple lifetimes.
I admit; I didn’t always like the stories, but thanks to my time with the good folks at AHT, and my grasp of my own Scottish and Irish
history, I knew the stories were critical to understanding my own culture and spiritualty.
We must remember, my friends, that ancient Celtic culture was largely an oral culture and the Druids passed down knowledge through the
memorization of hundreds of stories, poems and genealogy. These stories are rich in symbolism that can be interpreted on many levels.
I’ll give two examples: The first is the Wooing of Etain (Tochmarc Étaíne). I didn’t like this story the first time I read it (!).
It was meandering and long, and at times seemed pointless. But I dutifully learnt the story, answered the questions Tira asked me, and if asked, could retell a passable rendition.
Years later, I read an article that blew me away.
Turns out that those meandering passages in the Wooing of Etain explain the monthly lunar cycle, the relationship of the lunar and solar years, and the 19-year Metonic cycle (measurements of time) to which the ancient Celts adhered.
Well now, that is interesting indeed. The next time someone utters the words “too many stories, let’s learning something real”, I am going to hit them over the head with a rolled up version of Wooing of Etain and only then will I gently explain the many levels of teachings within all Celtic stories!
But of course, this is spiritual blog, so my next example is a spiritual example.
One of the other stories Tira had us study was the Voyage of Mael Duin. This is a traditional Irish Immram – a story where a person voyages west into the Otherworld and records their adventures there. In this case, the sailor Mael Duin travels with his companions and visits 33 islands before journeying home.
It’s safe to say, on first reading, I was not a fan.
“And then they went to island y, and this happened, and then they travelled to island X and that happened…” (not an actual quote) 33
times!! I dutifully answered the questions, although I never got around to writing my own version of this one, and I set the story aside for what I hoped was forever
Then, a year later, I did a shamanic journey on the story and something wonderful happened: I began to understand my own spiritual
journey within the context of Mael Duin’s voyage. I read into it more deeply and started to research it, and came to understood that many equated this journey as symbolic of the various stages of a shamanic journey, and of the spiritual journey in one’s life.
It was no coincidence that, at this time, I was finally beginning to embrace my own abilities and connect to others who shared them.
Suddenly each of the islands and the events that happened on each island took on new meaning that resonated in my own life, and there was SO MUCH TO LEARN!
This story that I had truly disliked became an inspiration for my work and a tool for accessing greater spiritual wisdom, both directly
(though journeying) and indirectly (learning the cultural symbols within the story and thinking about how they resonated with my own life.)
Tira’s way of teaching was to make sure that her apprentices were well-versed in the lore before we did anything shamanic or spiritual, and this experience not only helped me develop my spirituality, but it helped me understand my own culture, how it developed, why we think and act the way we do.
As Tira intended, the lore became the foundation of the Celtic side of my spiritual practice and beliefs, just as in my son’s community, the teachings of his elders will hopefully become the foundation of his spiritual practice and beliefs (if they haven’t already – parental hope springs eternal!)
Story Telling in Modern Non-Native Shamanic Practice
What happens when a mainstream group of people in North America who were not raised with a deep-rooted spiritual identity or tradition begin working with the Spirits?
To be clear, there are no elders to guide us or traditions, help us navigate the emotional roller coaster of Spiritual work or teach us the stewardship of those spiritual relationships.
We must come together, honestly, authentically, and share our stories.
One of the greatest ways we can help each other is to talk about our personal spiritual experiences. When we compare our experiences, we begin to see commonalities to how the spirits behave, synchronicities when we get it right,and we learn from each other, an act that creates friendship and community.
Learning each other’s stories normalizes our own experience and empowers us to validate others’ experiences. How many times have I said to a client, “You are not crazy,” “This is totally normal,” “You are not alone in having
They look at me skeptically, so I ask the Spirits “What should I do here?” and they say, “Tell them the story of Cuchulain,” or “share Marjorie’s teaching,” and so I do, and it always puts them at ease.
The Next Time A Story Slows You Down
When a teacher shares his or her story with us, or invites others to share aspects of their story, there is always a reason behind it.
Other cultures know this, but in our culture, I have seen people literally fall asleep when teachers are sharing their stories; and I
consider this terribly disrespectful.
I have heard the stories referred to as ‘fluff’ and had to fight hard not to allow my feelings of defense to overpower my understanding
that this person is yet early on their journey and the point of these teachings will unfold in time, provided that’s what is meant to happen, and it’s not for me to judge either way.
The next time you’re all gung ho to LEARN, and a teacher slows you down with yet another story, close your mouth and listen.
I know there are times when we feel impatient to get on with it. I know there are times when we think “but I already know this!”
But put those thoughts aside. There is always something new to learn.
To listen to the Celtic stories listed above, here are links to a few wonderful sources who tell the stories so well!
Fionn and the Fianna (Video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPGrxaQ_MfI
The Wooing of Etain (Podcast): http://celticmythpodshow.com/Shownotes/episode015.php
The Voyage of Mael Duin: http://emeraldisle.ie/the-voyage-of-mael-duin
The Life, Times, and the Death of an Irish High King (King Cormac Mac Airt): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ATua1ETBWY