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Shamanism/Indigenous Peoples
Record Type: Review   ID: 279

The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities

Noel, Daniel C.

This interesting work combines Jung’s approach to the Western psyche with the neoshamanism initiated by Carlos Castaneda, or the efforts of Western seekers to understand and practice shamanism. Noel proposes that Jung’s method of dialoguing with the figures of the unconscious, or active imagination as Jung called it, is useful in understanding shamanic spirituality. Before Noel himself could come to this understanding, he needed to experience for himself and observe in his students at Vermont College how personal journaling, as developed by Ira Progoff, played an essential role in enabling people to experience what they otherwise could only imperfectly understand by intellectual means. The essence of Noel’s vision is that Jung’s approach, developed by scholars/practitioners such as Ira Progoff, James Hillman, Thomas Moore, and Mary Watkins, and I would add, Arnold Mindell, is a truly Western shamanism, different really from the shamanic efforts of Westerners who try to adapt themselves to the ways of other indigenous cultures, although there are those who have succeeded in doing so, the one I know best being Richard Katz. But, to Noel, Jung’s way is our own Western way to open to more people, and it is more natively accessible to EuroAmericans.

Noel sees "the figure of Merlin as an ‘archetypal’ Western shaman," and the legend of Merlin frames the book. He also writes about Jung, showing how he was a kind of modern Merlin and a Western shaman in a very real sense" (p. 10).

Noel’s is a fresh voice to me, my only previous acquaintance with him being his book on people’s views of Castaneda. I am very moved by what I take to be the experiential starting point of this book though he attributes it to a visit to Jung’s home and a conversation with Jung’s daughter-in-law. On sabbatical in the Southwest, he sat in on a Hopi Bean Dance one cold February night, and it forcibly brought home to him that he "could never be more than a spectator at the occurrences of any non-Western ritual resembling shamanism, however much they filled me with respect, empathy, and envious yearning. If I was to fully explore shamanism on a personal as well as an academic level, I would have to find a version appropriate to my own heritage" (p. 14). Thus, it appears, in this "bittersweet" (his word) experience, it could be said he received his calling. He became acutely aware of his own cultural roots (Norman with a touch of Celtic), removed to the Southern U.S. of his birth. He made a 6th visit to England, where he had previously been drawn to the West Country associated with the Grail, King Arthur, and Merlin. There a Jungian colleague and friend introduced him to Nicolai Tolstoy’s book on Merlin as shaman, and the rest, one could say, is this book.

Part I, Western Fantasies: Literary Sources of the New Shamanism, is marvelous. It opened a treasure trove to me for many of the titles and themes were unfamiliar and intriguing. The fact that this book is fueled by Noel’s own sense of personal search and discovery, which has taken the form of what I call a project of transcendence, makes it a book I can’t put down. I will try to be succinct by going through it here in an "objective" manner, but I recommend it highly to any Western searcher. Noel opens doors in front of my nose I didn’t know were there, or if I did, was unaware how deeply into soul they led. Even (often especially) his footnotes have this magic quality. He begins with fictional works and ends the section with ethnographers’ tales. This is highly appropriate, because we can often entertain, as "fiction," possibilities we would otherwise brush off. Noel offers us an Ariadne’s thread that enables us to suspend disbelief while, unbeknownst to us, it also fosters belief. Once picked up, it is very difficult to let this thread go, although many do, and pay a considerable price.

Then, in the middle of the way, we come to his visit to Jung’s house, "where a modern man rediscovered the soul." Of Jung he says words I could have spoken, for Jung had the same effect on me: "He gave us words with which to honor these imaginal realities of the soul, making possible another New Shamanism hidden and unrealized in the fantasized neoshamanism" (p. 106) of Part I. He points out that Jung "taught us how central fantasy and imaging are to our mental life" (p. 107). In this chapter he tells of Jung’s encounter with his inner depths, the objective psyche, from which evolved, in addition to outward events in his life, his personal myth, a prototype of the personal myth each of us has, whether or not we choose to find it. Noel came away from his studies of Jung and James Hillman with a major insight: "that there is a shamanic underworld or otherworld for Western seekers and Western methods for approaching it" (p. 114).

Part 2, Imaginal Realities: Post-Jungian Resources for Shamanic Imagining, consists of 4 chapters presenting what imaginal psychologists, such as Hillman, Moore, and Watkins, have learned about becoming modern sorcerers by experiencing the psyche via its images and "a new or renewed relationship to the imagination in our actual lives of suffering and celebration" (p. 119). These guides show us how to serve our inner depths, "the soul of self and world" (p. 119).

Publisher Information:New York: Continuum Books, 1997. 252p. Chapnotes: 225-241; Ind: 243-252
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