Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Books that were life rings: Stones, bones and skin

In the late 1980s, when I moved to a farm in the upper Hudson Valley of New York, I entered a time of psychic storms, transtemporal dramas and shamanic ordeals and initiations comparable to what Jung called his "confrontation with the unconscious." I was possibly not quite as crazy as Jung is now revealed to have been through the pages of his Red Book, but I was out there, and down there, talking to spirits, fighting dead (and living) sorcerers, communing with angels, caught up in the dramas of lives lived centuries before me, and no end of mythic trouble.
    The difference between the mystic and the madman, it's been said, is that the mystic can swim in waters where the madman drowns. As I learned to swim in deep waters, and to come back without getting the bends, there were books that served as life rings, by helping me to construct models of understanding for what was happening to me and in me. I am going to write about three of them. 


1. Stones, bones and skin

One of the first of these was a beautifully illustrated collection of essays titled, Stones, bones and skin: Ritual and Shamanic Art, edited by anthropologist Peter T. Furst and published by the Society for Art Publications in Toronto. I learned about the defining characteristics of the shaman, the price of his power and his essential mode of being. I read that the shaman is one who dies and comes back. He knows the roads between the worlds because he has traveled them. He is at home in a multi-layered cosmos and has a ladder between the worlds. I was stirred by Mircea Eliade's classic definition of the shaman as a wounded healer: "the shaman is, above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in healing himself.”  
    Stones, bones and skin led me to read widely in the literature of shamanism. Again and again, I found  resonance. The shaman has the strong eye. He is “one who sees”, a seer, one who can see through the veils between the worlds. The Copper Eskimos call the shaman elik, one who has eyes. An Inuit goes to a shaman and tells him, “I come to you because I wish to see.”

     As a writer and speaker who loves the play of words, I was excited to learn that, cross-culturally, the shaman is a word doctor, a master of goodly speech who can change the body and the world by telling better stories about them. I read about a Yakut (Siberian) shaman who has a vocabulary of 12,000 words, compared with 1,500 for the average West European or North American high school leaver. I remembered Rimbaud insisting that “metaphor can change the world.”
      I looked at pictures of primal shamans. Of the bird shaman of Lascaux, with his erect penis, in front of a skewered bison. Of a Lapland shaman lying under his drum in ecstatic trance, signaling, “I’m out of the office.” Were these my kin? For these “savages,” according to early anthropologists, the mystical experience is not otherworldly. It means direct, immediate contact with other realities that are invisible to others but not to the shaman – realities that can be seen only by “the one who has eyes.”

The Jesuit Relations, in my personal library
      I read on and on. On an evening of strange patterns in the sky, an area book dealer came bumping up my drive in a pickup truck with something he wanted to sell me. In many cardboard boxes, he had brought me the original first printing, in 73 volumes, of the Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, a bilingual edition of the reports of the blackrobe missionaries in New France and colonial New York and New England of the customs and shamanic practices of the First Peoples before the American Revolution. The price was steep, but I had to have these. For many nights, they were my preferred reading. Here I found detailed confirmation that shamans are called through dreams and visions and that the heart of their practice is the ability to dream strong, to travel between the worlds at will. The indigenous peoples of the Northeast did not use hallucinogens, and I have never done this either, not needing chemical assistance to travel across time and dimensions.  “All their cabins they have filled with dreams," reported a Jesuit missionary, living among the people of an ancient shaman who had called me in night visions.
    I was first shown Stone, bones and skin by an artist who owned a magical store called Wonderful Things in Malden Bridge, NY, a short drive from my farm. Filled with unusual antiques and tribal artifacts, the store lived up to its name. The owner invited me to dinner to meet Peter Furst and his wife Jill, who had published some extraordinary books of her own on soul in ancient Mexico. When she heard some of my experiences, she cautioned. "Going into this is like hooking yourself up to 100,000 volts." I told her, "I know. But it's already done. The trick now is to ground it." Books and study have always been part of my grounding. Many times, since 1987, I tried to procure my own copy of Stones, bones and skin, only to find it was not available or available only at a prohibitive price. I am glad to report that I found a copy online in the holiday season, and it was waiting for me when I came home at midnight from a trip to the West Coast last night.

9 comments:

Patricia said...

I remember almost going mad. It was nice to have had you and your teachings to show me and practice ridging (hmm interesting slip, I meant riding) the edge. Right now I am into saying finding Zero point and traveling. I suppose I ground best when I feel how precious and beautiful life is and value and stay awake to the life of Now.
Once in a dream a presence came and I traveled the ridge of a mountain into a cave. I call this presence the Cave Shaman. He or she presented me a wall of weapons and a strange something I still don't know what it was but I am sure the answer will come. At the end of the dream I held my hands into a bowl and a reindeer rised up and showned me the stars.

You are a most interesting man to sit in the same room with and hear and feel and see.

Alan Meyer said...

Where did you find the online Stones, Bones and Skin?

Robert Moss said...

Patricia - I had no real mentor in ordinary reality when these experiences required me to change my perceptions of reality and my way of living in it. But I found guides in a deeper reality, and perhaps your "cave shaman" will prove to have further gifts and guidance for you. If it were my dream, I would want to travel with the reindeer again, and might start by making that gesture with my hands.

Robert Moss said...

Alan - try any of the online booksellers. I ordered my copy from one of the amazon marketplace sellers.

Liza said...

Another bookseller with copies available is Alibris.com. Found about 8 or so copies there at various conditions (all rated as to quality) and various price points. Have bought many books and CDs from them over several years.

Alan Meyer said...

Thanks Liz for the book info!

Sticks said...

What a treat to read your blog today and find out that Stones, bones and skin was a meaningful book to you. I have a copy on my bookshelf (just barely holding together these days since the binding glue has long since dried up) from when I once worked at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)in the used bookstore. It still has the $2 price tag. I was taking Cultural Anthropology and intrigued by shamanism, but anthropologists didn't then give much credence to shamanism and that it was anything but "primitive" and simple-minded. Not sure where they are at these days with it - probably /hopefully reapproaching it.
At any rate, another book of a similar vein is Joseph Campbell's Historical Atlas of World Mythology - Vol.1 The Way of the Animal Powers. Has an interesting overview of the circumpolar "Cults of the Master Bear" from very long ago to present.
I was delighted to discover you as an author, last Oct. and have been devouring your books. How fantastic that you are helping to make us whole people again. It really isn't just good enough that we are so 2 dimensional.
Thanks! Remy McKenzie

Robert Moss said...

Glad to hear from you, Remy and I love your bookish reminiscences. I was fortunate enough to have been given an advance copy of the first edition Joseph Campbell's "The Way of the Animal Powers" by the publisher before it arrived in the bookshops, and subsequently acquired all 5 volumes of the Historical Atlas; they are standing now on a shelf behind my desk. You have inspired me to re-read Campbell on the Bear, especially because I am writing a personal account of my shamanic engagement with the Bear for my new book.

Alan Meyer said...

I just received my copy of Stones, Bones and Skin" and it looks great - Thanks!