Literary Reviews, Literary Reviews: 2011 - 2013

Literary Review: ‘The Shamanic Odyssey’ by Robert Tindall with Susana Bustos

Shamanic OdysseyOriginally published in 2012 ‘The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience’ is written by Robert Tindall, with Susana Bustos. Tindall, a professor of English and a writer, has previously published ‘The Jaguar that Roams the Mind’ (2008). His wife, Susana Bustos, is a professor of psychology, a transpersonal psychotherapist and an independent researcher of entheogenic shamanic traditions.

The Shamanic Odyssey is an attempt to read certain works of literature in light of the current formation and understanding of the shamanic paradigm – specifically in regard to South American shamanism, a form that both the authors have studied and lived with. Primarily, the two texts in question stand at either end of the Western literary canon. Homer’s Odyssey is an ancient Greek work that was initially part of oral tradition before it was written down, and is one of the source works in the history of literature. As such, it has been analysed and interpreted many, many times, and in many ways, over the last few thousand years. From ancient Greece to twentieth century Britain, J.R.R. Tolkien’s three part fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, and his final novella Smith of Wootton Major, receive a similar analytical treatment.

While the former is understood as coming out of a shamanic age, giving us insight into fading tradition and an ushering in of a new world view,  the latter is read as being a part of the shamanic reinvigoration of the Western world, which began to occur in the middle of last century. Indeed, when the New Age began to emerge and take an interest in indigenous cultures and spirituality, The Lord of the Rings became something of an important cultural moniker. In this sense, the two analytical objects represent a shamanic disappearance, wherein one examines traces and traditions in the process of becoming memories, and a shamanic becoming, which  is contingent, in Tolkien’s case, to his understanding of Germanic and northern European pagan religions in the intervening period between texts, and how they are elucidated in the modern age. While this analysis focuses heavily on textual readings, it would nonetheless be an interesting contextual project to explore the modern cultural interpretation.

The disintegration of modernity offers new opportunities to free ourselves from the tyranny of official histories, from naively limited perspectives, and to evolve into cultural ambidextrous humans. Postmodernism has shown us that truth is porous, multidimensional, organic, rather than simply unmoored from absolute certainties, and can be held up as simultaneously one and polyvalent, without falling into simpleminded cultural relativism (Tindall 2012, 44)

The above quote is taken from the chapter Poseidon’s Curse: The Rupture with the Indigenous Mind and refers directly to their development of Richard Tarnas’s model of the Indigenous and Modern worldviews. Using the backdrop of the Hopi prophecy of returning to the cycle, they pictorially suggest a way to integrate the capacities of both into a new form, “achieving a synthesis between scientific and indigenous ways of knowing” (Tindall 2012, 45). As a speculative model for the integration of the two epistemological foundations, the postmodern quote above is very prescient, so far as it is not a simple, linear process of one knowledge overcoming and superseding another, but rather a diversification of both in preference for a newly engendered way of knowledge. However, the postmodern question itself throws up many questions when applied to the project of the book as a whole.

The modernist approach was, aside from its linearity, unpicked by postmodern thinkers for the static interpretations it employed in its analysis. So, for example, R. Gordon Wasson failed to give much credence to Maria Sabina’s animist beliefs and chose to read it more in terms of his own Christian worldview—in other words, he culturally relativized the belief. In The Shamanic Odyssey there is, though not identical, a similar process occurring in the analysis of the Odyssey, wherein modes of South American shamanism that have been identified in the last one hundred years are used as models for understanding the possible traces of shamanic practice in ancient, or indeed prehistoric, Greece. While the analysis certainly reveals many interesting concurrencies, the text is perhaps limited by its lack of emphasis on difference, as opposed repetition.

Interestingly, there are certain elements in the text that appear to actually call for a postmodern analytical approach. In chapter 6, for example, which is entitled Animal Becoming, and that deals with the Goddess Circe turning Odysseus’ men into swine, and South American shamans becoming jaguar and other animals, there seems a good opportunity to bring in some postmodern theory—specifically Deleuze and Guatarri’s ideas about becoming-animal. While this has been touched upon in a few other places, it would have furthered the reader’s understanding of these occurrences in a ‘postmodern sense’—rather, there is allusion to modernist psychiatry and Jungian theory: “This ancient symbiosis of animal-human consciousness underlying the hunt still lies latent within the modern psyche” (Tindall 2012, 98). However, this does not detract from the power of this literary, and experiential, transformation, which occurs throughout the Western canon and which is nearly always associated with folklore and magic—and this book explores it very succinctly.

In conclusion, I very much enjoyed reading the shamanic analysis of two of my own favourite books. The use of plants in the Odyssey, and the idea of an “intensified trajectory of consciousness” in Tolkien, and the phenomenological idea of presence in song and story, were all fascinating and thought-provoking, and while their analysis did not err too heavily on the theoretical, there is enough to give the reader a grounding for both historical ends of the texts as being part of a single analysis. Perhaps a broader discussion of the role of the pharmakon in ancient Greek culture would have furthered this grounding, as it underpins a good deal of pagan thinking that concerns plant drugs, or could also have provided a stronger focus on Homer’s work—moreover, there is too little Tolkien in the analysis as it is. However, if you enjoy literature and the role of shamanic thinking in the world-at-large, then this is great reading.

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About Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a writer, author, and editor director of the Psychedelic Press UK


5 thoughts on “Literary Review: ‘The Shamanic Odyssey’ by Robert Tindall with Susana Bustos

  1. With some respect…. Where did anyone ever get the idea that the Odyssey could get subject to any kind of “tyranny of official histories”? I cannot help question what dungeon of a school or ignorant viewpoints could ever imbue anyone with such bizarre notions. Having undergone a slightly above comprehensive school education in the UK, with admittedly, a very good Bachelors degree in the arts from a well respected institution – I find one of the things that both places shared in their methods of teaching the arts – that curiosity and self led inquiry, along with the ideas of cultivating an imaginative mind, seem the baseline for approaching any art.

    Ancient stories, told in new ways, new stories told in ancient ways, our stories told and retold – never have I heard of anyone approaching interpretation as something that can ever form anything other than a portal, a doorway to a richer world. I cannot imagine such a bizarre starting point. And that in itself, seems the more interesting point here. How did these authors find themselves there? Truly remarkable.

    Like many publications these days – sticking the word shamanic in front of it might help sell product – but it simply seems trite to any one versed in such practices. Whilst definitions and cultural (mis) appropriation seem very popular – it seems that the above bold quotation demonstrates the hypocrisy of the writer. Avoiding absolute certainties seems a key approach, for the curious mind – but avoiding ‘simpleminded cultural relativism’ also seems to apply here too.

    Penetrate the surface tourist based economy of the Amazon basin, and discover the simple minded westerners, getting all Zen, whilst the Brujos spit darts loaded with power. Whist paleface looks for enlightenment from the smiling, ahem, shaman, the self same sorcerer, laughs as he flits in and out of reality tunnels barely understood by the bead wearing tourist.

    I shall now read the book, just to find out what these two did, to begin at such a bizarre end.

    Posted by Seb Athway | March 15, 2013, 14:06
  2. Hi Seb, the Shamanic Odyssey can be mainly traced back to a conversation Susana and I had with our teacher of the vegetalista shamanism of the Amazon, the Ashanincan curandero Juan Flores. It happened when we were engaged in a very traditional diet deep in the rainforest, where Susana and I were living in isolation drinking shamanic plants and subsisting primarily on roast green bananas! Flores had tramped back to visit us, and sitting together by the stream there, the conversation turned to the mythic — and quite real according to him — beings that inhabit the Amazonian waterways. As Flores described the behavior of these sirenas, I was suddenly struck by the deep parallels between their seductive behavior and that of the Sirens described by Homer. Flores had never heard of the Odyssey, yet when I described the story of Odysseus’ ordeal in the orbit of their rapturous song, Flores nodded his head and said grimly, “That’s them, alright.”

    I had already been observing a number of intriguing parallels between the ancient mythology of the Greeks and Celts I had studied at the university and the contemporary cosmovision of peoples in the rainforest, but this conversation stuck with me.

    Upon our return to the United States after our year-long immersion in the vegetalista tradition, I had a chance to spend some time teaching the Odyssey, and it was then I began to recognize that the text is shot through with indigenous and shamanic cultural elements: shapeshifting, visionary journeys, plants with resident divinities, masters and mistresses of animals, the symbiosis between plant/spirit/shaman, animal becoming, sacred topography — the list went on and on. The case became particularly intriguing when Susana and I began analyzing the descriptions of the therapeutic effects of bardic song in the Odyssey in the light of her research into the healing powers of Amazonian healing songs, i.e. icaros.

    The Odyssey led me into an unfolding meditation on the indigenous mind at the root of the Western tradition. The more I followed up on details of the epic poem, the more terrain was revealed. Most notably this occurred around the mythologem of the clash of the Cyclops and Odysseus, which I see as a remnant of a very ancient oral tradition transposed into Homer’s comparatively modern narrative. As a teaching story, like the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, it appears to me to capture modern humanity’s break with indigenous, or primal, consciousness.

    Just as I was contemplating the ramifications of such a mythologem existing in the Odyssey at all, I encountered the peyote shaman Bob Boyll, the second major cultural informant for our book, and heard his account of the two roads of humanity he had been taught by the Hopi prophet David Monongue.

    Again, like the uncanny parallels between the Amazonian and ancient Greek sirenas, Monongue’s description of the two roads of humanity struck me as too similar to the cultural tensions illustrated in the clash between the proto-modern Odysseus and the indigenous Cyclops to be accidental.

    To tell you the truth, I often felt like an amanuensis, those folks who during medieval times assiduously transcribed the oral tradition, during the writing of this book. In that sense, its genesis lies in converging lineages of plant-based shamanism, the research into icaros of my co-author Susana, ancient texts, ethnography, the work of anthropologists like Reichel-Dolmatoff, even the mythopoeic work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

    I have not, alas, the benefit of an education in an English university. I will leave it to you to judge the book based upon its merits. You can be assured, however, it wasn’t written by wild-eyed ayahuasca tourists.


    Posted by roamingthemind | March 15, 2013, 21:35
  3. Becoming other… not just animal. It’s the interstices.

    Posted by Kelsey Lynore | March 16, 2013, 06:27
  4. Well now I feel pleased, RT :) You’ve made a much stronger case for you book that the article did. I will certainly look forward to the books arrival. I still struggle to grok where this idea of “tyranny of official histories” comes into it – perhaps our cultural matrices do differ significantly.

    Of course – our songs and tales will speak to us in many ways. Those that cannot see the self same, perhaps parallel, current of the Ayahuasca like journey of Gwion Bach, must indeed be tripping :)

    The homeric epics might well have inspired the early scribal monks to pen their tales – as indeed Tolkien surly took his studies of Icelandic literature as inspiration for his works – That story connects us, seems not in doubt. The song remains the same (just because LZ play gently on the radio, as I write) Who and how many listen, remains ever a problem. The work of the sorceror, the shaman, the medicine makers, the singers of the songs – seems one of remembering and helping others remember too.

    Posted by Seb Athway | March 17, 2013, 05:20

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