Originally 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.