I was reminded of this word this evening when I was at a spa, sweating it out in the steam and taking in some redeeming pain (a.k.a. massage). The spa in question has an almost astonishingly large collection of paintings by Norval Morrisseau, one of the great Canadian aboriginal painters. His grandfather was a shaman; his grandmother, a devout Catholic. His paintings are strongly focused on the spiritual, including totemic animals and shamanic journeys.

The word shaman brings to mind for me a dinner several years ago where (perhaps getting into the spirits) I was conversing with a member of that most unpleasant set, the crusty prescriptivists. She was the sort of person who would evince physical pain at the sound of a split infinitive. Anyway, I mentioned something or other about a shaman. I pronounced it like “shah man.”

“SHAY man,” she corrected me primly.

“Or shay woman,” I said, brushing it off.

Was she right? Exactly as right as she was about split infinitives. In other words, she clung doggedly to one viable option and militated angrily against another option that was at least equally viable and in fact had a better historical basis. Honestly, it’s a shame an’ a sin to hear such people bruiting their abuse about, especially when they (as she did) make some of their living tutoring others. Healer, heal thyself!

Where does this word shaman come from? At least some of us may now be inclined to associate it with First Nations (Native American) spirituality – sweat lodges, purifying pain, et cetera. But it comes from a part of the world much farther east – a part I associate first with a massive meteor airburst in 1908, a blast 1000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb: Tunguska. There, where the heavens came down with devastating fire, is mostly a lot of trees and empty space, but there are also some people: the Tungus. And it is from a Tungusic language that we get the word shaman, by way of Russian and German – in all of which languages the first vowel of the word is like “ah” and not like “ey”.

Which is not to say that someone not from a Tungusic culture can’t be a shaman (nor that anglophones can’t say “shay man”). The experience is one found in many human cultures: a person with unusual spiritual susceptibility, one who likely was led to the spirit world by a health crisis (as Morrisseau was), one who has gone on a spiritual journey and perhaps regularly goes on them, one who experiences the divine fire and (again like Morrisseau) has visions. Often a wounded healer, one whose own pathology is the channel for the divine. (“There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.” Thanks, Leonard Cohen.) Morrisseau had problems with spirits of other kinds – alcohol, to be specific. But a shaman is not a shame-an, one who takes on shame, and though one may be touché (too shay), he or she is not a shay man: the man is not our man. These are but things of one’s own one brings to the word and sees in it.

The shapes of this word are such things, too. Is the s a snake or a wisp of the spirit? Are the a a totemic animals, spirit guides (they do look like hieroglyphic hawks as seen in the Egyptian books of the dead: a a)? Is the h a sweat lodge (hear the steam coming out: shaaaa)? Or is it the shaman, or the spirit, first standing h, then bent m, then reduced n? Only you can decide. Who are we to be? There’s the rub.

Where’s the rub? Well, at the spa this evening, for me. The massage therapist and I conversed about metaphysics – we agreed that the reality of reality was overrated and largely co-created. Much of it is but things of one’s own one brings to the world and sees in it. Why may it not be made of layer on layer of common imagining, awaiting a plumbing of the depth, an externalization through internalization, projection through injection, the transcendent function? Time for inception: Go west, Jung man. “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving.” “When you make your secret journey, you will be a holy man…”

Oh, yes, we talked about music too. And then I took a steam bath. And had a shower, man.

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