All posts by shaman

Shamanism and the Gay Community

Shamanism and the Gay Community
by Don Kilhefner, Ph. D.

Why should gay people and gay communities have an understanding of and training in shamanism at this time? From a historical and cross-cultural frame of reference, gay people (or what some people have called homosexuals) have been associated with shamanism wherever found throughout the world. It is part of our historical heritage.
It is in our bones.

One of my teachers, Malidoma Some, who is an initiated shaman and elder among the Dagara people of the country of Burkina Fasso in West Africa (he holds two earned-doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis respectively and currently teaches at the University of Oregon), has written that among the Dagara gender identity is not determined by biology but by the energy frequency at which a person vibrates and those with the highest frequency are called “gatekeepers.” Their role in Dagara society is to maintain and keep open the gates between the visible and invisible worlds—an important shamanic responsibility on which the well-being of Dagara people and society depends. People who are designated as Gatekeepers among the Dagara in our Western society would be labeled “homosexual” and be stripped of any societal or spiritual importance, demonized, forced into hiding and murdered.

When I was in my early twenties I lived for three years (1962-65) in a village called Dessie in Ethiopia, about 200 miles north of Addis Abeba. Deeply inspired by President John F. Kennedy, I was with one of the first Peace Corps groups abroad. My days in Dessie were spent teaching history at the only secondary school in the province and creating a free school lunch program for poor students, many of whom would walk barefoot for long distances each day to secure an education—leaving their home villages before sunrise and not returning until after sunset they would otherwise eat nothing all day due to poverty.

On my first night in the village I heard a drum beating throughout the night and I became curious and excited. That curiosity has deepened and the excitement has continued unabated to this day. The drumming came from the home of what in the Amharic language of Ethiopia is called a worgeshe—a village shaman. I met him almost immediately, hung out there often, and he became my first teacher about the multidimensional nature of reality. Traditionally shamans did their healing work at night which is why I heard the drum. The word “shaman” is derived from a Tungus word, a people in Siberia, that means: “he/she who sees in the dark.”Every culture has its own word for shaman but the word “shaman” is used generically in anthropological writings to describe this kind of person. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with “medicine man,” “magician,” “walker between worlds,” or “seer.” No matter from which continent or islands your ancestors came, they came from a shamanically-based culture. Shamanism is over 25,000 years old; from the historical perspective of shamanism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are New Age religions.

The word “shaman” is often used very loosely and carelessly these days.In American culture the word has almost lost its meaning. I saw an ad recently referring to “The Haircut Shaman.” In most cultures, it would be considered bad form for the shaman to call himself a shaman. Other people could use that word to describe him, but the shaman himself did not. In our ego-centric culture, all sorts of people are calling themselves shamans without much understanding or training. It’s part of the superficiality of our age.

There are two major approaches to the understanding and training of shamans throughout the world. One is a culture-bound path whereby a person studies, for example, Lakota (Plains Indians), Inka (Peru) or Dagara (West African) shamanism within the traditions and practices of that particular culture.

A second approach is core shamanism which is based on the understanding that wherever shamanism is found in the world there are certain core practices that all shamans utilize. One of my teachers, Michael Harner, Ph. D., acknowledged by indigenous people as one of the finest shamanic teachers anywhere and founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (, is the leading voice with the core shamanism approach. His book The Way of the Shaman is a classic in the field.

What exactly is a shaman and what does he or she do? A shaman is a man or woman who enters an altered state of consciousness—at will—to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons or a community or a tribe. The shaman has at least one, usually more, “spirits” in his personal service. Thus a shaman can change his state of consciousness, usually by the use of a certain type of drumming or the use of certain plants, to enter another dimension of reality. Around the world drumming is used 90% of the time for changing consciousness and plants only 10%. Shamanism is based on the understanding that reality is multidimensional. Contemporary physics also says reality is multidimensional. In cutting edge physics, according to the rapidly expanding field of brane theory, an extension of string theory, there are membranes of reality existing simultaneously. It’s what young people mean when they talk about parallel universes. The old shamans knew this for over 25,000 years—other fields of knowledge are catching up.

One of the most important books written by gay people in the 20th century was published in 1922 by Edward Carpenter and titled The Intermediate Type Among Primitive Folk. The word “intermediate type” was his way of describing gay people without using the limiting label “homosexual” then in vogue. Carpenter (1844-1929) lived in England and is an important voice in the modern history of gay people. In his groundbreaking research he studied the then available anthropological literature amassed between the 16th and early 20th centuries by European imperialism (and its missionaries and traders) in Africa, Asia, and the Americas to ferret out the historical and cross-cultural contributions gay people have been making in non-Western societies. Carpenter concluded that one of these roles was as shamans and shamanic healers. The contemporary research literature is full of similar examples. A good recent example would be Will Roscoe’s Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love.

A shaman tends to the soul of a community or tribe. By the word “community” or “tribe” I mean a people who come together because of some commonality and who assume responsibility for each other.

Thanks to Don Kilhefner for his permission to reprint this article!

ABOUT DON: The Gay Men’s Medicine Circle was called into being in November 1999 by Steven Solberg and Don Kilhefner. It grew out of several workshops entitled Seeing in the Dark: An Introduction to Gay Shamanism that Solberg and Kilhefner co-facilitated. The workshops were sponsored by Tumescence, an organization founded by Kilhefner in 1994, that was the foundation on which the Gay Men’s Medicine Circle was built.

Don writes: Once a year I teach a workshop titled Seeing In The Dark: An Introduction To Gay Shamanism which in 2008 was held for four consecutive Sundays in April. It is sponsored by the Gay Men’s Medicine Circle and successful completion of the workshop allows one to prepare to become a member of the Medicine Circle. Such Circles of gay men are also operating in New York City and Washington, D.C. In the workshop participants will be introduced experientially to the practice of shamanism and how they might tend to the well-being of gay men and the welfare of the gay community. Particular focus will be given to the shamanic tools of journeying (“riding the drum”), dreaming (“visions of the night”), shamanic healing, creating ceremony, and journeying for the benefit of others. Shamanic journeying increases one’s sense of inner power and aliveness, thereby contributing to a richer, more meaningful personal life and gay community.
Who knows, you might even find yourself?

Yearning for the Wind

Yearning for the Wind: Celtic Reflections on Nature and the Soul, by Tom Cowan.

Throughout the ages, shamans and mystics have recognized that all created things share some level of consciousness, and that ordinary and nonordinary realities interact at some point. This book by a well-known Celtic American shaman explores those interactions and interconnected pathways, looking at the interdependence of our material life with our inner life and that of nature. Each chapter is a small window into the mysteries of nature and soul as they infuse daily life. Cowan draws on the teachings of medieval mystics, fairy legends, Celtic songs, present-day poets and seekers, Native American stories, and other traditions. From these strands he weaves a Celtic knot of spirit that is both beautiful and strong.

The Power Path

The Power Path: The Shaman’s Way to Success in Business and Life, by Jose Stevens.

According to Jose Stevens and Lena Stevens, business leaders and shamans share many important traits: the ability to solve problems, achieve goals, see the big picture, and forecast events. What their previous book, Secrets of Shamanism, did for the growth of the individual, The Power Path does for the growth of business managers and entrepreneurs. Based on years of study with shamans, the book shares a new way of thinking about the nature of power. By applying shamanic traditions of power to the workplace, readers learn how to improve work relationships, understand employees’ strengths and limitations, and inspire effective teamwork — techniques aimed ultimately at increasing business success.

The Mist-Filled Path

The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers, and Seekers, by Frank MacEowen.

In this book, MacEowen, a teacher of the spiritual traditions of Scotland and Ireland, issues a call to readers longing to live a more authentic life to wake up from “the land of sleepwalkers.” “Too many of us squander our lives,” he writes, “filling our minds with a crazed habitual raciness that is hard to throw off.” MacEowen’s purpose is to show us how to break free of our unconscious habits to place our awareness where it matters, living from the perspective of our inner senses and informed by our souls. The “Mist” he speaks of is a metaphor for spirituality used by Celtic peoples. Drawing on his own personal experiences and myths and poems of the Celts and Druids, MacEowen introduces readers conditioned by modern Western society to a world of mystery and meaning that is ours to enter into at any time, were we only to become more aware of it.

Spirit of the Shuar

Spirit of the Shuar: Wisdom from the Last Unconquered People of the Amazon, by John Perkins.

What can we learn from a people who can’t read, have no laws to speak of, who make a practice of shrinking the heads of their enemies, and let their children run around naked? In John Perkins’s eyes, plenty. The Shuar of the Amazon rainforest have lived in harmony with their surroundings for countless ages. Perkins came into contact with them while on a Peace Corps stint in the 1960s, and has sought to spread their philosophy of simplicity and balance ever since. Spirit of the Shuar intertwines transcribed tape recordings of Shuar voices with Perkins’s experiences. Unlike anthropological accounts, such as Philippe Descola’s more eloquent but detached Spears of Twilight, Perkins’s book is conversational and enthusiastic. He teaches us about a spirituality that arises from a deep connection with nature, one in which shamans use hallucinogens to go on spiritual journeys; the spirits of nature yield hidden knowledge about plants; and dreams can always be fulfilled.

Medicine for the Earth

Medicine for the Earth: How to Transform Personal and Environmental Toxins, by Sandra Ingerman.

Medicine for the Earth offers hope for all of us in the power of our intent: to cleanse environmental toxins, to heal our world under attack, and to open our hearts. Ingerman focuses on solutions, weaving research and personal experience, tools for shifting consciousness, and a philosophy of healing as she returns always to what we can do. Many writers talk about consciousness of the earth and our relationship with all beings; few provide such a clear map and so many experiential vehicles to us for visioning a different future and making it happen. Motivated by her near-death experiences, she contemplates unconditional love through respect for sacred space, divine power, and nature’s elements.

Shamanic Guide to Death And Dying

Shamanic Guide to Death And Dying, by Kristin Madden.

Originally published in 1999, the author has revised and expanded this book to 324 pages of rituals, meditations, and stories from her own experiences. Touching and beautiful. The book helps to pave the way to talk about one’s own passing in a constructive, positive manner.

Sweet Darkness

sweet darkness ~ a poem
by David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn that

anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive

you have made too small for you.

from The House of Belonging
Copyright ©1997 by David Whyte

Of Water and the Spirit

Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman, by Malidoma Patrice Somé.

Somé, who was born about 1956 in Upper Volta, was close to his shaman grandfather. But this relationship and his tribal way of life was destroyed when, at age four, he was kidnapped by a French Jesuit missionary and raised in a seminary, from which he escaped at age 20. Returning home to his Dagara village, he was viewed by some as too tainted by white knowledge and ways to be able to join fully in tribal life; nevertheless, he underwent an intensive and dangerous six-week shamanic initiation that thoroughly established him as a member of the tribe. Later, he was dismayed to learn his destiny as revealed in divination and decreed by tribal elders: to return to the white world as a bridge to save his tribe from complete inculturation. This fascinating autobiography illustrates the profound culture clashes between Western civilization and indigenous cultures.

The World As You Dream It

The World As You Dream It, by John Perkins.

John Perkins’ book, THE WORLD IS AS YOU DREAM IT is one of those rare books that tells a riveting story at the same time as it provides deep insights into what makes us who we are and the world what it is. I was so riveted to this book that I couldn’t put it down for a second until I finished reading it. The big idea in THE WORLD IS AS YOU DREAM IT is outlined by shamans in Ecuador who describe to Perkins the difference between living one’s fantasies and living one’s dream — and how this difference has enormous personal and global repercussions. Healing involves changing one’s dream; replacing a dream of illness with one of health. As one shaman tells Perkins, “I don’t heal. I simply help them change their dream.”

Fire in the Head

Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit,by Tom Cowan.

A remarkable exploration of shamanism using cross-cultural myths to explain the history and roots of the Celtic spirit. Cowan presents the traditional fantastic experiences of the shaman in an amazingly perceivable framework. His depiction of archetypes in well-known myths and legends opens one to the ability to read all things symbolically, thus, as the dynamic spiritual presences that they are. His telling of olde tales connects their spirit with a modern audience.


Owning Your Own Shadow

Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, by Robert A. Johnson

The shadow in Jungian psychology is the unconscious dumping ground for undesirable characteristics of personality. “Owning” the shadow–accepting it as part of one’s self–is seen as the first step toward wholeness. Using examples from history, mythology, and religion…. offers a tour of the shadow, showing its origin and features, and demonstrating how and why it bursts into consciousness when least expected.

…this archetype needs to be integrated into, not rejected from, our lives if we are to live holistically.

Soul Retrieval

Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self Through Shamanic Practice, by Sandra Ingerman.

Fascinating and illuminating. An excellent introduction to the power of shamanic healing by an authentic, experienced practitioner. Author Sandra Ingerman shares ancient soul-retrieval practices in very down-to-earth terms in her pioneering book. While the requirements for doing successful shamanistic healing are simple (requiring crystal-clear intention and complete faith in spiritual assistance), many of us raised within modern-day Western society are likely to face our own inner skepticism that this method of healing can be effective. Ingerman masterfully addresses this and other common pitfalls, as it takes the reader on a journey of rescuing soul fragments from one’s past.

The Way of the Shaman

The Way of the Shaman, by Michael Harner.

An intimate and practical guide to the art of shamanic healing and the technology of the sacred. Harner has impeccable credentials, both as an academic and as a practicing shaman. Without doubt (since the recent death of Mircea Eliade) the world’s leading authority on shamanism. Mr. Harner has taken a misunderstood and often misinterpreted subject and has written a very good book for those who have little to no experience with cultural shamanism. He has extensive experience with native shamen and tells of his adventures in a way that allows the reader to grasp the ecstatic methods of these priests.

Inner Work

Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, by Robert A. Johnson

In this book Johnson introduces a simple four-step method aimed at helping us explore the unconscious. He encourages us to pinpoint the symbols that appear in our dreams and active imaginings; to note our conscious associations to these symbols; meaningfully to personalize what we have accomplished in these first two steps; and finally through rituals to translate the insights gained into memorable conscious experiences.

The Teachings of Don Juan

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, by Carlos Castaneda.

“The Teachings of Don Juan” is the first in a series of about 15 books by Carlos Casaneda describing the author’s experiences with Yaqui Indian shamanism in Northern Mexico. Carlos Castaneda has taught us that we can indeed, under the right circumstances, leave through the window. Castaneda, during his course of study with don Juan Matus, Yaqui man of knowledge, learned to move into nonordinary reality, and experience not only magical events, but also that the ways of knowledge and power are difficult and dangerous.