A Shaman’s Journey by Kelley Harrell

When I was five years old, I asked my Sunday School teacher–a woman, “What if Jesus had been a girl?”

“But he wasn’t,” she replied.

Unsatisfied, I asked again, only to receive the exasperated, recursive answer.  My mother gave the same empty response later, in private.

It’s no huge surprise that when I was about 14, my many dissatisfactions with the Church overwhelmed my fondness for it, and I began to explore other spiritual paths.  Coinciding with this transition was also the realization that intuitive gifts I’d manifest since childhood demanded open expression, and that the energetic truth of my femininity deserved acknowledgement on my spiritual path.  By the time I was 17 I had separated from the Church and begun crafting my own relationship to shamanism.

That may not seem like a terribly logical leap on the surface, but for me it was sound.  Emerging from a sexually abusive childhood into young adulthood with full-blown PTSD, I needed help.  As someone who was deeply intuitive and aware of the signals and messages from the unformed, I knew that aid could come from many levels of being.  I also recognized that through my wounding, I was experiencing what is considered a classic “shamanic death.” I could feel the insight of my experience leading me, though I couldn’t emotionally accept it, or understand in what direction we were headed.  Also, in myself and the world around me I recognized a thriving Feminine Divine and a loving Divine Masculine who fully embraced Her.  I wanted to learn how to incorporate these vital components into my spiritual experience.  I needed to find a way to move through my life that enabled me to feel more whole.  The trouble was, I had come through a tradition in which every belief had been told to me.  I had no framework for delving into the wisdom and divinity of my own experience to find meaning, guidance.  In short, I had no teacher.

So I became my own.  I read everything I could find on shamanism, including Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman, and Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.  Both tomes seemed informative enough on the philosophies driving shamanism, elucidating on the techniques shamans use to heal themselves and others, enlightening how one becomes a shaman.  I felt novel kinship with their ideas, though something was still off.  Among what these hallowed resources didn’t share was the presence of the feminine in the shaping of the shamanic legacy.  In fact, at least according to the deigned grandfather of the modern shamanic movement—Eliade—there wasn’t one.  I’d come all that way, struggling through soul healing and psyche reformation, breaking free from the limitations of my birth religion, only to be told that shamans weren’t women, either.

Of course that didn’t stop my studies or pursuits to find teachers, which I eventually did.  It didn’t stop me from creating a thriving shamanic practice, Soul Intent Arts, or from being ordained as an interfaith minister in a Goddess-centric organization, or from pursuing a Masters of Divinity focused on shamanic study.  In all, I took the offroad adventure, self-creating my own shamanic path without the guideposts and maps we are used to finding on spiritual quests, a feat common to many modern seekers on broken paths in this cultural melting pot.

Along that jaunt to manifesting myself in the spiritual truth best suited for me, I learned the many shrouded histories of female shamans.  According to another revered academic, Ioan M. Lewis, shamanism was merely a construct for individuals—particularly women and gay men—to express otherwise socially unacceptable behavior, a description still embraced by many of our highest institutions of learning.  But from women of various traditions I learned that females dominated shamanic roles in the ancient histories of eastern Asia, Africa, Siberia, and many indigenous North and South American tribes.  In truth, women were scattered all through historic shamanic cultures, only the western curators of that knowledge omitted them, devalued their contributions.  Through reconstructionist studies, I learned that women, and the feminine aspect were vital figures in the spiritual movement that is now considered the Church.

Generally speaking, we still don’t incorporate the diverse path of shamanism into the modern study of it.  We assume that by virtue of being western-born and having the privilege to study whatever we choose, to elect the faith that sings most resonantly within us, that our presence as women on sacred paths, now, is enough.  Yes, it is our destiny to look forward and blaze that trail into whatever fulfills our hearts most deeply.  It is a gift and a responsibility to look back and know, to bless where we came from.

Now, when the history of anything seems too groomed to be true, too biased to be thorough, too tidy to be real, I remember the omission of women from the path of the modern shaman.  I remember to look for those places from which she has always thrived and merely been hidden.

Kelley is author of Gift of the Dreamtime – Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma. She lives in North Carolina, and her shamanic practice is Soul Intent Arts.  She writes for The Huffington Post, and a focus of her work is supporting and mentoring intuitives experiencing spiritual emergency, through The Tribe of the Modern Mystic Distance Mystery School. Find Kelley on Facebook, Google, Twitter, Soul Intent Arts, Intentional Insights from Within, and The Huffington Post.

Categories: General, Identity Construction, Spirituality, Women Mystics, Women's Spirituality

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16 replies

  1. Brava! Women need to hear your story and find out that all the old books are not entirely correct when they say shamans are all men. I’ve read elsewhere that the original shamans are women, which is why I put a female shaman in Secret Lives. You’re an inspiration to every little girl looking for an authentic path.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a practicing contempory shaman myself I can relate to what you speak of. Elide did not take part in the work he reported it with judgmental eye and left out a great deal of detail that he could not come to terms with. It seems you have had a brave journey with his work as the opening gambit. 
    I have just completed “Shaman in a Woman’s Body” by Barbara Tedlock and I cannot recommend it enough as the antidote for this predicament. 
    Thank you for this beautifully written, honest piece of writing. 
    Walk in Beauty,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for this fascinating and moving post, Kelley. I look forward to investigating your books!

    The late Ruth-Inge Heinze, a Berkeley anthropologist and author of “Shamans of the Twentieth Century” organized a conference that still takes place every year in San Rafael, CA over Labor Day weekend. Thanks to her pioneering efforts, shamanism is now one of the fastest growing branches in anthropology. She welcomed my own papers on Joan of Arc “through the shaman’s lens” which led to my publishing a bio on Joan containing a chapter describing the shamanic elements in Joan’s initiation and the carrying out of her mission, under the guidance of three angelic entities who she named and referred to constantly during her trial.

    My own family history mirrors yours, as does my altar.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful to discover you and your journey . I resonate with your spiritual experience of finding traditional church unsatisfactory and being on a search for more meaningful spiritual experience wherever one finds it. I will follow your journey and be in touch with you to share more of my journey as well. The shamanic exprience is something that interests me as well. I have frequently found myself on holy ground as I have been with someone who is sharing deeply their experiences on the journey of life and faith with me, and I have learned to trust Spirit to lead me as I carefully search for the right words to comfort and guide someone who is in themidst of transition, pain, suffering and/or incredible joy. I met Carol Christ in California many years ago, and she encouraged me in my journey of exploration. I now live in Florida. More later…

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  5. I’ve been researching this since Eliade’s book came out. It was both mind-expanding because of the range of info, and infuriating because of the depth of his denial of evidence for female shamans. His own data showed a female template (male cross-dressing, wearing breasts, speaking in female manner) for this very ancient reservoir of human experience. Tedlock has a good if brief discussion of it, and Sarah Nelson too in her book on Shamanism and State Formation. I talk about it as well in this article (from the forementioned conference put on by the late Ruth-Inge Heinze) http://www.suppressedhistories.net/articles/womanshaman.html and also in my pdf article on the wu in China: http://www.suppressedhistories.net/articles2/wu.html

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  6. Bravo! I never considered what happened to me as a “shamanic death” but it certainly was, and I remained dead until I was brought back with help of Christina. I think I spent so much of my life worrying about God and my sexual identity that my gifts laid dormant until now; and I don’t know what they are fully. I do know I am a skilled photographer and artist. Whether or not I am a shaman I don’t know….yet

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kelly, this is a story so much like my own. I, raised as Episcopalian and going through Confirmation, had to read parts of the bible (I was 12/13 yrs old). The passages I had to read were about men and religion. I remember asking my mother, “when does this book become about me? When does it talk about women and the relationship with God?” She said, “When it says the word MEN, it means Mankind and it means you.” I disagreed because it did speak about women, and not so positively. So I began my search for a spiritual practice that included, embraced women, and I found that I had to create my own.

    Along the way, I began to feel an awakening within me. It felt like a rhythm of a pounding, like a knocking at the door of my soul, and it wasn’t until recently that it occurred to me that it was the awakening of the Divine Feminine within me. And then I was inspired to write this, and I believe it is your story too:

    Please let me know if it resonates with you……

    With gratitude for your story, Cinda

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “I remember to look for those places from which she has always thrived and merely been hidden.”
    Yes! And, often hidden in plain sight in the wholebody listening of Empathic Silences.

    Excellent article, Kelley. Strikes depthful seat-of-the-soul chords to resonate!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ” I’d come all that way, struggling through soul healing and psyche reformation, breaking free from the limitations of my birth religion, only to be told that shamans weren’t women, either.” — I trust absolutely nothing men say about Divinity, religion, or spirituality. All male-centered belief systems are just their attempts to compensate for the fact that males can’t give birth, that they can’t give life.


    • I’m truly sorry your experience has been so intense as to go that far, and at the same time I’d back you with support indefatigably as … as a male, I’ve seen SO much of that. The Hierophant Mystic on a bad day of the stubborn and unbending traditionalisy rather Than a Heartfelt Silverback Soul-Seat Hierophant living it’s integrated wisdom from experience. It’s a real shame to me that the politics of gender ever even got into Shamaism. I was born in the morning, 10:36am, though not Yesterday morning. Both eyebrows go up when shamans play that card. I do like, though, that, OOPS here comeS my ration right back when it occurs. It’s a beautifully strange and dynamic alchemy when the Shaman is cross-checked into the BlueLine Wall so har their helmet shatters the glass… and, I am left to stand there saying, “Wow, gravity it strong in this one.”

      The orbits of our lives more so fuel the above. I’m sorry that you de-commend all men about expressions of Divinity, religion, or spirituality. Though, I get it more than you know. I’ve been one on the male side to strike down vigilante-style to preclude that stuff… though, MAN! WOMAN! Glad I’m a gardener and see it for the weeds that they present. My only goal there is to not tire in regards to ripping the weeds out from beyond the roots to amend the soil.

      Kudos to you, though, for indefatigably standing up with your statement. Everyone’s good at something. Those people? Some people are just good at being dicks.


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