The Shaman woman, resistance and the powers of transformation: a tribute to Ma Cia in Simone Schwarz-Bart's The Bridge of Beyond

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Author: Brinda J. Mehta
Date: Fall-Winter 1994
From: Obsidian II(Vol. 9, Issue 2)
Publisher: Illinois State University, Department of English
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,976 words

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Shamans occupy a central position in Caribbean and other traditional non-Western cultures, serving as valuable storehouses of myth, folklore, sociocultural values and practises and the healing arts. Constituting the very fabric of community cohesion and self-consciousness, especially in rural-based community organization, shamans have been posited as persons of distinction with exemplary powers of (self)-mastery. Mircea Eliade is careful to separate the shaman from traditional faith-healers, "witch-doctors" and "sorcerers" by stating that the shaman is a dominating figure who distinguishes himself by the nature and intensity of his "ecstatic" experience giving him access to higher levels of transcendence inaccessible to other members of the community. This level of mastery is highlighted by the fact that the shaman remains the subject of his mystical experiences; in other words, he is able to communicate with the spirits of the other world and their different permutations (nature and animal spirits, ancestral spirits etc.) as a human being without necessarily being "possessed" or manipulated by them. He orchestrates and controls the lines of communication without serving as a passive receptacle for the voices from beyond. This does not imply that communication with the spirits is a unilateral process geared toward the sole benefit of the shaman who, alone, can manipulate and interpret spiritual manifestations effectively. In several cultures, shamanism coexists with other systems of belief where priests, magicians and fakirs act as assistants who may help initiate the process of communication. However, their complicity stops at the level of initiation as their powers are not as wide-ranging as those of the shaman, inhibiting them from actual participation in the ecstatic flight. Moreover, Eliade's definition does not suggest that the shaman's voice is univocal; communication with the spirits is based on a pattern of reciprocity in which the shaman can hold his own.

Eliade qualifies the specificity of the ecstatic flight by explaining: "Any ecstatic cannot be considered a shaman; the shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld " (5). This definition brings to light three prerequisites essential to the shamanic experience: a position of distinction, an altered state of perception and the powers of transformation. These exceptional qualities have been vital to the raison d'etre of the shaman himself in his role as preserver of the cohesiveness and structure of his community, faced by several historical and socioeconomic crises menacing the general well-being of the group. These crises can be broadly characterized as colonialism, capitalism with its preponderance of bourgeois ideologies and blind importation of Western value systems, racism and sexism. Traditional cultures that have been splintered at their very core are still reeling under the adverse impact of the above-mentioned crises.

The Caribbean context situates itself within the parameters of this tragic reality, inscribing itself in a history characterized by slavery, indentured labor, genocide and violent socioeconomic upheaval. Systematically dispossessed, devitalized and marginalized by the constraining politics of the imperialistic powers, the peoples of the Caribbean...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A205735409