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Crossing Over: Greek Shamanism and Indo-European Cosmological Belief

Parker Bradley Croshaw

 Ideas around “shamanism” as a useful term for a spectrum of religious and/or cultural thought and experience have in the past relied too heavily on notions and categories of experience dictated by the self-reporting “shaman” himself. Any term that puts the weight of experience or definition on one sole actor or agent in a society or culture is bound to be limited in scope as a tool for understanding belief in that society as a whole. This paper aims to bound the use of the word “shamanism” in comparative religion and anthropology within a framework that centers mainly on concepts of cosmology, on a culture’s generalized view of the world and its interactive parts, in opposition to one that puts the focus on the “ecstatic” experiences or abilities of the shaman specialist per se. From the vantage point of a defined cosmology, it is possible to construct an overall picture of a world wherein certain powers, forces, and entities interact in a way that follows a cohesive and even logical structure, and from here elucidate and illuminate certain aspects of sacrifice, worship, and belief that might otherwise have seemed opaque or isolated in pan-Greek religious thought. When shamanism has in the past been considered as a potential explanation for the existence of certain motifs and incidents in Greek myth or pseudo-history, the antecedents have typically been assumed to be either imports from Eastern cultural contacts, (in particular Scythians and Thracians), or as fossilized inheritances from a shared Indo-European period. The present study is concerned mainly with the possibilities of inherited Indo-European cosmological belief. Where borrowing and contact is thought likely, however, especially in instances of borrowing from Anatolian, Indo-Iranian, or other Indo-European language groups, there will be a presumption that such borrowing has been eased to a certain extent by these same shared inheritances among Indo-European speaking groups, a kind of pre-sown “fertile ground” in the traditional folk belief of Greek speakers. Prominent in this discussion is the Indo-European dragon-slaying motif as a myth of seasonal renewal and as cosmological roadmap, linking important actors (the Storm God, the Earth Mother, the underworld serpent or dragon, as well as shades, spirits, etc.) within settings (the heavens, the middle world, the underworld, and in particular crossings between worlds) that will outline the cosmological architecture necessary for mortals to tread or experience the so-called “shamanic” path. Fundamental to these concerns is Watkins’ treatment of the Indo-European root *terH2, the “Indo-European eschatological verb root…par excellence”, particularly in its use in denoting ‘otherworldly’ or ‘underworld’ places, monsters and/or heroes/gods associated with these places, and places of “crossing over” in general (Vedic tīrtha, Latin Tarentum, Greek Τάρταρος, etc.).

Session/Panel Title

Greek Shamanism Reconsidered

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