Boring into a person’s skull, cutting a ring of bone loose, and then snapping it upwards to remove it completely is a difficult technique to get right, especially when it is undertaken with stone tools and without modern anaesthetic. Yet this is precisely the procedure that Stone Age surgeons performed hundreds of times. The most remarkable part, is that some of their patients even survived the treatment and recovered. The technique is trepanation, the removal of small discs of skull, which seems to feature in all periods of our prehistoric past. It was not a primitive form of brain surgery, but let something out that was trapped in the body of the patient: bad spirits. We cannot know what conditions led to the radical surgery but episodes of epilepsy, mental illness, or even high fever may have been interpreted as the person having been invaded by a bad spirit and needing trepanation to remove it.
Today, modern shamanic practitioners still extract harmful spirits from their patients, although they do not make a hole in the skull in order to do it. Moreover, the rationale behind spirit intrusion and its necessary extraction has not changed across the millennia. To find out what these are, we need to travel to 35,000 years ago, at a time when the first people of Europe painted the caves of France and Spain with breathtaking images of their world.
The inaccessibility of the caves, and the need to pass along lengthy tunnels to reach the art, suggests that a visit to them was not undertaken lightly. It was probably an incredibly sacred activity and may have had echoes of the shamanic journey to the otherworld. When shamans enter trance, the prerequisite of any journey, they see shapes and these rapidly coalesce into a tunnel. By passing along the tunnel, the shaman eventually sees light at its end and can then step out into the realm of the otherworld. Ancient people clearly noticed the similarity between the journey to the otherworld and the route into their caves since they painted shapes on the walls of the caves that match those seen when first entering trance.
Along with these abstract shapes, people also painted images of the otherworld: visions of what they saw in trance. Animals abound in huge herds; bulls, horses, and deer all circle the walls, kicking up their feet in a whirling maelstrom of flesh and fur.
Most of the animals people painted were prey species: animals the people would have relied upon to survive. In among the herds, however, or stalking a lone straggler, were other beasts: lions, leopards, even a cave bear. These were predators and, despite being competition for prey, these were animals that humans would want to learn from, emulate, and even befriend. Perhaps this was why some carried small models of these killers, intricately formed from mammoth ivory. They were a touchstone of power to call upon when needed. Moreover, incised upon the sides of these models were the same shapes that decorated the caves walls; those that people see when entering trance. For the people that carried them, these were spirit animals.
The same was likely true for the animals painted on the cave walls and the way that certain creatures seem to flow in and out of the rock, or emerge from a crack in the wall, seems to underline the point. Some painters clearly wanted more, to reach behind the veil of the rock itself. They placed their hands against the wall and blew paint around and over them. It was a way of reaching out into other realms. Others scraped a little of the clay wall loose, as if they wanted to know what lay behind its shroud. To these people, the otherworld and its spirits were real.
If a model made from ivory, and a painted image on a wall could contain a spirit, then it is clear that so could anything else. This is animism, the belief that everything is alive and has a spirit that exists in the otherworld. The same is also true for illness.
When we catch something, the spirit of the illness passes into our body and lodges there, causing the symptoms of the disease. In a way, it is a little like a virus, which we cannot see and only know that it is there through the effects that we suffer. Rather than referring to a virus, however, a shaman would say a spirit has invaded us and, before we can heal, it needs to be extracted. This is when healers in the past would reach for their stone tools and their patients undoubtedly went very pale.
Today, a shaman would enter trance and search for the invading spirit. Being in trance means that the spirit becomes visible, since the shaman crosses the boundary between this reality and the other and develops a form of x-ray vision. This is why much shamanic art often shows the insides of things, such as animals’ bones. When the shaman locates the intrusive spirit, he or she will gather it up, maybe by using a fan of feathers or maybe by sucking it into the mouth, and will then take it to a place where it is returned harmlessly to nature. Rather than viewing the spirit as bad or evil, the shaman considers it merely as energy that is in the wrong place. By returning it to nature, it is reabsorbed into the great web of life.
In the Iron Age, people made little models of body parts and moved the invading spirit into their forms before throwing them into water. The source of the Seine in France is full of such models as it was an important healing sanctuary. Even today, many shamanic healers return extracted spirits to water
In order to conduct such healing, the shaman needs to be full of power. Otherwise, the spirit of the illness could just move straight from patient to healer and the shaman would go ill with the same symptoms. One way shamans fill themselves with power is to call upon the spirit of their helper animal. This may be why people in the Ice Age carried models of their animals with them: portable touchstones of power. Taking on such power can feel a little like turning into the animal itself, something shamans call shapeshifting and it is revealing that some of the Ice Age models are half-animal and half-human. Perhaps these are the shamans themselves, in the midst of shapeshifting into animal form.
When shamans enter trance and journey to the otherworld, a part of them, their soul or essence, leaves this reality to travel to the other. This is far more natural than it sounds as we all experience something similar when we dream at night. Only a part of the soul ever leaves, however, since if it all departed, then the shaman would be dead.
There are other times when part of a person’s soul might leave them, such as during terrible trauma, when people put a part of themselves in a safe place in order that they have protection against whatever assails them, either physically or mentally. It is the body’s way of ensuring that, however bad something gets, there is always a piece remaining safe and unharmed. Usually, once the trauma passes, the soul part returns. A problem only arises if it does not. People suffering from such soul loss might describe themselves as “not all here” or as if a part of them is missing and they are right. Without their missing soul part, they are not complete. Their energy depletes, their health suffers, and they enter a downward spiral that only stops once they seek healing and regain their soul part. This is why soul retrieval – finding lost souls as they wander adrift in the otherworlds, bringing them back, and restoring them to patients – is one of the most important of all shamanic practices.
Soul parts always head for the otherworld when they leave their human host and so this is the place that a shaman will go to look for them. Immediately after entering the trance state that is necessary to travel to the otherworld, the shaman will call his or her power animal, as power animals make excellent trackers. When the soul part is located, often resembling the patient at the age that they lost it, the shaman can gather it up, sometimes placing it into a special container, and bring it back to this world. The soul part can then be blown into the patient’s heart and restored to them.
In prehistory, shamans seem to have used hollow bones to store missing soul parts as they moved between the worlds. Such bones frequently accompanied people to the grave, as if they were an important part of an individual’s belongings that they could not do without. In the Iron Age, there are even images of soul retrieval, such as that engraved onto the Gundestrup cauldron, from Denmark. Here, a shaman draws the soul back into his patients before sending them on their way.
Herbs and other medicines probably supplemented any other form of healing. Ötzi the Iceman, for example, who froze into the snow of the Alps with his travelling pack complete, carried various herbs to treat his ailments. For a shaman, however, since everything is alive and has its own spirit, an herb is more than just a plant and is something that he or she can befriended and use as an ally in the healing process. It is not just the herb that shamans dispense to their patients but also its healing spirit.
Despite having ancient roots, shamanism works in harmony with modern medicine and procedures since it has a very different understanding of the nature of illness. As well as treating the symptom, for instance, by taking painkillers or antidepressants, shamanism allows treatment of the cause of the dis-ease, whether it is an invading spirit or soul loss. The two approaches work hand-in-hand. Perhaps this is why Mercy Medical Centre in Merced, California has recently invited shamans to work alongside modern doctors, caring for the soul as the surgeon cares for the body. It is a beautiful partnership of the old and new.