Shamans – the word comes from the Tungus of Siberia – are a combination of poet, priest and doctor. These three functions have in our culture been divided up among professionals who are no longer trained in daimonic intercourse. Priests usually mediate between us and God via the sacraments, without themselves seeing the need to enter an ecstatic trance; but there will always be charismatics and spiritualists who do.
Oddly enough, our nearest equivalent to the traditional shaman is probably the depth psychologist, who recognizes an autonomous and dynamic unconscious, analogous to the Otherworld of the daimons. The Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung, for example, was clearly a daimonic man. He dreamed of a daimon, a winged being sailing across the sky, who turned out to be an old man with horns. He soon began to visit Jung during waking hours as well. ”At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality”, wrote Jung. ”I went walking up and down the garden with him… He brought me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which have their own life… like animals in the forest or people in a room… It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche.”
In traditional societies physical death is not thought of as a breach with the living. Life and death are not opposites; rather, it is birth which is the opposite of death, while life remains continuous. The Dead remain part of the tribe. Our words for describing the Dead – ghost, spirit, shade – distort the sense of the traditional term which is usually just ”dead man”. Death merely signifies a change in the individual; it is only the last in the series of initiatory ”deaths” which have accompanied him or her through life.
The idea that beliefs recorded in different parts of the world can be compares is currently frowned on in many academic circles. But as Stewart Sanderson points out in his introduction to Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, it is uncontroversial to assert that ”there appears to be no country in the world where fairies by one name or another are not found, no traditional society, whatever its cultural pattern or historical development, where some such creatures do not figure in folk belief.” The fairies were known to the Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen as elves, hulder-folk and land-spirits; to the Cornish as pixies; to the Bretons as corrigans; to the Welsh as Tylwyth Teg, the fair folk. Every county in England has a different name for the fairies, from the derricks of Dorset to the farisees of Norfolk.
In the ancient world, by the second century AD, ”virtually everyone, pagan, Jewish, Christian or Gnostic”, notes Oxford Professor E. R. Dodds, ”believed in the existance of these beings and in their function as mediators, whether he called them daemons or angels or aions or simple ‘spirits’ [pneumata]‘. The Romans, for example, conceived of ”an almost infinite number of divine beings… every grove, spring, cluster of rocks or other significant natural feature had its attendant spirit.”
They are emphatically not ”spirits” – the word anthropologists use, for want of a better, to describe them – because they are, like the land-spirit Bard, as much physical as spiritual. The notion that daimons are both material and immaterial is the most difficult of their many contradictions to grasp. The Reverend Robert Kirk who published in 1691 the first study of fairies, The Secret Commonwealth, wrestled with this paradox. He describes them as being ”of a middle nature betwixt man and angell”, having ”light changable bodies (like those called astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud and best seen in the twilight…”
A miner called Tom from Bell Island, Conception Bay, Newfoundland, described how his buddy Jimmy had asked him to cover for him at work for ten minutes while he popped into the woods. It was eleven a.m. Jimmy did not come back. Search parties were sent out, the police were involved, everything, for two or three days. On the third day Jimmy reappeared ”a-beaming like an electric light bulb” and claiming to have been gone only for an hour. He had met ”the nicest little people” who ”had food and beer, and danced and played the accordion. Real friendly, he said… Yes sir, he was the only one that was ever treated that good by the fairies. But people always though him a little queer after that. And you know, he swore it was the truth right up until he died. And you know something else, I believe him.”