Shamanism, continued: Was Hildegard of Bingen a Shaman?

In yesterday’s DM video we discussed the shamanhood of Navajo painter David Palladin and in the essay Thomas Berry’s recognition that today we need more shamans and fewer priests and professors.  Berry connects shamanism to the wild and feels that the wild is calling more and more people today.  He invokes Thoreau’s essay on Walking: “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.”  

“Peyote Healing” by Lakota Singer-Songwriter, Robbie Robertson. Originally posted to YouTube by Robbie Robertson.

Berry distinguishes a shaman from a prophet in the following way: “The Shaman is more comprehensive in his field of consciousness… The prophet is a message bearer…and the prophet critiques the ruling powers. The Shaman functions in a less personal relationship with the divine. He is more cosmological, more primordial, personally more inventive in the source of his insight and his power.” This description fits Hildegard well.

Cover of Painting the Dream by David Paladin. Order a copy here.

For example, Hildegard’s Mariology leaves out a personal piety toward Mary, focusing more on the Cosmic Mary and the archetype of the Divine Feminine than on the person of Mary. Historian Barbara Newman comments, “There is a strikingly impersonal quality in her lyrics: she cared as little for the ‘personality’ of Mary as she cared for the psychology of Eve. Both women are larger than life, not individuals but cosmic theophanies of the feminine; and the purpose of the feminine is to manifest God in the world.” 

The Cosmic Christ plays a far larger role in Hildegard’s Christology than does a relationship with Jesus. Clearly she is more cosmological, more primordial, and more inventive with her insights than most theologians since her day. We still don’t know to this day where all her medicinal knowledge came from.

“Sacred Deer Fetish / The Flute Player” by David Paladin. 30×30″, acrylic on linen, 1978.

A shaman, such as we heard in the David Palladin story yesterday, lives in two worlds at once. Poet and former Dominican Bill Everson calls Jesus “perhaps the greatest of all shamans… Forty days in the desert, the carrying of the cross as a Sun Dance.” He continues, “The link would seem to be the Animal Powers. Christ would relate to the Animal Powers that preceded our more sophisticated religious impulses.”

Hildegard is much in touch with the Animal Powers. Time and time again she is visited by animals in her visions; and she paints them, including snakes that frame several of her paintings and also bears, leopards, lions, birds, vipers, scorpions, lobsters, and fish. Many of these beasts speak to her and advise her.

She devotes an entire chapter in her book Physica to a discussion of animals and their uses for healing and assistance in our work. She recognizes that birds symbolize “the virtue a person reveals in his thinking when, by his internal premeditation, he reckons many things before they come forth in an illustrious deed.”

Animals that run on land represent the “thoughts and meditations a person brings to completion in work,” as well as spiritual longing. Lions mirror the will of a person, while panthers show “ardent desire.” Tame animals that walk on land show “the gentleness of the human being.” 

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Hildegard of Bingen, a Saint For Our Times, pp. 83-85.

Banner Image: Our Beautiful Universe. Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

Do you feel the difference between a prophet and a shaman as Berry describes that difference?  One can be both of course.  Do you feel Hildegard’s shamanhood in these passages?  Do you feel a “wildness” and wilderness calling you today?

Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century

Matthew Fox writes in Hildegard of Bingen about this amazing woman and what we can learn from her.
In an era when women were marginalized, Hildegard was an outspoken, controversial figure. Yet so visionary was her insight that she was sought out by kings, popes, abbots, and bishops for advice.
“This book gives strong, sterling, and unvarnished evidence that everything – everything – we ourselves become will affect what women after us may also become….This is a truly marvelous, useful, profound, and creative book.” ~~ Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism.

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7 thoughts on “Shamanism, continued: Was Hildegard of Bingen a Shaman?”

  1. Avatar

    Maybe Mary and Elizabeth were ‘Shamans’, mothers of ‘illegitimate’ sons of the Imperial Roman occupation who grew up to challenge the elites of their time:
    From Granola Soul:

    The Magnificat: God’s great reversal

    The Magnificat is a hymn of justice. The mother of Jesus — the theotokos or “God bearer” — reveals what God will do through her son. Her words are a prophecy of what is to come, proclaiming a series of reversals that go against the established order and wisdom.

    Mary redefines the winners. It’s not the 1% that ultimately win, but the poor. In Mary’s words, the powerful will be made low, while the lowly will be lifted up. The rich will be made empty, while the hungry will be filled. Essentially, God will turn the world on its end and bring justice where there is corruption and greed. The last will be first and the first will be last.

    The Magnificat reminds us that Jesus didn’t come exclusively for the salvation of individuals, but to redeem the whole world — including the systems, powers and economic structures that stand in the way of justice for the poor and marginalized.

    Who are the hungry that need to be filled? Who are the low that need to be lifted up? The Magnificat says that if we want to see where God is at work and if we want to partner with God in that work, we just need to start looking in the right places.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Gwen, thank you so much for holding up before us the message and the importance of the Magnificat. There is much to meditate on here…

  2. Avatar

    Again I hesitate to use the word “shaman” or “shamanism” as it has become an aberration in our time. I prefer my own indigenous heritage (Lakota) word “heyoka”, or ancestral Irish (Dál Riata) “cneasaithe” (healer). My sense has become that absent connection with Divine LOVE, shamanism becomes a tool of evil?

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Patrick, if you have a problem with the word shaman, then, as you are doing, don’t use it. But I believe it is still very meaningful for many people. The most authoritative work on shamanism can be found in the writings of Mercia Eliade, and from a more popular perspective Michael Harner. Also, as far as being a tool of evil, the bottom, line is that Jesus taught us to “know them by their fruits”–the fruits of their actions, whether they be good or evil.

  3. Avatar

    I have followed you for years, with great benefit on multiple fronts. Your current writing about shamans is shedding light too. I hope you will give us some guidance about recognizing and resisting false shamans. Unfortunately (as I am sure you know) the QAnon movement has leaders who call themselves shamans. By hijacking the word, they leave some to believe they are genuine. Give us your wisdom on discerning true shamanism from false. We need to see the difference right now.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Steve, you have made a very important point. Are all who claim to be shamans valid? I certainly have my doubts with the QAnon movement shamans. From an anthropological perspective teachers like Mercia Eliade have shown us a number the tasks a shaman is there for. They are healers primarily )(“wounded healers”), they do soul retrieval and they are spiritual leaders for their people rather than political leaders. In that sense Jesus himself was a shaman, healing the sick, casting out demons, and rescuing the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He even descended into hell for the sake of those who were there. Thank you for pointing this out Steve!

      1. Avatar

        Great you’re open to the fact false shamans do exist and asking for advice……….I was beginning to turn off.
        It’s known to be practiced in the church too, sure Matthew would be well aware of.
        Proving all things, hold fast to what is good is the safe Scriptural basis.
        An interesting website.

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