Emily Dickinson: Another Creation-centered Mystic, Prophet and Shaman

We have been discussing the shaman as understood by David Paladin and others.Is Emily Dickinson a shaman?

Hopeful defiance in light of the sun. Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash.

In his book, Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times, Jungian analyst Steve Herrmann singles out Emily Dickinson as a medicine woman who underwent a deep rupture when she was excluded from the male-dominated world of publishing in the 19th century.  This rupture he describes as a “crucifixion of her ego on the cross of her poetic vocation.”  She suffered a breakdown, but described her rising from the event as like riding “the Ether into the air or sky as shamans do.”  Herrmann sees her as “no frail and fragile daisy but a shaman that has been dismembered and has transformed the very foundation of the Judeo-christian mythos from the ground up.”  

How did she do that?  In many ways Emily Dickinson set herself to dismembering a pessimistic and patriarchal version of Christianity that in effect throws out the first chapter of the Bible (which is about the goodness and “very goodness” of creation).  How did she do that?  

Original Blessing

She discards pretty much the notion of original sin.  She prays: “Heavenly Father”–/…We apologize to thee/For thine own Duplicity—“.   She criticizes original sin consciousness and posits an original blessing as the proper starting point for healthy religion. 

Kirlian photograph of a Dusty Miller leaf. Photo by Mark D Roberts Photography, on Wikimedia Commons.

Of God we ask one favor,

That we may be forgiven—

For what, he is presumed to know—

The Crime, from us, is hidden—

Immured the whole of Life

Within a magic Prison

We reprimand the Happiness

That too competes with Heaven.**

Here she critiques the very meaning of original sin which we are ignorant about, it “is hidden” and in fact has never been defined by the church.  (Though for Saint Augustine, who first named the notion in the fourth century, it was our sexuality.)  Nevertheless, we carry this “great crime” with us that imprisons us our whole life long.  Dickinson realizes that projection onto a life hereafter prevents our being fully present to the Happiness of the present time; we are taught to postpone joy for the sake of a hereafter; the two, existence and heaven, creation and the next life, are supposedly in competition.  We are set up for failure in this life (and possibly in the next).  

Pollinating butterfly. Photo by Erin Minuskin on Unsplash.

In contrast to pursuing a “life after death,” Emily is bent on a realized eschatology, namely that we are to render the earth a heaven while we are here.  In this regard she is echoing other mystics such as Jesus (“on earth as it is in heaven”) and Meister Eckhart (“we are to become a heaven on earth so that God might find a home here”).  The “Now of creation” is dear to her (Eckhart talked about the “eternal now”) and this lies at the essence of her mystical path.  

*Steven Herrmann, Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times 2018)

**Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, # 1601.

See also: Matthew Fox, Original Blessing.

Banner Image: Sunrise in the mountains. Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash

What in these words and stories of Emily Dickinson speak most deeply to you?

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14 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson: Another Creation-centered Mystic, Prophet and Shaman”

  1. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    What today’s DM brings up for me is a question I have often asked, which is why and how the tree of the knowledge of good and evil came to be? To be honest I’ve never really found a sufficient answer? Some say that in Genisis, that there are two creation stories offered. Why two? Is the story about choice, the choice of choosing to live, eating from the tree of life or eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Does not goodness, that inherent goodness in all of creation give us hope, In awakening and discovering this within ourselves and all creation? It’s challenging at times to live the questions without really knowing the answers. Most people find asking these questions uncomfortable.

    1. Avatar

      Questions are invitations generated from our soul depths. Don’t bury authentic questions in order to be loyal to someone else’s version of the truth. Seeking an answer to one pressing question can become the work of a lifetime. Truth will set you free from the cages of ideology and idolatry, neither of which is an open system. Closed systems are not life-giving.

      1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
        Richard Reich-Kuykendall

        Thank you so much for your words, Gwen. I certainly needed to be reminded of this, and so I’m sure there are others as well that need your reminder!

    2. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, in answer to your comment, I would first say that what we know about the world–its age, and the evolution of humans, says that the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve was an example of a Jewish creation story or creation myth. And what I said about the age of the earth and the evolution of humans confirm that we cannot take the story as literal. So the question is, in what sense do we take it? And I would say that we take the Genesis story of creation and the Garden, complete with Adam, Eve and the serpent and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was dealing with why there is evil in the world that God created “very good.” Its as if we listened in on a young Jewish boy reflecting on some evil that had happened to a friend, and when he asks, “Grandfather if God created the world good, why is there so much evil.” To which his Grandfather replied, “Grandson, it was not always so. Because after God created the world Good, God tested the first humans to see if they would do good or evil and they; influenced by the serpent, chose evil. And since then evil has always been with us. But do not ever forget the good!”

      1. Avatar
        Jeanette Metler

        Why would God choose to test us, rather than teach us. How can we be tested on something we haven’t yet learned? Was conscious awareness of our free will choice, and the power of this to create life and death, light and dark, good and evil… The word and being imperative here…. and our descent from heaven to earth and back again the process by which we learn, what God is trying to teach us? Perhaps humanity has errored in believing that it’s a test, rather than a necessary stage of evolutionary learning of our co-creative gifts given.

        1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
          Richard Reich-Kuykendall

          Jeanette, I do believe that God teaches us–the testing is a part of the story of Eden which is a part of Jewish mythology and you can accept it or not. And as far as I am concerned, I believe that when we are tested in life, it is we who are testing ourselves, challenging ourselves to do better and to move beyond where we are now…

  2. Avatar

    Anthropologist Edmund Leach was fond of saying that the main message of Christianity was “if you never really live you will never really die.”

  3. Avatar

    I have never read Emily Dickenson but what I am learning about her reminds me of my own life. The koan from Zen: WORDS ARE TRAPS transformed me from me, or I, to Us, and this is all I am going to say about transformation right now. As we know, creative writings ( I flunked ninth grade English for using creative writing because I thought it was fun) use figurative language, metaphors and allegories. I turned into a pillar of salt and back again after I flunked ninth grade English.

  4. Avatar
    Sheila Lombardi

    I have encountered Emily three times in my life. First, as her biography poetry was taught to me years ago in high school and college (and as I taught it); then, through the Kelly’s Writers’ House, U Pennsylvania ( a totally different approach where I began to sense her complexity); and now, by seeing her as a Mystic, Prophet and Shaman. This newest approach makes me modify my earlier studies, but I find that I am doing a reversal with so many of my religious beliefs! The fairy tale approach doesn’t work for me any more. I need to read more of theologians like Fox. I agree with Jeanette’s statements, especially “It’s challenging at times to live the questions without really knowing the answers.” But I am ready to be exposed to new ways of seeing that I can embrace as a true gift.

  5. Avatar

    One evening recently I was with a young couple I mentor at our local pub. Our friend who is the owner stopped by to visit a bit. He remarked casually that “Pat is a shaman.” Now I know he was kind of joking and probably envisioning the now infamous Qanon “shaman”, so, as opportunity knocked in that moment, I taught all three of them about true shaman (mystics, prophets, heyoka). }:- a.m.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Patrick, I once heard one say, “Always be ready to give a report of the faith which is in you,” and it seems that just what you did… in a sense…

  6. Avatar

    We are all Shamans. We just need to accept the fact and then adjust our lives accordingly and do some art.
    A life-time project.
    Check out my Mark of the Self classes and Creative Process interview with Skip Conover on Youtube.
    For decades Matthew Fox’s belief in the above has been an inspiration for me.
    Coeleen Kiebert

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Coeleen, There are shamans and then there are what I would call “metaphorical shamans.” The reason why I make this distinction is that I do not think that most of us who are being shamans (in a metaphorical sense)could be considered true Medicine Men and Women unless we are doing true healing work, and most of us do not find our role in doing “soul retrievals” or that we were wounded healers who were initiated into that role in the sense of having had illnesses that bring us nearly to deaths door–as with Julian of Norwich and Emily Dickinson. That being said, I do think we can be shamans in the sense of being healing in our work, being concerned for those who seem to be “lost souls, and we may go through many initiations in our lives whether they be baptisms, confirmations, taking vows, or being initiated into any number of other spiritual groups–and we can even do self-initiations. In this sense I see Starhawk a shaman.

  7. Avatar

    The “simplicity” of her poetry belies the depth of meaning. Just meditate on, “Hope is a thing with feathers…..”

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