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Shamanic Healing Tools & Catharsis in Myth & Fairy Tales

One of the things I love about storyteller Martin Shaw’s books is how he is able to weave together initiation insights and shamanic understanding to draw out deeper insights from a folktale, myth or fairy story. Often, he will use the bones of a story as a backdrop for a deeper philosophical discussion on the themes, symbols and emotional landscape of the piece and use this as a healing tool – to provide meaning, catharsis, a psychological map or framework or to help people understand themselves more deeply as part of a greater mythological context of human expression in society. Shaw has often used story in working with disadvantaged social groups and people in prisons as a way of helping them to make sense of more chaotic forces in their lives.

In the following video, Shaw told the Seneca story of ‘the Listener’ at the Minnesota Men’s Conference about a man who intends to marry a woman with a very dark mother and must pass through various initiations and tests to do so. I love how he involves the audience after sharing a section of the story and allows everyone space to reflect on the significance of the images and how they may relate to their own lives and to make sense of darker events that they may have experienced.


In ‘A Branch from Lightning Tree,’ Shaw spoke about the power of the earth or even other galaxies to speak through a story and imbue it with a depth that might not be understandable “from a human point of view.” I related very much to his description of how shamans can access “spirit-song from other planets, galaxies even” and feel that fantasy and sci-fi writers often have the ability to tap into this skill at intuitive levels. Through story and mythology, artists can find a way of expressing strange and bizarre feelings they may feel about their universe that otherwise might remained repressed and not vocalised. Writers can use stories to convey their strangest or deepest feelings, thoughts or fears about society under the guise of fiction. Storytelling skills such as these enable people to express themselves and allow healing to happen by releasing pent-up thoughts, feelings or emotions.

The Journey Home

Yet submerging into the depth of experience, the wild, is often not all we asked to do by Source on a shamanic journey – the return home is just as vital and can be as perilous: “initiation is a three-fold process, and the transformational can only be fully experienced in the integrating of all aspects of that journey.”

In his book ‘Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language’ Shaw made some beautiful comments about his reluctance to comment on certain passages from the Parzival and holy grail mythology: “These are passages that I don’t really believe even belong to the human community, that are entirely mythic. To continually seek relatable connections can become a form of brutality to the story.”

The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval

by Edward Burne-Jones, 1895

The Power of Archetypes

In 'The Power of Myth' the American professor of literature, Joseph Campbell, wrote about the power of images and archetypal energies on the unconscious mind and such images can appear universally - some are a kind of universal language understood in many countries. "All over the world and at different times of human history, these archetypes, or elementary ideas, have appeared in different costumes." Campbell felt that folk tales were often used in society as a form of entertainment whereas myths were "for spiritual instruction." Myths can allow seeds to be planted regarding deeper perspectives about life and aid people on their own journeys exploring their thoughts, beliefs and ideas about the world: "There has to be dialogue, an interaction between the seer and the community. The seer who sees things that people in the community don't want to hear is just ineffective."

In his book about storytelling, Coming Home to Story, Geoff Mead wrote the following about archetypes and the aliveness of the characters we may encounter in a book: “When our real-life stores are touched by the power of archetypal stories we sometimes experience the kind of magic that Jung called synchronicity – a term he coined to describe the alignment of universal forces with the life experiences of an individual, a time when things come together for us because we and they are part of a greater whole. When these moments occur in stories they profoundly affect the destinies of the characters involved. When they happen to us they can change our lives too.”

Storytellers as Shamans

Campbell also wrote about the inherent connection between initiation rites, ritual and myth and how they all feed into each other. Myths give power and authority to the rites, and in turn, when energy is given to the rites, this strengthens and gives life-force to the myth, as well as to the land since rites often sanctify sacred sites. Storytellers may find that they are pulled onto their own shamanic journey in order to connect more deeply with the characters and energies of the animal familiars which appear in their stories. Stories can also inspire a listener to go on their own spiritual quest or to gain empowerment in their own life story.

Storyteller Geoff Mead wrote the following about shamanism and storytelling in Coming Home to Story: “Shamanic practitioner and storyteller Michael Berman asserts that there are significant parallels between these two roles…This is the nub of his argument:

Like the shaman, the storyteller is a walker between the worlds, a mediator between our known world and that of the unknown – someone who communes with dragons and elves, with fairies and angels, with magical and mythical beasts, with gods and goddesses, heroes and demons, able to pass freely from this world into non-ordinary reality and to help us experience those other realms for ourselves.

Certainly, as storytellers we have to take the invisible world seriously. We do not have to believe the stories we tell but unless we believe in them, we cannot hope to engage our listeners in anything but the most superficial manner. As we become familiar with the canon of traditional stories, we come to understand that some of them, particularly fairy stories and wonder tales, are the carriers of centuries of accumulated folk wisdom.”

The Tale of Jack Dinan

I recently was sent a beautiful story about a wife who was replaced by a fairy, told in 1970 by a seanchaí – an Irish traditional storyteller. The story followed the strange disappearance of the young wife of Jack Dinan from Fahy’s Hill in County Clare. One night she went to bed, yet when Jack went to the bed he saw only a small collough-na-luha or fairy which was screaming and kicking when he went near her. For seven years Jack lived with this fairy in the bed. One night in May, Jack was up late with a foaling mare and saw his wife again who told him that she couldn’t go home with ‘that thing in the bed’ and so Jack asked her how he could get rid of the fairy and his wife advised him to light a fire, which he did. He lit a huge fire in the middle of the kitchen and when the fairy still refused to go, he threatened to burn her alive and she finally left through the door on a breeze of wind.

His wife then returned through the door as a red-haired woman who slept in his bed for a further seven years and in all that time Jack never turned over to look and see if she was a man or a woman. “But he left her there to blazes and he did the right thing,” the seanchaí then explained – and his wife eventually returned and “told all the tales… and told everything” and they lived together for 40 years and never parted.

I am not quite sure what the storyteller meant by these words about the ‘blazes’ and if Jack had threatened this red-haired lady with fire as well? I have found this story fascinating and it is definitely working within my subconscious mind. Were the fairy and the red-haired woman aspects of his wife at different levels of maturity – and what did they represent? Why was the small fairy at the beginning kicking and screaming? What were the tales that his wife told Jack at the end? Was the mysterious red-haired woman also a type of fairy?

Was Jack also going through an initiation and was he being tested? How did he perceive the small fairy and red-haired woman? Did he have hope that his wife would return? What was the significance of the numbers 7, 7 and 40? The use of the number 7 is particularly prevalent in fairy tales and this number is something that Rudolf Steiner discussed in terms of human development following cycles of 7 years.

I love the inherent mystery of this story yet also its simplicity - the story was told in less than three minutes, but it held a lot of power. How did you feel about the story and what did it mean for you? Have you found a story that has come as a blessing during any challenging times?

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