The Artist as a Shaman: Keeping the Great Story of the Human Experience Alive.
Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist and writer, is one of my biggest heroes because of the work he did with bringing together many, if not all, of the world’s religions and philosophies and distilling them to their mythic essence.
He was able to find the common thread that held all of these beliefs together, and used that illusive commonality to weave a comprehensive understanding. He showed us that, at their core, all of the world myths were trying to express the same basic idea — that of the human experience and how it is one massive journey from ignorance to understanding, from flesh to spirit, from victim to hero.
Much of the reason why he was able to understand this was because of his love and appreciation for the human desire to create. He used stories, art, music and poetry from around the world as blueprints for decoding the hidden message within. He saw art, especially art in the religious/sacred context, as a landscape of the soul.
He considered the work of the artist to be a sort of translation of the inner predicament. Campbell summed this up by saying, “The function of the artist is the ‘mythologization’ of the environment and the world.” The work they do is what keeps the great story of the human experience alive.
Campbell also placed the artist on the same level as the shaman. The work of the shaman is dedicated to crossing between the physical and the spirit world and interpreting the confusing messages that are received, for the benefit of the community.
The work of the artist is much the same, as long as the effort is applied from a place of compassion and service, the cultivated skills of a creative individual can be seen as a gateway to a higher understanding.
I have felt this way about art and music ever since I was a little kid. Even before I could put this understanding in words, I somehow knew there was more to creativity than meets the eye. Truly good art has the ability to elevate our powers of perception, and transports us beyond our limited ways of thinking. It can move us in ways that are totally unpredictable and that defy logic.
Art speaks to a part of our being that many of us never even knew existed, and the language that it communicates through can only be interpreted through direct experience.
Those of us who have heard this voice or have had a glimpse of the power of creativity find it hard to forget. Even with all the limitations that our modern world imposes on artists, we still can’t seem to let go of the pursuit. I know this is certainly true for me. Creativity is what makes me feel most alive. Every time I pick up my guitar or scribble a poem into my journal, it’s like a cool drink of water for my thirsty soul.
I thrive off it. I live to taste its sweet nectar. The energy of creativity is a source of healing for me, and without it, I honestly feel like I would fall ill.
Maybe this is one of the many factors that is contributing to the great sickness of our world. Maybe too many people have lost their connection to creativity, and are in need some energetic healing. Maybe we as artists have a much more important role to play than the modern world has led us to believe. This would certainly fit with Campbell’s beliefs.
If the artist really is on the same level as the shaman, then maybe we need to start directing our skills toward a greater purpose.
David Matters is a musician, writer, and host of the Creative Awakening Now podcast (a show dedicated to exploring the deeper elements of creativity, inspiration, and practice). His journey has traversed many unusual landscapes including hitchhiking around the country, touring in a bluegrass band, studying creative writing at Naropa University, and fathering the cutest little girl you have ever seen. His aim in life is to live beautifully and to encourage others to unleash their highest potential. You can check out his work at Creative Awakening Now.