Click on this image for a full map of Dante's Inferno.
"Now you are ready for your first experiential exercise in shamanism. This will be a simple journey of exploration through the Tunnel into the Lowerworld." These are the words of Michael Harner in his book The Way of the Shaman released in 1980.
Travels into the underworld were identified in Eliade's classic study of Shamanism as a regularly identifiable aspect of the practices of many shamans in many cultures. Michael Harner considers this a beginning point of learning the arts of his brand of neo-shamanism.
Eliade noted that among the Tungus the younger, newer shamans were denigrated as cowards, because many no longer took the difficult journey to the Underworld. (Shamanism: 237) Eliade's recounting of an Altaic shaman's descent in the underworld is not unlike portions of Dante's Inferno. This underworld journey is filled with challenges and tests.
In a universe which is often (but certainly not always) viewed as consisting of the three categories of the heavens, the earth, and the underworld, the shaman takes the challenge of navigating the realms unseen by others for their benefit.
This particular element of shamanism is perhaps the most dramatic illustration of Jesus as the Archetypal Shaman. His death, burial, descent into Hell, and resurrection in victory is the physical/literal accomplishment of a shamanic underworld journey. The various elements of underworld journey as they are practiced across the shamanic cultures of the world appear to be fulfilled in the journey of Jesus.
This section has taken a bit more thought, and preparation than I might have anticipated initially, and so I tread this ground carefully, but I do so with a larger vision of the capacities of Jesus than I might have presented had I simply approached this as a minor exercise in anthropological missiology.
Here begins my consideration of Jesus' descent into Hell, and the place it holds in fulfilling the needs of humanity, and myths of shamanic cultures across the world.
Descent through hole in the earth (Mt. 27:57-60)
The story of Christ's descent in the Underworld begins with his burial in the cave tomb provided by Joseph of Arimithea. Holes in the ground, hollow trees, oceans, and entrances to underground rivers have been used by shamanic trance travelers as entry points into the underworld.
Christ's burial in the cave tomb has a similar point of initiatory dynamic as entering hole in the ground, or the hollow of a tree. It mimics an entry point to the underworld. Once the stone was rolled in place, Christ was sealed to the fate of his underworld journey, which to a wondering world appeared to be a permanent unconditional journey. Through His spiritual authority this was not to be a final journey to death and afterlife, but a powerful expression of his conquest over the underworld.
Mircea Eliade's book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy describes the ritual descent into the underworld by an Altaic Shaman. This ritual was observed by an orthodox priest who had attended and chanted at a number of these rituals in his youth. After the Shaman journeys across land, and climbs a mountain in his trace, he then is taken to a hole in the side of the mountain which leads him to the underworld - to face trials and a difficult journey before a successful return.
The journey of Christ into the underworld likewise began in an entrance upon the face of the earth. Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ to be given to him, and then with Nicodemus took the body to a new tomb, and placed the stone over the grave. This began Jesus' journey to the underworld. He began it as a dead man, and would return in archetypal shamanistic fashion three days later as master over life and death.
more to come...this is the first section of part 4 in the series on Jesus as the Archetypal Shaman. There are likely to be half a dozen sections to this part alone.
Part 1 of the series
Part 2 of the series
Part 3 (thoughts on shamanism and glossalalia as it relates to Christians)