Tag - Michael Berman

The Return from Glastonbury

by Michael Berman

I am often asked why, even though I have a driving licence and would benefit from having a car due to the difficulty I now have in walking or using public transport, I do not have one.  Though not strictly true, I usually answer to reduce my carbon footprint, but, the real reason for my decision not to drive is somewhat different.

Glastonbury is a small town in Somerset, England, situated at a dry point on the low lying Somerset Levels, 37 km south of Bristol.

Evidence from timber trackways such as the Sweet Track show that the town has been inhabited since Neolithic times. Glastonbury Lake Village was an Iron Age village west of Glastonbury, and dates back to the Bronze Age. Centwine was the first Saxon patron of Glastonbury Abbey. Formerly one of the most important abbeys in England, it was the site of Edmund Ironside’s coronation as King of England in 1016.

These days Glastonbury is known as a New Age centre, and is notable for myths and legends often related to Glastonbury Tor, concerning Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail and King Arthur. In some Arthurian literature Glastonbury is identified with the legendary island of Avalon. Joseph is said to have arrived in Glastonbury and stuck his staff into the ground, when it flowered miraculously into the Glastonbury Thorn. The Glastonbury Festival, held in the nearby village of Pilton, takes its name from the town.

It was therefore the ideal location for a weekend workshop on using a Native American version of the tarot which had been designed by the facilitator of the course, and which I chose to register for at a time in my life when I was particularly interested in such matters.

At the end of the first day, when the workshop leader had gone through the significance of each of the cards in turn, she invited us to see her on an individual basis to give us our sacred names.

Mine consisted of a weather condition and the name of a rarely seen bird of prey. I was about to leave so the next participant in line could take my place but for some reason she held me back. “You will decide to leave the course early” she then told me, “and on your way home you will experience something you will never forget.” In fact, I had already decided to leave early. I did not appreciate the communal living accommodation provided for the workshop, felt somewhat out of place, and there were pressing concerns back in London that I wanted to deal with instead.

I gave her warning little attention until I set off on the motorway back to London. All of a sudden the car ground to a halt, the weather condition changed into the first part of my name described and there, lying in front of the car, was the rarely seen bird of prey that formed the second part. Then, when I opened the car to check what was wrong with the engine, the weather changed back to what it had been like before and the creature had vanished without a trace. It was as if the whole incident had never happened, but on the other hand it was all so powerful I was in no doubt that it had. The experience affected me so deeply that from that day on I never drove again and never will.

About the author
Michael Berman’s published work includes The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus and Shamanic Journeys, Shamanic Stories for O-Books, Journeys outside Time for Pendraig Publishing, and Tales of Power for Lear Books. A Bridge to the Other Side: Death in the Folk Tradition and Georgia through Earth, Fire, Air and Water are both due to be published by Moon Books in 2012. ELT publications include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom, In a Faraway Land (a resource book for teachers on storytelling), On Business and for Pleasure (a self-study workbook), and English Language Teaching Matters, written with Mojca Belak and Wayne Rimmer. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk, E-mail: berman.michael@rocketmail.com


To and From the Land of the Dead

by Michael Berman


The concepts of heaven and hell are familiar to all of us, whatever our faiths may be, and the idioms that incorporate the words themselves have become so overused that they are now nothing more than clichés. On the other hand, although they appear in a number of mythologies and religions, the locations known as heaven and hell are by no means common to all. Neither are they what we are primarily concerned with here. Instead, it is the shamanic concept of the Land of the Dead that is the focus of this new book.

Different types of shamanic journeys can be undertaken–to the Lower World to make contact with Power Animals, to the Upper World to meet your Sacred Teacher, and to the Middle-world to see events that take place in this reality in their non-ordinary reality forms and to gain a greater insight into their nature. There are also journeys for the purpose of divination and journeys to carry out soul retrievals. Journeys are also undertaken to the Land of the Dead.

Sometimes the Land of the Dead is antipodal, meaning everything there is reversed: day here is night there, and vice versa. And It is not always necessary to be dead in order to visit ghost land. In eastern Melanesia, for example, living people can go down to the netherworld, Panoi, either in the body or in spirit, and either in dream or in a near-death state. Ghosts advise them not to eat from the food of the dead, for otherwise they cannot come back alive (Couliano, 1991, p.37).

Shamanic rituals enable us to explore the issues of death and dying experientially before we eventually have to face up to the “real” thing. The divine experience can thus become a preparation for the earthly experience, rather than the reverse. In other words, what is learnt in non-ordinary reality can be transferred to and applied in this reality. In the same way, what can be learnt through a shamanic story (a story that has either been based on or inspired by a shamanic journey, or one that contains a number of the elements typical of such a journey) can be transferred to and applied to this reality and so help us come to terms with the crossing over of our loved ones. From such tales we can learn, for example, that the wish to have those we love, but who have departed from this world, returned to us is perhaps nothing but selfishness on our part. At least this is what the following Hawaiian example would seem to suggest:

A Visit to the Spirit Land: The Strange Experience of a Woman in Kona, Hawaii

KALIMA had been sick for many weeks until at last she died. Her friends gathered around her with loud cries of grief, and with many expressions of affection and sorrow at their loss they prepared her body for its burial.

The grave was dug, and when everything was ready for the last rites and sad act, husband and friends came to take a final look at the rigid form and ashen face before it was laid away forever in the ground. The old mother sat on the mat-covered ground beside her child, brushing away the intrusive flies with a piece of cocoanut-leaf, and wiping away the tears that slowly rolled down her cheeks. Now and then she would break into a low, heart-rending wail, and tell in a sob-choked, broken voice, how good this, her child, had always been to her, how her husband loved her, and how her children would never have any one to take her place. “Oh, why,” she cried, “did the gods leave me? I am old and heavy with years; my back is bent and my eyes are getting dark. I cannot work, and am too old and weak to enjoy fishing in the sea, or dancing and feasting under the trees. But this, my child, loved all these things, and was so happy. Why is she taken and I, so useless, left?” And again that mournful, sob-choked wail broke on the still air, and was borne out to the friends gathered under the trees before the door, and was taken up and repeated until the hardest heart would have softened and melted at the sound. As they sat around on the mats looking at their dead and listening to the old mother, suddenly Kalima moved, took a long breath, and opened her eyes. They were frightened at the miracle, but so happy to have her back again among them.

The old mother raised her hands and eyes to heaven and, with rapt faith on her brown, wrinkled face, exclaimed: “The gods have let her come back! How they must love her!”

Mother, husband, and friends gathered around and rubbed her hands and feet, and did what they could for her comfort. In a few minutes she revived enough to say, “I have something strange to tell you.”

Several days passed before she was strong enough to say more; then calling her relatives and friends about her, she told them the following weird and strange story:

“I died, as you know. I seemed to leave my body and stand beside it, looking down on what was me. The me that was standing there looked like the form I was looking at, only, I was alive and the other was dead. I gazed at my body for a few minutes, then turned and walked away. I left the house and village, and walked on and on to the next village, and there I found crowds of people,–Oh, so many people! The place which I knew as a small village of a few houses was a very large place, with hundreds of houses and thousands of men, women, and children. Some of them I knew and they spoke to me,–although that seemed strange, for I knew they were dead,–but nearly all were strangers. They were all so happy! They seemed not to have a care; nothing to trouble them. Joy was in every face, and happy laughter and bright, loving words were on every tongue.

“I left that village and walked on to the next. I was not tired, for it seemed no trouble to walk. It was the same there; thousands of people, and every one so joyous and happy. Some of these I knew. I spoke to a few people, then went on again. I seemed to be on my way to the volcano,–to Pele’s pit,–and could not stop, much as I wanted to do so.

“All along the road were houses and people, where I had never known any one to live. Every bit of good ground had many houses, and many, many happy people on it. I felt so full of joy, too, that my heart sang within me, and I was glad to be dead.

“In time I came to South Point, and there, too, was a great crowd of people. The barren point was a great village. I was greeted with happy alohas, then passed on. All through Kau it was the same, and I felt happier every minute. At last I reached the volcano. There were some people there, but not so many as at other places. They, too, were happy like the others, but they said, You must go back to your body. You are not to die yet.’

“I did not want to go back. I begged and prayed to be allowed to stay with them, but they said, ‘No, you must go back; and if you do not go willingly, we will make you. go.’

“I cried and tried to stay, but they drove me back, even beating me when I stopped and would not go on. So I was driven over the road I had come, back through all those happy people. They were still joyous and happy, but when they saw that I was not allowed to stay, they turned on me and helped drive me, too.

“Over the sixty miles I went, weeping, followed by those cruel people, till I reached my home and stood by my body again. I looked at it and hated it. Was that my body? What a horrid, loathsome thing it was to me now, since I had seen so many beautiful, happy creatures! Must I go and live in that thing again? No, I would not go into it; I rebelled and cried for mercy.

“‘You must go into it; we will make you!’ said my tormentors. They took me and pushed me head foremost into the big toe.

“I struggled and fought, but could not help myself. They pushed and beat me again, when I tried for the last time to escape. When I passed the waist, I seemed to know it was of no use to struggle anymore, so went the rest of the way myself. Then my body came to life again, and I opened my eyes.

“But I wish I could have stayed with those happy people. It was cruel to make me come back. My other body was so beautiful, and I was so happy, so happy!”

Taken from Thrum, T.G. (1907) Hawaiian Folk Tales: A Collection of Native Legends, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. Scanned at sacred-texts.com, July 2006. Proofed and formatted by John Bruno Hare. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was published prior to 1923.


Michael Berman works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys, Shamanic Stories for O-Books, and To and From the Land of the Dead for Lear Books. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk



Towards a New Model of Shamanism

by Michael Berman

Existing models of shamanism have tended to focus upon particular skills or states of consciousness exhibited by shamans and are therefore framed with reference to outcomes, rather than by attending to the processes of development leading to them. David Gordon Wilson, New College, Edinburgh in his paper “Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans: Towards an Apprenticeship Model of Shamanic Practice,” (BASR Conference 2010) proposes an apprenticeship model as the basis of a new definition of shamanism. This, he argues, offers a distinctive, clearly-structured approach to understanding the acquisition and nature of shamanic skills, without being unduly prescriptive as to which particular shamanic skills should be anticipated in any given cultural setting. Not all shamans, however, necessarily accept apprentices – the nayogh [which translates as “people who are looking”] in Armenia today certainly do not, to give but one example. This is because it is believed that a person can only become a nayogh if they receive a calling, and not by becoming an apprentice to one. They will, however, sometimes pass on prayers that they use, though only through a member of the opposite sex. So if a married woman wanted a prayer, for example, it would be given to her husband by the nayogh to be passed on to her. Therefore, unless the apprenticeship can be regarded as taking place through what might consist of nothing more than a single vision, using such a model to describe the acquisition of all shamanic skills would not seem to be particularly helpful.

Another problem that arises when attempting to arrive at a satisfactory definition which can encompass all the different forms of shamanism is that in some cultures each practitioner develops his or her own approach to healing, which may include going into a genuine trance state, going into an imitative trance state, a demonstration of tricks, or a mixture of all three practices. And once again, this applies to the Armenian nayogh. So any definition of what being a shaman entails clearly needs to take such differences into account too. The following definition is therefore proposed:

A shaman is someone who performs an ecstatic (in a trance state), imitative, or demonstrative ritual of a séance (or a combination of all three), at will (in other words, whenever he or she chooses to do so), in which aid is sought from beings in (what are considered to be) other realities generally for healing purposes or for divination-both for individuals and / or the community.

As for the practice of shamanism, it is understood to encompass a personalistic view of the world, in which life is seen to be not only about beliefs and practices, but also about relationships-how we are related, and how we relate to each other. In shamanism the notion of interdependence “is the idea of the kinship of all life, the recognition that nothing can exist in and of itself without being in relationship to other things, and therefore that it is insane for us to consider ourselves as essentially unrelated parts of the whole Earth” (Halifax in Nicholson, 1987, p.220). And we now have proof of our interdependence:

[I]t has been shown that during mystical ecstasy (or its equivalent, entheogenic shamanic states [states induced by ingesting hallucinogens]), the individual experiences a blurring of the boundaries on the ego and feels at “one with Nature”; the ego is no longer confined within the body, but extends outward to all of Nature; other living beings come to share in the ego, as an authentic communion with the environment, which is sensed as in some way divine (Ruck, Staples, et al., 2007, p.76).

Further justification for the belief that all life is connected can be found in the fact that the elementary particles that make up all matter, by their gravitational, electromagnetic or nuclear field, are coextensive with the whole universe, and as man is composed of these particles, he must therefore be in union with the entire cosmos.

The phrase “a religion of ritual observance” has been used in particular to describe Shinto-“a religion not of theology but of ritual observance” (Driver, 1991, p.38).
However, other religions, apart from Shinto, could also be listed under this heading, Wicca for example. As in the case of Shinto, there is no one bible or prayer book in Wicca and the primary concern is not ethics, dogma, or theology. Rather, it is a religion of ritual practice. These practices include marking eight holiday “sabbats” in the “wheel of the year”, falling on the solstices, equinoxes and the four “cross quarter days” on or about the first of February, May, August and November. Many Wiccans also mark “esbats,” rituals for worship in accordance with a given moon phase (such as the night of the full moon). The same clearly applies to shamanism too.

Additionally, shamanism can be seen to be a kinship-based religion, in which kinship is not only understood to involve extended family links between members, but also, in the case of neo-shamanism, links between people who regard themselves as members of a particular community – neo-shamanic practitioners who regularly participate in a drumming group, for example. To complicate matters even further, though, there are also those who choose to work entirely on their own.

So what we are in effect dealing with is a kinship-based religion of ritual observance that in different cultures takes on different forms, and one that can even take on a variety of different forms within the same culture, as is the case in present-day Armenia.  And the definition being proposed here, unlike one based on an apprenticeship model or one that requires the shaman to perform an ecstatic ritual of a séance, has the advantage of being a comprehensive one; for it not only embraces all the forms of shamanism that have been practised, but also all the forms of shamanism that are being practised today.


Berman, M. (2007) The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. (For the definition of Shamanism)

Berman, M, (2010) Guided Visualisations through the Caucasus, Pendraig Publishing. (For the information on neo-paganism in Armenia)

Driver, T.F. (1991) The Magic of Ritual, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Halifax, J. (1987) “Shamanism, Mind, and No Self” in Nicholson, S. (comp.) Shamanism: An Expanded View of Reality, Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Ruck, Carl A.P., Staples, B.D., Celdran J.A.G., Hoffman, M.A. (2007) The Hidden World: Survival of Pagan Shamanic Themes in European Fairytales, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.
Michael Berman works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus for O-Books, and All God’s Creatures: Stories Old and New for Pendraig Publishing. To and from the Land of the Dead, his latest work, is due to be published by Lear books in 2011. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk


The Art of Dreaming

by Michael Berman

One of the reasons why we go on journeys is because we can learn from such experiences, and this applies to both journeys undertaken in this reality as well as to journeys into other realities – of the shamanic kind.

According to research, published in the academic journal Cell Biology, it has been found that people who dream about a new task perform it better on waking than those who do not dream, and there is no reason why this should not apply to “waking dreams” too:

Volunteers were asked to learn the layout of a 3D computer maze so they could find their way within the virtual space several hours later. Those allowed to take a nap and who also remembered dreaming of the task, found their way to a landmark quicker. The researchers think the dreams are a sign that unconscious parts of the brain are working hard to process information about the task.

Dr Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School, one of the authors of the paper, said dreams may be a marker that the brain is working on the same problem at many levels. He said: “The dreams might reflect the brain’s attempt to find associations for the memories that could make them more useful in the future.”

Co-author Dr Erin Wamsley said the study suggests our non-conscious brain works on the things that it deems are most important. “Every day we are gathering and encountering tremendous amounts of information and new experiences,” she said. “It would seem that our dreams are asking the question, ‘How do I use this information to inform my life?” Taken from Dreams ‘can help with learning’ (Story from BBC NEWS
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/health/8638551.stm [accessed 23/4/10]).

Interestingly, this is the same question we ask ourselves when returning to this reality after a shamanic journey, and shamanic practitioners have probably been doing this ever since the earth was first peopled.


“Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played upon their instruments, the guests danced to the music, and were merry, and the house was filled with joy. But a deaf man passed outside the house; he looked in through the window and saw the people whirling about the room, leaping, and throwing about their arms. ‘See how they fling themselves about!’ he cried, ‘it is a house filled with madmen!’ For he could not hear the music to which they danced.” (An extract from “The Mad Dancers” in Meyer Levin’s The Golden Mountain: Marvellous Tales of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem and of his great-grandson Rabbi Nachmann, New York: Behrman House Inc. Publishers [1932]).

Michael Berman PhD works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus and Georgia through its Folktales for O-Books, and All God’s Creatures: Stories Old and New for Pendraig Publishing. Although Michael trained as a Core Shamanic Counsellor with the Scandinavian Centre for Shamanic Studies under Jonathan Horwitz, these days his focus is more on the academic side of shamanism, with a particular interest in the folktales with shamanic themes told by and collected from the peoples of the Caucasus. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk