Mythos, Shamanism
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What Are Spirits?

By Steve Beyer

Each doctor, each vegetal que enseña, each species of teaching plant has what mestizo shamans call a madre, mother, or genio, genius, or espíritu, spirit, or imán, magnet, or matriz, matrix. Informally, we generally translate all these terms simply as the spirit of the plant. In addition, mestizo shamans have a wide variety of protective birds and animals and plants, which we call, too, something like protective spirits. Yet, as Graham Harvey points out, those who are willing to argue endlessly about the meaning and applicability of the term shaman often refer to spirits as if everyone knows what the word means — as if, he says, “the word were self-evidently universally understood, and the beings universally experienced.”

So: what do we know about these spirits?

In many ways, they act very much like imaginary objects. First, spirits lack the sensory coherence of real things. That is, primarily, spirits cannot be touched, unlike real things, although they can often be heard and occasionally be smelled; although, in fairness, perhaps I should add that I have felt spirits — for example, rubbing my head — but never been able to touch them. Second, spirits are, unlike real things, not public, in that other people, in the same place at the same time, do not see the same spirit objects or persons I see. This point can be disputed by claims to the contrary, or by a claim that shamans, at least, can perceive the ayahuasca visions of others; but, as far as I know, these claims have not been well tested. Third, the behavior of spirits is unusual; spirits appear and disappear suddenly and unpredictably, fade away gradually, and transform themselves in ways inconsistent with the generally recognized behavior of real things. Fourth, the appearance of spirits may be significantly different from that of real objects and people. For example, the spirit of the ayahuma tree often appears as a person without a head, contrary to the normal appearance of real people, at least living ones. And the spirit of a particular plant may appear in an entirely different form at different times— for example, as male or female, old or young, with one or several heads — unlike real objects and people, who are generally fairly consistent in appearance from meeting to meeting.

On the other hand, spirits appear to have many of the qualities of persons — self-awareness, understanding, personal identity, volition, speech, memory. They are autonomous; they come and go as they wish; they may unilaterally initiate or terminate a relationship with a human. They can provide information or insight that the recipient finds surprising or previously unknown. They may have relatively consistent personalities — helpful, harmful, callous, malicious, indifferent, or tricky. Relationships with spirits may be demanding, dangerous, and exhausting, just as with humans.

Anthropologists have often expressed their puzzlement at this combination of attributes by asking dichotomously whether the spirits spoken of by their indigenous informants — and sometimes experienced by the anthropologists themselves — are or are not real.

The classic anthropological answer is no. Nineteenth-century anthropologist Edward Tylor coined he term animism to define the essence of religion as “the belief in spirits” — that is, as a category mistake made by young children and primitives who project life onto inanimate objects, at least until they reach a more advanced stage of development. Anthropologist Michael Winkelman, who has done research on shamanism and psychedelic medicine, similarly considers spirits to be simply a “metaphoric symbolic attribution” — that is, the incorrect attribution of “mind qualities like those of humans to unknown and natural phenomena … exemplified in anthropomorphic attribution of humanlike ‘mind’ characteristics to gods, spirits, and nonhuman entities, particularly animals.”

However, a number of contemporary anthropologists now contend that the answer is yes. Richard Shweder proposes that we “start with the assumption that malevolent ancestral spirits do exist and can get into one’s body, that they are experienced, and that the cultural representation of their existence and person’s experience of their existence lights up an aspect of reality that has import for the management of the self.” Jenny Blain, who is both an anthropologist and herself a neoshamanist seiðworker, protests against turning spirits into “culturally defined aspects of one’s own personality, not external agents.” Such reductionism is, she says, “part of the individualization and psychologizing of perception that pervades Western academic discourses of the rational, unitary self.” Anthropologist Felicitas Goodman maintains that spirits are real beings who seek communication with humans. “Ritual,” she says, “is the rainbow bridge over which we can call on the Spirits and the Spirits cross over from their world into ours.” Edith Turner is a prolific advocate for the simple reality of spirits: “I saw with my own eyes a large gray blob of something like plasma emerge from the sick woman’s back. Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction: it isn’t a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology.”

But the experience of spirits as autonomous personalities — what Terence McKenna has called alien intelligences or organized entelechies — ought to be taken as subverting this naïve dichotomous ontology. Indeed, so should any metachoric experience — hallucinations, lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences, active imagination, eidetic visualization. We have already discussed metachoric experiences and their common features — their presentness, detail, externality, and three-dimensional spacefulness. To this we may now add one more — that, in any metachoric experience, one may be confronted by autonomous others.

Indeed, Carl Jung’s description of the other-than-human persons encountered in active imagination is strikingly similar to the shaman’s experience of encountering the plant and animal spirits. These beings, Jung says, know things and possess insights unknown to the person encountering them; they “can say things that I do not know and do not intend.” The encounter is a dialogue — a conversation between me and something else that is not-me — “exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings.” These persons possess autonomy, independent knowledge, the ability to form relationships — “like animals in the forest,” says Jung, “or people in a room, or birds in the air.” They “have a life of their own.”

Psychologist James Hillman says that this “living being other than myself … becomes a psychopompos, a guide with a soul having its own inherent limitation and necessity.” When we actively confront these other-than-human persons, respond to them with our own objections, awe, and arguments, then, as Ann and Barry Ulanov put it, we “come to the breath-stopping realization of just how independent of our conscious control such images are. They have a life of their own. They push at us. They talk back.” They are, says Hillman, “valid psychological subjects with wills and feelings like ours but not reducible to ours.”

The naïve dichotomous metaphysics takes as normative a particular set of experiences characterized by sensory coherence, predictability, and consistency. Experiences that are not normative by these criteria are either dismissed as mistakes or else normalized, reified, turned into stuff, into — as Richard Robinson used to put it — gaseous fauna.

James Hillman takes a very different approach. He does not reify the imaginal; rather, he mythologizes reality. He calls this soul-making. The act of soul-making is imagining, the crafting of images:

Soul-making is also described as imaging, that is, seeing or hearing by means of an imagining which sees through an event to its image. Imaging means releasing events from their literal understanding into a mythical appreciation. Soul-making, in this sense, is equated with de-literalizing — that psychological attitude which suspiciously disallows the naïve and given level of events in order to search out their shadowy, metaphorical significances for soul.

The human adventure, Hillman says, “is a wandering through the vale of the world for the sake of making soul.” And what is soul? “Soul is imagination,” he says, “a cavernous treasury … a confusion and richness, both … The cooking vessel of the soul takes in everything, everything can become soul; and by taking into its imagination any and all events, psychic space grows.” And soul is “the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy — that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.” The question of soul-making is this: “What does this event, this thing, this moment move in my soul?”

Hillman calls this seeing through — the ability of the imagination’s eye to see through the literal to the metaphorical. Re-visioning is deliteralizing or metaphorizing reality. The purpose is to make the literal metaphorical, to make the real imaginal. The objective is to enable the realization that reality is imagination— that what appears most real is in fact an image with potentially profound metaphorical implications. Thus, says Hillman, soul is “the imaginative possibility in our natures … the mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.” “By means of the archetypal image,” he writes, “natural phenomena present faces that speak to the imagining soul rather than only conceal hidden laws and probabilities and manifest their objectification.”

So Hillman speaks of personifying not as a category mistake but rather as a “basic psychological activity — the spontaneous experiencing, envisioning and speaking of the configurations of existence as psychic presences,” as a mode of thought “which takes an inside event and puts it outside, at the same time making this content alive, personal, and even divine.” Personifying is “a way of being in the world and experiencing the world as a psychological field, where persons are given with events, so that events are experiences which touch us, move us, appeal to us” — a way of imagining things into souls.” If Hillman’s personifying, seeing through, soulmaking becomes a way of engaging with the world, a relational epistemology, then it is verging upon a genuine and nonreductive animism, one in which the world has become magical, filled with wonders, filled with the spirits.

Steve Beyer’s blog Singing to the Plants is at

Filed under: Mythos, Shamanism


Steve Beyer has doctorates in religious studies and in psychology. He has been a university professor, lawyer, wilderness guide, and peacemaker. He has studied both wilderness survival and the indigenous cultures of North and South America. He has studied sacred plant medicine with traditional herbalists in North America and with ayahuasqueros in the Upper Amazon, where he received coronación by banco ayahuasquero don Roberto Acho Jurama. He has worked with ayahuasca and other sacred plants in the Amazon, peyote in ceremonies of the Native American Church, and huachuma in Peruvian mesa rituals. He has served as an editor of the Journal of Shamanic Practice, and is currently completing a book on shamanism, sorcery, and plant medicine in the Upper Amazon.


  1. Julian says

    I’ve just participated in 5 ayahuasca ceremonies near Iquitos (Blue Morhpo). I didn’t find ayahuasca to be a very academic experience and it’s probably why I found this article to be annoying. I appreciate the different points of view but I feel like the author is hiding his own points of view from the reader behind academic waffle. What are the author’s conclusions? What are the author’s opinions or experiences? I feel like I need to read another article to find out “What are Spirits?”. Sorry Steve it is easy to be critical and cruel over the web. Julian.

  2. I am sorry that you found this article annoying. I know that I can seem overly academic at times, but the article does, I think, incorporate my own point of view. What would you have liked to be different? And in what way do you think that I was cruel? I wish you all blessings on your journey!

  3. Sergej E. says

    Thank you Steve for your post, it is very great.
    But I can understand Julian who found it academically annoying. It sounds like the text want to convince the unbeliever of the existence of spirits. I did a lot of Ayahuasca on different places, sometimes alone, sometimes with shamans and even without ayahuasca I communicated with spirits. Be it spirits of plants, people or whatever beings one can think of. The subjectively perceivable stuff ended when the spirits themself began to act in the objective world through animals like birds or even cats in order to dissolve my disbelief.
    One spirit spoke to me telepathically: “We know that you are always skeptical, even if all this here is much more real and intense than the “real” world, you always ask yourself wether all this is really true or just your imagination. So we can prove it to you. Pay attention, your housecat will come to you now and meow loudly.”

    You will not believe, but my housecat came to me and cried so loud as never before! I thought the cat is dying!
    “Perhaps its just all coincidence! That does not prove anything!
    Ok, make the cat go away out of my room”, I said.
    The cat went away…
    “Ok, let the cat come back”
    the cat came back…
    “Let it meow”
    the cat meowed…
    and so on , and so on…
    the same it was with influencing the rain, the weather, or even the singing of the birds.
    That was a one time job for dissolving my disbelief, its not that I walk around and influence animals or the weather around me.

    BUT, I have to say, it has nothing to do with forceful manipulation. It all happened out of deep and mutual love and respect. There is not even a spirit on the one side, and one “me” on the other side.
    There is even not a communication between us both, because there are no both , there are no two.
    We are ONE…
    And “me”, as everything that exists, is acting through the cat, bird, plant, etc.
    Like a dancing wave of love through all creation without strain or force.
    It has nothing to do with duality, but in order to convey something with words, one needs words, of course, and there we have the seperation again, a “Dialog”. Our multidimensional existence is split in 3Dimensional pieces to make it understandable for the 3D perceiver.

    All talk here is nonsence, I have nothing to prove or to convey. A lot of people try to prove things like spirits through arguments, as if the spirits depend on their arguments. As if, if you cannot argue, the spirits will not be there; they will become nonexistential.

    Hm, am I giving arguments here righ now? …

    The question should not be wether they exist or not, whether they are subjective or objective, but how are they able to help us? Does Ganesha or Shiva exist? I talked to them, but do they exist?
    Who is reading this text right right now? Do you exist?

    Do you know for sure?

    And if yes, WHO is it who knows?

    One day (assumed that time exists) “you” will realize that “you” do not exist.
    It is not a joke, when all old and new scriptures talk of maya, Illusion etc.

    So, yes ,spirits are the same Illusion as we are…

    I want to end here with some words by Osho, who said it very precisely while talking about mythological figures.

    Mythology deals with symbols. It is not history; it is not concerned with objective reality. But that does not mean that it is not concerned with reality itself. It is concerned with subjective reality. These gods, these mythological symbols, do not exist outside you but they have a psychological existence and that psychological existence can be helpful, can be used. So the first thing to be understood is that they are not real persons in the world but they are real symbols in the psyche of man.

    Hindu mythological gods are certain visions of a certain state of mind. When you come into that state of mind, visions start happening to you. They will have a similarity. All the world over they will have a similarity. There will be minor differences because of culture, education, training, but deep down there will be a similarity.

    Remember that your unconscious mind does not know any language. Your unconscious mind knows only the most primitive language and that is of pictures. Your conscious mind has learned language symbols but the unconscious mind still remains pictorial just like a small child. It converts everything into pictures.


    These symbols have been found through centuries and centuries of work and effort. They indicate a certain state of mind. To me all mythological gods are meaningful subjectively. Objectively they are nowhere to be found. And if you start trying to find them somewhere objectively, then you will become a victim of your own imagination — because you can find them; you can project them so strongly that you can find them.

    Human imagination is such a forcible thing, it has such a tremendous force within it, that if you imagine something continuously you will start feeling it around you. Then you can see it, then you can realize it. It will become an objective thing. It is not objective but you will feel it as existing outside you. So it is dangerous to play with imagination because then you can be hypnotized by your own imagination and you can come to see and feel things which are not. This is creating a private fantasy, a dreamworld; this is a sort of madness. You can see Krishna, you can see Christ, you can see Buddha, but this whole effort is wasted because you are moving in dreams and not in reality.


    “The knowledge creates experience, and the experience strengthens knowledge. This is a vicious circle.”
    -UG Krishnamurti


    Hence, my insistence to always remember that these mythological figures are symbolic. They are meaningful, they are poetic, they are a certain language. They say something, they imply something but they are not objective personalities. If you can remember this, then you can use them beautifully. They can be of much help. But if you think of them as objective, they will be harmful and by and by you will move into a dreamworld and you will lose contact with the reality. And to lose contact with the reality is to go mad. Be constantly in contact with reality. Still, do not allow the objective reality to kill the inner and the subjective. Be alive and alert in the inner world but do not mix them.

    This is happening: either we allow the objective reality to kill the inner and the subjective, or we allow the subjective to project a dreamworld on the objective, and then the objective disappears. These are two extreme viewpoints. Science goes on thinking in terms of the objective and goes on denying the subjective. Religion goes on talking about the subjective and denying the objective.

    I am totally different from both. My emphasis is that objective is objective and let it remain objective. Subjective is subjective and let it remain subjective. Keep their purities and you will be saner for it. If you mix them, if you confuse them, you will become insane, you will lose balance.

    quotes from “The Supreme Doctrine” by osho…

    thank you osho! 😉

    love you all

  4. Sergej E. says

    there is only one serious thing left to do in this world.
    and that is best conveyed in this video here

  5. Doug Willoughby says

    I think you said it all when you commented “alot of people try to prove things like spirits as if spirits depend upon arguments” Thats all

  6. scott says

    Seemed accurate to my experience. Good article in my opinion

  7. Eunice Oviawe-Jones says

    Enlightening – in my opinion. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks

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