Madness, Shapechanging, and Art (Continued)

by Niko Silvester

with art by Brian Froud

Besides being solitary and dreamy, a shaman sometimes "becomes violent and easily loses consciousness, takes refuge in the forests, feeds upon the bark of trees, throws himself into the water or the fire or wounds himself with knives" (75).In the words of Stephen Larsen, a shaman

is often a solitary, half–mad creature through whom a god — or demon — may begin speaking unexpectedly. Or he may suddenly keel over in a trance, leaving his body lifeless and glassy–eyed, only to return from the invisible realm of myth with some outrageous demand, not at all in keeping with orderly social processes.The shaman’s primary allegiance is to the supernatural dimension, not to the society. (11)

But, Eliade says, "his ‘madness’ fulfills a mystic function; it reveals certain aspects of reality to him that are inaccessible to other mortals" (Myths 80). Compare the behaviour of the shaman initiate to the first scene with the character Juan del Río in The Wood Wife:

The doors to the barn were flung open. Inside, Juan stood in the center of the room, a hunting knife clutched in his hand. Ten years worth of paintings hung in tatters, the frames shattered, the canvases slashed. Clay sculptures littered the room in pieces. Carvings smoldered on the wooden floor, threatening to torch the whole barn.

Dora stood and stared at him. Then she ran to fetch a bucket. Juan watched, impassive and glassy–eyed, until she doused the flames with water. Then he wrenched the bucket from her hands and struck her, hard, across the jaw. He had never hit his wife before and even in this wild state the action seemed to startle him; he stopped and looked at her, wide–eyed. And then he made that howling sound, an animal sound, a sound of pain, wrenched from deep in the gut.

He pushed past Dora and out the open door. (10–11)

Juan has become violent, animal–like and uneasy. The ritual implications of this scene are highlighted when Dora finds her husband in the desert later that night:

He was curled up, naked, fast asleep on the flat boulders at the water’s edge. He had marked himself with oil paint: jagged white lines, green snake curves, blue spiral patterns and slashes of red. There was paint in his hair, blood on his chin. He had cut himself above one cheek; any closer and he would have lost the eye. (11)

When Fox brings Juan home after finding the man in the mountains, Dora tries to explain Juan’s behaviour.

"Juan has been like that since — well, for a while now," Dora says. "He takes off at night, and when he comes back he’s dazed or half asleep. Then when he wakes up again, he says he doesn’t remember." (46)

This is exactly like a potential shaman’s initiatory illness.

As Juan’s seeming madness advances he burns more of his paintings, this time inside the house. When Dora tries to stop him, he becomes violent, hitting her and throwing more things — "objects, books, art from the walls" — onto the fire. He is unhappy with his inability to be a great painter. "They’re shit, they’re all shit," he says of his artworks. After Dora locks herself in their bedroom Juan flees the house (195–6).

This kind of behaviour is normally labeled mental illness in contemporary Western society (Larsen 25–25, 132). It may be the case that such shaman initiates are suffering a mental illness, but the act of curing themselves constitutes a major part of the initiatory experience, as "it is only after having experienced and entered into these hidden dimensions of reality that the ‘madman’ becomes a shaman" (Eliade Myths 80). "A shamanic illness," says Jones, "cannot be cured until the sufferer undergoes shamanic initiation in the Otherworld" (91).In effect, by becoming a shaman, the shaman heals his (or her) own illness, and the initiatory madness can be compared to "the dissolution of the old personality" (Eliade Myths 224).

Juan explicitly refers to himself as not being the same person as he was. "I’m not that man anymore," he tells Dora as he burns his paintings. "Stop making me be that man" (195). His old personality has dissolved because of the "call" he has received from the otherworldly beings, but he has not yet healed himself, so he is caught in the initiatory illness of the future (or possible future) shaman. Looking at his reflection, he doesn’t recognize who or what he is becoming: "A young Chicano man stared back, eyes both dark and bright with visions.He didn’t recognize that man. He had changed. Was changing. Shedding one snake skin and finding another skin beneath. He was turning into someone else" (63).

Madness: Failed Initiation

Where the successful shaman candidate heals herself and becomes a shaman, the unsuccessful candidate fails to heal herself, resulting in "a total crisis" and quite possibly "leading to the disintegration of the personality" (Eliade Myths 224). According to Larsen, balanced awareness in a person requires both dreams/illusions and an understanding of factual reality. Reality without dreams is a lifeless existence. Dreams without reality lead to madness: "Subsumed in myth, the dimensions of consciousness, free will, and compassion are left out, and one is easily capable of becoming the nightmare in another’s waking dream" (4).

Windling adds the concept of the muse to the shamanic elements already mentioned. Anna Naverra had a muse among the spirits of the Rincon mountains (discussed below), and so does Juan. Juan’s muse is the creature Davis Cooper called "the Drowned Girl," and Anna referred to as "the Floodmage." The Floodmage is depicted as a cold being, content to drive Juan mad if he is unable to hunt the white stag for her (198). However, this otherworldly creature is not the reason for Juan’s probable failure to become a shaman; that reason is in Juan himself. Dora explains that Juan has a temper that broke up his first marriage, but he has always been good to her (245).It was because of Dora and Juan’s goodness that Cooper entrusted them with Anna’s painting of the Floodmage. And Anna’s paintings are implied to have a certain power; perhaps some of Anna’s own power was incorporated into them. For whatever reason, Juan encountered the Floodmage or Drowned Girl and "the girl was drawing out something at the core of Juan that he’d thought was dead and buried" (246). The violence and anger at Juan’s core drives his ambition to be a great painter, which in turn drives him towards madness instead of healing.