Systemic Ritual, Shamanism and Theatre – who am I?

Besides practising Systemic Ritual and Systemic Constellations, I work at ZID Theater in Amsterdam as a project manager. I love theatre. People sometimes wonder how does this combination of Systemic Ritual and theatre work for me. I tell you, for me, there is no difference. As Systemic Ritual is related to Shamanic work, I want to explain how theatre is associated with Shamanism.

First: What is theatre?
When I use the word theatre, I am not talking about a building nor the standard narrative dialogue style of plays. Instead, I use the word theatre for the branch of performing arts concerned with acting out stories in front of an audience, using a combination of speech, gesture, music, dance, sound, and spectacle – so, in essence, multidisciplinary.

Second: What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is one of the most ancient human traditions. It exists already from the early beginnings of humanity. Shamanism evolved in hunting-and-gathering communities. An essential task of the Shaman was predicting and influencing the outcome of the hunt. Above that, his ceremonies were done not only for the sake of the community but also for the sake of the animals in the wood to be healthy and reproduce themselves.

It is said, Shamanism originated in the distant forests of Mongolia from where it spread. But I suggest it originated already before that time – at the very beginning of humankind in Southern Africa.
Shamanistic practices still exist in our present time. The detailed methods vary from one culture to the next. However, they all have in common that a Shaman can heal the sick, communicate with the otherworld, escort the souls of the dead to the otherworld, recalls souls back to a person that lost a soul part and the technique of trance. Women, men and transgender individuals can be shamans.

Strictly speaking, the word Shaman only refers to the peoples of Nothern Asia and the Ural-Altaic. But more generally, Shamanism is also used to describe all indigenous groups where a medicine man or woman is a central figure in a community, like in Arctic peoples, American Indians, Australian Aborigines and African groups as the San.

What is a Shaman?
Easy said, a Shaman is an important figure within small communities who connects with spirits or the divine through trance to gather spiritual and medicinal needs to heal individuals and the community.

In shamanic cultures, the Shaman is the keeper of ritual, religious mythos, and ancestral lore. Essential is the fact that the Shaman always works in and with the whole community. Family, food and fellowship always accompany ceremonies. This reinforces the cultural identity and unity of the community.

The origin of theatre
There is a theory that states that theatre evolved from Shamanistic rituals. The art of the Shaman is multidisciplinary. We find rituals complete with masks, costumes, dance, music, props, dialogue, chorus, myth, music, poetry and let us not forget forms of visual art (sculptures, decorations, paintings). All of this is similar to theatre.

Similarities and differences between theatre, Shamanism and Systemic Ritual

Time and space
Time plays no role either in a shamanistic ritual, Systemic Ritual or Theatre. The rituals take place in space, in the here and now, as is true for a performance.
The space is in all three methods set up. There is a clear ground plan or decor wherein the ritual or performance takes place.

The aspect of healing
Shamanic and Systemic Rituals have an explicit aim to bring healing, not only to an individual but to the community as a whole; healing on physical, mental, emotional and soul levels.
In Shamanic and Systemic Ritual, healing comes not merely from ritual healing actions and words, but also from the supernatural, spirits, and ancestors. Thus, the healing effect is not so much based on the individual’s capability, but forces from outside are used – for example, an ancestor.

Theatre is primarily directed to entertainment, although a healing aspect of theatre can be that it brings catharsis in one way. We love the performance that evoke us a tear, a laugh, a sigh, a moment of reflection. Don’t we?
For sure, nowadays, this is not a prime aim of theatre. But once it was. Aristotle said that proper tragedy has to lead to an evocation of emotions followed by a purgation or purification of those feelings to restore emotional balance and order.
Also, the ancient Greeks saw theatre as a means of healing a community or providing a public good through demonstrating societal ills and their consequences.

Purgation and purification is also an element in Shamanic and Systemic Ritual. In a Shamanic Ritual predatory spirits that have either possessed or wounded a patient’s body and soul are relieved. The same can occur within Systemic Ritual. In Systemic Rituals, often strong emotions can appear and be released. These strong emotions evoke the feelings of the other participants that join the rituals. This enables them to process their own emotions and undergo catharsis.

Use of language
In Shamanistic and Systemic rituals and theatre, language/sentences are used in a specific way, more like poetry, sentences with an archaic power – appealing to our creative capacities and unconscious. Maybe it is not the purpose of theatre, but these sentences are meant for a healing effect in the Shamanic practice and Systemic Ritual.

In all three methods, dialogue exists. In the Shamanic ritual, the dialogue occurs between the various characters that the Shaman becomes; he can speak as the evil spirit or next time as the benign spirit, for example.
In Systemic Ritual the dialogue occurs between the representatives.
In both cases the dialogue is created at the moment, in Systemic Ritual mainly with the help of the facilitator.  
In theatre, the dialogue is between performers and well-rehearsed.

Like in theatre music often guides the Shamanic and Systemic rituals. In the Shamanic and Systemic Ritual, that happens with the sound of the drum. The monotonous drumming helps the Shaman or participants of the Systemic Ritual into trance. For the Shaman, this is important to transport him to the world of the beyond. In Systemic Ritual, only a very light trance is invoked to help participants to feel what is, instead of thinking.

Embodiment / movements
In theatre, movements or dance are performed as esthetic entertainment. And well-rehearsed.
The Shaman uses his body too in rituals. The dancing helps to sustain the trance, but above all movements are a way to contact the spirits and communicate with the audience.
In Systemic Ritual I always encourage the participants to embody their experiences because it helps deepen the experience and representation.

Besides these movements, in Shamanic and Systemic Ritual, ritual actions with the aim to bring healing are used – just like the archaic sentences do.

In the trance state, the Shaman can perform acrobatics or vigorous dancing for very long periods. In normal states, this would not be possible. The same counts for fire-walking, fire-eating, and other acts of apparent self-torture; without trance, this would not be possible. These acts are taken as demonstrations of the supernatural.
These things you won’t meet in Systemic Ritual.

In Shamanic and Systemic Ritual, there is singing. Singing is a kind of prayer that holds the space for good things to happen. “It keeps away the bad spirits”.

Besides that, the voice reinforces the connection with the spirits and communicates with them. So during the ritual, the Shaman may make the sound of the animals he meets in the trance journey or mostly his own power animal.
In Systemic Ritual, I encourage the participants to use their voices for the same reasons. But only the very experienced participants will do so.  

Representatives versus performers
In theatre, there are performers. They rehearsed very well, and each time they perform, they do more or less the same.
In a Shamanic Ritual, there is only one performer – the Shaman. Well-educated in connecting with the spirit and making trance–journeys, but all his movements and sounds arise from the moment in a trance.
In Systemic Ritual, we work with representatives, just like in Systemic Constellations. Everything that occurs arises from the moment, guided mainly by the facilitator – unless the participants are experienced.

Costumes, masks, props
This is an essential part of theatre.
But from the very beginning, it came from the Shaman. The mask and costume of the Shamans are very complex. All aspects of the Shaman’s costume and mask are a part of the animal nature of the Shaman. By putting on the mask the Shaman becomes possessed by the spirit represented and takes on the functions of that spirit.
Furthermore, there can be different props on the costume that protect the Shaman during his journey and help him come back to reality.
In the space where the ritual is done, there are other props that serve as food for the spirits, animal offerings and other objects for several purposes.

In Systemic Ritual, props can be used for similar reasons. However, costumes and masks are not used – at least not by me.

The role of the community
Rituals are always done for a whole community. As theatre is performed in front of an audience.
In Shamanic work, the community attends either as witnesses (audience) or as participants, depending on the ritual. Mostly, the communities help prepare for Shamanic rituals, which are often accompanied by feasts or fasts, a sacrifice of community resources, or even challenging group journeys into the wilderness.
In Systemic Ritual, everybody participates actively. Because of this active participation, the rituals help integrate individual problems and collective ones. Shamanic and Systemic Ritual work recognises and emphasises that an individual never stands alone but is always a part of a community.

Inspired by:

Dramaturgical Applications of Shamanic Healing for Social Change
John Patrick Brunner, Jr.
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts in the Theatre Department of the School of the Arts, Columbia University, April 23, 2021

By Alisa Shriner Ridgway, A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the DEPARTMENT OF DRAMA. In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of MASTER OF ARTS in the graduate college THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA, 1975

Published by Susanne Hazen

Drs. Susanne Hazen is in 1988 afgestudeerd aan de Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht in Psychologie . Na deze opleiding is ze gaan werken in het welzijnswerk. In 2001 is ze eveneens afgestudeerd aan de toenmalige Academie voor Natuurgeneeskunde Hilversum. In 2002 is ze gestart met haar eigen praktijk. Ze doceert sinds 2002 Psychologie / Therapeutische Vorming aan de diverse opleidingen in CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine). In de jaren 2004 en 2005 volgde ze de opleiding Familieopstellingen bij Harrie de Kruijff en ontving in juni 2005 het diploma. Sinds 2003 verdiept ze zich in het Sjamanistisch werk en heeft diverse trainingen gevolgd bij Daan van Kampenhout in Nederland en Zwitserland. In 2011 heeft ze de tweejarige training “Systemic Ritual®” afgerond. Wenst u meer informatie – zie haar profiel op LinkedIn.

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