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The Storyteller: Shaman and Healer
by Michael Berman
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It is the kiss of the Queen of Fairyland that changes Thomas Rhymer's life forever, as the start of his descent into what can be regarded as the Lower World of the shaman is marked by that kiss. The Fairy Queen tells Thomas of the three paths that lie ahead and explains the meaning to him, acting as a guide or sacred teacher.

The first path is almost desert, flat, wide and straight as far as the eye can see. Although easy to journey on, it is of absolutely no consequence. It would appear to be a reference to an occupation that is easy and so leads to no rewards, expanding neither knowledge nor skill and devoid of any spiritual value. It offers a contrast to the traditional path of an initiate into shamanic practices, who often has to undergo great suffering and hardship along the way.

The second path is narrow, winding and treacherous with thorny hedges encroaching on both sides. Hazardous in the extreme, yet with a happy ending for it leads to the city of the kings. As we know, the king is always at the centre and in control. The suggestion is that after all the trials and tribulations of endangering oneself and surviving on a path upon which many obstacles are encountered, the reward for the righteous is entrance to the king, an honour indeed.

The third path is lush and green, meandering into forest and glade. It is a wild place where one could easily get lost. The Queen gives no explanation of this and quite simply says "This is the path to Fairy Land, and do not utter a world whilst in this land or you end up staying forever." This suggests that anything spoken in the otherworld is to be taken very seriously indeed.

The only material thing Thomas is given on his journey is an enchanted harp and it is used as a link between the two worlds. It can be regarded as the equivalent of the shaman's drum, the rhythmic beating of which was used to induce a trance state. In some cultures a musical bow was plucked in a rhythmic way to achieve the same state, and in others songs were sung. The Sufis use dance to produce the same effects. Other parallels can also be drawn between the ballad of Thomas Rhymer and a shamanic journey but limitation of space precludes further analysis here.

Significantly, a link has been established by Peggy Ann Wright at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between heightened temporal lobe activity and shamanistic experiences. These are soul journeys to distant realms of experience in order to communicate with spirits, and to bring back healing advice. Rhythmic drumming of the sort used in a vast range of spiritual rituals excites the temporal lobes and associated areas of the limbic system, as can the practice of guided visualization. Moreover, each time a storyteller introduces a tale starting 'once upon a time', he / she is inviting the audience to transcend their linear concepts of time and space and so enter a light state of trance. Consequently, as in the case of shamanic journeying and guided visualisation, storytelling can also be used to facilitate the development of what Danah Zohar calls Spiritual Intelligence - what we use to develop our longing and capacity for meaning, vision and value - and the power of storytelling is not to be underestimated.


Sheppard, T., Tim Sheppard's Storytelling Resources for Storytellers [accessed 6 April 2004]
Zohar, H., & Marshall, I., 2000, Spiritual Intelligence The Ultimate Intelligence Bloomsbury, London


Michael Berman is currently a research student at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and working part-time as a teacher at Oxford House College in London. Publications include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom and The Power of Metaphor for Crown House Publishing and The Shaman and the Storyteller for Superscript. Michael has been involved in TESOL for over thirty years and has given presentations at Conferences in Austria, Azerbaijan, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, and the Ukraine.

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