Sex, Spirits, and Shamans
The first sex rituals were probably practiced by shamans as soon as humans figured out the connection between sex and babies. A shaman is a tribal diviner, medicine person, witch doctor or healer, an intermediary between humans and the spirit world. In every part of the world, humans have had some sort of shaman who communicated directly with the gods or spirits.
Though the term itself came from Siberia, shamanism has some common traits throughout the world. Shamans are usually chosen following a death-rebirth experience, a life-threatening serious injury, or an illness. Sometimes they are chosen by the spirit or god that returns their health in exchange for a promise to become a healer. In other cases, a dream is taken by tribal leaders to mean the person has a direct connection to spirit, the crucial characteristic needed for success. Less frequently, they are selected by the existing shaman or tribal leader and apprenticed as a youngster.
As ritual leaders, healers, and diviners, shamans communicate with the spirits and travel in spiritual realms. Shamans often make use of spirit journeys performed while in trance. Trance is induced through drumming, chanting, dancing, ingestion of psychotropic plant substances, and other methods. The shaman may journey by himself; he may take others with him; or he may send the person alone, as on a vision quest.
Once entering the altered state, the shaman works with other levels of reality and with spirit entities. Shamans are expected to have a direct relationship with one or more spirits. Sometimes these are deities or ancestors; sometimes they are the spirits of plants, animals, the land or one of its structures like a mountain or lake. Some shamans work with sexual entities.
There are two aspects to the overall concept of sex and shamanism—the self-identification and presentation of shamans, including their orientation, gender, preferences, etc.; and the sex lives of shamans, both during shamanic work and in daily life. They are both intriguing topics for those interested in the intersections between spirituality and sexuality.
Today's shamans have lost some of the characteristics reported of traditional indigenous tribal medicine men and women. This is probably due to the intense pressure brought to bear by Christian missionaries upon those who are other-gendered, other-oriented, and otherwise not just plain vanilla heterosexual. Because, you see, shamans around the world were often—dare I say usually?—comfortably gender-ambiguous, cross-dressing, alternatively-oriented members of the tribe.
There are tales of men dressing and living like women all over the world. There are accounts of women dressing and living as men as well, though these stories are less common. (Whether that is because it actually occurred less frequently, or because the foreign visitors thought it less remarkable than the men's gender fluidity is unclear.). Well over 150 North American tribes had genders distinct from our usual male and female dichotomy: the Lakota had winktes, the Cheyenne he man ehs, the Navajo nadles, the Mojave alyha (male) and hwame (female), the Crow bade, and many, many others.
There are countless similar reports from indigenous peoples in the Arctic Circle, South America, and Africa. The prevalence and general characteristics of these individuals, as with shamans in general, are similar around the world. Berdache, the anthropological catch-all name for male cross-dressing tribal members, came from the French and is unpopular due to its origins—words with meanings such as “male prostitute,” “prisoner,” and other related perspectives. Those who dislike it have come up with the name “two-spirit,” based on an Ojibwa phrase, which refers to females as well as men.
A fairly consistent feature of the stories of two-spirit people is that they were respected within their communities and, in most tribes, were simply considered another gender. In some cases, males who lived like their society's women did—wearing women's clothing, taking male spouses, and doing typically women's chores—were a different gender than females who lived like the men usually did, thus creating a society that recognized (at least) four genders.
A well-known Dagara initiate from the Dogon tribe in South Africa, Malidoma Somé, claims that without the gatekeepers (males) and witches (females), the village men and women would not be able to relate to one another, and the community itself would lose its connection with the spirit world. He explains that they have different energy than others. These gatekeepers and witches have female as well as male energy within them, and they integrate these energies, thus keeping the bridge to the spirit world open.
The question of whether these individuals were “homosexual” is a semantics issue, informative more of the questioner than the custom itself. Among the indigenous villages around the world, few used an equivalent term, leaving sexual attraction a private matter. Yes, some live as husbands or wives of others with biology similar to or the same as their own, and some may have been intersex. But that just wasn't public information.
Which brings us to the issue of the sex lives of shamans. Until recently, reports of shamans with spiritual lovers were common. Occasionally, a shaman was selected by a spirit who wanted to have sex with him in exchange for the ability to heal. There were those who claimed to have had sex with spirits; those who claimed to have been approached by a spirit who wanted sex that they refused; and those who took on a spirit “spouse” who helped them do their work. Sometimes spirits wanting or offering sex visited for specific healing sessions or in dreams to share information or warnings.
Some shamans worked within a sexual “marriage” with a spirit; the shaman had increased powers and abilities because their spouse supported them in the spirit world. The spirit spouse may or may not have offered a sexual relationship as well. The spirit sometimes demanded sexual fidelity, and one case is reported in which the shaman refused sex to his human wife in order to avoid problems with his spirit wife, which could have affected the whole tribe.
These days it's easy to visit the developing world and meet a practicing shaman. But among all those living in the 20th and 21st centuries that I've read about, heard about and met, almost none of them fit the descriptions reported by the missionaries and explorers hundreds of years ago. No longer are they are cross-dressers or transgendered, and they don't talk about having spirit lovers.
Some express the belief that frequent sex increases their power and their ability to heal. Well, some male shamans claim that. The females tend to be rather reserved on the topic. It could be just a ploy—the shaman's version of a pick-up line. But it could also be a reaction to the Westerners' influence over their culture. Most of these cultures have been influenced strongly by the European Christian ethos that has pervaded much of the world. They may have changed, but if they still live differently than prevailing notions of acceptability, maybe they have learned not to talk to foreigners about it.