Saturday, 24 September 2011

Shaman - Showman

Roald Amundsen and the Shaman

Roald Amundsen, polar explorer and hero.
One of Norway’s relatively unknown heros is Roald Amundsen. ”Who?” You probably think, and that’s my point.
Just so you all know, I’ll briefly introduce my childhood hero. On december 14 1911, Amundsen and his team were the first men to reach 90 degrees south - the geographic Southpole! To make the story even more exciting the quest for the Southpole had been a race against an English man called Captain Robert Falcon Scott. So if he won why don’t we know his name?
Captain Scott was quite a hopeless case. He brought horses and tractors to take him to the pole. The tractors never started and the horses died of exposure before the expedition set off towards the pole and Captain Scott’s team reached the pole finding a tent with a swaying Norwegian flag. In the tent was a guest book, with Roald Amundsen’s name first. With broken spirits Scott began the return journey but succumbed to fatigue, partly brought on by scurvy. The tragedy of Captain Scott ecclipsed Roald Amundsens acheivement.
Reaching the Southpole was not Amundsens first polar triumph. A few years earlier in 1903, and this brings me to the point I am making, Roald Amundsen set out on an expedition hoping to find the North West Passage. Which had been sought by the English for four hundred years. They sailed to Gjøahavn on King William Island and spent twenty three months there. During this time Amundsen studied Inuit way of life and collected etnographic material.
I found this quote on a blog about Amundsen’s encounter with an Inuit Shaman. This will be a perfect introduction to my thoughts and ramblings on shamans.

Amundsen and his men at the Southpole
”Roald Amundson passed the winter in the Arctic Circle among the Inuits.  He lived with the tribe’s shaman.  After months of watching the many sleights of hand and minor tricks the shaman used to hold the tribe’s attention with his magical power, Amundsen finally asked him: Didn’t it bother him that all his ‘magic powers’ were nothing but  cheap parlor games?  The shaman smiled. He replied, ‘My magic power is not in my tricks. My real power is that I have gone out on the ice and lived there alone for many months until I could finally hear the voice of the Universe. And the voice of the Universe is that of a mother calling after her beloved children. That is my real magic.”

Inuit Shaman. Look at those sweet hands.
This brings us to shamans and my interests in them as proto Showmen. Roald Amundsen experienced a shaman performing slight of hand. To his tribe the shaman was a powerful healer and communicator of secret understandings. What did the tribe see in their shaman’s prestidigitation? What can we learn about the Showman from studying the Shaman? What can we learn about his craft and the deep meaning presented in his performances that will benefit our own shows? How did it all start?

Whether because of his understanding of ice and polar knowledge taught to him by shamans or not, the expedition found and sailed through the North West Passage in 1906. Becoming the first ship in history to travel successfully through it. Adding another feather to my polar hero, Roald Amundsen’s hat.

(Read part 2 here)

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