In 1998 the Feng Shui Journal printed my two-piece article “Shaman, I Am.” The research suggested that “shamanic” aspects of feng shui emerged from ancient astronomy and calendar-keeping.  I was horrified when my articles unleashed a torrent of “shamanic feng shui” marketing.

Fritz Perls commented that mental and emotional hunger is

responsible more than anything else for the excessive stupidity we find in the world.

That certainly holds true for “shamanic feng shui.” Readers seized on the word shaman, which is a much more romantic (lucrative) term than “astronomer.” (Being a “shaman” also requires less education than being an astronomer.)

Shaman feeds into the hunger for mental and emotional sustenance exhibited by people who prefer the New Age version of feng shui. Although feng shui isn’t a “faith heritage,” in American culture it doesn’t take much for an idea to become a religion, thanks to people’s emotional hunger.

Any gimmick will suffice:

  • “Shamanic Roots of Feng Shui” by Helen and James Jay. The article, along with advertising for their book Paper Dragons: The Shamanic Roots of Feng Shui, appeared following my articles
  • “Feng Shui Shamanism” classes taught by Alex Stark
  • The “shamanic feng shui” of self-styled Mr. Feng Shui (Gary Hawkes)
  • The article “Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui and Shamanism” by Jeffrey Ellis, a self-styled practitioner of “sacred architecture” — whatever that might mean in southern California

What is a shaman?

In the anthropology of counter-culture, primitive consciousness is epitomized by the shaman, a figure who has light and power but never pays electric bills.
— Anthropologist Marvin Harris

A shaman is more of an exotic essence, a romanticized version of Western rationalism, than a scholarly category that can stand up to any sustained interrogation.
— Nicholas Thomas & Caroline Humphrey: Shamanism, History, & the State

The word shaman comes from Tungusu-Manchurian language and describes Central Asian and North Asian religious practices. Shamans are a vital force in the religious life of hunting communities. They are ritual specialists possessed of special powers; they act as intermediaries between humans and the shadowy world of spirits and the supernatural.

Feng shui had been in use for at least 3,000 years before shamanism was invented. There’s no authentic evidence of shamanic activity until what Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Age, which began around 1800 BCE.

Shamanism is concerned with personal and political power

The need to dominate others is a way to handle personal insecurities and alienation. Hierarchy stabilizes the insecurity. As Morris Berman points out in Wandering God (2000), a person damaged in childhood uses prestige as a substitute for love. That person also uses shamanic healing or becomes a shamanic healer and manipulates the rest of the tribe to accept the shaman’s dominance-submission system.

Ceremonialism and shamanism grow in proportion to the need to control large groups. Ritual enforces group participation in hierarchies. (This largely explains how shamanism developed, and how shamanism functioned during the rule of the Shang.)

Shamans are usually recruited by a calling much like fundamentalist Christians are “called” by Jesus. Some become shamans because it runs in the family. That suggests a genetic component.

Shamans in some cultures developed the technique of possession trance. An authentic shaman is believed to have the gift of letting his soul leave his body and ascend to higher or lower worlds. Such altered states of consciousness are defined by psychologist Barry Beyerstein as the modification of specific neural systems by repeated stimulation, disease, mental manipulation, or chemical ingestion so that self-perception and perception of the world are profoundly altered.

 The physiological component is essential for shamanism.

  • The majority of traditional shamans suffer from epilepsy (though the expected trance has nothing to do with this disease)
  • Other shamans were born with a caul
  • Some are struck by lightning
  • Some suffer from a chronic illness other than epilepsy — any handicap may suffice.

A clan recognizes an aspirant shaman only if the individual convinces that he can achieve a suitably deranged trance (after all, magic is a consensual phenomenon). The intensity of the spiritual experience may separate shamans from the rest of their community, but they are also separated from the healthy population by their disease. The handicap helps them manipulate social relationships, control of crops and luxury goods, and other elements of the group.

Shamans are considered pious frauds because their techniques consist of sleight-of-hand and similar gimmicks that hunter-gatherer cultures consider manipulative, egoistic, and antisocial.

The dead can dance

Having contact with the souls of the dead implies that the shaman is also dead. When an authentic shaman is initiated, the rituals stress

  • The shaman’s seclusion from the rest of society
  • The wearing of funerary masks (representing the ancestors) and/or body pigments mimicking the pallor of death
  • Death, dismemberment and cooking of the shaman
  • Burial and rejuvenation into a new life
  • Symbolic descent to the land of the dead
  • Physical ordeals reminding the new shaman to forget their former life

An Inuit shaman explained to the explorer Rasmussen that true wisdom is obtainable only when humans are far from settlements and creature comforts.

Privation and suffering are the only things which can open the mind of men to those things which are hidden from others.

These aspects of shamanism do not mirror the lifestyles enjoyed and promoted by “feng shui shamans.” They want the privileges of the shaman without the ordeals and isolation — that is, they “want the gain without the pain.”

It is no surprise that “feng shui shamanism” was invented in America.

Yes the dead can dance, but with a few restrictions

Transvestitism was the shamanic tradition of Scythians, Siberians, Thracians, and Galloi, along with certain Anatolian tribes. Thracian goddesses Kotys and Bendis were celebrated with shamanic rites presided over by men dressed as women. It was a missionary faith from Thrace that brought the enthousiasmos — ecstatic rites — to westerners. Herodotus noted how Scythian diviners (enares) traditionally wore women’s clothes. He assumed they were also eunuchs. He could assume this based on his travels.

Many shamanic cults in his day included ritual castration as part of their initiation:

  • The great goddess Kombabos demanded castration of her priests so they would not be debauched or disloyal.
  • The mythical hermaphrodite Agdistis castrated herself and assumed the name Cybele. In the ancient “Story of Two Brothers” the youngest, Atys, also castrated himself.
  • Atys was a deified shaman later known as the premier priest of Cybele. The priests of her cult castrated themselves at the climax of her festival and were given women’s clothing by the fanatici.

Cybele’s eunuch priests were shamans with gifts of healing and divination. They were trained to understand dreams and to read bird flight and song as auguries. Many wandered the countryside in gowns, makeup and jewelry; they performed ecstatic dances and uttered prophecies while in trance.

It would be difficult to imagine the “feng shui shamanism” types embracing the shamanism of western heritage.

Chinese shamanic traditions

Some feng shui people market themselves as heirs to ancient traditions from a distant Chinese past, because they believe that past is shrouded in the mists of history — so it is easy for them to invent one. Documents written by the ancient Chinese prove the sham in “feng shui shamanism.” 

Longshan culture (approximately 2500 BCE) developed from Yangshao culture (5000 to 3000 BCE) and both cultures used some forms of early fengshui in their ceremonial and funerary precincts. (Puchan or oracle bone making was developed by Longshan culture.) The Xia “kingdom” developed from Henan Longshan culture, and the Shang succeeded Xia around 1766 BCE.

Shang shamanism

Shang began as the name of the ancestral capital of the Shandong Longshan culture that supplanted Xia, but grew to mean the theocratic augurs who ruled a confederacy of tribes. A rudimentary form of feng shui was used to site their tombs at Anyang and Xiaotun. The Shang royal line consisted of religious specialists, the ruler (who was military leader, political leader, and head of the religion), and the clan of which he was a member.

As religious leader the king and his priestly relatives shared in the divinity of the spirits they consulted; that’s how they obtained their power. Shamanism was the prerogative of the state. The rulers were the only ones who could communicate with Di (“Heaven,” called Tian by the Zhou). In this era it was believed that only the kings had souls. The religious specialists of the Shang were the relatives of the ruler or his clan, and they were organized in guilds:

  • The Dui group of diviners used scapulimancy, and performed numerology with reeds and stalks.
  • Zhenren were diviners who interpreted scapulimantic cracks and recorded the outcomes of divinations for their masters. Jiaguwen were used by these court officials to consult ancestors of the royal family and celestial deities. The bones describe divinatory rituals and techniques used at court. Access to writing was the key to predictive power because knowledge from the past (such as histories) linked the living and the dead.
  • Shi diviners were ritual impersonators of the dead.
  • Wu specialists could call souls and their spirits, and travel to the four directions. They were magic healers, exorcists, prophets, fortunetellers, rainmakers, and dream interpreters; they used music and suggestive dance in their rites. The wu correspond to what westerners think of as shamans. Unfortunately, westerners mistakenly lump many types of Chinese religious specialists together and call them “shamans.”

Diviners cast in lots of five and ten to account for all parts of the world and time elements; this may have helped in the development of the Five Element Theory (wuxing).

Bring the entire family!

Anyone in the court of the Shang king shared the his responsibilities for the spiritual and economic well-being of the state. Those responsibilities included the establishment of new settlements and cities. In the central part of Yinxu, the last capital of the Shang, archaeologists found burials of 852 humans (including children), 15 horses, 10 oxen, 18 sheep, 35 dogs, and a few chariots. All of these had been sacrificed to dedicate seven buildings in the heart of the city.

Shang kings regularly sacrificed “human offerings” (renshen) in their daily ceremonies honoring the ancestors, Di, the sacred mountain and river. These could be slaves, prisoners of war, and people from tribes other than the Shang that they captured in raiding parties. They sacrificed animals such as elephants, rhinos, buffalo, oxen, sheep, deer, dogs, and tigers.

When the situation demanded, anyone related to the royal family could become a sacrifice.

The most powerful sacrifices were the wu, which the “feng shui shamanism” crowd apparently have adopted as their “ancestors.” The Shang prayed for rain by exposing a sacred cripple or a woman wu to the sun or by burning them alive, in part because nuwu represented metaphysical water in human form.

For funerals they buried the living: family members, pets, horses, prisoners, and slaves as “companions in eternity” or renxun. These sacrifices may have been an attempt to control and direct natural violence — but as Mark Lewis notes, they were most definitely attempts to reduce the level of stress and politics in the ruling elite.

Visiting the “spirits”

During ceremonies, Shang kings drank ritual cocktails of stalactite water called “sucking on the teats of the Celestial Bell” (the knobs on ancient bronze bells symbolize these teats). This was supposed to give the kings a long life.

The Shang “shamans” (including the king) ate and consumed mass quantities of alcohol until they went into trance (or got drunk, whichever came first). Even during the Han Dynasty it was believed that alcohol transported humans into the land of the immortals.

Descendants of the Shaanxi Longshan culture called the Zhou assumed the Mandate of Heaven and instituted widespread moral reforms that curbed the drunken “shamanic” rites and many other religious practices. The Han government also suppressed shamanism around 9 BCE through 30 BCE, and tried to stop the locals from sacrificing humans as late as 25 CE.

Daoism, fangshi, and shamanism

The aim of Daoism is to conform to the laws of nature. Ancient Daoists observed, recorded, and contemplated natural phenomena and cycles to better understand the laws humans should live by. Daoist emphasis on an understanding of human place in nature generated technology and natural science. Daoist alchemy led to the invention of gunpowder. The Daoist search for elixirs of immortality led to modern medical chemistry. But feng shui is far older than Daoism.

Early Daoists — especially those immersed in the Way of the Celestial Masters — prohibited most forms of sacrifice plus competing spirit mediums (“shamans”), forms of medicine, and forms of divination.

Feng shui was regulated by Daoists as they attempted to reserve the dispensation of these items as the prerogative of Daoist priests. During the Han era, shaman-like figures from the northeast region of Yan looked for magical techniques to achieve immortality. They practiced “methods”or “techniques” (fang). They were able to drop into trance and rely on the spirits.

Sima Qian did not see a link between fangshi and what his father called the School of Dao. He bluntly noted that fangshi claimed to transmit Zou Yan‘s teachings (Huang-Lao Daoism), “but were unable to understand them.” When one fangshi presented his dietary and other teachings to ]Emperor Wudi, the fangshi linked his work with worship of Zhaojun, the god of the fireplace.

Toastmasters of ancient China?

Fangshi did possess varying technical skills in medicine, divination, and magic. They were known for their quick wits, storytelling talents, and oratory skills. Many performed as court jesters or stand-up comics. They were royal entertainers, wittily performing at banquets.

Fangshi techniques developed from astronomy and calendrics, the practices of earlier mediums and conjurers, and pharmaceutical and hygienic medicine. Virtually all of the fangshi people famous enough to be mentioned in dynastic histories specialized in a single area. Of course it was astrology and calendrics that most interested their patrons.

Yes and no

Prof. Kenneth DeWoskin noted that famous fangshi mastered one or more of the following texts:

  • Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor (medicine)
  • The “Great Plan” chapter of the Book of Documents (divination based on some early astronomy)
  • “The Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lu” (Lushi chunqiu) (science and history)
  • Huainanzi (Huang-Lao philosophy and science)
  • “Myriad Dewdrop Commentary” on the Spring and Autumn Annals (science, history)
  • Commentary of Ching Fang in the Yijing (most fangshi divined using the Yijing)

Other techniques found in Han-era biographies of notable fangshi are listed below. Some of these techniques were also popular with esoteric Daoists and Buddhists.

  • Artistic sexual techniques to achieve longevity
  • Arts and Systems — the notorious shu-shu or occult knowledge (fangshi often downplayed their skills in this specialty because wu had a seamy reputation — most clients were women)
  • Astral Influences — projections from sky readings
  • Astrology — general astrology divination
  • Auspices — bird calls and movements
  • Bamboo Twisters — a type of puchan where the official breaks bamboo and reads the cracks
  • Buddhist arts — Buddhist or Indian practices
  • Calendric computation — correlations of time systems
  • Celestial offices — reading the celestial bodies and their movements (astronomy) and correlating them to officials in the court (astrology)
  • Celestial rulers — astronomy and correction of the calendar
  • Charts and apocrypha — analysis of charts and texts
  • Charts and tallies — study of symbols and tables
  • Conjury — projection of images (shadow puppets)
  • Computational arts — general numerological arts, especially Yijing numerology
  • Crack-making — cracking of shells and bones (puchan)
  • Dream divining — analysis of dream (not Freudian or New Age; illegal for anyone but the ruler)
  • Esoteric arts — general fangshi arts
  • Evading stems — analysis of the sexagenary cycle according to the six branches that never come into contact with any stem — one of the major interpretive techniques of Stems and Branches
  • Exorcism — control and removal of demons (appropriated by Daoism)
  • Fetal breathing — minimum respiration used to prolong life
  • Fasting — avoidance of grain products (a trait shared with shaman-priests of Cybele) or complete avoidance of food (like ariterians)
  • Graph dividing — analysis by character dissection
  • Heavenly patterns — general astrological arts
  • Lo River Script — analysis of the jiugong
  • Longevity study — for long life, youth, and rebirth
  • Magical martial — magic weaponry, skills and strategies — these experts were typically high-ranking staff of army officers
  • Medicine — healing in the Yellow Emperor tradition (Huang-Lao)
  • Medium healing — healing in the shamanic tradition
  • Meetings and greetings — as yet no researcher has determined what techniques were involved
  • Meteorognostics — meteorological divination
  • Orphans and voids — analysis of the ganzhi according to the “orphans” xu and hai (11 and 12). The voids are 5 and 6, the opposite branches in a circular projection of the twelve branches. In any ten-day period, two branches are orphaned. This technique was widely used by military staff
  • Pitch mastery — detection and analysis of sound
  • Primal pneuma — cosmology
  • Prognostication — general strategy and persuasion
  • Physiognomy — face-reading
  • Stalk divining — milfoil and hexagram analysis
  • Six day seven division — numerological analysis of times according to Ching Fang’s commentary on the Yijing. Correlated the five tones and related meteorological phenomena with ganzhi and hexagrams
  • Spirit medium — spirit communication and control (appropriated by Daoism)
  • Spirit way — superior integration with the cosmos
  • Yellow River Charts — analysis of cryptographic diagrams
  • Yin and Yang — analysis of events according to Yin Yang Theory

Notice there’s no mention of feng shui. That’s because feng shui predates Daoism and the fangshi. The closest relation any of the techniques have to feng shui is the calendrical computations and divination.

There is currently no direct link between the religious specialists of the Shang and any early practices of feng shui, although it was used in Neolithic China. While the Shang clan members dedicated buildings with sacrifices, it appears at this time that the building specialists were feng shui experts. In modern terms, this is like hiring architects and building contractors to construct structures after a ground-breaking ceremony. 
Another ceremony — like a modern ribbon-cutting ceremony that dedicates a building — would include sacrificing one’s wife and children, relatives, servants, and pets.