The word ‘shaman’ conjures up images of medicine men smoking peace pipes, dancing in a trance to drumming around a fire or African sangomas, adorned with leopard skin, throwing dollose bones and shells to divine and drinking beer from calabash. This is far removed from the concept of sophisticated, regal shaman queens of the East in China, Japan and Korea who used their talent and connection with the ‘Otherworld’ to the benefit of their kingdoms and populace. Later this feminine healing power was suppressed and persecuted by religious men, who regarded it as a threat to their faith.
Worldwide, women have been at the forefront of this field of spiritual healing. In some cultures, they even became leaders. From the Buryats in Mongolia to the Bwiti religion in Gabon, the first shaman was in fact a woman. Other examples of the surviving shamans include Machi (a traditional healer and religious leader) of the Mapuche in southern Chile and the Babaylan and Catalonan of the Philippines. Images and historical descriptions show women in many different roles such as invokers, healers, herbalists, oracles and diviners. They also performed as ecstatic dancers, shapeshifters and priestesses of the ancestors.
In the practice of Katjambia in Namibia, a Himba medicine woman absorbs the negative energies into her own body before returning them to the sacred fire of her ancestors, who then release those negative energies. Similar descriptions were recorded by Greco-Roman visitors to Anatolia. At Castabala, in Cappadocia, the priestesses of Artemis Perasia, walked barefoot through a furnace of hot charcoal without experiencing any harm. The healing power of women shamans was occasionally stated in mythology as being able to restore life to the dead. Medea of Colchis revived a dead ram by putting it into a cauldron with potent herbs and incantations. The Nostoi (Returns), a lost epic of ancient Greek literature, tells of Medea who rejuvenated Jason’s father Aeson in a cauldron.
Guoyu (Discourses of the states), a Chinese text collection of anecdotes and discourses from the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BC), states that although men and spirits did not interact in the ancient world, there were: “certain people whose understanding enabled them to make a meaningful definition of what lies above and below this world, as well as the insight to illuminate the distant and profound. It was upon these people where the spirits would descend”. In China, the possessors of such powers were called xi (shaman) if they were men, and wu (shamaness) if they were women. These men and women supervised the ceremonies, sacrificed to the spirits and managed religious matters. Most importantly, they kept the balance and distinction between the spheres of the divine and the profane. In their turn, the spirits then sent down blessings on the people and prevented any natural calamities. Later, the divine and profane became intermixed and caused great misfortunes. Thus, the communication between heaven and earth had to be terminated. The Chinese wu were known as ecstatic priestesses who danced to the music of drums and flutes until they reached a trance state to receive shen (spirit) into their bodies after which they could heal, make prophesies, speak in tongues, swallow swords and spit fires.
The shaman Queen Himiko (circa 170–248 AD) is mentioned in various ancient histories, dating back to third century China, eight century Japan, and 12th century Korea. The first known historical records of Himiko are found in a Chinese text, Sanguo Zhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms). A section on Gishi-Wajinden (Account of the Wa People) – Wa being the name for Japan used by the Chinese until the T’ang dynasty, tells of the ascension of Himiko in detail. For generations, Himiko’s country only had male rulers. However, after for some 70 or 80 years of disturbances and warfare, the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler. Her name was Himiko. Despite her age and maturity, Himiko remained unmarried – preferring to occupy herself with magic and sorcery. She remained unmarried even after she became queen. Instead of a husband, her younger brother assisted her in ruling the country.
Himiko’s death was followed by considerable succession disputes, as male claimants kept killing each other in their quest to claim the throne. Eventually, a 13-year old girl named Iyo emerged as the new queen, and restored order. Like Himiko before her, Iyo had substantial shamanic abilities. She preceded to continue tributary relations between Wa and Wei.
Although the two oldest Japanese histories, Kojiki (circa 712 AD) and Nihon Shoki (circa 720 AD) do not mention Queen Himiko, they include other imperial women shamans. One of them is Yamato Totohi Momoso, the shaman aunt of Emperor Sujin (148 – 30 BC). The Nihon Shoki describes her as being able to foresee the future. Yamato Totohi Momoso was inspired by Okuninushi-no-mikoto (Great Lord of the Land) after a series of calamities in the kingdom and, later, married him. However, Okuninushi was only ever seen at night. Yamato Totohi Momoso begged her husband to let her see him. The god answered that he would enter her vanity-case and stay there the next morning.
When she looked into her vanity-case the next day, Yamato Totohi Momoso found a beautiful little snake, of the length and thickness of the cord of a garment. Unprepared for this, Yamato Totohi Momoso screamed. Feeling ashamed, the god left. Regretting her shock, Yamato Totohi Momoso stabbed her genitals with a chopstick. Her tomb is known as the Hashi-no-haka (Chopstick Tomb).
Yamatohime-no-mikoto, the daughter of Emperor Suinin (69 BC – 70 AD), founded the Ise Shrine to the sun-goddess Amaterasu. Emperor Suinin ordered her to find a suitable permanent location to hold ceremonies for Amaterasu. Yamatohime-no-mikoto then set out from Mount Miwa and wandered for 20 years in search of a suitable location. When she arrived at Ise, she heard the voice of Amaterasu telling her that she wanted to live there forever, near the mountains and the sea. It was here that Yamatohime-no-mikoto established the Inner Shrine.
Empress Jingu (169 – 269 AD) was the primary consort of Prince Tarashi nakatsu or Emperor Chuai, the 14th ruler of the Yamato state and, after his early death, regent to her young son Prince Homuta wake, who later became Emperor Ojin, the 15th ruler. Book nine of Nihon shoki is exclusively dedicated to her regency, and the Kojiki chapter on Chuai focuses on her achievements, rather than that of her husband.
The most popular story about the Empress Jingu is that the divine spirits, including Amaterasu and gods of the Sumiyoshi Shrine, possessed Jingu and told Emperor Chuai not to attack Kumaso in southern Kyushu, but to seek control of Silla, a land of gold, silver and other colorful goods on the Korean peninsula. Although he refused to obey and died soon afterwards, the gods promised Jingu that Silla would be given to Chuai’s son to whom she would soon give birth. Jingu inserted a stone under her skirt to delay the birth of her child and led her ships to Silla, assisted by the wind-gods and fish of the sea. The king of Silla surrendered of his own accord and promised to send yearly tribute to Yamato.
Upon returning to northern Kyushu, Jingu gave birth to Prince Homuta wake. She passed away at the age of 100 after serving for many years as regent to her son, who later became Emperor Ojin.
At the time of Queen Seondeok’s birth, the peninsula known today as North and South Korea was divided into three kingdoms of Konguryo, Paekche and Silla. Silla, the southern kingdom, was considered the most cultured and the most peaceful of the three.
After the death of his uncle, King Chinpyong became the 26th ruler of Silla in 579 AD. A few years after Chinpyong became King of Silla, he and the queen celebrated the birth of their first child, a girl known as Seondeok. When Seondeok was seven, her father obtained a box of peony seeds and a picture of what the flowers would look like in bloom. When Chinpyong asked Seondeok what she thought of the flowers, she remarked, looking at the picture, that the flowers were pretty but they did not smell and if they did there should be bees and butterflies around them, thus proving to her father that she was a clever girl with an insight of a potential queen.
Seondeok became Queen of Silla after Chinpyong died in 632 AD. As a ruler, Queen Seondeok’s primary concern was the livelihood of her people. Right after she was crowned, she sent royal inspectors in every part of Silla in order to oversee the care and needs of the widows and widowers, orphans, the poor and the elderly who had no family to support them. In the second year of her reign, she also announced a whole year of tax exemption for the peasants and reduced the tax for the middle class. Through this act, the queen won the people’s support and her position was strengthened against the opposition of the aristocracy.
Five years after her enthronement, the queen caused wonder among her people by defeating an invading enemy force with the help of frogs. On a certain day in winter, a number of frogs gathered together at the pond named Okmun (Jade Gate) and began to croak loudly for several days. When this strange phenomenon was reported to the queen, she immediately ordered two of her generals to lead 2,000 of her best soldiers to a valley named Yeogeungok (Cradle of Life) where an enemy force would be waiting, opening themselves for an ambush. The two generals led their armies to the valley and destroyed not only the detachment of 500 Baekje soldiers they found there, but also a force of 1,200 reinforcements which came later to aid them.
Seondeok’s pleasure lied in the direction of the ancient practice of astronomy. As queen, she built the famous observatory Cheomsongdae. The observatory was made up of 365 pieces of cut granite, for each day of the year. The base was made up of 12 stones. There were 12 stones below and above the windowsill representing the 12 months and zodiac symbols. It was the first observatory in the Far East as well as the pride of South Korea.
The persecution of the women shamans and the destruction of their reputations had ancient precedents. Euripides casts Medea as an antagonist, turning her ram-rejuvenation into a ploy to convince the daughters of king Peleas to dismember and boil him. It was also Euripides who casts Medea as the murderer of her own children. Medea was therefore demoted from being a goddess granddaughter of Helios, and the high priestess of Colchis, to an evil witch.
A Manchurian epic, The Tale of the Nishan Shaman, talks about a woman, Nishan, who was the most powerful shaman in the country. She was called upon to revive the son of a rich man after countless others had failed. She beat her drum and chanted as she journeyed to the ‘Otherworld’. In the underworld, she met Omosi-mama (the divine grandmother), the giver of souls and protectress of children. Omosi-mama ordained that Nishan would become a great shaman. Nishan then found the soul of the dead boy. However, her journey was not easy as she was also pursued by her long-dead husband who demanded to be saved as well. Nishan called for a great crane to seize him and throw him back into the city of the dead. When she came back to the upper world, Nishan was proclaimed a heroine and showered with riches. However, she later faced repression from Confucian authorities who accused her of not being an obedient wife. They also burned her drum and shamanic regalia.
In the Philippines, Spanish colonials persecuted women shamans. Not only did they persecute them by destroying their shrines and sacred objects, they also launched a campaign to destroy their reputations by calling them ‘devil-ridden old women’ and ‘witches’. José de Acosta (1540 -1600) wrote of the Peruvian witches, describing them as mostly shapeshifting old women who could journey through the skies and foretell the future. The Peruvian Inquisition also forbade seeking knowledge through dreams or signs in the sky or through vision quests. Thus, slowly and painfully, the perceived ‘value’ of women shamans was reduced until they faded in