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The Spirits Are Cosmopolitan Too: Contemporary Shamanism in Malta

Kathryn Rountree Introduction

Before undertaking the fieldwork on which this chapter is based, I thought I knew the Pagan scene in Malta fairly well after a decade of intermittent fieldwork engendering close involvement with the community—although keeping up with its rapid developments has sometimes taken me by surprise. I received one such surprise when I visited at Easter in 2014. I was catching up with a long-term friend from my research with Maltese Wiccans and Pagans, Naia,1 when she brought out her phone to show me photographs of a Temazcal she had recently participated in during a weekend camp run by a visiting Native American-trained Argentinian shaman named Carlos. This was the second such weekend to have been held in Malta. A Temazcal, so-named in the indigenous Nahuatl language (known historically as Aztec) of central Mexico, is a type of sweat-lodge which originated in Mesoamerica and is currently being revived in Mexico and Central America as a religio-therapeutic tool for purifying, healing and renewing the mind, body and spirit. Horacio Rojas Alba (1996) describes it thus:

K. Rountree (*)

Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand © The Author(s) 2017

K. Rountree (ed.), Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-56200-5_12

When we enter the Temazcal, we return once again to our mother’s womb, presided over by the great goddess, Tonantzin or Temazcaltoci, the great mother of both gods and humans. She is our beloved mother, concerned with the health of the children and she receives us into her womb—of which our own mother’s womb is but a microcosmic manifestation—to cure us of physical and spiritual ills. The entrance way is low and small, and through it we enter a small, dark, warm and humid space, in this way recreating the uterus, cutting off the outside world and giving us a chance to look inside and find ourselves again. Our re-emergence through this narrow opening represents our rebirth from the darkness and silence of the womb.

When I saw Naia’s pictures of the Temazcal held in Malta, I gaped at what seemed an extraordinary disjunction. The setting was familiar: a narrow field bordered by limestone rubble walls, caper bushes, trees and prickly pear cacti, with the towering walled city of Mdina and its piercing church spires in the background (see Fig. 12.1). The foreground, though, was utterly unfamiliar. Here were men and women, some with feather earrings and other exotic adornments, dancing ecstatically around a fire beating drums decorated with Native American-looking symbols, shaking rattles and stoking a fire to heat imported volcanic rocks for a sweat-lodge they had built with wooden pallets and blankets. I recognized a few of these people as Wiccans and Pagans; most I did not know.

My astonishment was mixed with chagrin. I had just finished writing about how Maltese Pagans were adapting Wicca to the local context, revising the Wheel of the Year for the Maltese seasons, emphasizing the local landscape and integrating local cultural, folkloric, archaeological, and environmental knowledge and traditions. Their indigenization of an imported Witchcraft tradition and creative combining of universal and indigenous elements had seemed to indicate a local grounding and coming-of-age of the community. The process echoed a historically familiar pattern in Malta, where, in the course of accommodating numerous waves of colonizers over seven millennia, cultural eclecticism and indigenous tradition have typically been entwined in an evolving process (Rountree 2010, 2015: 288-89). Maltese people have always been bricoleurs and the construction of Malteseness a perpetual work in progress. The making of contemporary Maltese Paganism/s works the same way.

Thus, when I saw Naia’s photographs, I asked myself what on earth was going on. Mexico and Native Americans are clearly culturally and geographically distant from Malta. Why was this exotic tradition being

Preparing the sweat-lodge (October 2015). Prayer bundles in the foreground ready to be hung inside the lodge. Photograph

Fig. 12.1 Preparing the sweat-lodge (October 2015). Prayer bundles in the foreground ready to be hung inside the lodge. Photograph: Kathryn Rountree

imported, and why now? Admittedly and importantly, the Temazcal phenomenon, and shamanism more broadly, was and is not entirely under the “contemporary Pagan” umbrella in Malta. Only a small part of the Pagan community is involved, and many people who identify as shamans or as following shamanism do not identify as Pagan. The current interest in shamanism can be viewed as another addition to the plethora of “alternative” spiritual and religious paths to have found a place in the country, against the overwhelmingly Catholic religious backdrop.

But there is a clear overlap between shamanism and Paganism in terms of demographics and in their sharing of a nature-centered worldview and some ritual elements. Some of my Pagan, Wiccan and Druid friends have participated in Temazcal weekends with visiting shamans over the three years they have been run, twice annually, in Malta. A small indication of the importance of Naia’s new affinity with shamanism was that she began signing off messages to me with “Ho”2 instead of “Blessed Be,” and referring to spirit guides and power animals as well as to goddesses and gods. As I learned when I participated in a Temazcal myself in October 2015, Pagan songs, chants, ideas and ritual components are being introduced, resulting in a blurring of boundaries between the Temazcal phenomenon and Paganism, along with a flow of participants in both directions between these loose communities and other spiritual, alternative healing, and holistic living events, groups, modalities and practices. The latter include, for example, reiki, yoga, meditation, public Equinox and Solstice events, sacred sites and environmental projects, permaculture, Red Tent (menstruation) ceremonies, Gurdjieff-inspired Fourth Way workshops, psychic readings, channeling, past life regression, dream interpretation, crystal healing, angel healing, belly dancing, drumming circles and others. Friendship and personal questing, rather than adherence to a distinctive, coherent code of beliefs and practices, constitute the basis of any gathering for spiritually related purposes. The composition of these groups changes fairly frequently as individuals move among them creating bespoke spiritual paths which sometimes seem like hybrid (though perhaps temporary) constructs, and other times like idiosyncratic collections of traditions, techniques, modalities and identities which a person employs variously and effortlessly, similar to switching between apps on a device or reaching for a different tool in the tool-kit. The kaleidoscope of “alternative” spiritual life in Malta turns continuously revealing intriguing new patterns.

What is happening in Malta is of course not unique and the growth of interest in shamanism worldwide has been widely documented and debated (Wallis 2003; Churchill 2003; Rose 1992; Kraft et al. 2015; Kraft 2015; Jenkins 2004; Aldred 2000; Kehoe 1990; Peers 2015; Sanson 2012). Renee de la Torre (2011) describes how shamanism has become increasingly transcultural and deterritorialized in the globalized world. Whereas a few decades ago “Indo-American” religions were restricted to indigenous community contexts, now they are “part of the ‘neo-esoteric’ offer of the global market,” drawing broad, enthusiastic audiences “interested in them as paradigms of native ‘authenticity’ and ‘ancestry,’ ... contributing to the transformation of these religious practices into circuits ... influenced by the itineraries of cosmopolitan actors roaming networks of alternative New Age spirituality” (De la Torre 2011: 147). Discussing religion in the context of transnationalism and globalization, Thomas Csordas (2007: 264) remarks on two consequences of the transcendence of local boundaries by indigenous religious traditions: first, pan-indigenous movements are being formed, and, second, indigenous religions are extending their influence in a “‘reverse’ direction, from the margins to the metropole.” Both phenomena are characteristic of indigenous shamanisms today. Csordas (2007: 261) cites the Lakota (Native American) sacred pipe ceremony as a practice which “travels well” transnationally because it is relatively simple and “some individuals are willing to share it with other tribes and non- Indians, sometimes even travelling with it on the New Age circuit.” In such instances of spiritual or religious globalization, the direction of travel is not from the powerful center to the periphery (the usual direction of economically driven globalization), but from the periphery to the center, a process explicitly invoked by one of my research participants in Malta, Kimimila, who feels responsible for helping shamanism return to Europe (see below). Ideas and practices also criss-cross different parts of the (former) periphery, as in the case of pan-indigenous networks and gatherings.

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