“Shamanic ritual”

Fr. Harry Cronin, an American playwright, suggests another dramatic horizon: the shamanic ritual.[1] It is an ancient fragment in the drama of existence from which an echo of the divine primal drama emerges. In exploring the relationship between the shamanic ritual (primitive human drama) and the divine drama, Cronin begins by commenting on the role of ancient rituals in the historical beginning of the drama.[2] He then describes what “shamanism” is in terms of two core beliefs: the existence and activity of spirits and the three-level cosmos of the middle-world of humans, the upper-world of the distant gods, and the lower-world of the spirits. The shaman is that person in the tribal community who develops the ability to travel to the other layers and, consequently, to mediate between the gods or spirits and the humans.[3] The shaman fulfills his role as medium through the performance of mimetic rituals. These shamanic rituals, many of which were used as healing rituals, bear the qualities of a theatrical performance. Certain qualities found in shamanic rituals relate these sacred rites more to the divine drama revealed in the Christ event. Of these qualities, Cronin identifies three: the element of healing, the variation of the death-resurrection theme, and the making-present of spiritual realities. These qualities and other elements which characterize the shamanic rituals resemble rather closely the mimetic rituals which were practiced by the indigenous of the pre-colonial Philippines and whose traces and influence are discernible today in contemporary Traditional Religions and Folk Christianity.[4]

I welcome Cronin’s suggestion of identifying the shamanic ritual among the dramatic horizons. In the first place, shamanic rituals were not performed for performance’s sake. As earlier mentioned, mimetic rituals including healing rituals represented particular moments in the daily life of the tribal community in pre-colonial Philippnies. They were communal rituals serving specific tribal needs for survival and consisting in sacrifices presented to the gods or spirits who were believed to have power to intervene on behalf of the tribe. In short, through these rituals and through the shaman as medium, the tribal life with its dramatic dimension is brought before the gods and spirits. It sort of anticipates the meeting of earth and heaven made possible by the Christian horizon.

Secondly, the Theo-dulâ is intended as a theological approach to articulate the popular faith expressed in the Salúbong. The Salúbong is part of a constellation of popular Lenten observances of the Filipino folk Catholicism. In the Salúbong, as in other popular religious observances, elements of the indigenous drama are found interlaced with foreign elements. The shamanic rituals as dramatic horizon, I believe, can address the indigenous elements embedded in the life and piety of folk Catholics. Finally, the elements of healing, the making present of spiritual realities, and the various death and resurrection experiences found in indigenous mimetic rituals and in popular religious observances in the Philippines resonate closely with certain aspects of Christ’s life and mission, and therefore can give us a glimpse of the divine drama.


[1] Harry Cronin, “A Comparison of Two Examples of Ur-Drama: The Immanent Trinity in Hans Urs von Balthasar and Primitive Shamanic Ritual” (paper presented in the class, ST4504 Theodramatics, Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, CA, April 16, 2004).

[2] The question of the relationship between drama and ritual is “one of the most controversial, complex and multifaceted questions of modern times.” Since the time of Aristotle, it has been commonly accepted that drama developed from religious ritual. Scholars, however, have no consensus as regards how this development historically took place. For a thorough examination of the origins of Greek drama including comparative studies of ritual drama from ancient Egypt, Japan and medieval Europe, see Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, eds., The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[3] Cronin follows Taylor Rogan’s description of the Shaman, see Taylor Rogan, The Death and Resurrection Show: from Shaman to superstar (London: Anthony Blond, 1985).

[4] Tiongson and Obusan, Dulaan, 6-40.