The Shaman’s Use of the Effigy by Jan Engels-Smith

The Shaman’s Use of the Effigy


Effigies have been a part of many cultures even down to contemporary times. To “burn someone in effigy” refers to creating a physical likeness of a person for the purpose of denigrating the individual.  Figures ranging from unpopular politicians to losing football coaches have been disparaged by being subjected to this communal ritual. Effigies have also been created to honor individuals, as in effigies that adorn the covers of caskets of royalty and literary figures.  Ancient cultures also created effigies that represented gods and spiritual beings and it is in this context that we find the special use of the effigy by the shaman.

Shamans have been known throughout time to have supernatural healing abilities and other preternatural capacities. The shaman draws his power from a direct link to power allies across many dimensions in many different realities. As humans we often find ourselves limited by the confines of our normal reality and, therefore, we seek to gain wisdom, strength, and support from the spirits we connect to in alternate realities.

These connections allow each of us to find greater fulfillment and the capacity to move beyond the artificial limits that our culture seeks to impose on all of us. The shaman pursues a similar connection but one that is more powerful and is drawn from sources that can alter our current reality through the focusing of powerful other worldly forces in achieving healing, spiritual renewal, and the restoration of one’s soul to its original perfect state. The shaman, in the quest of powers to aid others, creates a special connection to these alternative realities and bonds with spirit allies that are not restricted by the imperfections and restraints of our current state of being. In truth, the shaman’s abilities are actually those of the spiritual ally working with magical power through the shaman in ordinary reality.  Spirit helpers are non-physical beings that need the shaman, a human being, to bring their abilities into three-dimensional reality—something the spirit cannot do by itself. The shaman needs the spirits and the spirits need the shaman. It is a symbiotic relationship that is grounded in mutual respect, reverence and love.

The shaman expresses gratitude and reverence to his/her non-physical allies by feeding them, talking to them, building altars to them, singing to them, creating regalia that represents them, and having these non-physical friends be part of the shaman’s everyday life. The relationship is as strong as any intimate physical relationship that the shaman has in the physical world. Great strides are taken each day to sustain the relationship and to strengthen the bonds that exist between the shaman and the spiritual world.  Across many cultures, shamans perform rituals that create greater intimacy and intense connections with spiritual allies.
For example, feeding the spirits is important and very common across many shamanic cultures.  In a shaman’s home, spirit plates are often set at every meal.  An offering of each food prepared is represented on the plate and then offered to the spirits.  In some cultures, places are actually set at the table for the spirit friends. The food left for spiritual allies may disappear mysteriously or may not. The importance of the ritual lies in the intention of the person offering the food—a desire to honor and thank the spirits. In fact one may consume the food and still honor the spirits if one’s intentions are to do so.  I often place the spirit offering outside to be consumed by animals from the forest because I see these creatures as embodiments of the spirits. Shamans understand they are indebted to their spiritual allies and that these signs of respect and appreciation reinforce the relationship that the shaman will draw on to find the mystical power that defies our normal reality.

In Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, Martin Prechtel refers specifically to feeding the spirits and having spirit houses. In fact Martin speaks of a time when he had no money; yet as soon as he was able to obtain some food and some cash, his first purchase was for flowers as an offering to the spirits. Flowers and a shared portion of his food demonstrated his recognition of the importance of his spiritual helpers and Martin considered this act to be a contribution to his own wellbeing.  He knew that the success of what he wanted to do in this life would come from his relationship with the spirits and that keeping them fed and happy was a priority even over his own basic needs.  In those lean days, it might have seemed an excessive sacrifice that Martin made each day; however, he now attributes his success as an author, speaker, and recognized authority to the establishment of a strong relationship with his spirits.

In Tibet, India, and many Middle Eastern countries, shrines are set up all over cities and in rural communities with offerings given by the people to the spirits.  In fact, many homes have their own personal shrines.  Offerings of rice, cooked meats, flowers and incense may be given twice a day to the spirits. The people are asking non-physical beings to help them and so they give food and items of beauty just as one would give to a person in appreciation of the help they might provide.  In many temples in some cultures, there is an enormous amount of food collected each day as offerings to the spiritual beings.  At the end of the day these offering are then used to feed the poor. For these people, the spirits are as real as the humans they encounter every day.

Shamans employ many different tools to connect with the spiritual world and to draw in the power of the spirits to accomplish extraordinary feats of healing and spiritual renewal. A shaman may have several objects that have been imbued by the spirits to transfer their power to the shaman.  One such tool is the physical representation of the spirit in an effigy. Shamanic effigies are power objects carved or constructed by shamans that offer a corporeal representation of the spirit and thereby create immediacy in this reality that effectuates a direct connection to the spirit. The effigy once created is then empowered by the shaman and used as a sacred object that creates healing for an individual.  Once imbued with the spirit, the effigy is no longer just a representation of the spirit but an object possessing metaphysical powers capable, in the hands of the shaman, of healing and altering one’s inner being.

In carved effigies, the most important parts are the carving of the mouth where the effigy will take in food and the carving of the location of the illness that is to be healed. In some cultures specific types of wood are also a factor in the creation of the effigy. Different trees carry different healing abilities and these are considered and understood as part of the selection of the wood to be used.  If a shaman is not a good carver, the general carving can be hired out to a professional.  However, the shaman always carves the mouth and the representation of the illness and does so in a ceremonial ritual.

The relationship between shaman and her spirit allies is an intimate interpersonal relationship that few can fathom unless they have the experience themselves.  When a shaman carves an effigy, she is asking her power ally to move into the effigy.  There is an agreement of service that has been well established between the spirits and the shaman.  Together they are committed to help alleviate suffering in the client. The shaman, in ceremony, merges with the spirit ally, who comes from non-ordinary reality. The merge brings the spirit ally into existence in a three dimensional ordinary reality when it inhabits the effigy. The effigy assumes the nature of a holy object by subsuming the power of the spirit and should be treated accordingly. Great care is needed in respecting the presence of the spirit and respecting the power that the effigy now embodies. The shaman then journeys into the client’s body, gathers the spirit of the illness, and transfers that into the effigy.  The spirit ally that lives in the effigy has agreed in its communion with the shaman to take on the spirit of the illness. In return for this service the spirit ally is accorded a daily offering to keep it power filled and fortified.

The effigy now has within it the spirit ally and the spirit of the illness. Energetically once the spirit of the illness has been transferred to the effigy, it no longer exists in the client, although there may still temporarily be symptoms of the illness in the client; but because the illness cannot subsist without its own spirit, the symptoms will gradually disappear over time. Many times students who are learning shamanic practices become concerned that the transfer of the illness into the effigy might weaken their spiritual ally. One must understand the power of the spiritual being. The spirits are unaffected by the illness because the purity of their existence makes them immune to the human frailty in resisting illness.  It is because of this invulnerability that the shaman calls on the spirit ally to overcome the illness. Unassisted, a human might be negatively impacted by the transfer of the affliction but the spirit ally is not.

The spirit ally is also omnipresent—in the effigy, in the shaman, and continuing in the in non-ordinary reality. It is everywhere and not diminished by its conscious placement into items.   This omnipresence is also the foundational component of how a spirit ally such as a bear can be used by hundreds of people in a tribe and not be diminished in its full power for each individual using that ally.

Journeys are done to honor the effigy/spirit ally, to ask what and how often it needs to be fed, and how long a duration it will need tending. Food, beverage, or tobaccos may be used as offerings and the spirit ally decides this and the shaman or client commits to the feeding.  Songs and chants are also used to express gratitude to the spirit for its assistance and appreciation praises are uttered. The whole event is ceremonial and reverent. Either the client or the shaman will be responsible for taking care of the effigy’s need in mutual agreement. The reverence and commitment of either the shaman or the client will enhance the process of the effigy transmuting the illness into an inert energy.

Personally I have witnessed amazing success in this style of healing and use it for really difficult illnesses in clients.  My students each year have various levels of success.  Probably the most difficult and most challenging aspect of this style of healing service is the commitment to the effigy. For many students, the acceptance of the significance of the effigy as a container of spiritual energy requires a release of limiting contemporary attitudes.  The effigy requires an assurance of belief and a commitment of energy to successfully bring in the spiritual ally and to sustain it for the duration of the healing. The degree of commitment may well be the determining factor in the success of the effigy as a healing tool.

In cultures where offerings are done daily to spirits, the awareness of the power of the ritual and a lifelong commitment to honoring the spirits are built in from birth into the community. However, in our culture where these practices are not standard it can feel odd to “feed a stick” and to show proper respect for a crude physical object that represents a greater power.  However, in the practice there is always story after story told in class by my students of how the effigy took on a life and what mysteriously happened to the food left for the spirits, and how the illness was altered or eliminated.  The results of the practice of creating effigies and honoring the spirits that imbue them make believers out of skeptics. I remember when I was working with an African spirit ally. He required cigars as an offering.  During a ceremony a lit cigar was placed in his mouth.  Immediately the red fire on the end of the cigar became bright and intensified as a draw was taken.  Several people in the group became frightened of this physical display of the presence of the spirit. This fear would not be present in a culture where the “realness” of the allies and power objects is fully accepted.

Journeys are done throughout the life of the effigy.  The spirit that inhabits the effigy will eventually need to be released.  Usually this is after the full recovery of the client.  Again the shaman will transfer the power ally out of the effigy in a respectful ritual.  Once this happens, the effigy becomes depowered and returns to its original state as a piece of carved wood.  The lasting legacy of the effigy, however, remains in the healing that has occurred.