Monday, 28 March 2011

Fetishism, shamanism?

I’ve seen and read a few things and had some conversations about fetish that sparked a line of thought.

There’s a sense of ‘fetish’ that refers to ‘the attribution of inherent value or powers to an object’. Interacting with the object, using it in some ritualistic way, enables you to communicate with a world beyond the immediate and everyday - the spirit world, a deeper level of consciousness, however you might like to model it. In that sense, do our fetishes enable us to communicate with or enter into a world that is not part of ordinary reality?

Notwithstanding the somewhat simplistic description of shamanism you'll find on Wikipedia, shamanism is similarly about communication with a world outside our normal experience - a world that is often entered through the use of powerful symbolic operators such as fetishes, objects attributed with the power I've destcribed above. OK, there's often ritual, physical exertion such as dance, and drugs too - but these are all means to a similar end. Are we all, in some small way, shamans now?

Women and transvestites probably know more about this than men. Eyeliner, lipstick, blusher and well-cut fabric have an almost ceremonial purpose. Put on your makeup, change into a favourite dress and heels, and by changing your appearance you become almost literally a different person.

Pagans know about this. Go to a pagan camp and people you normally see in jeans and T-shirts are striding around in capes, carrying a staff and with an atheme on their belt. At one level it looks rather like medieval re-enactment, but whatever people are, or aren’t, wearing (there may be a certain amount of skyclad-ness) it’s meaningful to them as a symbol of identity and something that helps them connect with whatever energies or aspects of personality of belief they want to connect with.

Probably police officers, nurses and priests know about it as well – put the uniform on and you become the kind of person the uniform symbolises, not least because it influences how others interact with you.

Fetishists know about this. Don your leathers, your PVC and latex, and you can almost feel your personality changing as the second skin covers you. They are symbols, conduits connecting you to a sexual identity outside your everyday persona. Do you become more essential? More vital? Feel a link to something that empowers you? In its own way, fetishism can be a shamanic experience.


  1. I recall reading, long ago, that "fetish" originally was used to describe certain African amulets. These were stones or carved objects that didnt simply represent a god or sacred force--the god/force actually resided in the object. It's easy to see how the word slid over to erotic objects. The stockings, high heels, rubber, the lipstick and mascara, whatever your personal erotic object, becomes sacred, and indeed shamanistic. They are, it seems to me, windows into a deeper relationship with the sacred, and thus closely allied with art...

  2. Interesting thought and thanks for the comment. Yes, I believe many African cultures did see fetishes in that light. And the link with art is intriguing. There are discussions of the sacred in art, and I've seen discussions of links between the ideas of fetish, ritual, and some performance art. Worth mulling over.