I wrote about the healing power of creativity and play recently and that got me thinking about the shamanic role of the sacred clown.
In certain tribal cultures, there’s a community role for sacred clowns. They are called by different names in different tribes, one commonly known name is heyoka, so I’ll use that term here.
The role of the sacred clown is not so much to make people laugh but to make them think. They do that by absurd and often backwards behaviour; they may be nice to an unpleasant person and mean to a kind person. This would mirror what each needs to learn. The unpleasant person would usually be treated dismissively but rarely receive any kindness. The kind person would expect to be treated pleasantly, so being treated badly for no reason presents a challenge to their ego. The heyoka is very tuned in to what people need and intuitively provides it.
In the West, clowns in circuses throw custard pies, mime slapstick entertainment that may also involve the kind of unexpected ‘backward’ behaviour used by the heyoka. We also have comedians whose words may get us thinking about things in a different way. Neither are seen as spiritual roles like heyoka, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything spiritual going on.
Most tribal societies that are healthy, balanced and not adversely impacted by the Western world, naturally thrive on laughter. Every activity can produce humour and fun, even spiritual ceremonies and sacred events are often light-hearted and full of laughter. Laughter is reverence, whereas to us, being serious and not ‘playing about’ is reverence.
Heyoka act as role models for the community, reminding people to turn things around, what we might term thinking outside the box. They mimic and tease a person to help them see differently and challenge the ego. They use the ridiculous and surreal to jolt people out of a complacent mindset. They are powerful and highly respected members of the community who can break taboos that nobody else would dare.
In Europe, we used to have jesters in medieval times. That’s where the term ‘playing the fool’ came from. Jesters were usually close to the throne and could get away with more than most. They were free to insult and name-call by means of japes. Perhaps they once had a similar role to heyoka.
A special skill of the Celtic druids was a form of poetry called satire. In the past, satire was akin to making a curse, a powerful act intended to cause injury. Once a person was satirised, they were stripped of their legendary Celtic pride and could no longer show their face, they were effectively ostracised and banished afar. Today, satire is a kind of humour but to the Celts, it was a powerful weapon. Satire was executed by a well trained bard who understood how to use the profound magical power of words.
Have you heard about the ancient totem poles discovered at Stonehenge, predating the stones? If so, you may realise there are spiritual artefacts shared between prehistoric British culture and native American tribal societies. Despite being separated geographically and by thousands of years, shamanic societies across the world had common understandings and similar ways of expressing their relationship with the land and each other. And some practices are as relevant today as ever they were, like the sacred clowns.
(Image: “Shamanic Sacred Clown Heyoka” art by Amenet Drago)