Wolverine: The Shaman

It is easy to dismiss Wolverine’s popularity as being a product of his no-holds-barred attitude and savage ferocity. However, I believe that there is a deeper and subtler reason. Many students of stories have noticed that the same ones crop up throughout history all over the world. One such archetypal story is the story of a man or god who is dismembered, torn apart and destroyed only to be rebuilt with supernaturally strong bones. The story of the Egyptian god Osiris is one of the oldest known and his story fits this pattern. The initiation dreams and myths of shamans also take this form and so to does the origin story of Wolverine. Wolverine is torn apart and his bones are coated with a fictional metal called Adamantium which is almost unbreakable. Many of Wolverine’s characteristics and powers relate to the shamanic process.

Myths, rituals and religion bind us together and can be seen metaphorically as the bones of our society. Our personal belief and value system can be seen as our soul’s set of bones. As we grow up we take on the beliefs and values of the people around us. There comes a point for some of us where we start to doubt the absolute truth of the claims of our culture. We question and question and lose all belief. We are left dismembered and torn apart.

Our symbolic bones are brittle and fragile to begin with because we see them as being literally and absolutely true. For example, when the claim that the moon is a goddess is understood literally, it is smashed to pieces when we land on the moon. Stories and symbols address psychological needs and these change over time. In order to stay relevant and useful the stories and symbols we hold dear must also change. The literal and absolute perspective cannot accommodate change and so is weak and fragile.

A man with unbreakable bones has a belief system that is fluid and adaptive to his life. He chooses from the stories and symbols around him and defines himself through them. He dances to the beat of his own drum. He is protected from the manipulation of others by his conscious recognition of the power of symbol and story. The transition from a literal to metaphorical perspective requires the complete dissolution of everything that we previously held to be true. When the process is completed the core of our being is left free from doubt and insecurity.

The ability to shift our beliefs to meet the requirements of our time is a regenerative act and parallels Wolverine’s super power of accelerated healing. In society the tools for this regeneration are created by the artists that create new perspectives and symbols. The symbols that resonate most with the needs of our soul are the ones that will become most popular. As a symbol of the healing power of the shamanic path Wolverine is participating in the healing process.

Losing literal belief in the stories and symbols that we grew up with does have its price. If we believe literally that when we die we will be judged and if found guilty we will burn in hell for eternity then our fear of pain will be transmuted into the desire to do good to others. Social convention and taboo keep our primeval urges at bay. When somebody realises that these are open to question, their power to restrain us is depleted and there is a danger of us becoming more animalistic. This is a major theme in the mythology and personality of Wolverine. He uses his primal fury to defeat evil. The channelling rather than suppression of these primal urges is a key to psychological growth.

If we believe in the absolute truth in traditional values and custom then we will have an infallible guide for our decision making and a set of rules that are meant to apply to every situation regardless of its complexity. We can use them as a way to retreat from making our own decisions. Wolverine has a strong personal code but he is free from the constraints of traditional morality. He kills when necessary and takes responsibility for his own actions. This ability to act as the situation dictates is another source of power obtained when we choose our own myths to live by.

Wolverine’s rebellious and irreverent nature is another symptom of his mythic autonomy. He is what the existentialists called authentic. To be authentic is to live one’s life according to the needs of one’s inner being, rather than the demands of society, authority or one’s early conditioning.

When we question the beliefs of our society we are led to question it’s version of history. History is written by the victors and there has been great pressure for those in control to put their spin on it. Our insecurity about the true nature of our past is mirrored by Wolverines quest to determine the particulars of his past.

Wolverine is a gruff outsider and this is representative of the alienation one feels when removed from normal conventions of our society. Wolverine’s popularity suggests that are many of us going through the shamanic process. Perhaps rather than us being outsiders, we are in fact, the norm. Modern secular society has thrown out the myths of our past and together we are discovering our own adamantium bones.

Wolverine’s bravery to make his own decisions, his thirst for the truth, his progressive relationship with his animal side and above all the symbolic nature of his powers make him truly a hero for our time.

About Ian McGarry

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