Shamans and Vision Quests

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Created On 20 May 1998
Last Updated On 20 May 1998
Copyright (c) Simon E. Phipp 1998

In an ongoing attempt to properly flesh out Gloranthan Shamans, their rationale, cultural significance and powers and abilities, I am turning to the Shaman's Vision Quest and related abilities. This is based on ideas generated from reading "The Dream Seekers - Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains" by Lee Irwin (University of Oklahoma Press)., a cracking good read if you ignore the sometimes overbearing technical style.

Although this is an article on Gloranthan Shamans, most of us play Glorantha in the RuneQuest game, so it is also an article on RuneQuest Shamans. Hopefully, I can keep the rules content low and the general content high.

In the current edition of RuneQuest (RQ3), a Shaman wanting a Healing Spirit must become discorporate, leaving his fetch behind to guard his body and journey through the Spirit Plane in search of a Healing Spirit. He must make encounter rolls each hour, modified by his fetch's POW and eventually will meet a Healing Spirit which he would attack, bind and then return to his body. I found this highly unsatisfactory and wrote my own rules where the shaman would discorporate, sending his fetch, or Spirit Self, into the Spirit Plane, would then travel to a place where he knew that Healing Spirits would be found, for instance a Holy Spot of Arroin, would then roll on the local Encounter Table (still unsatisfactory - I would prefer that he called a Healing Spirit), having found a Healing Spirit, he would attempt to persuade it to join him or to attack and bind it. Then he would return to his body with the new Healing Spirit. This is better, but still too mechanistic/rules orientated. I am going to propose a third way, more satisfying than the other two, based on the Dream Visions of the Plains Indians, but modified in various ways.

Rather than seeking a Healing Spirit from the Spirit Plane, the Shaman would pray to the Gods and Spirits and ask for a boon - a gift of Healing. This invokes a VisonQuest ritual where the Shaman's fetch discorporates and travels to the Realm of the Spirits and is met by a messenger of the Spirits/Gods or maybe even a Hero Spirit or a God itself. Once the Shaman proves himself worthy, perhaps by passing some test or agreeing to certain conditions, the spirit would gift him with the Healing Power and give him instructions on its use. The Shaman would return with the Healing Power, which may be a Healing Spirit, a Healing Spell, a new formula for a Potion, new ways to use Healing Plants or something entirely different - a Healing Song or even contact with a previously unknown Healing Deity/Hero Spirit. The Shaman would then follow the instructions required to use the Healing Power, perhaps creating a new Medicine Bundle for the Power to live in, or performing a sacrifice or ceremony, going on a Pilgrimage, sharing the secret with members of a Sacred Society or whatever. Only then can he use the Healing Power.

Vision Quests

All Vision Quests are performed for personal empowerment - to make the Visionary more powerful. The Visionary may then use the Power to help others, to strengthen the community or to teach other Visionaries, but that is his own decision. Vision Quests are extremely selfish in nature, fitting in nicely with how I see a typical Shaman - powerful, selfish, but serving the community.

The form of a Vision Quest is as follows:

First the Shaman retires to a Holy Spot or Sacred Place alone with any ceremonial paraphernalia required, having first ritually purified himself (through washing, sweat bathing, oiling, scraping or whatever).

Second, he humbles himself before the Spirits, debasing himself, perhaps fasting, to make himself hungry or thirsty, perhaps injuring himself, to make himself appear hurt, often crying out with pain, remorse and sorrow. He may make sacrifices to the spirits, perhaps mutilating himself in place of sacrificing himself to get their attention. Eventually the Spirits will take pity on him, as they did his ancestors in the Darkness, and may send messengers to him. However, first they may test him to see if he is worthy of help - perhaps by sending spirits to scare him away or to mislead him, perhaps by asking him riddles or making him prove his powers. In any case, a messenger will probably arrive, if only to tell him that his attempt was unsuccessful.

Assuming the Spirits look kindly upon the Visionary, they will give him a Vision. This is actually an encounter with powerful spirits and should be treated as such. The Spirits may take the Shaman to a Special Place, perhaps their home or Holy Spot. They may introduce him to other Spirits and show him sacred things. They may instruct him on what to do. They may give him special powers or tell him how to obtain special powers. They may give him geasa or tabus to follow. They may tell him to tell others of the Vision or perhaps to keep it secret. Whatever happens, the Visionary will be returned to his normal self and will have a feeling that a Great Event has occurred.

Afterwards, the Shaman must follow the instructions given to him in order to use the Power. He may construct a Medicine Bundle to House the Power, he may decorate or mutilate himself in a certain way, he may create a new Dance or Song if so instructed. If he was told to share the Vision, he would gather together the appropriate people, whether fellow Shamans, his kinsfolk, members of a Sacred Society and, under certain special ritual conditions, impart the Vision to them. He may not tell them everything that occurred, keeping certain of the Power conditions to himself, and he may have to demonstrate the Powers which he has received.

After all these things, the Shaman is left with a new power/ability and has become more powerful as a result. He may have new geasa/tabus and so is more constrained, bound closer to his new role. He may have to perform new ceremonies and have new responsibilities. In any case he will have changed in some way.

If, having received the Vision which he asked for, the Shaman does not want the Power and fails to do as instructed, or does as instructed and then tries to give the Power away, he may well offend the Spirits who gave him the Power. Those Spirits will not look kindly on him in future, refusing his requests for aid. Sometimes, if they are vengeful, they will kill him. Few Shamans will refuse Thunder Powers as refusal often is met with a Thunder Bolt one dark night. A story is told of a young Shaman of the Oasis Folk who prayed to the Green Spirits and asked for a gift of knowledge. When he received his gift he was angry as it was not what he wanted. He petitioned the Spirits again and asked for the Secret of the Falling Leaves. He was told that when the leaves began to fall he would grow sick and when they stopped falling then he would die. This happened exactly as he had been told.

Spontaneous Visions

Most Vision Quests require much ritual and preparation to succeed. However, sometimes, Visions are granted spontaneously (If you use the Shaman Encounters for embodied Shamans, a Spontaneous Vision would be a random encounter on this table - personally, I never use the random encounters for shamans). Here the Shaman is met by a Spirit who tells him something and offers him a gift of some kind. Often the Spirit has been waiting to help the Shaman for some time. Usually, the Spirits take pity on the Shaman if he is weak, injured, in danger, in a Sacred Place, has a clan in danger or whatever. Occasionally, the spirit is hostile and seeks to harm the Shaman by giving the gift.

If the Shaman is doubtful about the gift or does not want it for any reason, then he may politely refuse the gift as it was not asked for. Usually, this does not cause a problem, however, some Spirits are vengeful and would be offended by this. Thunder and Chaos Spirits are especially vengeful. Hostile Spirits may attack if the Gift is refused. If the Shaman accepts the gift, then he is bound by it and must suffer the consequences as if he had requested the Vision.

Often, non-shamans are given Spontaneous Visions, especially when ill or in danger. They may be instructed to become shamans, to join Sacred Societies, to perform certain tasks such as raiding their enemies, hunting a certain creature or perform a HeroQuest. Often, those who have had more than one Vision would become a Shaman as a means of coping with the new Powers and Spirit contact.

Walks With Thunder, a High Llama Shaman, tells of a Vision he had when trying to escape from a massacre at the hands of a band of Sable Braves "I watched the hailstorm coming and saw lightning quite close to me. I saw a big bird coming down from the clouds, his colour was white and he was large. In descending to the ground he made no noise. I saw him plainly. The lightning came from his eyes. He sat on the ground and the hailstorm did not come near but left a circle free around the bird and me. I watched the bird going up to the Sky. He said 'I am going to adopt you, that is why I came down. Whatever you ask for, we shall hear you.' This was the first time I saw him."

An Impala bachelor was raiding during Fire Season when he met an old kindly woman who addressed him as "daughter". She said to the brave "You are my daughter and shall be as I am. Put down your bow and lance and tend the cows. Grow your hair long and braid it. You shall be good at spinning and knitting and in embroidering ponchos." In speaking to her, the brave discovered that he had been speaking as a woman. When he tried to speak as a man he failed. He returned to his people, even though bachelors stayed away from the clan in Summer, and dressed as a woman, taking upon himself the attributes of a woman.

A Bison Woman was caught by a thunderstorm when escaping from a High Llama camp. She looked for a place to hide and saw a dried-up carcass of a bison. The skin still covered the ribs so she crawled inside to take refuge from the hailstones and fell asleep. During the night, the bison appeared to her in a Vision and said "I am going to give you a worthwhile present, valuable in times of war". I showed her how to use some healing plants and how to make a new Healing Medicine Bundle for wounds received in battle. She was told to tell the male members of the Thunder Society so that each male member would accompany a war party as a doctor.

A Sable Brave slept beside a dried Serpent and heard singing nearby. He went down crying, for it was a sad song, and saw an animal in the serpent bed. It was blue with spots of white and had horns. It said "This water is mine. It is different. In the summer it is cooler and in the winter warmer than any other water. Whenever I breathe I cause a fog. You could call me from the ground. What do you wish". The brave was frightened of the animal and did not speak to it but returned to his camp site and left.

Sacred Societies

These are typically Praxian, although there is no reason why they could not be found in Balazar, Pent or any other shamanic culture.

When someone has a Vision of a particular kind, it may be dangerous to keep it secret. Occasionally, a Visionary is told to share the Vision with others. Sometimes the Visionary knows that having a certain Vision means he must seek out others who have had similar Visions. In al these cases, the Visionary can go to a Sacred Society and share his Vision with them. If, in their opinion, the Vision was True, the Visionary may be invited to join the Sacred Society and become privy to its secrets.

There are many such societies in Prax, the White Bull, Thunder Brothers, Thunder Bird, Sun Hawk, Raven, Sun Dragon, Rolling Serpents, Desert Trackers, The Red School of Masks, Serpent Dancers, Star Witches, Sunset Society, Wind Singers and Red Horse Eater Society to name but a few.

Membership in a Sacred Society means several things. Firstly, any Visions connected with the Society would be readily explained and any dangers associated with the Visions could be guarded against. Secondly, more powers could be obtained from the Sacred Societies than could be obtained from one's own Visionary experience. Thirdly, one could call on other members of the Society in times of need. Fourthly, in Prax it is good to just belong to any group.

As an example, a shaman is caught in a Thunderstorm when travelling through the Storm Hills and sees the Thunder Bird. Lightning comes from the Thunder Bird's eyes and strikes the ground at his feet, not harming him. The Thunder Bird tells him to dig where the lightning struck and he finds a sparkling flint. He takes this to his clan and finds a known member of the Thunder Bird Society. At a meeting which he arranges he tells of his Vision and shows the flint to the assembled Society members. Some tell him similar Visions, others show him their Thunder Stones, for that is what the flint is - a crystal of great power. He is invited to join the Thunder Bird Society and is taught the rituals needed to contact the Thunder Bird. Afterwards, he often meets the Thunder Bird in Visions and gains great power from the Spirit. However, he knows that if he ever left or betrayed the Thunder Bird Society, he would be killed by lightning.

Occasionally, someone would be granted a Vision and be told to create a new Sacred Society. He will be told some of the important rituals in the Vision or subsequent Visions and would be told to wait for others to contact him. Maybe he would be told to dress in a certain way or to do certain things in the meantime. Eventually, others would have similar Visions and would contact the Shaman, bringing new rituals and powers to the Society. The Red Horse Eater Society was started a few years ago by a Shaman praying for help against the Pentians. He was visited by a many-armed goddess descending from a star who gave him and others who prayed fearsome powers against the Pentian mounts. He now carries a Ball of Tails containing nearly ten horse tails.

Some Societies are secret and can only be joined if the shaman is sought out by the Society's members, often after they have had Visions concerning the Shaman.

Most Societies are found across the Nations of Prax, so there would be White Bull Societies in the Bison, Sable, High Llama, Impala and even the Morokanth Nations. Often, however, the Societies are not recognised as common, especially when Secret. Thus, whereas the Thunder Bird Society is known throughout Prax and members form different nations or tribes may treat fellow members as brothers, after a fashion, members of the secret White Bull Society would have no idea that other Nations would have the White Bull Society. One of the things that Argrath did was to show that the Bison and Sable Nations had members of the White Bull Society and thus allowed them to unite behind the White Bull as friends and not enemies.

Medicine Bundles

Medicine Bundles are peculiar to shamanic cultures. They generally consist of items of significance wrapped in a covering, perhaps of bark or grasses or of animal hide or feathers. Often, participants in a Vision Quest are instructed to create a Medicine Bundle in such and such a way in order to house the Spirit or Power granted to them. If they do so, the Visionary would be able to use the Power as long as he held the Medicine Bundle. Usually, if he loses the Medicine Bundle, all he needs do is to create a new one and the Spirit/Power would move across to live in the new Bundle. However, if the Bundle contained one-of-a-kind items then it would be impossible to re-create and the Power would be lost. Also, if the shaman died, the Bundle would be impossible to re-create unless the shaman had taught others how to make one.

Often, Medicine Bundles are opened up in ritual conditions and their contents are checked and replaced if they are losing potency or are wearing out. This can often be done even if the knowledge of how to create the new Bundle has been lost. Thus, Bundles containing herbs and grasses can last for many generations without losing potency.

There are several types of Medicine Bundle - Personal, Social and Tribal.

Personal Bundles only work for the maker of the Bundle or the owner of the Bundle. Only the maker knows the rituals and songs to make and use the Bundle. Often if he shared the secret then he would lose it forever. Sometimes, however, the shaman can make a Medicine Bundle and tell others how to use it. Thus, the knowledge and power of the Bundle's use could be disseminated throughout a clan or Society. Such Bundles become Common Bundles.

Social Bundles belong to a group of people, whether they are a clan, family unit or Sacred Society. Even though one person may know how to make the Bundle, more than one would know how to use it. Quite often these Bundles have been passed down for generations and are important heirlooms. Sometimes, an old Shaman will tell others the secret of using his Personal Medicine Bundles, thus changing it into a Social Bundle.

Tribal Medicine Bundles are important to the entire community. They may be communally owned or may be owned by a particular individual or clan. They often bestow importance, prestige or political power on the owner, some Khans are rulers of tribes because they hold certain Medicine bundles, for instance. Parts of the Bull are owned by the Shaman of a Nation but are lent to worthy members of Storm Bull for a period. Tribal Bundles are often irreplaceable, containing parts of Gods or special items which were HeroQuested for. If these were lost or destroyed, the entire tribe would suffer. Most tribes would spend extraordinary efforts to get back a stolen Tribal Bundle. Some Tribal Bundles were created especially for the Tribe, others were Personal or Social Bundles which gained more significance over time and became important to the Tribe.

Medicine Bundles can have many powers. They may act as a Binding Enchantment for the Spirit of the Bundle, as Spell Matrices, as Magic Point Reservoirs, as artefacts for praying back Divine Magic or for contacting powerful spirits, as fertility charms, magical defences or they may have one-of-a-kind powers.

Many examples of Medicine Bundles have appeared in print, ranging from those in Griffin Island to the Parts of the Bull and Oakfed Bundles or Balls of Tails in Prax.

Other Standard Gifts

Apart from Medicine Bundles and membership in Sacred Societies, Visionaries could gain many other standard powers form Visions/Spirit Encounters. These included worship of the deity, knowledge of Healing Plants, Poisons, Rocks and Animals, knowledge of the speech of animals or birds, and magical items such as Decorations, Warrior Shields, Weapons and Special Mounts.

Decorations are used in certain circumstances. The Visionary may see how his tent should be decorated in order to give him protection from evil spirits; he may also see how to decorate himself so that enemies cannot see him sneaking into their camps to raid herds or in hunting; he may have protective paint so that spears, swords, sling shots or arrows may not harm him or to make him fearsome in battle. These decorations are a personal thing and cannot be traded to another without losing the abilities.

Warrior Shields are made of animal hide decorated in the same way as in the Vision. They give protection in battle against certain kinds of attacks or certain foes. However, if the Shield is lost, the Brave will become vulnerable to the attack he was protected against, sometimes to a fatal degree. Sometimes powerful Shield would be made which could protect entire Raiding Parties or Warbands - these would be handed down from generation to generation and would be venerated as especially sacred.

Magical Weapons may offer better damage against certain types of foe, may slay all enemies or even be able to injure demons or spirits. Each is highly personal and does not work for anyone else, unless under highly unusual conditions. Examples may include Scala's Lance or the War Arrows which give improved bowmanship skills.

Special Mounts are generally Awakened Herd Beasts with superior stats. They may have special abilities - Impossible to Track, Moves Silently, Walks on Air, Jumps Far, Charges Fiercely, Always Bears Cows, Always Bears Twins, Double Milk Yield, Superior Calves and so on. Often the Shaman must rescue the beast from an underground area where it is being held (Waha's Quest) or must rescue it from captivity by another tribe who do not know of its powers.


Hopefully, this will give a better feel for how Shamanic Encounters should be in Glorantha. As a game aid, this approach is a lot more GM intensive, requiring a lot more effort than using Special Encounters, but it is worthwhile in the end.