The Romanian philosopher Eliade once said that it is difficult to assimilate the experience of ecstatic ascension into higher consciousness without burying it into stories of the mundane. Shamans and sages around the world have their ways of communicating the divine, but most of us don’t think to look in places like children’s stories for descriptions of the ecstatic journey. Take the story of Jack and his Bean Stalk – a Georgian fairy tale replete with shamanic wisdom.
First appearing prominently in the 1700s as the story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Beanstalk, but with much more ancient wisdom oozing from its pages, this yarn compels the reader to go on a mystical journey which begins with mundane beginnings – just a few ’magic’ beans that Jack manages to get his hands on by selling a sheep, his poor, widowed mother’s only source of income. Instead of selling the sheep’s wool at market, the boy instead meets an old man magician who convinces him to part with his sheep in exchange for a few beans. Jack makes it home to his mother, who is obviously bereft at his foolish choice, sends him to bed without dinner, and throws the bean outside on the ground, thinking she has disposed of them.
Overnight, a colossal beanstalk has grown. Jack climbs the stalk sprouted from his magic beans to find an enormous castle, which ends up being the home of a giant. There are multiple versions of the story, but in each, Jack snoops around the castle while the giant is sleeping and manages to climb back down with loot he has stolen – in one rendition of the story it is a goose that lays golden eggs, in others Jack makes off with gold coins.
The important point is that Jack goes on a mystical journey after meeting a shaman, who offers him a portal to the land of giants, whereupon he faces certain death. “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread,” the story relates. Once Jack escapes with his life, and his boon, he cuts the beanstalk down and he and his mother live a life altered by wealth gained from Jack’s journey.
Giving up Material Wealth for Greater Spiritual Wealth
This is the classic shamanic journey of ascension. An element of the sacred enters our world – usually through a meditative state, or an initiation by someone who has gained a higher level of consciousness than our own. In this case, an old man approaches Jack to offer him a ‘journey’ that can only be created when Jack imprudently takes some tiny beans in exchange for his mother’s only material wealth. Many shamans and sages choose whom they offer their skills to, for not everyone is willing to enter other worlds, or are even able to since they have closed or egoic minds, clinging to the tiny scraps of material existence that they mistakenly believe are all that exist.
The Spirit World
When Jack enters the land of the giants, he enters the spirit world. It is here that he experiences things which are not ‘real’ in his every-day life. Though Jack gains material wealth through his journeying in this particular version of the story, there are many boons awaiting those who travel in this altered reality – greater energy, love, compassion, and power – indeed even richness – that we cannot access in this world alone. In the altered reality we usually have to face our fears, or a deep, unconsciously held belief that would prohibit from manifesting such a boon presently.
At the end of every shamanic journey the traveler returns to his original world, but with an altered experience of it, knowing what other worlds are open to him or her, and taking with them, the elevated consciousness which that ‘journey’ bestowed upon them. As in the Campbellian journey, the traveler then shares his wealth with others who are able to open their minds too. In this case, it is simply Jack’s mother who partakes of Jack’s newfound wealth, but in other shamanic tales, a wealth of compassion or power is shared with entire villages, one’s family, or the world at large.
Interestingly, in the long history of shamanism, most shamans are initiated through a near-death experience. Others, in modern ages, lose all their worldly wealth, and are near self-destruction before they gain a glimpse into alternate realities which allow them to function more fully in this world. A shaman may not look like what we expect. In this story of Jack and the Beanstalk, an old man at the market – someone who might blend into the experience of the common man in the 1720s – is the shaman who brings Jack his journey to regain what his soul lost.
30,000 Year Old Jack and the Beanstalk Stories
The most ‘primitive’ cultures have laid groundwork for us to take similar journeys ourselves. Cave art dating back more than 30,000 years depicts stories just Jack’s – of magical ritualistic rites which were presented to take people beyond their mundane experience, into an experience of the divine. The word ‘shaman’ originates from Sanskrit, meaning ‘ascetic,’ but specifically it refers to the holy men and women who might approach us when we least expect it to offer us some magic. If we’re smart, we’ll take the beans.