The wabeno is an ancient Mystic-shamanic personality that was formally found among several Algonquian groups. The wabeno shamanic art is performed singly or in a society composed of both men and women. The Ojibway wabeno is first described in Jesuit relations as healing by means of fire manipulations and erotic dances. Named by the French as “jugglers”, these wabeno handled live coals and then rubbed their heated hands over the patient while chanting their vision songs. Another wabeno specialty is divining, which they accomplish by gazing into glowing coals until inspiration moves them to respond to questions. In addition, the earlier wabeno held a healing ritual in which naked shaman danced around the ailing patient. These wabeno practices where at time condemned by European observers which often led to conflict between tribal shamans and European missionaries. By exhibiting his pyrotechnics, the wabeno evokes the hypnotic mystery of fire and the mood necessary to his passage into trance. Herbal preparations are used to protect wabeno from the coals that they handle. “By the use of plants, he is alleged to be enabled to take up and handle with impunity red hot stones and burning brands and without evincing the slightest discomfort it is said that he will bathe his hands in boiling water or even boiling maple syrup. These protective practices are openly known. The wabeno skills lies not merely in herbal preparations but also in the effect he or she creates on the patient to be healed, in his or her own movement into trance and in the dramatic spectacle that the audience witnesses.
By means of sustained concentration on the glowing embers the wabeno evokes his manido patron. The patron who bestows the wabeno vocation is described as a fiery figure with radiant horns. The whole complex of the wabeno ceremony, including the fire handling, naked dance, drumming, rattling and chanting is devoted to the frenzied encounter with the horned manido. After summoning the manido and passing into an altered psychic state the wabeno conveys the manido presence by rubbing the patient with his heated hands. The fire’s juggling seems to demonstrate his authentic contact with the spirit world. Mastery over fire, insensibility to heat enhance the mystical heat that renders both extreme cold and the temperature of burning coals supportable is a magical virtue that translates in sensible terms the fact that he has passed beyond the human condition (and is already in spirit condition). Thus, the Ojibway wabeno passes into the other world by virtue of his pyrotechnics. His techniques using fire help to create a mood in which his vision can structure a healing rite.
Like fire manipulation, the wabeno erotic dance mediates the healings energies given him/her in dreams or vision. The psychic techniques of naked dancing practiced by the wabeno also harks back to the ithyphallic pictographs found throughout Ojibway territory. These rock paintings and carvings depict the Ojibway understanding of the manido force inherent in the male sex (opposite ?). More than mere graphic arts, these image render visible the hidden meanings in nature whose significance it has been the wabeno task to conjure up and capture on stone. Just as Ojibway visionaries conjured up their power dreams to execute this phallic art, so also the wabeno channels a vital healing force through his or her nacked ritual dance.
The major wabeno ceremonials are usually performed by a group of them. In many respect, the development of the wabeno shamanic groups paralleled the formation of the mide society responded to the tribal need by structuring ancient shamanic trance techniques into a community experience of the manido presence. Thus, the wabeno trance not only healed individual patients but also revitalized individual participants.
The wabeno cult did not gain a lasting position in the Ojibway tribe, partially because of its frenetic trance techniques. The cult did not have the wide appeal to the various Ojibway bands that the more mythologized midewiwin did. It also focused too exclusively on the trance as an end in itself. Spirit possession is not an acceptable technique among the Ojibway (wrong understanding/accusation).Such loss of control because of the spirit possession is comparable to the most deadly illness conceived by the Ojibway, namely : the Windigo.
The following contemporary account of a wabeno reflects the later, subdued practice of this cult. Although the practice of fire manipulation and frenzied dance are not mentioned, the trance experience via dream evocation is still evident. The name of this female wabeno is Eternal Man. The wabeno practice had become suspect among the Ojibway bands because they had developed into cultic-spirit possession performances by both men and women. Changes during the 19 and 20 centuries in the wabeno trance state reasserted both the norm of traditional “shamanic” activity and variations in accordance with the shift in Ojibway societal values.
This practice it still going on in isolation, away from the contemporary norms of the assimilated indigenous society – those who have embraced industrial society and fashioned their spirituality after the influences of western cultural oppression.