When we lived in tribal societies, we had three kinds of leaders who held special ‘star’ status in the community. One was the chieftain, the political and ceremonial head of the community. Another was the warrior, the leader into battle. The third was the shaman, the spiritual and healing guru of the tribe.

Over the centuries, we have remembered the significance of the chieftain–the famous faces of presidents and prime ministers are on today’s magazine covers. We have remembered the warrior, not only as military hero but in the ‘ritualized combat’ world of sports. Top sportspeople like Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali fulfil for us the need for heroes in competition for whom we feel loyalty and support. Today the top sports stars are rich and famous.

But we have forgotten about the shaman, wohse inspirational role was to journey to the spirit world, and bring back wisdom and blessings to the people of his community. Entranced by his spirit helpers, he enacted for the people the stories of his sacred sojourns to the Otherworld. He took on the spirits’ facial expressions, and spoke in their voices. So potent was the shaman’s face in embodying the spirit world that in some ritual dramas his face could be represented as a mask — and the spirits entered it of their own accord.

The shaman’s performances, enacting stories of his encounters with the spirits, provided for the tribe an entertainment with sacred intent. In tribal times these living myths were regarded as gifts from the gods which could be understood only from within the imagination. Then, the imagination was for us at least as significant as the pragmatic ‘reality’ of the everyday.

We no longer understand this view. Today we tend to think of the imagination as a nindulgence, as recreation rather than business. But psychologists and psychiatrists are acutely aware of just how important the imagination is to our emotional well-being. For our effective functioning we need both the reality-testing, pragmatic, empirical mind of analysis, and the intuitive faculty of fantasy and visioning. If we had to live our lives locked totally in the rational, without access to fantasy or imagination, we would all go mad.

Kings and queens do not have fans; they have subjects. But the shaman had ‘fans.’ The word fan derives from the Latin fanaticus, meaning ‘driven to a frenzy by worship of th edivine.’ But when the shaman was either outlawed in favour of priests of organized religions, or displaced by the objective world of science and technology, who did we have to take us on journeys of the imagination? The answer is the actor.

The film and TV stars of today work in a medium that has the power, glamour and impact of the tribal ritual drama. The fanaticus has been transferred to modern entertainers, whether they are worthy of it or not.

This is no longer a sacred process, of course, but it still carries enormous importance. The imagination is something we need at the deepest levels. But because we have forgotten the nature of this need, and the origins and importance of what shamans used to do, it has left us unable to explain why we pay actors up to $20 million for ten weeks’ work on a feature film, and why they were literally hero-worshipped, with their faces prominent in all the media.

The simple reason for this is that we need them. Hard though it is to admit, the multi-billion-dollar Hollywood fame machine would not exist unless we were willing accomplices.

Nevertheless, it still seems a big step from sacred spirit journeys with shamans to the ‘worship’ of soap opera stars. How did this come about?

– The Human Face, Brian Bates