Thoth: Shaman from the Lands of the Festad by Barbara Ann Steinberg

Thoth: Shaman from the Lands of the Festad by Barbara Ann Steinberg

His father was a Russian Jew; his mother came from Barbados. Their son Stephen Kaufman was born in 1959. His parents protected their family with a joyful, loving, blissful world, filled with understanding between peoples — until they went out.

“I didn’t understand what people were so angry about,” he said. “To be that young and have that kind of hatred hurled at me caused me to move into a shell. I stopped smiling and felt I had the world on my shoulders. I was pondering, why should this be?”

After a divorce, his father picked him up for a visit. A light was changing from yellow to red. His father sped up the car to beat it. A boy bounced up and against the windshield, then died at the scene. Mr. Kaufman lied to police, told them the light was green, and never contacted his son again. Stephen was 10. “My father marched with Martin Luther King and was a doctor. How could he do this?”

To recover from a suicide attempt in college, Kaufman realized, “Either I was going to die, or I was going to have to let everything out.”

The way cultures allow individuals to release emotions is shamanism. Whether a tribal shaman connects people to an ancestral spirit world, an ancient prophet creates a hierarchy for a polytheistic religion that has none, or an artist changes Western intellectual history, a shaman ushers people between real and imaginary worlds.

“Egypt was the center of people of mixed race in ancient tines. Hermes and Thoth were messengers. I turned into a messenger.”

To save his own life, Stephen Kaufman re-birthed himself as Thoth, honed a God-like body, and became a performance artist in Central Park, New York City.

Throughout his life, he created The Lands of the Festad, complete with maps, a cuneiform language, and mythical characters called Mir. The Mir are people of many different colors: phosphorescent; blue green; orange, red, and brown.

Thoth performs his deity’s ecstatic prayer-trance. His feet act as a shamanic drum, percussing rhythms to his violin and vocal melodies. His bow is an arrow. A 4-octave range allows Mir characters to tell their stories in different voices, and he wrote a one-man opera, “The Herma: The Life and Land of Nular-in.” Written in Mir, it is set in The Lands of the Festad.

Herma’s central character is a hermaphrodite, whose mother was lost and whose father was killed in battle. A second family adopts him and raises him as a girl. When it is found out that Nular-in is both sexes, he is beaten severely and left to die.

In the second act, Nular-in, while stranded in the desert, meets Kagma, a frightening winged creature. He becomes Nular-in’s mentor and shadow. Kagma sends his protégé to retrieve three sacred objects. When Nular-in returns, Kagma asks him to drink his blood. Nular-in is then reborn as a fully realized being.

Thoth’s shamanic headdress starts with three rows of red and black beads punctuated by a gold circle, continues with a gold-fabric braid-holder, and ends with a magnificent red feather, as if Samburu beading, Sioux braid ornaments, and a French aigrette collaborated to form something new.

His costume is a tribal cocktail of red silk and gold, ankle bells, hooped earrings, a chain corset, original make-up, a circular belt buckle with a triangle in it (Horus?), and a thousand variations.

There are two stories here: how a young man overcame suicidal depression and how a color-blind world full of colors became mythology.

How would you save your life?

Link to the documentary short film “Thoth,” which won an Oscar in 2002

 Barbara’s Blog