Shamanism (Anthropology)

The term ‘shaman’ was taken from Russian sources in the seventeenth century, the word itself coming from the language of the Evenks (Tungus), an eastern Siberian people. A century later the derivative term ‘shamanism’ was coined. Among the Evenks the ‘shaman’ (man or woman) occupies a central position in ritual and religious practices. He or she is the mediator between the human world and the world of spirits, between the living and the dead, and between animals and human society. Endowed with clairvoyance and assisted by helper spirits, a shaman fills many social and religious roles including those of soothsayer, therapist and interpreter of dreams. He or she also plays an offensive and defensive role in the protection of his or her group against the aggressive actions of other shamans or displeased spirits. During public seances, he or she is able to cross profane (see sacred and profane) frontiers of time and space, and of surface reality, and has the power to journey into the beyond and make contact with spirits. At major transitions in the life cycle and in the cycle of seasonal activity, as at times of crisis, disorder, war, famine or illness, the shaman give services to the group (freely), and to individuals (with some expectation of return).

Individuals with analogous attributes, roles and functions were described in many other groups by travellers, explorers and missionaries, especially in the Americas. These individuals were designated in the latters’ accounts by various names: curandero in Spanish, ‘wizard’, ‘medicine man’ in English, jongleur, sorcier or magicien in French, giocolare in Italian and Gaulker in German (Eliade 1964 [1951], Flaherty 1992). From the beginning of the nineteenth century however, ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanism’ gradually replaced the others and became generic terms applicable in other regions of the world such as the Pacific, Africa, South, East and Southeast Asia and Australia, in addition to the Americas and Siberia, without the previous terms disappearing altogether.

Romanticism and evolutionism

During the next two centuries interest in shamanism increased to an astonishing extent, although this varied with shifts in ideas and customs. With its roots in the Enlightenment, this interest manifested itself first among early Romantic intellectuals and artists, then in certain currents in medicine. Shamanism was seen as the expression of irrationalism, the source of art, esotericism, religion, and medicine. It was thus opposed to the scientific rationality which dominated the Enlightenment. Diderot, Herder and Goethe were fascinated by Siberian shamanism (Flaherty 1992). We could speak of a ‘demonization’ of shamanism during this period, although with one qualification: for the authors mentioned above this was part of a re-evaluation of the importance of the ‘devil’ and occult forces; for Christian missionaries of the period, on the other hand, confronted by shamans on the ground as it were, it was more a process of devaluation, in which shamanism was assimilated to the forces of evil.

In the social evolutionism which prevailed in the social sciences and religious studies in the second half of the nineteenth century, shamanism was held to be an intermediary stage between magic and religion. By stressing the importance of its collective and symbolic aspects evolutionists considered it as a socio-religious system. This was notably the case for the French sociological school which viewed shamanism as deriving from totemism. Another perspective, tinged with psychologism, preferred to focus on the individual aspects of shamanism, linking these to the personality of the shaman which was described either as charismatic and ‘ecstatic’, or as psychopathological.

These diverse aproaches were taken up, with more or less success, in twentieth-century anthropology as well as other disciplines such as religious studies, medicine and psychology. However, this increased interest in shamanism resulted in a loss of conceptual clarity. Each author would propose a different definition of shamanism, one which emphasized the aspect of the phenomenon most compatible with their particular theoretical and disciplinary interests.

From ethnographic regionalism to psychological reductionism

With the increase in ethnographic research in the field, well documented monographs have been produced which provide new data on shamanism. All of these, however, focus on a particular region and, while they enable us to gain a better understanding of the diverse social contexts in which shamanism is found, such monographs have shifted attention away froman interest in the comparative work required to formulate a general theory of the collective (social and symbolic) dimensions of the phenomenon. The great evolutionist and compar-ativist essays of the beginning of the century soon went out of fashion and their conclusions were strongly contested. Psychological approaches which focus on the personality of the shaman came to dominate research and scientific debates, both in Russian and Soviet anthropology (Shirikogorov 1935) and in American cultural anthropology (such as the culture and personality school), as well as the history of religions.

It was the historian of religion Mircea Eliade who, in 1951, revived the comparative analysis of shamanism in his work Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, first published in French (a revised and enlarged English edition was published in 1964). For the first time, an author attempted to pull together the results of research on shamanism from all over the world. Eliade presented a comprehensive account from an historical perspective, based on a compilation of sources published in the major European languages. Using an approach influenced by religious psychology, he emphasized the mystical aspect of shamanic practices, in particular that of the ‘trance’ which he assimilated to the notion of ‘ecstasy’.

As an historian of religions, Eliade regarded himself as the best placed to produce this work of synthesis. He thought anthropology to be limited by its monographic approach, social anthropology to be too concerned with the social functions of the shaman, and psychology as interested exclusively in the consequences of the shaman’s break with reality (Eliade 1964 [1951]). In spite of the numerous reservations which are now made about this imposing work, it remains the best introduction to shamanism, from the point of view both of the themes covered and of the diverse cultural traditions it describes. Eliade can be criticized for reducing shamanism to trance. The latter is in fact only one aspect of shamanism as it can also be found in possession (Rouget 1985 [1980]). In emphasizing trance, he reduces a symbolic system to a psychological state. He can also be criticized, first, for having minimized — or even ignored — the importance of certain forms of shamanism which are now generally recognized but which do not fit into his narrow definition, and second for having been too selective in his choice of sources.

Shamanism and postmodernism

Several anthropologists have even objected to the concept of shamanism itself. In 1966 Clifford Geertz asserted that shamanism was a dry and insipid category with which ethnographers of religion had devitalized their data. A few years later Robert described it as a residual category of the discipline. Finally "("Michael Taussig has attempted more recently, from a postmodernist perspective, to carry out a radical deconstruction of it (as Levi-Strauss had done for totemism) in seeing it as a modern construct created in the West which brings together otherwise diverse practices (Atkinson 1992).

Other anthropologists such as Andreas Lommel (1967) have included aspects or groups neglected by Eliade in the field of shamanism, seeing in it the origin of art or theatre. By the end of the 1960s, shamanism had aroused new interest in the West, both among the general public and in several disciplines outside anthropology. This coincided with a questioning of industrial development and its logic, the emergence of environmentalism, the return to alternative medicines, the development of religious sects, and psychedelic experiences associated with drugs. All these movements and currents sought in shamanism their truth or justification.

In this connection, it should be noted that psychological anthropology has investigated altered states of consciousness and studied hallucinogens, a number of which are used by shamans in the Americas (Harner 1973). Eth-nopsychiatry also rediscovered shamanism, although it no longer considered it an expression of psychopathology, but instead reconsidered from the psychoanalytic viewpoint, as a therapeutic cure. The shaman was now looked upon as a ‘cured madman’ who could heal those around him or her; and his or her initiatory experience compared to the training analysis of psychoanalysts. In 1963, Levi-Strauss had started to compare certain aspects of the shamanic cure and psychoanalysis by drawing attention to their symbolic effectiveness. On the fringe of this research, certain anthropologists, fascinated by their object of study and responding to the demands of their milieu, set up (originally in California), schools of shamanic training and presented themselves and their students as neo-shamans.

The revival of shamanic studies

The Ninth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (held in Chicago in 1973) reflected these new tendencies in a publication entitled Spirits, Shamans and Stars (Browman and Schwartz 1979). Its three sections provide a good indication of contemporary preoccupations: the magico-religious use of psycho-tropic drugs, shamanic therapies and the analysis of religious structures and shamanic symbols. These three directions of research continued to develop throughout the following two decades, with a marked increase at the beginning of the 1980s. Contrary to the pessimistic prognosis of the preceding period, shamanism was not dead. It has even gone through a revival in numerous regions of the world, such as Siberia and Amazonia, where it had been considered doomed as a result of persecution and major socioeconomic changes. In these regions an urban form of shamanism is even emerging.

Certain traditionally shamanic groups, which have long been dominated by imported ideologies and religions, have also rediscovered their roots. This phenomenon is discernible in countries as dissimilar as South Korea, Finland and Hungary. These countries have actively participated in the promotion of research on shamanism, notably by hosting scientific conferences on this theme. Research is generally on the increase. The relaxing of political constraints in the Soviet Union has allowed ethnologists to study shamanism among Siberian peoples once again (Basilov 1984). In Scandinavia, on the instigation of ake Hultkrantz, a young generation of historians of religion has re-examined shamanism. In France and in anglophone countries Levi-Straussian structuralism has led to the detailed holistic study of several Asian (Hamayon 1990) and American (Crocker 1985) shamanic systems. This research has brought out their collective and symbolic dimensions and the ways in which they relate to representations,practices, rites, myths, and political and social organization.

Conferences on shamanism are on the increase in Eastern Europe (on Eurasia with M. Hoppal and V.N. Basilov, 1981), in France (with R. Hamayon, 1981), in Britain (on Lowland South America, with J. Kaplan, 1982), in the United States (with R.I. Heinz, from 1984); from which many important publications have been produced. Finally, during the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences which took place in Zagreb in 1988, there was a very successful session on ‘Shamanism: Past and Present’. The participants even decided to form an International Society for Shamanic Studies in order to promote and coordinate research. Its first congress was held in Seoul in 1991, and a second in Budapest in 1993, at which was launched the first issue of the journal Shaman which brings together theoretical debates, ethnographic documents and thematic studies of shamanism.

New areas of research are emerging, such as the political dimensions of shamanic power (Thomas and Humphrey 1994), and gender relations as expressed in transgression and in the sexual distribution of shamanic roles (Saladin d’Anglure 1994). There is also new interest in dream activities (Tedlock 1991), and shamanic texts and performances (Atkinson 1992).

Far from being being an outdated Western category, as certain postmodern anthropologists would have it, shamanism — both as a system of thought, rites and relations with the world, and as an object of study – is not, at the end of the twentieth century, situated before postmodernism but rather beyond it. It shows an astonishing capacity to adapt to new urban contexts, to be able to exist side by side with major religions, and to resist all attempts at institutionalization and reduction to one or other of its aspects.

The meaning of shamanism as a total social phenomenon and as the point of articulation of the three levels – psychological, sociological and religious – in which it is expressed, is undoubtedly best revealed by a symbolic anthropological approach. The shaman appears, from this perspective, as a mediator who transcends these levels in a complex and dynamic fusion. The shaman is able to overcome the contradictions between binary oppositions (man/woman,humans/animals, humans/spirits, living/dead) through playing with ambiguity, paradox and transgression, in order to manage crises, disorder and change. Shamanic time and space, as that of myths, dreams and spirits, holds out against rationalism, as those early Romantics understood well. It has affinities with pre-Socratic thought, irrationalism, esotericism and the great systems of non-Western thought such as Daoism. Is it not rooted in an immemorial prehistory which, by way of the ideology of hunting, was directly attuned to nature and the cosmos?

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