Shamanism in Anthropology has been an entity in a constant
metamorphosis. It has always been considered exotic and its
existence around the globe was never contradicted. However, over
the years it did not receive the scholarly attention that it so
requires. The age of discovery garnered a multitude of
information on shamanism all over the world. The reporters
invested a great deal of accuracy in the gathering of the
information, but their observational skills were mostly
underdeveloped. Furthermore as could be expected, they saw and
evaluated things solely on the basis of European religion and
social customs (Flaherty, 1992, pp.3) without having it
necessary to view its ramifications to the people who are so
imbued by it. Despite these methodologies which were grave in
nature, matters began to shift during the 1940's and 1950's when
the social sciences were rapidly coming into their own
disciplines. Shamanism, was beginning to be looked upon as a
complex religious notions and modes of behaviour (Lommel, 1967,
pp.8). Although shamanism was beginning to harness scholarly
attention there were still different contradicting theories being
laid out in the scientific community. More recently since the
notion of tribalism has become more prevalent shamanism is
beginning to be recognized as holding the key puzzle in life.
Furthermore, it is growing and encompassing many areas such as
Psychology, Pharmacology, and even believe it or not Physics.
Now before we elaborate on the historical significance of
shamaninsm in anthropology it is imperative that a general
definition of shamanism is established.
In order to study shamanism the shaman must first be
understood. The original word shaman came form the Ural
mountains in Russia. It applied to people who acted in several
'non-ordinary' capacities for their tribes. Shamans may be
defined as man or a woman who through their ability to enter a
trance state in any given moment can influence the course of
events, find lost or stolen items and identify the criminal when
a crime takes place. Thus in a sense shamanism is the practising
of these mechanisms in trying to make sense of the world. As you
can see it encompasses various facets of the social life from
healing illness to maintaining social order. This definition of
shamanism is very brief and really can not be upheld as a precise
and accurate definition, however shamanism within these
parameters has always been accepted both in the early and late
twentieth century. Nevertheless, differences did emerge that
transformed the definition of shamanism in anthropology in that
it added more to this vague definition.
According to Mircea Eliade the shaman who is an inspired
priest, in ecstatic trance ascends to the heavens on'trips'. In
the cause of these journeys the shaman persuades or even fights
with the gods in order to secure benefits for his fellow men.
Here, in the opinion of Eliade, spirit possession is not an
essential characteristics and is no always present (Eliade, 1951,
pp.434). He goes on by stating that the "specific element of
shamanism is not the incorporation of spirits by the shaman but
the ecstasy provoked by the ascension to the sky"(pp.434). That
is to say that the incorporation of spirit possession does not
necessarily belong to shamanism. Therefore, from Eliade's view
point we see that there is a wedge between shamanism and spirit
possession (Lewis,1971, pp.49). This was a view that was
prevalent in the study of shamanism in anthropology at the time.
Other writers on the subject clearly accepted this view as
expressed by Luc de Heusch. He sought to develop these ideas
into an ambitious, formalistic theory of religious phenomena. He
states that shamanism and spirit possession are an antithetical
process. The first is an ascent of man to the gods, the second
the descent of the gods on men (Lewis,1971,pp.50). So shamanism
in de Heusch's view is the movement of pride were man sees
himself as an equal to the gods. Possession on the other hand is
an incarnation. The distinction between shamanism and possession
on the basis of whether spirits were incorporated or not was
generally accepted at the time. This differentiation upheld by
many anthropologists implied or rather claimed that shamans were
not really 'masters of spirits'. The so-called trance state was
dubbed unauthentic and a consternation was placed on the
credibility of the shaman who is so revered by his people. This
notion reenforced the idea among psychiatrists that shamans had
in fact some sort of psychological disorder.
Now even much earlier than the cited works of Eliade and de
Heusch there was a general notion that shamanism and possession
were cultural abnormalities. In fact, according to the French
psychiatrist Levy-Valensi shamanism is not for the
psychologically normal people, but only for the disturbed. The
shaman was thus portrayed as a conflict torn personality who
could be classified either as seriously neurotic or even
psychotic (Lewis, pp.179). Although this was a pshyciatric
summary and one can argue that it did not represent the
anthropological view point; however many of our authorities on
shamanism such s Bogaras (1907) stated that shamans were on the
verge of insanity. Krader an ethnographer has classified the
Buryat shaman as a highly nervous person, one subject to nervous
disorder (Krader,1954,pp322-51). So there was an apparent belief
among the anthropological society that shamans were some sort of
beings with mental disorders. As Devereux argues, that "there is
no reason and no excuse for not considering the shaman as a
severe neurotic and even as a psychotic" (Devereux,1956,pp.23).
He goes on by stating that any society where shamanism is rampant
as being in a sense anomic. Thus it is quite obvious that
shamans were viewed as social and psychological misfits.
So far we have seen how shamanism was viewed in the earlier
part and even in the mid twentieth century. The anthropological
literature that dominated that period links shamanism to mental
disorder and a distinction is also made between possession and
shamanism. As a result of these assumptions a negative
definition of shamanism is created. Thus, during this period the
definition of shamanism can best be described as phenomena
practised by mentally disturbed people in trying to make sense of
Now as time progressed especially in the early seventies new
ideologies contradicting early and mid twentieth century
definitions of shamanism emerged. Some of these new concepts were
upheld by Lewis who refuted many of the earlier works on the
basis that the empirical evidence present did not support their
theories. Previously we have mentioned that according to Eliade
and de Heusch spirit possession and shamanism were two distinct
elements and during shamanistic processions, possessions were
absent. Now according to Lewis, primary accounts of Arctic
shamanism utilized by Eliade and also by de Heusch shows that the
distinction made by the two is in fact untenable (Lewis,pp.51).
The word shamanism in itself which is derived from the Tungus
word shaman means literally one who is excited, moved or raised.
More specifically a shaman is a person of either sex who has
mastered spirits and who at will introduce them into his own
body. As Shirokogoroff, the great Russian authority on the
Tungus puts it, the shamans body is a placing or receptacle for
the spirits. It is in fact by his power over the spirits which
he incarnates that the shaman is able to treat and control
afflictions caused by pathogenic spirits in others (Lewis,pg55).
The relationship between shamanism and possession is even better
illustrated when an old shaman is about to die. When this is the
case a new shaman must be found before the old one dies and
wreaks havoc in the community by unleashing all the spirits that
is within him. The qualification of the new shaman is that he
must demonstrate a proof of his command of the ecstatic technique
and control over spirits. Moreover, the Tungus distinguish
between a person possessed (involuntarily) by a spirit and a
spirit possessed (voluntarily) by a person. The first is an
uncontrolled trance interpreted as an illness; the second is a
controlled trance, the essential requirement for the exercise of
the shamanistic requirement (Lewis,pp.54).
Therefore contrary to Eliade and De Heusch's conclusions
regarding shamanism and spirit possession, there is no
distinction between the two. The Tungus form of shamanism in
which the two base their assumptions involves controlled spirit
possession. The shaman incarnates spirits in both a latent and
active form, but always in a controlled fashion (Lewis,pp.55)
Our analysis of shamanism does not end here. In fact earlier
it was established that previous works done by anthropologist in
the study shamanism attributed it as relative to mental disorder.
That is to say that the shaman or rather all shamans are
individuals with serious psychological problems similar to those
found in western asylums. Again contemporary analyst refute
these ideologies. Previous works suggested that shamans must have
a history of psychiatric disorder but Jane Murphy reports of the
Alaskan Eskimo shamans whose personalities she examined suggested
that they were extremely sober individuals of unusual mental
health (Lewis,pg.182). Earlier anthropologist based most of
their observations during shamanic rituals when the shaman was in
a trance state, but Murphy closely observed the shaman's daily
routine concluded that shamans were in fact of sound mental
So from what we have seen, the study of shamanism went
through a metamorphosis over the years. In the early twentieth
century it was regarded as some sort of a cult is practised by
psychotics and neurotics in a community filled with lunatics.
Now these notions hardly did shamanism any justice. The practice
was viewed in a rather ethnocentric manner that undermined its
richness. Further more fundamental questions such as whether
shamanism, despite being different from western modes, assisted
the people in question in their daily life was hardly even
raised. How then can an anthropologically pragmatic study of
shamanism be made if such critical issues are not tackled.
Anthropology is not free of ethnocentrism, but objectivity should
not be clouded by it.
The new ideologies that surfaced in the late 60's and 70's
expressed a much deeper analysis of the concept of shamanism as
compared to earlier works. It was objective and intelligently
critical. Furthermore the definition of shamanism was
transformed and it did not include psychopathological notions
rampant in the early part of the twentieth century.
Shamanism holds a great fascination for the western
imagination that much continues to be written about it. This
overflow of information has however, given rise to a number of
methodological problems (Flaherty, 1992,pp.208). Shamanism has
become some what over-sensationalized that it has become hard to
distinguish fact from fiction. There has also been little
historical accountability. Most writers uncritically create
their own profiles of the shaman from literature that was
published long before their time (Flaherty, pp.212). They do so
without having it necessary to think about the external pressures
that shamansim might have been experiencing over the years.
Shamanism has been interpreted as a set of rituals, maybe, it is
time to view it as a religion. Just as Islam and Christianity
have undergone through external pressures, surely shamanism must
have experienced its share of influences. Especially those
inflicted via centuries of contact with other cultures at
different levels of development than their own that would have
forced it to device adaptive mechanisms that might have perhaps
altered its course.
The implications of these questions go on and on however,
one thing is for certain and that the study of shamanism with its
recent glorification is rapidly expanding. It is beginning to
encompass areas that it never permeated for this reason perhaps
it is time that a new discipline is created. One that in its own
way will combine the best of humanities with certain aspects of
anthropology, medicine and the physical sciences. " Perhaps it is
time for a shamanology " (Flaherty, pp.215)
B I B L I G R A P H Y.
1. Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism And Archaic Techniques of
Ecstasy. Paris, 1951.
2. Devereux, G. Normal and Abnormal: Key problems of
Anthropology. Washingtno, 1956.
3. Flaherty, Gloria. Shamanism In The Eighteen Century.
Princeton: Priceton University Press, 1992.
4. Krader, L. `Buryat Religion and Society`, Southwestern
Journal of Anthropology, 10, 1954.
5. Lewis, I.M. Ecstatic Religion. Middlesex: Penguin, 1971.
6. Lommel, Andreas. Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.