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Towards a better understanding of shamanism

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

the world.

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.

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