In this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, readers are introduced to the extraordinary category of people who have come to be known as “shaman”—those otherworldly men and women chosen by the spirits to mediate between the human and spiritual dimensions. In a collection of papers from numerous settings assembled by anthropologist Michael Winkelman, shamanism’s universal features become apparent, including the characteristics of the elusive practitioners who have the power to negotiate life and death in some communities.
The term “shaman” comes from the Evenki reindeer herders of Siberia, but cross-cultural studies have shown remarkable similarities in terms of shamanic experience and religious practice in hunter-gatherer societies across the globe. As a young ethnographer in the early 1980s, I sought out the shaman in Australia’s Outback. I wondered if the elders described in anthropologist A.P. Elkin’s classic text Aboriginal Men of High Degree could be described as shaman. Were such people still influential in Aboriginal lives?
The stories I heard about shamanism from Aborigines and others became more passionate, more heartfelt, and certainly more fantastic the further north I traveled, but I was finding the quest to locate the shaman somewhat chimerical. The Australian Aborigines of Queensland’s Channel Country were impressed by the supernatural powers of the “bush” Aborigines of the Gulf Country to their north, and regarded them with a certain admiration. But it was an admiration tinged with fear. The Channel Country “shamans” tended to downplay the extent of their powers and believed the northerners, more attuned to the ways of old, were in closer touch with the spirits, and therefore could wield far greater power. “Don’t spit on the ground, or urinate anywhere near where they might walk,” I was warned. “They might do something to you.” They advised me that if I asked too many questions, I might be bewitched. “The Gulf Country. That’s where the real shamans are.”
Gulf “shaman,” however, also downplayed or denied their healing capabilities. Rather, they drew my attention to the Aborigines of Arnhem Land to their north, and those special elders who traveled upon the clouds and send down cool winds during blistering summers. The northern shaman would check to see that all is well with their southern relatives, and make sure the relatives were fulfilling their part of the time-honored “cosmic” deal of “holding up the universe” by living according to law (or the Dreaming). At that time, the Australian government was holding a commission of inquiry into the feasibility of reintroducing tribal law in the Outback; in the Gulf, one Aboriginal leader said many Aborigines feared that with the reintroduction of tribal law, they would “all end up in the gully with a spear in their side.” They had compromised the ancestral ways too much and feared retribution at the hands of ritual specialists from the north—“where the real shamans are.”
From Arnhem Land, there was no further north to travel. At the airport, I was told by an influential church leader to stay alert, that the people were strong “dreamers.” This is the place, I thought. Soon I was introduced to, and became friends with, a former community leader who was deemed to be the most powerful “magician” in the region, an old man who could, among other things, turn himself into a leaf on a tree or a drop of water on a blade of grass, and converse with owls. In many ways, he was in spiritual exile, his exotic knowledge and shamanic practice no longer deemed appropriate in a Christian setting. Needless to say, he denied his abilities—like all the rest. “That’s all gone now,” he said. “When I first came to live on the mission some people tried to show me new tricks, to make my power stronger, but I lost it all. I couldn’t fly anymore.” He instead introduced me to an old lady, saying in private beforehand that she was the last of her kind—the only traditional healer left in Arnhem Land. And yet, not surprisingly, she had little to say, for she trusted only in Jesus. Her healing hands were at the Lord’s disposal, she insisted. “There is only one person left who can talk to you about magic, and that’s that old friend of yours. He’s the real shaman!”
My old friend merely smiled, and impressed upon me the possibility that every single “healer” from the Channel Country to the Gulf, and Arnhem Land, was just that. Denial of one’s powers was either a necessary characteristic of contemporary practice, or a reflection of the self-doubt that plagues Aboriginal lives in times of rapid change. “I will tell you the truth,” he said. “The real shamans live on the islands to the north of Australia, in what is now Indonesia. Those sea hunters used to visit here a long, long time ago, but not any more. They are the real owners of the ceremonies of my clan, the real healers. They would remove pain and suffering from a sick person with their left hand, while singing the praises of Allah. We have that song, that ritual. Today they send us the things we want on the tide, and we send them the spirits of our dead. If you go looking for that place, you won’t find it. It exists only in our dreams. But our forefathers said that they had traveled there by canoe in the distant past, and they told us that this is where the real shamans are.”
By the time I had set out on my search, colonization, decimation, protection, and paternalism had left its mark on Australia’s First Peoples. Social chaos had accompanied the breakdown of traditional authority, and Aborigines often saw sorcery and the “spirit of the liar” (the habit of lying that had entered the Aboriginal world with the arrival of white settlers) as the root cause of all ills. While traditional healers remained elusive, there seemed to be no shortage of sorcerers, so common were the accusations. Most were erroneous of course, and reflected the unfortunate unstable nature of tribal and family affairs. At a personal level, people blamed each other for their ongoing misfortunes and sought retribution. But not all sorcerers were vengeful. In some cases, they had also taken on a “healing” role of their own.
Time and time again, I was referred to the escapades of one middle-aged Aborigine—an odd-looking, somewhat awkward “social outcast”—the son-in-law of my old friend. His name was always whispered—even by me—lest he be induced to pay an unscheduled visit. His powers were not doubted, and at various times he would reveal his hand. On one occasion, a young leader had unexpectedly died and the community was in an uproar. The wailing carried on through the night. The deceased was described as a “rock,” a “foundation” for the community, and the people loved him very much. How would they go on? The only explanation for his untimely passing was “black magic,” or so the people believed, and if the sorcerer in their midst was not to blame, then who? At this point, the “outcast”—who had been standing on the sidelines silently observing the proceedings—announced that he would find the killer and dispatch him quickly. The people felt reassured and thankful, even though his cold calculations would certainly lead to the death of an innocent person.
Another time, the community was deeply divided over the behavior of several teenagers. At a town meeting, there was talk about how the two would be punished. The teenagers had broken taboos and there was a growing backlash against their families. Close relatives selected by the kinship system would have to beat, banish, or even spear the teenagers in the thigh, for tolerating their behavior might set a trend that would eventually undermine the laws of old, their raison d’etre. The meeting had an air of hysteria and, after much heated discussion, it was adjourned without resolution. That night, in the wee hours, the teenagers’ family members were awoken by a strange scratching sound on the roof. At first light they investigated and a found a sting-ray barb—the sorcerer’s calling card—on a ledge above the door. The discovery sent a shockwave through the households and scared the youngsters into the “right way of behaving.” And yet the sorcerer’s intention was not to invoke fear, I was told. He acted decisively in the interests of the community—removing impediments to the normal flow of life, healing rifts in society’s fabric. The sorcerer had come to kill the teenage offenders by magically stealing the fat from their kidneys and performing a secret incantation. Perhaps something had disturbed him and kept him from carrying out his mission, or he had been called away on another job—no one knew.
In his book Shamanism, Piers Vitebsky says that the shaman has an ambiguous place in society, being simultaneously an insider and an outsider. The shaman is at once all things to all people—a “medicine-man,” religious specialist, social worker, madman, and mystic—and their identity is always clouded in mystery. In Arnhem Land I encountered a contemporary sorcerer at work. Perhaps he was also a “real” shaman.
Ian S. McIntosh is senior editor for Cultural Survival.
Since 1972 Cultural Survival has been advocating for Indigenous Peoples' rights and supporting Indigenous communities’ self-determination, cultures and political resilience.
To read about Cultural Survival’s work around the world, click here. To read more articles on the subject use our Search function and explore 40 years of information on Indigenous issues.
For ways to take action to help Indigenous communities, click here.
We take on governments and multinational corporations—and they always have more resources than we do—but with the help of people like you, we do win. Your contribution is crucial to that effort. Click here to do your part.