Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge


Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, Editors

Tarcher/Putnam, 2001

ISBN 1 58542 091 3 (Hardcover)

Had this press release preceded the publication date, it would have been an ideal conclusion to the fascinating book under review. In 60 short, riveting exerpts, the editors chronicle -- through 500 years of colonization -- the changing attitudes of outsiders toward the world's shamans. They also demonstrate the remarkable similarity in the social creation of shamans and in shamanic practices from places as widespread as Australia, India, Southwest Africa, North and South America, and the Far East. To paraphrase the book's flyer, with essays by such acclaimed thinkers as Claude Levi-Strauss, Black Elk, Franz Boas, and Carlos Casteñeda, the text provides an extraordinary glimpse into the birth of anthropology in the 20th century.

It is difficult to critique a volume such as this: the book's introductory commentary is short and focused, as are the notes demarcating broad changes in outsiders' approaches to shamans; the illustrations -- all portraits -- suggest the shamanic "otherness" that can kill or cure.

The text selections, moreover, are excellent, averaging only three or four pages each.

- During his travels to Brazil in 1557, for example, French priest André Thevet witnessed the frighteningly odd behavior of men he dubbed "ministers of the devil."

- Franz Boas, writing in 1887, announced that the Eskimos' feelings, virtues, and shortcomings were based on human nature, like peoples in the West, and that their cultures should be appreciated on their own terms.

- George Wasson, writing in Life magazine in 1957, sparked the 20th century explosion of interest in shamanism. He described the psychotropic effects of consuming, under the guidance of a Mazatec shaman, particular magic mushrooms.

- Today, Western tourists flock to Mexican and Guatemalan shamanic schools for similar mind-blowing experiences as part of a broader search for alternate cosmologies and lifestyles. As Michael Brown says, New Age America now seeks to embrace shamanism without any appreciation of its context. "Tribal lore is a supermarket from which they choose some tidbits while spurning others.... [A] lifetime of discipline is reduced to a set of techniques for personal development, stripped of links to a specific landscape."

The nature of this transition in scientific writing is the substance of the volume -- and the essays track various attempts to define the term "shaman." In 1765, Enlightenment philosopher Diderot defined "shaman" (saman) as the name that the inhabitants of Siberia (in particular the Tungus, Buryats, and Yakuts) gave to "imposters" who performed the functions of priests, sorcerers, and doctors and who claimed to have an influence on the Devil, to know the future, to cure illnesses, and to do tricks that seemed supernatural to a superstitious people. In 1903, Van Gennep argued that there can be no shamanic beliefs or cults, and therefore no shamanic religion, because the word does not designate a set of beliefs that manifest themselves through a set of customs. Just as there is no "priestism" or "ministerism," there is no "shamanism." The term merely affirms the existence of a certain kind of person who plays a religious and social role. In 1944, Metraux defined the shaman as any individual who maintains by profession and in the interest of the community an intermittent commerce with spirits, or who is possessed by them. But this definition is too broad, the editors argue, for it would also include African and Haitian possession cults. So they add the following: Shamanism involves a kind of theater in which the shaman performs and the audience remains an audience. In many ways shamanism is an autology, or a study of the self, while science is a heterology, the study of others. The editors add: "Many observers, especially those trained as scientists, are philosophical materialists. They believe that everything that exists is either made up of physical matter or dependent on matter for its existence. Shamans do not. They believe in spirits." The social scientific term for this is "panpsychism" -- the belief that everything in the universe, including plants and inanimate objects, has some kind of psychological being or awareness. "Animism," the editors argue, remains a useful term to characterize the worldview of the shaman.

The text finishes with some very touching and challenging essays, such as that by Piers Vitebsky, who has worked with India's Sora and Siberia's Sakha, and asks: "How can Sora shamanism become enlightening for western psychotherapists at the very moment when it is becoming inappropriate for the youngest generation of Sora themselves? In what sense has shamanism suddenly become true again for Sakha nationalists after two generations of being false for these same people when they were Soviet communists?'' Likewise, Eleanor Ott speaks of the transition from the time when a shaman was the heartbeat of a tightly knit traditional community until today, when many who dub themselves shamans no longer belong to a community or shamanic tradition, but rather come from the present generation of those trying to find themselves. Like Michael Brown, Ott finds it difficult to juxtapose a vision of shamans as warriors in a "struggle against the shadows of the human heart, affirming life but also spawning violence and death," and New Age "feel-good" variants.

The editors do not believe, however, that shamanism, as classically defined, is reaching its end. They quote an Aguaruna elder, who says: "Here in the Amazon, our knowledge has been taken many times by others, but we have never received any benefits from it. Now we would like to see some returns." Intimate indigenous knowledge of plants and animals and their application in ancient shamanic healing practices is a potential boon for pharmaceutical companies, and indigenous peoples are aware of this. According to the editors, respect for indigenous peoples' intellectual property rights and collaboration between scientists and shamans (respecting the interests of the latter) seem more like a beginning than an end. For students of shamanism, this edited volume is essential reading. For those embarking upon a quest for shamanic knowledge in Central or South America, I suggest a study of this volume and a close examination of the clauses of the newly released shamanic code of practice.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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