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social sciences

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Recent Theorizing and Animism

The theorizing of shamanism has marked important intellectual developments. Shamanism has been held to be the "oldest," most "primitive," even the "origin" of religion (whatever this may mean), but it is misleading to associate contemporary indigenous practices with a fixed and unchanging past.

Prehistoric shamans, however, have been innovatively theorized by archaeologists. Rock art researchers have interpreted various cave paintings and rock engravings as originating in the altered consciousness of shamans.

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More recently, anthropologists have attended to the nature of shamanism in nuanced fashion, broadening our understanding away from "the shaman" in a society with a "shamanic worldview" to consider the specificity of relationships and wider epistemological concerns.

The "old animism," as presented by Tylor, assumed that indigenous peoples were mistaken in their belief in "spirits" and that "inanimate objects" had "souls." More recently, scholars theorizing a "new animism" have foregrounded the sophisticated nature of animisms (there is no single "animism" but rather culture-specific animisms).

New Animism

For animists, the world is filled with "persons" only some of whom are human. An ongoing system of relationships and regulated behavior steers engagements between human persons and such "other-than-human-persons" as tree-people, seal-people, and stone-people.

Shamans are often key figures in these relationally-driven ontologies, acting as mediators, working to maintain harmony: for example, if a hunter offends an animal by using inappropriate etiquette, resulting in the hunter falling ill, a shaman negotiates between the offended "spirit" of the dead animal in order to return the stolen "soul" of the hunter and so restore social harmony between the affected "persons."

Animism and Gender

Among the Ojibwe and speakers of cognate Algonkian language, a grammatical distinction is made between animate and inanimate genders, not between male and female genders. Persons and personal actions are talked about in a different way from objects and impersonal events.

As demonstrated in the work of such scholars as Marjorie Balzer, Marie Czaplicka, and Bernard Saladin D'Anglure, these and other indigenous conceptions of gender, sex, and sexual orientation, tend to disrupt Western binary conventions of "male" and "female," conflations of sex and gender, and heterosexuality as normative.

Shamanic Gender Identities

Shamanic behavior necessitates a broadening of the notion of gender to be more fluid and dynamic, to include not only male and female but also various mediating identities. Czaplicka, for example, notes that Siberian shamans are a "third class," separate from males and females, and Saladin D'Anglure proposes a "ternary" model for Inuit shamans wherein shamans are "in between" persons (by persuasion or initiation) who embody a "third gender" due to their ability to mediate.

The "third gender" status of Inuit shamans is part of wider gender concepts: children are understood to have decided which gender to be before or at birth, their genitalia adapting to their decision. Other children are given the name of a deceased relative of the opposite gender, performing that gender identity for the time that they hold the name.

Third Gender and Changing Ones

"Third gender" (shamans in other instances may have a fourth or even multiple gender identity) overlaps in some examples with homosexuality, with the marriage of some shamans to same-sex "spirit" partners involving, in some examples, homosexual marriages in the "ordinary world."

Shamans' costumes may combine features peculiar to the dress of both men and women. Early explorers assumed biological males dressed in women's clothing (some of whom were shamans) were transvestites, and the pejorative French term berdache ("male prostitute," "transvestite") entered anthropological literature. The more sensitive "two-spirit" was proposed by Native Americans in the 1990s, referring to the individual having two spirits, although "changing ones" more successfully avoids reproducing a Western binary opposition.

Nonhuman Sexual Relations

Cross-dressing may indicate shamans' difference from the rest of the community or show that they have formed an intimate, sexual and/or marital relationship with a nonhuman person of the same gender. Transvestitism may be temporary, a part of specific performances, or permanent as a sign of a distinctive everyday identity. Shamans may undertake marriage to non-human persons of the same gender as themselves and, for example, a female shaman may sometimes be "male" in relation to a spirit wife: a Sora shaman of the Indian subcontinent marries a man and the "spirit son" of her predecessor, who is her own aunt.

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