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social sciences

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Shamanism, like many other "isms," is a Western construct, and issues of gender and sexuality play into this construct in various ways. Shamanism has been used since the eighteenth century to describe various people in indigenous ("tribal") communities who might also be termed "medicine men," "witch doctors," "healers," and "sorcerers"; those people who engage with "spirits" for certain socially sanctioned tasks.

Shamans may be identified as such from birth, through an initiatory sickness, or a calling from the spirits; only rarely is the vocation taken up voluntarily. Shamanic practices may include healing the sick, controlling game, altering consciousness, journeying to other worlds, speaking to spirits or becoming possessed by them, even forming marriages and sexual relationships with powerful "spirit-helpers."

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While the term derives from the Tungus-speaking Evenk in Siberia, shamanism is often regarded as a global and archaic phenomenon, even the origin of religion. But such a generalizing perspective is misleading. Moreover, an "ism" suggests something coherent and systematic; but in the case of shamanism no such thing exists.

Consequently, it is difficult to arrive at a discrete definition; indeed, it would be naïve to attempt a monolithic, all-encompassing definition, or even to arrive at a list of defining characteristics of shamans without sacrificing cultural variety and nuance. A more sensitive approach acknowledges shamanisms' historicity and foregrounds the diversity of shamans.

Early Perceptions of Shamans

Early explorers and Christian missionaries generally perceived shamans as imposters who claimed to be able to heal the sick with the assistance of demons. Johann Gmelin argued in the mid-eighteenth century that "shamans deserve perpetual labor for their hocus-pocus," while Denis Diderot characterized shamans as "imposters who claim they consult the devil--and who are sometimes close to the mark." Such views tell us more about the writers themselves than about shamans, particularly their rationalist and Christian lens.

Nineteenth-century anthropologists, such as Edward Tylor, continued to assume that shamans and their communities were mistaken in their beliefs in spirits and supernatural agency, studying them as vestiges of prehistoric beliefs and practices subject to cultural evolution. Again, this notion is informed by prejudices of the time, and it is no longer fashionable to link Darwinian evolution to culture in such a generalizing way.

In the first half of the twentieth century, some anthropologists, such as George Devereux, held that shamans are mentally ill, while more recently transpersonal psychologists such as Stanley Krippner have understood them as indigenous psychotherapists.

In his landmark work of 1951 (published first in French, then in English in 1964), Mircea Eliade suggested that shamanism is an "archaic technique of ecstasy," involving "soul flight," or "journeying," but Eliade has been criticized for generalizing the variety of shamanisms and overlooking instances that did not fit his grand scheme.

Alternative Realities and Neo-shamans

In the 1960s attention turned in particular to shamans' use of helping-plants (what Westerners term "drugs") and other powerful substances to enter alternative realities, with the inauthentic ethnography of Carlos Castaneda inspiring a psychedelic generation to experiment with such realities themselves. These Western shamans, or "neo-shamans," sought spiritual meaning in their lives outside the religious mainstream, and shamanism, as an exotic "spirituality," was perceived to offer this.

The publication of Michael Harner's Way of the Shaman (1980) offered neo-shamans the "core-shamanic" techniques for apparently entering a "nonordinary reality" without the aid of hallucinogens, making use rather of auditory driving (particularly repetitive drumming). Harner's approach aligned with Eliade, so that many core-shamans speak of using drumming to facilitate "the shamanic journey," and this is seen as the defining feature of all shamanisms, once again neglecting cultural nuance.

Interface of Indigenous Shamans and the West

For indigenous shamans, the interface between West and non-West facilitated success and notoriety in some instances: for example, the Peruvian curandero (or healer) Eduardo Calderón offered paid tutelage to eager Western pilgrims. But for others, such as the Mexican Mazatec Indian curandera María Sabina, popularized by Gordon Wasson in his Life article "Seeking the Magic Mushroom," Western visitors irrevocably disrupted the local community. Native Americans, in particular, have campaigned against the appropriation and representation of "shamanism" by academics and neo-shamans.

Meanwhile, neo-shamans in Britain and elsewhere, have explored evidence from the past in reconstructing "new-indigenous" shamanisms that re-enchant life in postmodernity. A good example is the practice of "seidr" ("magic" or "sorcery") among today's heathens who interpret records of seidr in the Icelandic sagas and other Northern literature, history, and archaeology. This reconstruction enables a contemporary shamanic practice in which a "volva" or seeress speaks to the ancestors in a "trance" in order to prophesy for a gathered community of heathens.

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Top: A female shaman from the Hupa tribe of northwestern California (ca 1923). Photograph by Edward S. Curtis.
Above: A shaman from the Navajo tribe of North America (ca 1915).

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