Shamanism Research Paper

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Shamanism is a tradition of part-time religious specialists who establish and maintain personalistic relations with specific spirit beings through the use of controlled and culturally scripted altered states of consciousness (ASC). Shamans employ powers derived from spirits to heal sickness, to guide the dead to their final destinations, to influence animals and forces of nature in a way that benefits their communities, to initiate assaults on enemies, and to protect their own communities from external aggression.

Shamans exercise mastery over ASC and use them as a means to the culturally approved end of mediating between human, animal, and supernatural worlds. Shamans draw upon background knowledge, conveyed through myth and ritual, which renders intelligible the potentially chaotic experience of ASC. The criterion of control helps to distinguish shamanism from the use of ASC in other traditions.

Shamanism has long been a subject of inquiry and controversy in diverse academic disciplines, with many hundreds of accounts of shamanic practices published by the early 1900s. It has also been a topic of spiritual interest to the wider public in Europe and North America for the past several decades. Depending on the perspective taken, shamanism is either the most archaic and universal form of human spirituality or a culturally distinct religious complex with historical roots in Siberia and a path of diffusion into North and South America. The latter view is adopted in the following.

1. Siberian Origin And Common Features

The term ‘shaman’ is drawn from seventeenth century Russian sources reporting on an eastern Siberian people, the Evenk (Tungus). In the classic work on the subject by the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, ‘shamanism’ is used to refer to a complex of beliefs and practices diffused from northern Asia to societies in central and eastern Asia, as well as through all of North and South America. Eliade’s comparative work specifies a core constellation of ideas common to shamanic traditions. The classic shamanic initiation involves the novice’s selection—frequently unwanted and resisted—by a spirit(s), a traumatic and dangerous series of ordeals, followed by a death and rebirth that sometimes involves violent dismembering and subsequent reconstitution of the fledgling shaman’s body. The archetypal shamanic cosmology is vertically tiered, with earth occupying the middle level and a cosmic tree or world mountain serving as a connecting path for shamans to travel to other cosmic planes (up or down) in pursuit of their ‘helping spirits.’

Shamans use a variety of techniques to enter the ASC in which they communicate with their spirit helpers: sensory deprivation (e.g., fasting, meditation), repetitive drumming and/or dancing, and ingestion of substances with psychoactive properties (e.g., plant hallucinogens). The last of these means is particularly important in the shamanism of Central and South America, where an impressive array of plants and animal-derived chemicals have been used for their hallucinogenic properties (e.g., peyote, datura, virola, and poison from the Bufo marinus toad).

Among the most commonly reported characteristics of the shaman’s ASC are transformations into animals, and flights to distant places. Shamanic animals include the jaguar (lowland South America), the wolf (North American Chukchee), and bears, reindeer and fish (Lapp). Shamanic flights are undertaken to recapture the wandering souls of the sick, to intercede on behalf of hunters with spirits that control animal species, and to guide the dead to their final destination.

The fact that shamans are often called upon to heal the sick should not lead to the conclusion that they are always concerned with the well being of their fellows. While the Hippocratic Oath of Western medicine prohibits physicians from doing harm, shamans frequently engage in actions meant to sicken, if not kill, their adversaries. This is an important corrective to romanticized images of the shamanic vocation.

2. Popular And Professional ‘Shamanism’

Beginning in the 1960s there developed a convergence in the professional and popular interests in shamanism. Inspired by the experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs on the part of American and European youth, attention was drawn to the physiology and psychology of altered states of consciousness. In academic circles, this led to speculations about the neurochemical foundations of hallucinatory experiences and their potential therapeutic benefits. Investigations were undertaken into the imagery of shamanic states of consciousness to determine how much could be attributed to universal, physiologically related sensory experiences. One often cited collection of essays, published in the journal Ethos (Prince 1982), sought to link the shaman’s ASC to the production of the naturally occurring opiates known as endorphins. Scholars argued that this might account for the healing effect of shamanic therapies.

In the popular cultures of North America and Europe, stress came to be placed on shamanism as an avenue to self-exploration, a means by which persons from any culture could advance their quest for spiritual understandings. The legacy of this development is to be found in the forms of ‘neoshamanism’ among New Age religions, which draw eclectically from more traditional shamanic practices. Native North and South American societies have been special sources of inspiration for practitioners of neoshamanism, but not always with the willing support of the indigenous people.

At the same time, and in response to the evolution of research in symbolic anthropology, anthropologists have contributed increasingly sophisticated ethnographic analyzes of the metaphysical underpinnings of shamanism in specific societies. These anthropologists concentrate their attention on the complexities of shamanic cosmologies and the relationships between shamanic symbolism and crucial features of the natural world (e.g., important animal and plant species, meteorological phenomena, and geographic landmarks).

An especially detailed analysis of a shamanic tradition comes from the Warao of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela. The German-born and American-trained anthropologist Johannes Wilbert documents the mythic cosmology that supports the work of three distinct kinds of shamans, each of which are responsible for the care and feeding of specific gods. The highest ranking shaman, the Wishiratu (‘Master of Pains’ or Priest Shaman), responds when the Kanobos (Supreme Beings) send sickness to a Warao village. The Bahanarotu is also a curer, but has a special responsibility for a fertility cult centered on an astonishingly complex supernatural location, the House of Tobacco Smoke, where four insect couples and a blind snake play a game of chance under the watchful eye of a swallow-tailed kite. The Hoarotu (Dark Shaman) has the unpleasant but essential task of feeding human flesh to the Scarlet Macaw, the God of the West. The preferred food of the other gods is tobacco smoke, which is also the vehicle by which Warao shamans enter ASC—by hyperventilating on long cigars made of a strong black leaf tobacco.

3. Research Directions

3.1 Dead Ends And Detours

There have been a number of dead ends and detours in shamanism studies. An unfortunate amount of energy was spent in fruitless discussions of the mental health of shamans—whether or not their abnormal behavior justified the application of psychiatric diagnoses (e.g., schizophrenia). Most scholars now recognize that the culturally patterned nature of shamans’ behavior and the positive value placed on their social role make the application of mental illness labels inappropriate.

Another distraction came when cultural evolutionists hypothesized that shamanism was an intermediary stage in the developmental sequence of religious forms, in-between magic and institutionalized religion. Attempts to treat shamanism exclusively as an archaic expression of human religiosity flounder on the perseverance and even revitalization of shamanic traditions in cultures around the world. For example, the remarkable resiliency of shamanic practices is evident in the continuity between contemporary curanderismo (curing) on Peru’s north coast and shamanic iconography dating to the pre-Hispanic Chavin culture (approx. 900–200 BC).

3.2 Positive Directions

A still limited amount of research has been directed toward the important question of how effective are shamanic treatments. This work has been troubled by serious theoretical issues (e.g., what constitutes ‘efficacy’) and thorny methodological questions (e.g., is the double blind, randomized trial possible under the unusual circumstances of shamanic rituals?). The previously cited endorphin theory has not been confirmed ethnographically. Another approach has adapted psychiatric questionnaires to before and after treatment interviews with shamanic patients.

A fruitful line of investigation has focused on the relationship between shamanism and culturally constructed notions of gender. Shamans sometimes ‘bend’ gender roles (e.g., transvestitism) and the sicknesses they treat can be entangled in gender-based conflicts. Some scholars suggest that where women dominate in the shaman role there is a less adversarial model of supernatural mediation than with male shamans. The best examples of gender-focused research come from East Asia (especially Korea), where the majority of shamans are women, and from the Chilean Mapuche, among whom female and cross-dressing male shamans have predominated since at least the sixteenth century.

A final body of research worth noting focuses on the capacity of shamanic traditions to survive and thrive even under the most disruptive social and political conditions. Agents of culture change, whether they are Soviet-era ideologues in Siberia or Christian missionaries in the Amazon, have been repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to obliterate shamanic practices. In recent decades, shamans have even become central figures in the politics of ethnicity and in antidevelopment protests. Scholars have shown that shamans accomplish this survival feat not by replicating ancient traditions, but by continuously reinventing them in the light of new realities and competing symbolic structures. While this strategy may occasion debates about what constitutes an ‘authentic’ shaman, it is nevertheless the key to shamanism’s continuing success.

4. A Plea For Terminological Precision

The most serious threat to the academic study of shamanism lies in the broad application of the term to any religiously inspired trance form. To so dilute the concept as to make it applicable to Kung trance dancers, New Age spiritualists, and Mexican Huichol peyote pilgrims is to render it meaningless. The value of a scientific term is that it groups together phenomena that are alike in significant regards, while distinguishing those that are different. The promiscuous use of the term shaman will ultimately leave it as generic as ‘spiritual healer,’ and just as devoid of analytic value.


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