Shamanism- Part 1: Origins, Spread of Use of the Term

June 2, 2015 at 12:23 am 3 comments

Going back to the Pagan Pride definition of Paganism(s) that I use in my first Approaching Paganism post- one component is-

Practicing religion or spirituality based upon shamanism, shamanic, or magickal practices

We’ve already covered magic, but what’s shamanism? Well, that is a complex and rather controversial question!

Basically, a shaman is a spiritual specialist within the context of a hunter-gatherer culture- especially Central Asian, Mongolian or Siberian, who engages in altered states of consciousness (or trance) to make contact with the spirit world for purposes of healing, discovering information, or facilitating transitions between life and death.

When I first entered the Neo-Pagan scene in the Twin Cities area, it took me several years of exploring and research before I found out that shamanism had nothing to do with North American Indians, in spite of how people often presented it to me. I encounter people who say things like: “Hi, I’m Starry Owl, I follow a Cherokee shamanic path, and like my name, my totem animal is the Owl.” If “Starry Owl” was hanging out with actual traditional Cherokees, she would probably get some strange and possibly offended looks (or maybe just a lot of eye-rolling…) The word shaman comes from the Evenki language in North Asia, and came to be used by missionaries and later anthropologists for spiritual practitioners of other neighboring peoples, and eventually more globally for indigenous peoples around the world. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade’s book- Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, greatly popularized the broader use of shamanism in anthroplogy, even if that was not his intent!

Michael Harner, a New Age author later wrote Way of the Shaman, beginning the Core Shamanism movement in wealthy, industrialized countries. He claimed that shamanism could be boiled down to certain essential core traits, that could be used as a framework to create a culturally neutral shamanism so it could be adapted by Westerners without ripping off any one indigenous culture. He based his “generic shamanism” on a combination of Siberian shamanism as described by Eliade, with spiritual techniques and cosmology from the Jivaro people of the Amazon. Harner kept making money by writing books, and running workshops marketed towards mostly white middle/upper class Americans and Europeans. Many indigenous activists, traditional spiritual practitioners as well as anthropologists and other scholars (indigenous or not) have accused Harner of cultural appropriation, that is taking practices and ideas from indigenous cultures and exploiting them for personal gain and profit. Harner has claimed that he has in fact, helped indigenous people who have lost parts of their shamanic practices with his Foundation For Shamanic Studies.

Some Key Differences Between Classical Shamanism & Neo-Shamanism

From here on out, I’m going refer to Evenk, Tungus, and other closely related Siberian spirit-work as classical shamanism, and some Western New Age or Neo-Pagan ecstatic/visionary spiritual practices (including but not limited to Core Shamanism) as neo-shamanism.

Being a Shaman is a Calling- Not Generally a Choice

Sometimes there are particular “signs” that a child- often at puberty, sometimes at a younger age, may have certain abilities or has been chosen by spirits for a particular role. The child (with parents’ approval) will then commonly be singled out for special training by an older shaman. In many cultures, the shaman-in-training will also learn general skills that everyone else in the community learns, as they will for the most part be making their living as a farmer, herder, hunter, craftsperson etc. In some cases, in larger communities, a shaman may be entirely supported by the community and devote themselves mostly to spiritual pursuits. Sometimes this also happens as a result of cultural change, and interest from outsiders in shamanic practices, (spiritual tourism) which can have mixed effects on the culture. A shaman that has a more liminal role, at the edge of society- revered and respected, yet also feared and perhaps only called upon in times of great need. Sometimes this fear is added to due to influence from other religions and cultures.

Shamans Serve a Specific Community

Classical shamans serve their particular ethnic and geographic culture. They do not generally perform ceremonies or other spiritual duties for people outside of that community. As mentioned before, this has changed in some places due to pressure from Western spiritual tourists. Neo-shamans typically follow a solitary path for emotional, spiritual and psychological self-fulfillment (sometimes shamanic practices are regarded as being therapeutic) and they usually don’t serve a broader community, unless it’s to teach neo-shamanism to other people in workshops, write books, etc.

Shamanism is Often Seen as a Difficult Path, Not a Fun Thing to Dabble In

Various cultures have the concept of shaman-sickness, the idea that various physical and mental symptoms have a spiritual cause indicating a shamanic calling, and a trans-formative process that a person must accept exists in multiple cultures. This is a lot like the ordeal of initiation I discussed earlier in my post on mystery traditions, and indeed mystery traditions may have shamanic roots. This of course makes things messy quickly when a culture with these concepts is in contact with Western medicine, and doctors see the “patient” as having physical problems that need treatment, while their family members view it as a spiritual matter.

Gender and Traditional Shamanic Roles 

In classical Siberian shamanism, the role is typically performed by men. In other cultures, the shaman may typically be a woman, or can be of either sex. Sometimes a person who is regarded as neither man nor woman- or who is biologically male but *socially and spiritually* considered a woman, has a shamanic role. In neo-shamanism, while perhaps stereotypically seen as slightly more masculine, people of any gender are typically accepted as being able to be shamans.

Being Descriptive, not Prescriptive

I am a social scientist of sorts (political science to be precise) so I tend to try to at least initially describe social phenomena in such a way that is descriptive rather than prescriptive. As in “this is what some people do, what they call themselves, some possible reasons reasons and motivations for why they do it” rather than initially labeling that behavior as good or bad. As you can see here, what was once a culturally specific term has become more widespread and imprecise in meaning, which has the potential to spread misinformation about various cultures and traditional religion, and sometimes distortion and commercialization in cultures that are often struggling for their very survival. To be frank, New Age and Neo-Pagans are probably going to keep calling themselves shamans in both ignorance and knowledge of the origins of the word, especially since they are usually far removed geographically and culturally from people who have a more direct claim on the term. Flatly condemning people for doing that will probably not change their minds. Instead, I suggest we work on changing the culture of “Anyone who reads a book/takes a workshop is Now a Shaman!” (Though we can certainly add Witch, Druid, etc. to that list!) More on that in Part 2.

Questions for Thought/Discussion:

Where did you first hear of the term shamanism? How was it defined and presented to you?

Is a culturally neutral shamanism- or any spiritual practice possible? Why or why not?

Is the spread of interest in shamanism in wealthy, industrialized countries helpful or harmful to people in those countries, as well as indigenous cultures around the world? Can it be both?

What influence do New Age/Neo-Pagan publishing, workshops, classes, festivals and conferences, and spiritual tourism (i.e. to sacred sites, gurus, shamans etc) have on your spiritual development?

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Harrassment, Bigotry, Safety Policies, and Changing Culture European Paganism

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amanda  |  June 2, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    I think it would be nice if we could come up with a different word than “shamanism” to describe these similar practices found all over the world. I’ve heard that the actual North Asian shamans don’t like their word being generalized in this way, so I’d like to respect their wishes, but I do think we need an umbrella term to use instead. Unfortunately it looks like “shaman” has become so ingrained as a general term that may be impossible.

    Also, I thought that Michael Harner studied people from the Amazon (the Jivaro), not the Plains Indians. And that makes it even weirder that he ended up inventing this New Agey “core shamanism” as a feel-good self-help technique, because the Jivaro are pretty violent. They’re the folks who used to make shrunken heads.

    I remember some things in The Way of the Shaman (it’s been years though, so I don’t remember very well) about watching out for any “reptiles” you see in your journey, because they are dangerous spirits. But shamanism is supposed to be a feel-good, “safe” thing to do, and the spirits you encounter are supposed to be there to help you, right? I don’t remember him ever explaining what these dangerous reptile spirits were, so I think they were bits of Jivaro shamanism peeking through.

    Another big difference between neo-shamanism and indigenous practices is the use of drugs. Michael Harner thinks drugs are totally unnecessary, or even some kind of crutch that we should be above using, ignoring how important entheogens like ayahuasca are to the cultures that use them. But modern westerners tend to view mind-altering drugs in a purely hedonistic way, so of course we think it’s wacky to use them in a serious spiritual ritual.

    Reply
  • 2. caelesti  |  June 2, 2015 at 9:59 pm

    Yes I agree- I think there are plenty of other words we can use that are more descriptive of particular practices as well as more culturally relevant. That’s what Part 2 will be about. Thanks for the corrections re: Way of the Shaman- I haven’t read it, and I’m not sure that I care to when there’s plenty of better stuff out there!

    Reply
  • […] Shamanism Part 1: Origins, Spread in Use of Term, Part 2: Is “Cultural Neutrality” […]

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