Easy links to significant others


May 9, 2003

Ronald Hutton finds celebration and diversity in an exploration of shamanism.

In about 1910, Sereptie Djaruoskin became the nga of his north Siberian tribe. He did so by a series of terrifying visions in the course of which he felt himself reduced to a skeleton and so remade; they formed a suitable prelude to a career that was expected to be hard, lonely and dangerous, and was forced upon him by the other-world beings with whom he needed to work to heal and protect his fellow humans. He had become the figure whom some other Siberian peoples called the shaman. More than 60 years later, Michael Harner concluded the last of a series of studies of tribal peoples in North and South America, thrilled by the "incredible hidden world" that had been revealed to him by the native healers and seers he called shamans. His experiences had included visions as frightening as those of Djaruoskin, but he had become convinced that the practices that he had learnt had therapeutic value for members of his own society. Taught by properly trained Americans, they could be applied by anybody, for individual healing and personal growth.

These two stories form the first pair of readings reprinted in Graham Harvey's book, and the contrasts between them immediately pose most of the problems that his commentaries address. As he points out, "shamanism" has become not so much a technical term as a "semantic field" defined by the various associations and oppositions that now cluster round it. Plainly enough, its allure and its confusion derive from the fact that it is located on two of the great imaginative interfaces of the present age: between the "developed" world and indigenous societies, and between the human world and that which modern English-speakers term the supernatural.

Scholars are increasingly disinclined to travel these borderlands alone, which is why publications on the subject consist with increasing frequency of editions of reprinted works: other recent examples are Jeremy Narby's and Francis Huxley's Shamans through Time and Andrei Znamenski's Shamanism in Siberia. Graham Harvey's compilation stands out, even among these fine collections, for the ambition and range of his vision. Whereas colleagues have generally attempted to show how the subject arrived at its present point, he is much more interested in where it goes from here. None of his 25 readings is taken from works published before 1968, and the overwhelming majority derive from the 1990s. They include studies of tribal spirituality in Asia, Africa and the Americas, while almost a third of the book is devoted to the appropriation of the term shamanism for activities within modern urban and industrialised nations.

The focus here is very much on a recognition and a celebration of diversity, and it is a mark of the care and respect with which Harvey approaches his material that he recognises the existence of no fewer than five different phenomena within the category broadly labelled shamanism in contemporary British society. There is therapeutic shamanism of Harner's sort; an "eco-shamanism" concerned with encounters between humans and the rest of life; a counter-cultural shamanism, enmeshed in confrontations of modernity with its environment; an "auto-archaeology" seeking contact with ancestral experience embodied in ancient monuments; and a "techno-shamanism", devoted to the exploration of expanded consciousness.

Almost needless to say, the tribal practitioners and practices grouped under the label are still more diverse.

What is very apparent from this collection, and confronted by its editor, is the fact that the only common factor in it consists of "western" academics. It is they who have created the category that is being considered, produced the studies on which it is based, and transmitted enthusiasm for it to various audiences within their homelands. It is they, in turn, who are responsible for turning what started out as an anthropological classification into a label or emblem with absolutely no agreed meaning; in this respect, the ivory tower has become a Tower of Babel. Harvey, once more, has the courage to recognise this situation and the generosity to turn it to his, and his readers' advantage. He is not concerned with attempting to draw tighter lines around the subject so much as to open it up still further, and above all to fellow scholars. He points out the value of the study of what is called shamanism to almost every branch of the arts and social sciences, impinging as it does on engagement with problems of aesthetics, performance, politics, gender, belief, community, psychology, archaeology and pharmacology. The ethnographic material is, explicitly, as much a consideration of the different ways in which scholars approach the study of indigenous peoples and subcultures as of the latter themselves. It is in the nature of a "reader" to consist of introductions rather than conclusions, and Harvey compounds this by a constant posing of questions likely to advance further consideration of the subject: he lists scores of them, challenging his colleagues to greater efforts even while he introduces newcomers to the field.

At the same time, there is a strong personal politics embodied in his comment, bent on the inculcation of a respect on the part of academics for all the entities comprehended in their studies, including humans, animals and the planet: his adoption of the term "significant other-than-human persons" in place of the more loaded "spirits" is indicative of his approach. His work poses, in its starkest form, the biggest question that hangs over modern western scholarship: whether it is, in fact, the work of a particular tribal culture, committed to its own, subjectively effective, views of the cosmos, or whether it has the responsibility for creating some kind of universal explanatory structure for all humanity. The historic problem is that it is designed to be the former, and is struggling to be the latter.

Ronald Hutton is professor of history, University of Bristol.

Shamanism: A Reader

Editor - Graham Harvey
ISBN - 0 415 25330 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £17.99
Pages - 461

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