Mystics who lived on the cusp of human and spiritual existence

The Quest for the Shaman
August 25, 2006

This is not so much a quest as a jaunt during which the Aldhouse-Greens - both professors of archaeology at the University of Wales - cannot help but trip over shamans everywhere they turn, notably in Ice Age caves, Bronze Age cauldrons, Iron Age bogs and medieval manuscripts - shamans for all in Ancient Europe.

The term "shaman" derives from the word used by the Siberian Tungus people for the "ecstatic ones", whose souls left their bodies during trances to visit the spirit world for negotiation with supernatural forces about hunting or healing. Some anthropologists would like to restrict the term to people within these Siberian societies, while others, exemplified by these authors, are happy to apply the term to practically any person who might have undertaken such trance-induced journeys to the other side.

To find such people, the authors primarily look for figures who appear to be part male/part female or part human/part animal, as they describe such "shape shifting" as a telltale sign of a shamanic journey. Such figures, of course, are found only in artistic representations, such as in rock paintings, various types of sculpture, on coins and in literary texts.

All such works require interpretation to find their shamanic implications. Whether they are depictions of actual persons who were indeed shamans or purely imaginary figures is unknown. Of the few actual persons for whom we have surviving records, principally remnants of their bodies, such interpretation is even more difficult. These include the famous bog bodies such as Tollund, Grauballe and Lindow Man, who met gruesome deaths after appearing to have consumed hallucinogenic substances.

The Quest for the Shaman provides a richly illustrated tour through prehistoric Europe and early historic Britain, describing all such evidence for shamans, or at least shaman-like persons. The images and bodies are unquestionably weird and often wonderful, almost as much as some of the archaeologists' interpretations cited here by the authors and to which they add their own contributions. But when faced with, say, the Winderby Girl - the body of a malnourished, shaven-headed adolescent who was buried in a peat bog about 1,000 years ago wearing nothing but a cowskin cape, an oxhide collar and a blindfold - someone has to speculate about what such evidence might mean. The proposition that she may have been a prophetess or shaman seems as good as any other explanation on offer.

As such an extensive time span is covered, the summaries of each particular case study are necessarily brief and may leave a sceptical reader somewhat incredulous about the interpretations offered. They are, however, predominantly based on extensive works of scholarship, whether by the Aldhouse-Greens or the archaeologists on whose work they draw, such as that of John Coles on the rock art of southern Sweden or Ruth Whitehouse on the archaeology of Italian caves, and the book provides an excellent bibliography for further study. Indeed, the authors are appropriately wary of some of the more questionable claims, such as the so-called entoptic images in cave paintings - depictions of visions supposedly seen by shamans during trance - which might have helped them in their quest. While the citations are thorough, I was irritated by the manner in which the numbers for the end notes often seemed to be randomly placed within sentences.

Each of the burials, bodies, rock engravings and metallic objects is intriguing, and some are quite fascinating, but the only development in the book is through time as successive chapters take the reader from the arrival of modern humans in Europe 40,000 years ago to the writing of the Mabinogi in early medieval Wales. Although I read about more and more examples of possible shamanism, my understanding of what shamanism was/is and why it occurred was just as it was after the first few pages. The book fails to ask why the specific set of attributes associated with shamanism - trance, shape shifting, journeys to spirit worlds, the sacredness of liminal places and notions of a three-tiered cosmos - appear to have been so pervasive throughout human history (if indeed all their interpretations are correct). It seems remarkable that, as human society changed from Ice Age hunter-gatherer bands into Neolithic farmers and then into Romanised or medieval state societies, such ideas should remain in effect unchanged. I was left wondering why these particular ideas should be so compelling for the human mind.

Steven Mithen is professor of early prehistory, Reading University.

The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-healers of Ancient Europe

Author - Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 240
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 500 05134 8

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