Search for an 'ism' in shamanic traditions

Shamans Through Time

五月 10, 2002

Ronald Hutton scrutinises a spiritual tradition originally applied to Siberia.

During the past 30 years, the words shaman and shamanism have become two of the most overworked in the lexicon of anthropology and religious studies, and have leaked from them into many other academic disciplines and a broad swath of general culture. Two popular writers - one Canadian and one British - with degrees in anthropology have produced this book to respond to and comment on this development, It consists of 64 extracts, published between 1535 and 2000, from the writings of commentators on the tribal spiritual practices associated with shamans and shamanism. More than half of the collection is taken from works printed since 1960, giving a good impression of the pace and complexity of recent discussion of the subject, and also of the now-rapid mutation of tribal societies themselves and of their relationships with the developed world.

The editorial comments are brief, courteous and in most respects obvious. One positive consequence is to give newcomers to the subject a valuable sense of what has changed generally in western attitudes to tribal magical healers and diviners, and where recent viewpoints differ.

One change, underlined by the editorial commentary, is the slow development of the social science of anthropology, transforming the classic author of a study of shamans from a missionary into an academic. If the normative tone of a writer in the mid-16th century is that of the Frenchman who called them "people of evil custom who have given themselves over to the Devil", that of the late 20th is summed up by the British scholar who declares that shamanism "is not a constituted discourse but a way of constituting one". This shift marks an associated alteration of western attitudes, from condemnation and ridicule of tribal spirituality to admiration and sympathy.

The editors celebrate this in a traditional triumphal language of progress, as representing a scholarly achievement of ever-greater levels of understanding, engagement, humanity and insight. They are canny enough, and their authorities carefully enough chosen, to suggest that matters are not quite that simple. The edited selections acknowledge that many of the operations of tribal magicians remain mysterious to us, and that serious divisions of perception and language still separate them from western observers.

Alongside recent researchers who are found applauding shamans as hitherto unacknowledged experts in botany, medicine and therapy, are others prepared to draw attention to the more dubious aspects of the appropriation of tribal traditions by the developed world. More implicit is the fact that many of these tribal practitioners operated within a cosmology that incorporated other essential elements, of which western society commonly considers itself to be well rid, such as the detection and destruction of witches. The editors of this collection have, therefore, succeeded in drawing attention to the study of shamanism as a record of anthropological achievement, but also as one of bigotry and exploitation, leaving a situation replete with tensions, paradoxes and difficult moral decisions. These two languages permeate the volume, and no attempt is made to reconcile them or to tackle the problems raised.

The largest issue to be acknowledged but not worked through is the question of what shamanism actually is. Back in 1903, Arnold van Gennep commented that it is correct to speak of shamans, as a shorthand for magical and spiritual specialists in tribal societies, but that there is no good evidence that these figures had a common set of beliefs and customs (an "ism"). Since then, the confusion in scholarly employment of the term has increased in direct proportion to the growth in publications, and a survey as broad as this might have been expected to diminish it.

Instead, the result exemplifies it. The editors prefer the formula proposed in 1944 by Alfred Métraux: that a shaman is "any individual who maintains by profession and in the interest of the community an intermittent commerce with spirits, or who is possessed by them". This at least is clear, but it does not tackle the question of whether the existence of shamans adds up to the existence of shamanism. The editors themselves spot a second problem with it: that most scholars have tried to distinguish shamans from other kinds of practitioner who mediate with or are possessed by spirits. Their solution is to rule that shamans maintain control over the spirit-forms with whom they work, and perform for an audience that remains more or less passive. The trouble with this is that the original term, shaman, comes from Siberia, and Siberian material is replete with examples of shamans who are managed by their spirit helpers or have to beg them for aid, while audience participation in chanting refrains was often vital to performance. Were the archetypal shamans shamanic only in certain respects of their activity, to be identified arbitrarily by contemporary scholars according to their personal tastes?

It may be unreasonable to fault this well-chosen collection for displaying weaknesses that are fundamental to the material that it sets out to represent. But it should at least serve the useful purpose of making these weaknesses more obvious.

Ronald Hutton is professor of history, University of Bristol, and author of Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination .

Shamans Through Time

Editor - Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley
ISBN - 0 500 51070 9
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.95
Pages - 321



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