Shamanism Revisited: An Ancient Religious Worldview and the (Post)Modern World

Shamanism may be the oldest religious practice and one of the most studied in the annals of anthropology and comparative religion. Two misconceptions surround shamanism, however, making it seem unfairly irrelevant. First, many scholars consider it surpassed by theism, which they regard as a fuller if not “truer” form of religion. Second, shaman is commonly construed as merely a healing practice and therefore surpassed also by modern biomedicine. But shamanism demands our attention, not only because it predates theisms like Christianity and Islam by thousands of years, but because it is much more than ritual healing. In a surprising and important way, shamanism more accurately reflects contemporary social reality than does theism.

From the Tungus (Siberia) word šaman, the category of shaman covers a diversity of ritual practitioners, most commonly associated with curing and often, colloquially and insultingly, dubbed witchdoctors or medicine men. Conventionally, a shaman is a person with unique gifts to communicate and interact with spirits. Because of the shaman’s ability to detach the soul from his/her body to send it to the spiritual plane (so-called “soul flight”), Mircea Eliade characterized shamanism as a “technique of ecstasy”—not of pleasure, as shamanism is often painful, but of ex-stasis, of standing outside the self (from the Greek ek-“out” + histanai “place”). Some versions of shamanism do fit this pattern. The shaman of the !Kung or Ju/hoansi (Kalahari desert) is a n/um kausi (a master of n/um, a spiritual substance that sits at the base of the spine and heats and rises during the trance dance). After chanting and dancing the n/um to the boiling point, he collapses on the ground as his soul departs to the spiritual dimension where he might struggle with the ancestors (//gauwasi) or, in the case of especially serious illness, the great god Gao Na. The shaman, still in trance, regains his senses and conducts “operations” that include rubbing his spiritually-charged sweat on the patient.

Such is the classical profile of the shaman. Recent research, however, reveals that there is much more to shamanism than offered in this profile. For instance, not all shamans perform soul flight, nor is it the only shamanic technique. In Australian Aboriginal societies, illness is often understood as intrusion into the body of foreign substances, such as crystals, feathers, and stones; healing accordingly consists of removing those objects (we would say symbolically; they would not) from the patient’s body. Buryat (Mongolia) shamans tend to act as spirit-mediums, inviting spirits to possess and speak through them. Even !Kung shamans also employed a technique called twe that entailed pulling the sickness out of the victim. Not all shamanic work even necessarily involves healing, and the distinctions between shamans, priests, mediums, diviners, etc. are often obscured in practice (these roles are as much Western analytical categories as indigenous concepts). For instance, the Huichol (Mexico) mara’akame and Cubeo (northwestern Amazon) paye combine the functions of shaman, priest, and leader/teacher. Irving Goldman, in his 2004 study Cubeo Hehenewa Religious Thought, called the paye the society’s “trusted investigative reporter” of religious knowledge, “the ethnographer of hidden worlds.”

Much more significant and relevant than what a shaman does is the ontology of his/her world, which renders shamanic work coherent. In a word, the ontology of shamanism is transformation. First, the shaman him/herself is a transformed person. An Aboriginal shaman, in a fascinating inversion of illness, may have internal organs removed (again we would say symbolically; they would not) and replaced with powerful foreign objects. An Inuit shaman-in-training might be “symbolically” killed and therefore no longer exactly “alive” as a human. Or, in the case of the Yanomamo (Brazil/Venezuela) shaman, he may become a permanently multiple or composite person. In his 2014 The Living Ancestors, Zeljko Jokic explains that the Yanomamo name for shaman is shapori, a term related to the word shapono, a dwelling, both human and supernatural: humans reside in a shapono, and hekura spirits inhabit one, too. During initiation, the shaman calls various specifically-named hekura into himself; he thereby becomes a hekura—or more correctly, multiple hekura, his flesh a home for a community of in-dwelling spirits. He is no longer an individual but “a unified multiplicity of all of his embodied spirits and also one of the spirits,” a “total but divided being.”

The Yanomamo case suggests that “soul flight” and ritual healing are effects of a more fundamental capacity for taking multiple perspectives, for instance the perspective of humans, of non-human spirits, of animals, and/or of the dead. The shaman or kemantat of the Sakai of Sumatra explicitly and intentionally alters his/her consciousness to the state of tak soda’ la’i (“not to be aware anymore”), transferring awareness from the human to the spiritual. Interestingly, in Sakai healing the patient also learns how to shift consciousness from the physical world to the spiritual (semanget) world. Most literally, the Mongolian shaman “reflects” the spiritual dimension via mirrors worn on clothing or handled during ceremonies. In her 2007 article “Inside and Outside the Mirror,” Caroline Humphrey describes the shaman’s mirror or toli as a device for seeing into the spiritual dimension, and the mirror during performance contains incoming spirits, granting the shaman the power to adopt both viewpoints.

The fact that shamans across cultures function by altering their perspectives and consecutively or simultaneously holding two or more perspectives implies that experience and reality itself is multiple, unstable, porous, in a permanent liminal, flux, or chaotic state. According to Henrik Mikkelsen, the Bugkalot (also known as Ilongot, northern Philippines) view reality as “contingent, fragmentary, perpetually assuming a coherence and stability that swiftly dissolves,” in which the shaman or agoy’en plays a crucial role. Flux or chaos (gongot) is an inherent trait of the agoy’en, which grants him access to the spirits and to magical powers. Through their actions, including telling stories, the specialists “seek to momentarily establish an order of their own within chaos,” limiting the ability of the shape-shifting spirits (be’tang) to penetrate human bodies and minds. Mikkelsen, astutely suggests that this new conception of the shaman challenges traditional cosmology with the alternative of “chaosmology.” The Blackfoot nation (northern Great Plains) also understands shamanic transformation. Any individual might seek a spiritual vision through a vision quest. For the ordinary person, this is usually a one-time experience; however, shamans “submit so much of their personal agency to spirits through progressive self-sacrifice that they become like the spirits insofar as they are poised in a liminal state between life and death, humanity and Creator,” writes Shayne Dahl in a 2011 article. The Blackfoot “Creator,” though, is not a being like the Christian god, and “creation” was not a single Genesis-time event. Rather, the Blackfoot term Ihtsipaitapiiyo’pa means “source of life” or, once more, “flux.” All reality is flux, and the ascetic feats that attract a vision thrust the person into this state or process of flux. Human beings who undertake this effort repeatedly, like a shaman, “become ‘near flux’ for the remainder of their lifetime”; they become like a spirit which confers the ability “to see, communicate with and become permeated or possessed by spirits.”

Here is the deepest—and truest—lesson of the shamanic ontology. Western civilization and Christianity tend to regard order and stability as the norm and to dread chaos, flux, or fluidity as the (threatening) exception. Such an ontology of order and stability may have been appropriate and defensible in ancient Greek culture and philosophy, especially in Plato’s obsession with unchanging Forms, or in medieval European society and its god-ordained absolute social structures and divine dogmas. Shamanism is associated instead with small-scale and relatively egalitarian cultures, where social hierarchies, political authorities, and religious doctrines have not imposed an ideology or illusion of permanence and immutability. What is most remarkable is that postmodern society discovers again the malleability and mutability, the construction and contingency, of social reality. Marx, Nietzsche, and many others since have grasped that reality is motion, flux, and change, even paradox and contradiction—a series of Marxian dialectics or Nietzschean masks. Nor is shamanism the only pre-modern ontology to recognize the dynamism of reality. As James Maffie summarizes in his 2014 Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion, Aztec metaphysics posited a world of teotl, energy-in-motion, weaving reality through the patterns of twisting, spinning, self-generating and self-becoming energy. Even modern physics comprehends the chaos in/behind the cosmos.

As the ontology of stability and permanence becomes harder to accept, a shamanic-like ontology of multiple perspectives, motion, flux, continuous recombination, and inescapable ambiguity seems to describe modern reality more accurately. One more example makes this point abundantly clear. The Darhad (Mongolia) shaman, like the others we have considered, is an expert in adopting and moving between perspectives, worldly and spiritual, that is, in inhabiting “fluid and multiple” positions and accomplishing transformations. As Morten Axel Pedersen puts it in his 2011 Not Quite Shamans, Darhad ontology is “perpetual metamorphosis, malleability, and fluidity expressed in the unpredictable movements of wild animals and the inchoate trajectories of the shamanic spirits.” He goes so far as to suggest that spirits are less beings than pure movement or transition, “processes” more than “persons.” The shamanic way then conveys “the explosion of dimension and the proliferation of asymmetries through deliberate acts of unbalancing and decentering.” In stark contrast to “the liturgy-heavy rituals of the Catholic Church,” or the dogma-heavy sermons of Protestant sects, Darhad shamanism “celebrates the irreducible fluidity of all signification processes” including meaning and truth.

Things become most interesting and revealing in the contemporary circumstances of post-socialist Mongolia. In traditional Darhad society, the shaman managed the multiplicity and flux of life within him/herself, acting as the “knot of knots in the community.” Soviet-style communism imposed its version of order and stability on Mongolian society, establishing at least regularity and predictability and seemingly taming the wild spirits. The end of communism, though, removed this artificial order and temporary permanence. The practical result was declining standards of living and accelerating and arbitrary changes of lifestyle. But more, the retreat of the state and the arrival of neoliberalism and globalization exposed Mongolians to the mysterious, unpredictable, and decidedly untender mercies of the market and of remote and inscrutable forces. The experience was one, again, of flux, fluidity, and chaos; in other words, for people with a shamanic mindset “the spirits and the market were both variations on one immanent state of transition.” Invisible and incomprehensible powers seem to reach out from the void to swarm the individual, the family, and the society. The market and the state have no face yet many faces, and they are as uncanny as any spirit. Especially compared to the almost suffocating stability of communism, capitalism exhibits a “lability and capriciousness of forms” that curiously resembles shamanic reality. For the Darhad vulnerable to the modern global system, “the restless spirits simply were uncertainty as such; they were materializations, actualizations, instantiations, and condensations of the all-pervasive state of cosmological turmoil variously called ‘democracy,’ ‘transition,’ or ‘the age of the market.’”

The Darhad situation might be manageable if there were competent shamans among the people, able to absorb and control the fickle spirits. But there are not enough shamans today, and the ones that exist are “not quite shamans,” leaving the population afflicted by invisible and unstable supra-individual motion. For the rest of us, waking from an era of institutional stability, political centralization, and religious certainty into a new era of instability, decenterness, and uncertainty, our old ontology no longer matches our lived reality—a reality that shamanic ontology more faithfully represents.

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