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  • The Problem with Shamanism March 3, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Ancient , trackback


    ***dedicated to a misguided friend in Estonia***

    All academic disciplines have terminological issues. Medievalists get excited about ‘feudalism’; archaeologists head-butt each other over ‘Celtic’; there are even some linguists who get upset about ‘Indo-European’. These words have been energized and arguments over them are about more than just semantics: disputes are bitter, useful and productive. However, the arguments among historians, psychologists and comparative mythologists about ‘shaman’ are pointless. Scholars have chosen the wrong term to describe a phenomenon and most writing about ‘shamans’ seems to be spent apologizing and qualifying.

    Let’s start with the real shamans. ‘Shaman’ comes from the Tungusic language family of Siberia: it is just possible that the word had a Sanskrit origin (good luck proving that). Shaman was originally used to describe a native witch-doctor among the Tungusic tribes, though it was by no means a universal term even in these parts: there were many words for mystics.  However, since the 1880s the word has slowly leached out of the Siberian forests and into more general discourse (see Ngram chart above). The first meaning has remained ‘Siberian holy man or woman’. But ‘shaman’ has taken on the secondary meaning of ‘mystic’ in other contexts, particularly in tribal societies and particularly in uncentralised religious traditions.

    If this was all, then, there would be little to argue about. We would have adopted the word ‘shaman’ to refer to people with intense spiritual vocations in different communities.  However, academics have not been able to keep the two meanings apart. There has been, since the early twentieth century, but particularly since the 1960s, the habit of taking specific characteristics of Siberian holy men and women and judging ‘shamanism’ elsewhere by these standards. In short, does the ‘shaman’ in the Brazilian rainforest or in the Scottish Hebrides interact with spirits and does the ‘shaman’ go on spirit flights like the ‘real’ shamans in Siberia?* If the men and women in question conform then they are shamans, if they do not then they should not be counted as such. Though a nice question is what are these non-shamanic shamans?

    Here it might be worth stepping back and remembering that every human society including our own produces individuals with mystic bents who have or believe that they have paranormal experiences: cue UFO abductions and fairy love bombs. The problem with the argument above is that there is not a cookie-cutter that defines what a mystical experience should be. Some mystics speak to entities; some heal or harm; some see other places and times; some fly in the spirit; some exorcise and protect; some defy physics in their movements or in objects; some produce strange effects in their bodies; etc etc etc etc etc.

    Crucially different societies favour different experiences or at least favour the description of different experiences. Yet by using ‘shaman’ as our generic word we have started to judge European, African, Pacific and American mystics by whether or not they conform to traditional practices in one of the colder parts of Asia. It is as if we were to define food production as ‘cuisine’ only if it was in line with practices developed in Paris, because that is where the word ‘cuisine’ comes from… The sole way to justify this kind of logic would be (i) to argue that mystic traditions in Brazil or Scotland came out of central Asia (a non starter); or (ii) to show that Siberian shamanic practices offer an original or pristine version of human spiritual experiences; this has rarely been attempted and it has certainly never been achieved.

    Those who habitually use ‘shaman’ have two choices. Either they completely decouple the word from its Asiatic tribal origins or they give it up altogether. The academic mind being invariably contrary and typically petty will be unable to ignore etymology: so we are left with the second option, this is one of these rare instances where tradition has failed us as far as our linguistic choices go. We need to give ‘shaman’ some fly agric, then take it into a dark alley and brutally throttle the word; garrote those unfortunate two syllables until the head is practically detached from the neck. ‘Shaman’ should be replaced with the most generic term possible. ‘Visionary’ and ‘seer’ are attractive, but betray (vision, seeing etc) western cultural roots. ‘Witch doctor’ will set off another round of comparisons, though this time with Sub Saharan Africa, sigh. Perhaps ‘mystic’ is our best option? Vanilla to the nutmeg of ‘shamanism’?

    Using neutral words we might actually be able to discuss not just what happens in human society but what happens in the human brain. We might even get to the point where we find that different mystic traditions are glosses on a mystic psychology that is common to all humanity. At that point we, who knows, will perhaps one day add mysticism to eating, sex and defecation as essential human experiences, sorting out the key characteristics of the mystic personality. And at that distant date, looking back, just possibly, we’ll see that Siberian shamanism was one branch of the tree of good and evil, glimpsed through the gates of Eden.

    Other thoughts on shamanism: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    *These calculations are made with more urgency the closer the region is to Siberia where some kind of genetic connection starts to appear possible.