Shamanism


Shamanism in Anthropology has been an entity in a constant metamorphosis.
It has always been considered exotic and its existence around the globe was
never contradicted. However, over the years it did not receive the scholarly
attention that it so requires. The age of discovery garnered a multitude of
information on shamanism all over the world. The reporters invested a great
deal of accuracy in the gathering of the information, but their observational
skills were mostly underdeveloped. Furthermore as could be expected, they saw
and evaluated things solely on the basis of European religion and social customs
(Flaherty, 1992, pp.3) without having it necessary to view its ramifications to
the people who are so imbued by it. Despite these methodologies which were
grave in nature, matters began to shift during the 1940\'s and 1950\'s when the
social sciences were rapidly coming into their own disciplines. Shamanism, was
beginning to be looked upon as a complex religious notions and modes of
behaviour (Lommel, 1967, pp.8). Although shamanism was beginning to harness
scholarly attention there were still different contradicting theories being laid
out in the scientific community. More recently since the notion of tribalism
has become more prevalent shamanism is beginning to be recognized as holding the
key puzzle in life. Furthermore, it is growing and encompassing many areas such
as Psychology, Pharmacology, and even believe it or not Physics. Now before we
elaborate on the historical significance of shamaninsm in anthropology it is
imperative that a general definition of shamanism is established.

In order to study shamanism the shaman must first be understood. The
original word shaman came form the Ural mountains in Russia. It applied to
people who acted in several \'non-ordinary\' capacities for their tribes. Shamans
may be defined as man or a woman who through their ability to enter a trance
state in any given moment can influence the course of events, find lost or
stolen items and identify the criminal when a crime takes place. Thus in a
sense shamanism is the practising of these mechanisms in trying to make sense of
the world. As you can see it encompasses various facets of the social life from
healing illness to maintaining social order. This definition of shamanism is
very brief and really can not be upheld as a precise and accurate definition,
however shamanism within these parameters has always been accepted both in the
early and late twentieth century. Nevertheless, differences did emerge that
transformed the definition of shamanism in anthropology in that it added more to
this vague definition.

According to Mircea Eliade the shaman who is an inspired priest, in
ecstatic trance ascends to the heavens on\'trips\'. In the cause of these journeys
the shaman persuades or even fights with the gods in order to secure benefits
for his fellow men. Here, in the opinion of Eliade, spirit possession is not an
essential characteristics and is no always present (Eliade, 1951, pp.434). He
goes on by stating that the "specific element of shamanism is not the
incorporation of spirits by the shaman but the ecstasy provoked by the ascension
to the sky"(pp.434). That is to say that the incorporation of spirit possession
does not necessarily belong to shamanism. Therefore, from Eliade\'s view point
we see that there is a wedge between shamanism and spirit possession (Lewis,1971,
pp.49). This was a view that was prevalent in the study of shamanism in
anthropology at the time. Other writers on the subject clearly accepted this
view as expressed by Luc de Heusch. He sought to develop these ideas into an
ambitious, formalistic theory of religious phenomena. He states that shamanism
and spirit possession are an antithetical process. The first is an ascent of
man to the gods, the second the descent of the gods on men (Lewis,1971,pp.50).
So shamanism in de Heusch\'s view is the movement of pride were man sees himself
as an equal to the gods. Possession on the other hand is an incarnation. The
distinction between shamanism and possession on the basis of whether spirits
were incorporated or not was generally accepted at the time. This
differentiation upheld by many anthropologists implied or rather claimed that
shamans were not really \'masters of spirits\'. The so-called trance state was
dubbed unauthentic and a consternation was placed on the credibility of the
shaman who is so revered by his people. This notion reenforced the idea among
psychiatrists that shamans had in fact some sort of psychological disorder.

Now even much earlier than the cited works of Eliade and de Heusch there
was a general notion that shamanism and possession were cultural abnormalities.
In fact, according to the French psychiatrist Levy-Valensi