- Mental Health
- Shamans have been characterized as psychotic, schizophrenic, epileptic, neurotic, or otherwise mentally ill by a number of authors during the 20th century and especially since Maria Czaplicka’s notion of “Arctic hysteria” (1914). Having witnessed the apparently bizarre, violent, and disturbing shamanic performances of Siberian shamans, Czaplicka argued that the harsh arctic environment (including lack of light and essential vitamins) led to shamanism as a peculiar form of institutionalized mental illness—although she does argue that shamans are accomplished in retaining control over these “fits” of hysteria. In a similar vein, an ethnographer in Melanesia in the 1930s, John Layard, identified the bwili or “flying tricksters” of Malakula (Vanuatu, Melanesia) as epileptic shamans due to their uncontrolled shaking, on the one hand, and otherwordly feats including transformation into animals, on the other. Layard concluded that the bwili’s epilepsy was a form of institutionalized shamanism. Classifying shamans as mentally ill immediately reinforces their status as Other and exotic, revealing more about our peculiar fetishes as Westerners than the reality of indigenous shamanisms. Psychoanalytic anthropologist George Devereux argued in the 1950s and 1960s that Mohave shamans were neurotic, while Andreas Lommel supposed that the mental illness of European Paleolithic shamans led to artistic creativity in the form of cave art. Western artists of the 20th century have also often been defined as shamans, with their art the result of a somewhat beneficial mental illness— Vincent van Gogh’s alleged epilepsy being one example. Parallels have been drawn by Julian Silverman in the late 1960s between shamans and schizophrenics, but while the latter are paranoid, socially distant, and unable to control their experiences, shamans are better known for their intense mental concentration (Kehoe 2000), social embeddedness/efficacy, and often a degree of control over their altered state of consciousness. Indeed, Richard Noll (1983) has convincingly outlined a “state-specific” approach to the “schizophrenia metaphor” for shamans, effectively deconstructing the idea. The inversion of shaman-as-psychotic to shaman-as-psychotherapist emerges in the 1960s with experiments on psychedelics. Psychotherapists were quick to see Carl Jung as a shaman and psychotherapy as a modern form of shamanic work, as among the work of Stanislav Grof, Stanley Krippner, and Ralph Metzner. Refreshing as this is in revising the idea that shamans are mentally ill, it has its own problems, especially as a restrictive psychological metaphor for shamanisms. Whatever the discourse, it is clear that socially effective shamanic practice must be regarded as mentally sound in its context— shamans may resist “normal” classifications, but they are not “mad.”
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.