- There are shamans who may be able to heal, and others who may be successful at controlling game animals. Some shamans alter consciousness or use trance, others shape-shift and journey to other worlds. Some mediate between their communities and powerful other-than-human beings. Some become possessed by the spirits of the dead. Other shamans assume third, fourth, or even multiple genders or engage in crossdressing. Most shamans are animists engaging with other-than-human people, while still others are priests and ritualists. Almost all shamans are skillful performers and even entertainers. Being a shaman may involve a number of these things, or all of them. None of these characteristics should be seen as essential features of shamans or shamanism, however, since this is neither a definitive nor an exhaustively comprehensive list. Any attempt to formulate such a list would, arguably, be naive. Indeed, since some shamans are themselves sorcerers, witches, and tricksters, it is vitally important to stress the tricky, slippery nature of shamanism right from the start.DEFINING SHAMANS AND SHAMANISMShamans are so paradoxical that it is hard to know how to introduce this dictionary without challenging every definition ever offered. Some might think that an easy way out of the dilemma would be to restrict the use of the word shaman to its origin with religious officials of some kind among the Tungus-speaking Evenk in Siberia. But even among the Evenk, there are different assessments of what shamans do and who they are. It is even difficult to write about “shamanism” among the Evenk because -ism suggests something orderly and systematic that everyone would recognize, which is not the case.Certainly, shamans are expected to tackle all the mess of reality and make sense of it for their patients, clients, and families. When relationships have broken down, or when health is threatened, or when food stocks are running dangerously low, shamans are commonly called upon to engage with those beings and forces deemed responsible for reestablishing an orderly, healthy, and viable cosmos. But real-life shamans and their communities rarely, if ever, present their understandings of life and their methods of dealing with problems in an orderly thesis, creed, or manifesto. While it is possible to treat a shaman’s costume or ritualized actions as a hologram, a representation that includes everything of importance to the shaman, it would be a mistake to think it is possible to reduce shamanism to a few simple phrases. So the idea that reserving the words shaman and shamanism for talking about Evenk healers, ritualists, religious leaders, or relationship counselors (or whatever it is proposed Evenk shamanism is really about) is not satisfactory. For one thing, if it is acceptable to talk about shamans among Tungus speakers, what about their neighbors who easily recognize similar, but not identical, practitioners of religion, health care, social work, cosmic mediation, knowledge-repository, and more? (No, that list was not edging toward a definition, it was just a trickster tease based on what some shamans do in some places.) And if the term shaman applies among the Evenk and their neighbors, why not their neighbors? And so it goes on.Furthermore, just because both Evenk and, for example, some Amazonian shamans might be healers or journey to other worlds, this does not mean that they must be alike in every other way. It is important to attend to the specifics of what shamans do, how they understand the cosmos, and what their communities expect of them. Only carefully researched appreciation of specific, local information should serve as a basis for any comparative or constructive theorizing about what shamans might have in common.This Historical Dictionary of Shamanism acknowledges that there are lots of definitions available, and that they all work perfectly well for some shamans and shamanic activities and not at all well otherwise. It notes some definitions because some people have been quite clear about what they mean by shamans and shamanism. But it does not propose to concur with these or purport to offer definitions of its own. Instead, this dictionary presents information about all kinds of shamans and all kinds of claims about shamanism. When appropriate, it offers critical engagement with these discourses. Lots of entirely different phenomena have been called “shamanism,” and although they are all interesting, they are not all one thing. Yet, there are lots of connections, lots of points of contact, between (real or imagined) shamans in one place and shamans elsewhere.The diversity of practices and traditions that have been labeled “shamanism” is remarkable. Similarly, there remain many areas of considerable debate and disagreement about precisely what makes someone a shaman. Some interpreters are certain that any deliberate use of trance in religion or healing is shamanism. Others categorically state that shamans do not enter trances. Some identify all forms of possession as shamanism, while others vociferously reject that possibility; indeed, some define shamanism as the opposite of possession. If some people present the deliberate alteration of states of consciousness or mind as essentially shamanic, there are plenty of others who will offer evidence for total uncertainty about the nature of consciousness or mind in the first place. As yet, few observers have made much of the fact that shamans in many places ingest brews or inhale snuffs derived from plants that cause vomiting. While the prevalence of vomiting has often been noticed, it has never been treated as the definitive practice of shamans. Thus, it is likely that all other definitions might miss possibilities that seem outlandish. But anyone who rejects weird possibilities is bound to fail to understand shamans and shamanism. And so it continues.HISTORYAlthough this is a Historical Dictionary of Shamanism, published in a series of historical dictionaries, providing a clear history or neat time line is difficult. Certainly, shamanisms and the variety of perceptions Westerners have of shamans are themselves not without history. One of the earliest encounters with Evenk shamanism is recorded as Nicolas Witsen’s evocative woodcut “Priest of the Devil” (from his Noord en Oost Tartarye, 1705). This depicts an apparently human figure clad in animal skins with an antler headdress, wielding a drum and beater amid the dwellings of an Evenk community. The figure’s clawed feet might represent part of a costume, perhaps linking the priest to bears, but could just as easily indicate that the shaman is himself a devil. It is the otherness of this shaman that is striking, with a cloud of colonialism, skepticism, and missionary zeal distancing some 21st-century viewers from these early encounters with shamans but evidencing attitudes that endure to this day.After such initial contact with shamans, European explorers went on to engage with similar figures elsewhere, not only in the alleged locus classicus of Siberia but also in Southeast Asia, the Arctic, South America, and even Australia. The generic German term schamanen became Anglicized as shaman and gained wider currency (as noted by Gloria Flaherty, 1992). The reception of picture books of shamans in the 18th century and the consumption of representations of shamans in ethnology and anthropology in the 20th century have consistently been colored by preconception and prejudices. These include Johann Gmelin’s (1751) harsh argument that “shamans deserve perpetual labor for their hocus-pocus,” Denis Diderot’s (1765) Enlightenment characterization of shamans as “imposters who claim they consult the devil—and who are sometimes close to the mark,” George Devereux’s (1956) psychiatric assessment that shamans are mentally ill, and the more recent proposal from transpersonal psychologists (e.g., Stanley Krippner) that shamans are, to the contrary, indigenous psychotherapists. Shamans are at once a fiction and whatever interpreters want them to be, and yet shamans have continued to shamanize nonetheless. Other contributors to these debates about who or what shamans might be, particularly among Native Americans, have campaigned against the appropriation of indigenous practices by academics and neo-shamans and their representation as “shamanism.” All of these shamans and neo-shamans, and especially the discourses in which they are entangled, are of interest in this dictionary.According to some interpreters of shamanism, a historical slant should have been a gift because, they say, shamanism was the first religion of humanity, the origin of religion, as well as the origin of art and even language, and it continues to exist in many forms in almost every culture alive today. It ought to be possible, the argument goes, to present a time line from the first human right up to the present moment and to fill it with dates and examples of shamans everywhere, from the alleged first shaman painter in the French caves to the use of altered consciousness by today’s psychonauts—however contentious, Eurocentric, and indeed chronocentric such a time line might be. But no such time line is provided in this dictionary. Again, the quest for the “original” (presumably Paleolithic) shamans, alongside the origin of art, tells us more about Western scholars as historians of religion and art, and our own fantasies about shamans, than about prehistoric shamans themselves. Foregrounding instead the agency of shamans themselves and the authority of indigenous people to define authenticity according to contemporary needs, the dictionary does not insist that “earlier is better,” let alone definitive of what shamanism really is. Much that shamans do is in relation to the past, as they see and present it. For example, some shamans chant epics in which the cosmos was created by shamanic deities. However, these do not offer claims about origins or “intelligent design,” because the point of most such chants is to “re-member” (literally, put back together), reorganize, and improve the cosmos in significant ways. Shamanic performances are one of the ways in which some humans grapple with the problems of the world. Most cosmological chants are intended to be primarily not about the past but about the present and the future. They do not record information about origins, but attempt to establish how things can be from now on. The shaman now chanting is the creator. But not all shamans chant cosmological epics—again, this is not a definition or criterion. Similarly, although the dictionary includes entries about ancient cave paintings (and other rock art) that have been interpreted as the work of shamans, it does not draw a direct line from that art to (or from) contemporary shamanic experience or contemporary artists labeled as shamans. Certainly, no contemporary or recent indigenous culture provides any evidence whatsoever for the earliest human culture or for the earliest shamanism. Indeed, what indigenous people do in any given period is only what they do at that point in their continuing culture and history. The dictionary notes that some academics and some enthusiasts have imagined that contemporary shamans are like—or, more often, regrettably quite unlike—the first shamans. It also notes that such views are polemical and derogatory toward contemporary peoples. Such polemics can, however, be countered. For example, while Edward Tylor’s original theory of “animism” presumed that indigenous people were mistaken in perceiving life in all things (including socalled inanimate objects) and argued that this error defined the entire phenomenon of religion, a “new animism” has recently been theorized. This makes no assumptions about contemporary indigenous religions being vestiges of prehistoric (“original”) religions, instead locating shamans as vital agents in creatively mediating between human and other-than-human communities in the present, particularly in instances where indigenous peoples creatively negotiate with colonialism, neocolonialism, and globalization.The dictionary provides entries about some indigenous people who have, or are claimed to have, shamans among them, or to practice some form of shamanism. These entries note that there are local words for shamans, and that some indigenous people would prefer to use other words than shaman for their healers, ritualists, sorcerers, or wise people. Sometimes this becomes outright denial that their doctors or spiritual leaders are shamans at all. This is certainly true: not everyone called a shaman is anything like any other shaman. However, the point of this dictionary is to engage with this diversity of understanding and to note and comment on some of the many things that are called shamanism.PSYCHOLOGY, SOCIOLOGY, ANTHROPOLOGY?“Ologies” are important ways for academics to take a close look at the many things that happen in the world. Shamans have been of interest to almost every academic discipline imaginable. Their performances have been recorded, their relationships mapped, their worldviews charted, their brain chemistry tested, their psychological health checked, their botanical knowledge classified, their transgressions valorized, their gender constructions theorized, and more.In all the disciplines interested in such matters, different assessments of the nature of shamanism and the character of shamans have been made and promulgated. Roberte Hamayon (1998) summarized Western interest in Siberian shamans as having gone through three broad periods, emblematically labeled devilization, medicalization, and idealization. This is immensely useful, and it can be applied to some studies of shamanism as well as to popular interest (abhorrent or enthusiastic as it may be). But, in the end, it is too neat. Just as shamans can be as ambiguous as tricksters, and just as shamanism can be too fluid to pin down, so academic and popular interests and assessments of shamans have generally been ambiguous. An almost clichéd example of the blend of fear and desire is paraded. In what many consider to be the definitive discussion of shamanism but others deride as hopelessly polemical, Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism (1964 ) proffered a neat view of “archaic” shamanism that he had to continuously shield from the messy reality of contemporary shamans. Far from revealing what shamanism actually is, he implicitly wanted to make shamans into what he thought they should be. Desire and distaste are illiberally blended into a concoction that has delighted as many people (scholars or otherwise) as it has repelled. Indeed, it is one root from which a whole new style of shamanism has sprouted and flourished. This dictionary regularly presents ambiguities because ambiguity fits well both with the phenomena of interest (shamanism) and with the study of shamanism (see von Stuckrad 2002).CONTEMPORARY VITALITYIf ambiguity is important, the roles played by shamans in the contemporary world are of critical interest to scholars in a wide range of disciplines. For a host of reasons (but often to do with a renewed sense of self-determination seeking independence from the globalizing empires of the collapsed Soviet Union or the still dominant colonialism of the West), there is a resurgence of shamanism among many indigenous communities. The dictionary thus engages with many examples of the ways in which people choose to further develop shamanic worldviews and lifeways. In one sense this is straightforward, because shamans seem always and everywhere to have been at the forefront of adopting and adapting new skills to deal with old and new needs. In another sense this is radical, because it forces a recognition that the label “neo-shamanism” wrongly implies an absolute difference between different kinds of shamanism. This does not mean that distinctions cannot be made, but it means that distinctions should not be made for polemical reasons. The differences between Evenk shamans and neoshamans in the urban West are not necessarily greater than those between Siberian and Haitian shamans. Especially after the deliberate revival of shamanism following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the vital role many shamans have played in resisting colonialism in Amazonia and elsewhere, it is folly to imagine that “new” means “inauthentic.” Shamanism has always evolved, and neo-shamanism is as much an aspect of the evolving culture of the West as Sakha shamanism is an aspect of the evolving cultures of Siberia—and creative engagements between these two in the “global village” disrupt this boundary further.If shamanism is part of popular cultural dynamics, it is also important in some of the most interesting academic debates. Leaving aside, for now, the place of neo-shamanism in these dynamics and debates, among the most significant contemporary movements is a global swelling or resurgence of indigenous vitality. In part, this is marked both by the assertion of rights over indigenous bodies of knowledge and by rising academic interest in such knowledge (evidenced by a number of recent conferences and publications with significant participation by indigenous scholars). Again, by demonstrating that indigenous cultures and religions are actively participating in and negotiating a globalized world, all this ferment and activity certainly gives the lie to those who would diminish indigeneity, and thus shamanism, as utterly different from Western modernity (including its neo-shamanism). The vitality of indigenous peoples, and the valuing of their knowledge, is both a matter of justice and a reason for considerable academic debate.This is admirably illustrated in the display board entitled “Our Lives: Now: The 21st Century” in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. This notes, “We are not just survivors; we are the architects of our survivance. We carry our ancient philosophies into an ever changing modern world.” It continues to explain that the “Our Lives” exhibition “is about our stories of survivance, but it belongs to anyone who has fought extermination, discrimination, or stereotypes.” Finally, it quotes Gerald Vizenor (1994), who coined the term survivance, saying that “it is more than just survival. Survivance means defining ourselves. It means raising our social and political consciousness. It means holding on to ancient philosophies while eagerly embracing change. It means doing what is necessary to keep our cultures alive.” This is what shamans do in many cultures today, and while there are issues of neocolonialism at the interface between indigenous shamans and neo-shamans, this also explains why many people (including in Euro-American contexts) are rediscovering the importance of their shamanic inheritance. It also shows why it is important to understand what different cultures understand shamanism to be about.DICTIONARY ENTRIESAs has already been noted, the dictionary includes entries about most of the phenomena that have been called shamanism. It does not shy away from noting controversies (e.g., about whether shamans are mad, or whether Euro-Americans who claim to be shamans are thieves); indeed, it includes entries about some unpleasant polemics precisely because they help promote consideration about shamans, shamanism, and much else that is important today. There are entries about the past, including ancient European cave art and indigenous practices that are no longer current, notwithstanding the reality that discourse on them endures precisely because they are extinct. Some entries also draw on books and websites that are producing new information, ideas, and views, right up to the last minute. In entries about indigenous peoples and cultures, it should be clear what relates to the past and what is contemporary. Brief entries cannot be all-encompassing or definitive and do not imply that any culture or community is static and unchanging. If any group is characterized as employing shamans, it should be clear that they may also define themselves as Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or secularists. The dictionary includes entries about “traditional” shamans and “neoshamans.” All these have been enthusiastically celebrated by some and ridiculed and dismissed by others. Shamanism, if there is an -ism, is too slippery and tricky a phenomenon to be held only by one group. Failure to slip across boundaries and be surprised by new perspectives and possibilities will lead to failure to understand even that which seems familiar. That, at least, is a justification for placing so many disparate matters alongside one another. Thus entries about the Buryats, Celts, Evenk, San, and Sora stand alongside others about hallucinogen tourists, Heathens, techno-shamans, and “wannabe Indians.” Entries about Nicholas Black Elk, Mongush Kenin-Lopsan, Maria Sabina, and Thomas Yellowtail bear reading alongside entries about Jan Fries, Gordon “The Toad” MacLellan, Malidoma Somé, the Nephilim, and Austin Osman Spare. Similarly, there are entries about matters that seem to have been accepted as definitive of what shamans do and what shamanism is (e.g., “altered states of consciousness,” “trance,” “tiered cosmos,” “drumming,” and “journeying”), along with interventions that disrupt these and argue for new perspectives about, e.g., “adjusted styles of communication,” “animism,” “becoming-animal,” “new-indigenes,” and “pragmatism.”Finally, so that this dictionary can contribute to further lively debates about shamans, shamanism, and shamanisms, an annotated bibliography serves as a guide to further study. Whether approached enthusiastically or academically, there are many important matters to consider in relation to shamans. Equally, there are many important matters that might be better understood in relation to the activities and knowledges of shamans.
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.