- A central theme of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s writing about Amazonian shamans and their wider societies puts the ability to see from another’s perspective at the center of what shamans do. If powerful persons, especially shamans and sorcerers, might appear in different physical forms—for example, that of a jaguar or a human—it can be vital to see what is really there. But the issue is larger than this, because Amazonian cosmology entails the notion of a single culture shared by all living beings (fish, birds, animals, plants, deities, humans, and others) but masked by divergent appearances of physical nature. So, while most humans see jaguars as animals who eat raw meat, and peccaries as prey animals, jaguars and peccaries see themselves as living in homes and eating cooked food. Meanwhile, jaguars and peccaries see humans as prey and predators, respectively. Shamans see the cultural reality obscured by the multiplicity of nature. This contrasts with Western modernity in which a single nature (of stable physical, material reality) provides a foundation for the multiplicity and diversity of (human) cultures. Where modernity has “multiculturalism,” Amazonia has “multinaturalism.” But, more significantly, where modernity worries about solipsism (do we think the same?), Amazonians worry about cannibalism (do we taste the same?). In such a context, the most valued roles of shamans are associated with knowledge, combat, and healing. Signe Howell summarizes data from among the Chewong of Indonesia, and many other animist societies, which show that a common part of apprentice shamans’ initiation and training is “learning to see in a new way.” Thus Viveiros de Castro’s argument may be applicable to all shamans.
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.