- Shamans are sometimes distinguished from other religious or cultural leaders by their ability to deliberately enter a trance that is sometimes considered to be equivalent to possession. Mircea Eliade and Luc de Heusch categorically distinguish the two phenomena because they defined possession as involving a loss of control to spirits and a concomitant inability to master the spirits. If trance is defined as an altered state of consciousness, then possession can be defined as either “being controlled or directed by an otherthanhuman person or spirit” (from an experiential perspective) or “the performance of culturally recognizable signs that someone is a vehicle through which another being is acting.” While some interpreters see trances as permitting and leading to possession, others are insistent that both are sets of practices or behaviors—performances rather than states of mind. Caroline Humphrey notes that the important matter for shamans and their communities is rarely the individual’s inner state of mind (which is considered inaccessible to others), but the fact that particular actions identifiable as possession or trance indicate that the shaman is communicating with helpers or journeying to gain knowledge and abilities beyond those of other people. Ioan Lewis counters Eliade’s and Heusch’s schema by pointing to the regularity with which the “classic” shamanic initiatory and biographical accounts from Siberia and the Arctic include possession. He also details the parallels between “possession cults”—for example, the Zar, Sar, and Bori in Africa and Vodou in the Caribbean— and shamanism. Noting that phenomena understood as evidence of possession in one culture may be interpreted as madness or hysteria (sometimes caused by mushroom ingestion or “tarantism”), Lewis undermines the notion that these are entirely psychological experiences. Finally, he demonstrates that Eliade’s and Heusch’s formula is derived from their wider, religious perspective rather than from the data themselves. It can be concluded, therefore, that possession is an aspect of the election of shamans by otherworld persons who wish to communicate, help, or empower initiated individuals and continues to form a mode of relationship between shamans and their helpers. This help may include aiding others who are possessed or who have suffered “soul loss” under assault by powerful other-thanhuman persons. In Lewis’s concise formulation, shamans may seek to cure these forms of illness by “soul projection.” He also draws on the work of Sergei Shirokogoroff to conclude that shamans may be either (or both) “hostages to the spirits” and their sexual and/or marital partners. Shamans might, then, be defined as people who welcome possession as an aspect of (sexual/marital) relationship with spirits and be distinguished from the victims of unwanted possession, who may be the subject of exorcism by shamans (or other religious specialists, where there is no notion of acceptable possession).
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.