No Shamans Here

When you tell someone you study anthropology, the chances are that you will hear one of the following responses:

  • I have a friend/relative who studies insects.
  • Like Indiana Jones? Do you have one of those hats?
  • I think shamanism is so fascinating, don’t you?

The shamanism one is the one that gets me the most upset. The other two are understandable confusions caused by ignorance of the field, but the last one is the result of a type of anthropological hucksterism – the deliberate use of pseudo-anthrpological discourse to sell spirituality to New Age believers.

So I was happy to see this page devoted to proving that North American natives do not practice shamanism. The argument is made that shamanism is a very specialized term, originally referring to specific practices associated with the natives of Siberia. From an article by Tori McElroy:

The word “shaman” actually originates among the natives of Siberia, where it describes a specialized type of holy person. The shamans of Siberia interact with deities and spirits not only with prayer, ritual and offerings, but through direct contact with the spirits themselves. With the aid of rhythmic drumming and chanting, the shaman enters a very deep or “ecstatic” trance.

UC Davis anthropologist, Jack Forbes looks at Western traditions of shamanism:

But if we back off and take a look at so-called shamanism from a multi-cultural perspective, instead of a Eurocentric one, we find that the most famous “shamans” of the 20th century have been people like Amy Semple McPherson (founder of the Foursquare Church), Oral Roberts, Billy Joe Hargis, and the legendary Billy Sunday. Moreover, the day-to-day work of “shamanism” in North America is carried mostly by Roman Catholic and other priests who daily enact “shamanistic” rituals (such as Mass, a “magic” ritual where wine becomes blood and wafers become flesh) or by charismatic Protestant preachers (healers) who attempt to cure by the laying on of the hands and other techniques of “faith-healing,” or by religious figures (preachers or priests) who attempt to “control” events, obtain wealth, drive away death, or determine who gets into “Heaven” by means of prayers, incantations or ritual. Millions of Catholics recite a ritual incantation on their rosary beads every day while the church actively sells (or has sold) “relics,” medals, and other items which are thought to possess “magic” powers. The Bible has apparently been used as a “talisman” by fervent Protestants, and the cross is viewed as a potent object by many Christians of different denominations. Being “born again,” spirit possession and other acts of “ecstasy” are regular features of some Protestant sects.

The fact of the matter is that there is no such religion as “shamanism,” since all of the religions of the world make use — perhaps equally — of the tools of the “shaman” including liturgy (ritual), songs, incantations (recited prayers or formulas) and direct contact with the spiritual world (visions, ecstasy) in order to bring about changes on the physical plane.

And since I’ve been writing about etymology-as-argument lately on my own blog, I think it is worth mentioning the way in which etymology is used here. Unlike arguments which seek to persuade showing that two words were linked in the language of some ancient culture, the anti-shamanism argument uses etymology as counterfactual. By showing that the term has its roots in Central Asia, they seek to disprove its applicability to the the American context. Now, I’m not sure I necessarily buy the Sanskrit (via Chinese) origins of the term, but there is no doubt that the word is not North American in origin, as the Oxford Dictionary shows:

from German Schamane and Russian shaman, from Tungus šaman.

Which isn’t too say that we can’t apply words from one culture to another. We do it all the time. But we should be careful about how we do it. As Forbes puts it:

Quite obviously the above definitions present a culturally hostile picture since the use of terms such as “magic,” “demons,” “gods” and “ancestral spirits” will likely be interpreted as backward, evil or even “devilish” by many European readers.

Of course, it is exactly the exotic otherness of shamanism which attracts:

more than 5,000 people each year who take [a] rigorous training in core shamanism, the near universal methods of shamanism without a specific cultural perspective

A have to admit that while it may not seem to be as immediately harmful, the marketing of such cultural exoticism by anthropologists upsets me even more than when they work for the CIA. But then again, orientalism and colonialism have always been connected …

To end on a personal note: The only time I’ve found myself the object of such orientalist mysticism (my South Asian wife gets it all the time) was when I travelled in Germany. I can’t tell you how many people told me: “You’re Jewish? I think Kabbalah is so fascinating.” I have to say, I was pretty tempted to drop out and become a shaman in Berlin…

3 thoughts on “No Shamans Here

  1. “You’re Jewish? I think Kabbalah is so fascinating.”

    Philosemitism is widely spread in Germany, though pilgrimages to Israel in order to plant olivetrees has somewhat gone out of fashion.
    Merchandized mysticism instead is a growing branch.

  2. If I had to choose between anthros marketing new age hokum and anthros working for the CIA, I’d say bring on the hokum!
    Of course anyone who doesn’t want to be called a shaman shouldn’t have the term forced on them. But as a term of anthropological art I think it is quite useful, and reflects some of the ambitions of the discipline that seem to have been sidetracked across the 80s and 90s. If the first settlers of the Americas came across the Bering land bridge, maybe it’s not so crazy to think that Siberian practices of shamanism have some relation to “shamanism” in the Americas? And outside of that region, to the exent that human practices resemble one another cross contextually… Any kind of comparative approach requires and generates some sort of umbrella terminology.
    One of the things about the scholarly generation preceding ours is that they expended huge amounts of energy coming up with forbidden words, approaches, frameworks, and giant purgatories into which everyone had to fear being relegated for baroque definitions of intellectual gaucherie. I deeply appreciate all the ways that their efforts were necessary, but I also feel very “tra-la!” that such tasks don’t have to be our central concern.

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