Re: Shamanism

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 9 May 1996 09:18:43 +0900

Jay Kottliar writes,

> On shaman-l there is a discussion about the definition of shmanism, and
>some were wondering how anthropologists would define it. Would anyone like
>to share there ideas. I offered as a working definition:
> I would define a shaman as someone who is able to transcend the natural
>world through ecstatic mystical/magical experiences. This includes
>transmigration of the soul, but I think this can be communion/communication
>with spirits and natural forces representing a transcendent awareness that
>does not include out of body experiences.
> I would also regard it as part of a religious tradition that is less
>canonical and hierarchical in its orientation.

Here, again, I would urge what has, for me, become an almost knee-jerk
reaction to definitional exercises of this sort, i.e., insist on gathering
as many examples as possible and explore their variations. Thus, for
example, in Taiwan there are many different types of people who have
various forms of mystical/magical experiences. There are geomancers and
fortunetellers who are, perhaps, best seen as practitioners of traditional
sciences--which, like astrology in the west--are now seen as "mystical" by
practitioners of modern sciences for whom "mystical" is euphemism for
superstition. There are Daoist priests whose training includes meditations
focused on the visualization of the gods they control. Like the "magicians"
with whom they overlap,they may report communication with spirits through
dreams and visions. The type that comes closest, perhaps, to Mircea
Eliade's Siberian prototype, is a woman who goes into a light trance in
which she journeys to the land of the dead--a way of getting in contact
with deceased ancestors.All of the above are distinguished by their
remaining conscious while they do what they do. There is another large
category of mediums--both those who go barefoot and shoeless and
demonstrate their possession by beating themselves bloody with spiked
balls, swords, etc.,and those who, typically dressed in plain blue
scholarly gowns, wield the planchette a spirit-writing sessions. These are
"possessed" and are, at least in theory, totally unconscious while the gods
are in control. Participants in spirit-writing cults overlap with artists,
poets and Buddhist monks who are said to lose themselves in art or
meditation. I have been intrigued when reading, for example, Paul Stoller's
work on West Africa, and descriptions of spiritismo in Latin America, to
note what seems to be a similar rich variety of "magical/mystical"
experience. It would be quite interesting to see a comparative study that
began with (1) an attempt to sort out the local genres as participants (and
critics) see them in various parts of the world and then went on to (2)
seeing if there are some sort of pan-human tendencies in the way in which
the genres are constructed.

Just a thought,

John McCreery
May 9, 1996

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo