Re: Shamanism

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Fri, 10 May 1996 01:33:45 +0900

At 14:37 96.5.8 -0500, Kotliar wrote:
> 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.
> Jay

I am sorry to make the pretense of knowledge about this area when in fact
my knowledge is only limited. But nevertheless I will endeavor to make a
few comments.

1. Transmigration or reincarnation is an understated element in
shamanistic worldviews. Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. derive this world view
from a more ancient tradition stemming from shamanism (albeit modifying its
significance in the process).
2. The shaman doesn't transcend the natural world, as much as she shows
the connection between the cultural and natural worlds. The shamanist is
thus only a bridge. And the reactionary (the shaman as a bridge to
culture) and the revolutionary (the shaman as a bridge to nature) types
often exist in a contadictory way in the same individual.
3. If shamans go out of the body, it is only in the sense that the body is
a culturally created entity. Shamans don't really go anywhere, and this is
their power.
4. Magic to shamans is a kind of performance. They don't really believe
in it. On the other hand, just like ethnomethodologists they plumb its
surfaces. Thus, they believe in it at the same time that they don't
believe in it. Sometimes they kill people by not curing them. Is this,
though, really the shamans fault, or the fault of the person who had the
disease in the first place? But where did the person get their disease?
Shaman's try to find this out.
5. Whatever the source of diseases, their cure is found in plants mostly.
To cure diseases through animal products rather than plants, is largely an
invention of the Chinese. This is not to say that animals are not
important. But in a shamanistic perspective animals are treated as
bretheren or enemies. Plants, because of their passivity can be used to
cure. Animals are like your neighbores. You may or may not use their
information. It depends on your attitude.
6. So far, we have defined all of this in terms of words and language.
Words and languages are important, of course, but shamans contextualize
their experience of words and language through song and dance. "Talk" to
them is not merely talk, but it is something else again. A negative
meaning is that it is just performance (and so imitation), but I don't
thing shamans believe this themselves. To them, they are like Bordieu
(sp?). It's all situated practice.
7. Shamans get their knowledge through the mode of dreaming. To use drugs
to get this mode of knowledge is often degenerate. In other words it is
often a phenomenon of colonization.
8. Shamans when they cure other people make use of the mode of eating.
They eat up the pathogens that inhabit the body of the sick patient. One
method they use is sucking the foreign matter up through their lips and
then spitting it out in tangible form. Is this kind of performance all a
pretense? Or do people actually take bad things into their bodies which
get lodged there and then cause cancers. I don't know. You'd better ask a
shaman. But how do you tell the real shamans from the fake ones. Or how
do you tell the difference between a shaman who wants you to get well and
one who wants you to get sick? Maybe it isn't as easy as it seems.

I could talk on, but I won't. Maybe I should subscribe to the shamanist
list. They probably know more than I do about this matter. Academic
anthropologists know, but don't want to talk about it. Does this show that
they know something I don't? Or are they merely caught up in their roles.
Adrian Tanner would know the answer to this question. She probably won't
say, though.


Clyde Davenport