Re: Shamanism II

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Wed, 15 May 1996 00:06:15 +0900

In a previous post on shamanism, I expressed myself perhaps overhurriedly.
I gave in to the temptation to indiscriminately use the send button after
writing things which while not entirely without merit, nevertheless were
perhaps in need of revision before sending. I got carried away in the
flight of rhetoric and the dance of words. At any rate, here, I'd like to
take another look at shamanism, as well as consider some of the views
expressed recently by others on this topic.

1. A first area to consider is the relation the shamanism of hunters and
gatherers has with the religions of agriculturists. One area of overlap is
ideas of reincarnation (see _Amerindian Rebirth_, ed. by Antonia Mills and
Richard Slobodin, University of Toronto Press). Another would probably
have to include the transformation of a more general underworld and
overworld into hell(s) and heaven(s). I think we would also want to look
at the role of song and dance as religious experiences.

In other words, there is not really any clean dividing line between
shamanism and other more "organized" religions. Shamanism, as Jay
Bernstein pointed out, can be "routinized." Also, the religious
experiences of people in so-called organized religions can be "inspired" as
Daniel Maher showed.

Given this situation, what we might want to do is identify a "pure" type of
shamanism associated with hunting and gathering cultures and then see how
this type of shamanism underwent modifications with the rise of the
earliest agriculturalist religions and then how shamanistic notions were
either incorporated into the older organized religions that we are familiar
with today (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism,
etc.), deliberately rejected (but with the rejection somehow being
definitional to the identity of the organized religion, such as the
Christian attitude towards pagans), or completely ignored as irrelevant.

Naturally, this approach would only be the continuation of scholarship
already conducted along these lines. But still somehow the results of this
scholarship have been inconclusive, and, thus, Jay Kotliar's original
posting about how shamanism should be defined (shamanism is still something
in need of definition).

Needless to say a simple linear conception of development would need to be
avoided not only because the main traditions of these organized religions
include shamanistic elements as part of their practices, but also because
organized religions also include on their fringes smaller cults, etc. which
in some ways may be thought of as a return to (or alternately a survival
of) the older, more pure form of shamanism. Also, of course, we must bear
in mind as Daniel Foss has pointed out many times that history is messy.
It's hard to shift through all the opposing interpretations. And the
history of religions is perhaps even messier than the ordinary kind of
political history since its subject matter involves myths, legends,
visions, alternative realities, miracles, etc. along with historical

2. I think that there is a tendency among the more new-age type of people
to consider shamanism as a kind of way for human beings to get re-connected
with the natural world. In an obvious sense they are of course right, but
in a more complex sense I think shamans function as mediators between a
spirit world of nature and the cultural world of one's community. And as
mediators they can go either way really.

3. Previously I said that "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." I like this as prose. In
terms of its precise meaning, though, it is a little vague. One
interpretation of its meaning could be that given to it by Jay Kotliar.
Another, though, would be to say that the culturally created body although
being illusionary cannot just simply be cast aside. Because of its
continued existence in the realm of intangible culture (and intangible
nature), it can be manipulated (both one's own body and those of others).
This makes possible various acts of shamanistic magic.

However, here instead of delving deeper into the meaning of the body as
culturally created entity (and thereby in a sense a non-entity), I would
like to suggest that two types of shamanism are to be found in relation to
how they conceive of the relation of the spirit/dream world to the body.
One is the journeying type where the shaman travels (flies, etc.) to some
place and visits spirits, people, etc. The other type is where the shaman
invites the spirits/ancestors into her/his own body. I think Eliade also
recognizes this distinction. The latter type is probably the more
historically recent type. It exists widely in various forms, for example,
in Taiwan and China (as John McCreery mentioned) as well as in Korea and
Japan. The first type is more active in terms of the body (and more
conscious in terms of the mind) while the second type is more passive (and

4. Jay Kotliar made a good point in saying that shamans do believe in
their cosmology. His own comments, though, were rather vague in that he
did not show clearly how shamans' belief in their cosmology can be tied
with their sense of what they are actually doing in their performances.
Are their performances entirely without embellishments for effect, etc., do
they expect their audiences to take everything that they are doing
literally, do they never exaggerate their own powers, or not even
occasionally have recourse to conventional formulas within their
performance genres when they are lacking in more direct inspiration?

This basically concerns the problem of the relationship of conventional
reality to shamanistic reality. How do shamans conceive of this relation?
Is their role merely to bring insights into conventional reality from their
shamanistic reality in order to heal, promote the evolution of culture, and
generally improve people's lives (or alternately in the case of less
positive shamanizing to make others sick, promote their own interests vis a
vis their culture, etc.)? Or is there also not another movement of
conventional reality entering shamanistic reality in that shamanistic
experience is itself something cultural? (And thus we can speak of
shamanistic societies as a type of culture.)

And we as observers outside of shamanism, how do we see this same relation
of shamanistic reality to conventional reality? We have our own
conventional reality as members of mass cultures at the close of the 20th
century. To us, scientific reality has the same function as shamanistic
reality does for shamans: it denotes a space more real than the reality we
know conventionally; and yet the scientific space we seek to inhabit is
nevertheless a cultural one.

As Jay Bernstein says, the question of belief is a thorny one. It also
brings up memories of the recent myth/ideology/belief thread which didn't
come to any resolution.

5. Jay Bernstein's point that there were shamans and then shaman/healers
is an interesting one. Perhaps this means that not all shamans had the
specialized botanical knowledge to use plants in treating diseases. Or
perhaps it signifies that not all shamans were interested in the well-being
of others in their communities (shamanism does not seem to emphasize an
ethical system at least in the same sense that the later organized
religions did).

In this context, John Pastore's comments that shamans among the Maya are
distinguishable in their being indistinguishable, that is in their being
ordinary members of the community, may be of relevance. If shamans are
"specialists" it may not be in the ordinary sense in which we think of
people as being specialists. And their "power" may not be the same as what
we ordinarily understand as "power" (wealth and the ability to influence or
control others).

Perhaps our point of view in thinking of shamans as a unique type of
individual is mistaken. In shamanistic cultures, all individuals are
shamans in some sense since they share the shamanistic cosmology.

6. In a posting a few months back on song and dance, I wanted to show that
song and dance have an important role in shamanism. Perhaps a definition
of shamanism should include them. Of course, this would extend the range
of shamanism beyond the experiential level which can only be
individualistic. Instead of saying with Kotliar that a shaman is "someone
who is able to transcend the natural world through ecstatic
mystical/magical experiences," one might instead be able to say that a
shaman is one who is able to inhabit simultaneously the natural and social
worlds through ecstatic mystical/magical dancing and singing. This
perspective would probably make it easier to see the role which women
played in shamanism in hunting and gathering societies as well as to see
the role which shamanism still plays in our own scientized society.

7. Jay Bernstein's point that drug use is not an essential feature of
shamanism is a good one (albeit he seems to sidestep the problem of why
drug use is associated with *some* forms of shamanism; previously I
mentioned the problem of colonization in this regard which, though, may not
be an adequate explanation). His mention of rocking in this context as a
way of concentrating the mind is an interesting one. What are other bodily
techniques which are used?

8. $B!! (BI am not sure of its degree of universality, but one shamanistic techniq
ue for curing is sucking up a foreign object out of a person's body. This
seems to be phenomenologically related to the act of eating, although of
course the item is not swallowed by the shaman but is instead spit out.

Another relationship between shamanism and the activity of eating is that
in cultures which have a shamanistic cosmology there are often many taboos
on what can or cannot be eaten (strict taboos unlike our present day
aversions based on perceived unpalatability), how animals should be killed
and eaten, etc. In addition, shamanistic magic also has a close connection
with hunting activities. It may also have a close connection with
gathering activities but these have gotten less attention than they deserve
(because they were the activities of women mostly?).

9. Among Adrian Tanner's perspectives on shamanism among the Cree are
included the notions that sex is a metaphor for hunting, that animals are
seen as friends or lovers of human beings, that game animals participate in
cultural reality as well as natural reality, that the idea of
equivalence/friendship with animals exists side by side with another
ideology of dominance/subordination (see Robert Brighton's, _Grateful
Prey_, University of California Press, 1993, pp. 127, 166, 187, 201).
There are many intriguing ideas here.

10. The recent discussion of healing practices among the Mormons is not at
all out of place in a discussion of shamanism I believe. In Japan, one can
find similar practices among some of the sects of the so-called New
Religions (often post-war, or at least post-Meiji period). In the case of
Japan, though, I think there is less reluctance on the part of scholars to
consider that shamanism in some form or another is an influence.

As an aside, I have an acquaintance who is a Japanese Baptist of all
things. He's a quite intelligent man with near fluent English. As a
Baptist (I've forgotten the exact sect, though), his church emphasizes
praising the Lord, which means they use a lot of music and singing in their
services. They also do a form of healing by hands in which I think they
recite/chant parts of the scripture while they lay their hands on your
body. At first, I thought it was a little strange to find a Baptist in the
town neighboring Shobara, but then on thinking about I realized that this
kind of religiousity wasn't really so different from certain kinds already
existing in the Japanese tradition.

Clyde Davenport