Jay Bernstein (jbernst@PIPELINE.COM)
Fri, 10 May 1996 18:54:58 -0400

I have been on Anthro-L for some weeks and have been trying to follow as
much of the communication as possible. I even wrote to a few of you and
put in my own request for information about the availability of a
dissertation, for which I received the brilliant news that I can buy it
from UMI.

I was interested to see a post on a definition of shamanism. This is a
subject in which I actually am an authority. I conducted 2 years of
research on shamanism and traditional medicine among the Taman of
Kalimantan Barat (Indonesian West Borneo), and my book on the subject is
scheduled to be published in January 1997.

The person posting the first message identified himself as Jay. THIS
PERSON IS NOT ME. (I am also Jay.) He mentions the shamanism list server,
to which I subscribe. It is not an anthropological forum. The people on
it are new age shamans and folks interested in spirituality. Some of them
appear to have had bona fide experiences. The others are flakes.

Jay wrote:

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.

This is a good start, but it is too general. A shaman has spirit
familiars, and masters them. The shaman voluntarily and deliberately
cultivates contact with the spirit world. He or she works with spirits to
help another person. A shaman is very often a healer, but not all medicine
men are shamans, and shamans may perform other services outside the domain
of healing, e.g. hunting magic or selecting a spot for cultivation.

I would also point out an intriguing book, "The Death and Resurrection
Show," by Rogan, which says that in the West some entertainers have taken
over the role of shaman. Examples are Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin,
David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix. (Bowie used the "upperworld", while Hendrix
explored the "lower world.") These terms of mythical geography are part of
Mircea Eliade's definition of the shaman. But I.M. Lewis pointed out that
the shaman need not work in vertically arranged planes of reality different
from the mundane world. This definitely applies to the Taman shaman called

I would add that the balien is not unique in diverging from the "Classic"
Siberian/Central Asian model of shaman captured eloquently by Shirokogoroff
and Bogoraz, in that the balien uses other techniques, and is not a
charismatic figure but is organized within an association. I follow
Michael Winkelman's distinction between the shaman and the shaman/healer.

Jay also wrote:

I would also regard it as part of a religious tradition that is less
canonical and hierarchical in its orientation.

I totally disagree with this. Jay's point is that shamanism is "inspired"
rather than "routinized," but we know from the work on Korean shamanism and
what Ortner is now writing about Sherpa shamanism that shamanism is
integrated with more extensive religious traditions. Cf. also the Islamic
"whirlling dervishes", who are also shamans.

I liked what John McCreery said. Clyde Davenport also made some very
useful comments, especially:

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.

I didn't agree so much with the rest of what he said. I particularly
DISAGREED with his comments that shamans cure people with plant medicines.
This to me has been a distortion of the role of the shaman. Ripinsky-Naxon
makes much of it (that and the preeminence of hallucinogens) and I won't
throw it out as wrong, but just say it is an overstatement. SOME KINDS of
shamans use medicines; many others do not. SHAMANS NEED NOT TAKE
HALLUCINOGENS! They can concentrate their minds in other ways, like
rocking. (See Gell's article in Man.)

I also disagreed with him on the thorniest question of all: do shamans
believe their own magic. Davenport says "magic is just a performance."
The notion of performance is extremely complex as Kapferer and Tambiah have
shown. And in the case of the Taman at least, shamans have been cured of
their own illness by other shamans. (See my forthcoming book, "Spririts
captured in stone: shamanism and traditional medicine among the Taman of
Borneo. Boulder: Lynne Rienner; and my article, "The shaman's destiny," in
The Seen and The Unseen: Shamanism, Possession, and Mediumship in Borneo,
edited by Robert Winzeler.) How can you say they don't believe it? This
is a very complex and tricky question. I think all the people in societies
where shamanism is an important form of healing consider it paradoxical but

By the way, see yesterday's (Thursday's ) New York Times, Metro Section, I
believe, about how patients in NY, including in Elmhurst Hospital, walking
distance from where I live, are going to both curanderos (shamans) and
doctors, and how doctors aren't discouraging it. Someone says, if you look
at it under a microscope you don't see anything, but some patients really
do get better. I saw this time and again in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, something is wrong with Pipeline (my on-line server) so I
haven't been able to retrieve John Pastore's message.

Jay Bernstein