June 29, 2012

The worldwide reach of shamanism

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 5:46 pm by Jeremy

This section of my book begins an examination of shamanism.  It kicks off by defining it, looking at its worldwide reach and asking why shamanism got to be so global…

[Previous section: The hunter-gatherer view of the natural world]

The worldwide reach of shamanism

Shamanism is one of those controversial terms that can spark innumerable debates among both academics and spiritual seekers, such as whether it should be identified with a specific region, how old it is, and even how it should be defined.  For our purposes, a shaman can be understood as a particular person within a hunter-gatherer society who is believed to have the ability to mediate between the everyday world and the spirit worlds (of which there are frequently two: an upper world in the sky and a lower world beneath the earth).[1]*

A shaman is someone who mediates between the everyday world and the spirit worlds

This mediation generally takes the form of a journey, in which the shaman’s spirit leaves his regular body to visit the other worlds.  In order to embark on this journey, the shaman needs to get himself into a kind of ecstatic trance, something he does through a combination of different kinds of activities: chanting, fasting, hyperventilating, prolonged rhythmic dancing, and frequently ingesting intoxicating or hallucinogenic substances.  Often, this initiation of the journey is a community event, in which others join in the chanting or dancing, but it can also be a solitary experience for the shaman.  While he’s on the journey, the shaman’s body will sometimes be seen to be shaking and “talking in tongues,” while the shaman’s spirit may be taking the form of another animal.  Once he’s in one of the spirit worlds, the shaman will engage in the (oftentimes terrifying) experience of communicating with the spirits, usually with the goal of accomplishing a specific need of the community, which might include healing, controlling the activities of the wild animals or possibly influencing the weather.[2]

Shamanism was first by observed by Western travelers in Siberia and Central Asia and the word originated from the Tungusic tribes of Eastern Siberia where the central figure of the community was called the saman.[3]  Because of this, some purists have insisted that the term should be reserved only for the specific kind of shamanism practiced in Siberia and Central Asia.

Shamanism was first observed by Western travelers in the Tungusic tribe of Siberia

At the other extreme, various post-modernists have argued that although something like shamanism may exist around the world, no meaningful generalizations can be made about its different forms, and each variety should be understood separately, within its own context.[4]  However, other studies of shamanism around the world have produced overwhelmingly convincing evidence showing a pattern of the type of shamanistic practices described above in the vast majority of forager cultures worldwide, leading to the reasonable conclusion that shamanism is in fact a universal hunter-gatherer practice and there is “every reason to study them together with Siberian shamanism.”[5]

Just as important as the worldwide reach of shamanism is its continued influence on major cultural traditions that evolved well beyond shamanism’s hunter-gatherer origins.  For example, significant shamanistic influences have been identified in the practices of traditional Indian Yoga, in some of the underlying practices of ancient Chinese culture, and in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Mesoamerica.[6]*

Shamanic practices have been identified as the original source of modern yoga

Why would shamanism be so prevalent all around the world?  There are two possible explanations for this.  One theory postulates shamanism as a tradition practiced in the earliest days of modern humans, back in the time when the first epic journey was being taken out of Africa.  Under this “diffusion” hypothesis, the original Upper Paleolithic immigrants to Europe brought shamanistic beliefs with them, as did their fellow travelers who migrated throughout Asia.  Some of those Asian settlers then crossed the Bering Straits around thirteen thousand years ago, making it all the way down to the southern part of South America within a couple of thousand years, along with their shamanistic practices.  This theory thus sees shamanism as “a very ancient mythological base that was shared by Asia and America on a Paleolithic level.”[7]  The other theory asserts that shamanism is “the consequence of independent inventions, or derivations, from a common neuropsychology” of human beings, and would therefore be expected to emerge in different hunter-gatherer societies worldwide independent of any diffusion.[8]  Importantly, these two theories are not mutually exclusive: shamanism could be an expected result of the underlying hunter-gatherer worldview as described earlier, as well as having diffused historically from the original “out of Africa” migration.[9]*  In this case, shamanism should have been an integral part of the early human “mythic consciousness” discussed in the previous chapter, and its reliance on altered states of consciousness might tell us something about the evolving role of the pfc in the human mind.


[1] See Eliade, M. (1964/2004). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, chapter 8, “Shamanism and Cosmology”, 259-287.  While shamanism is sometimes viewed as existing in both hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, Winkelman has argued convincingly that the socio-cognitive shifts caused by agriculture lead to a “transformation of the shaman into other types of magico-religious healing practitioners,” and that true shamanism is in fact limited to forager societies.  This issue, however, does not affect the discussion of shamanism as a hunter-gatherer phenomenon presented here.  See Winkelman, M. J. (1990). “Shamans and Other “Magico-Religious” Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of Their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformations.” Ethos, 18(3), 308-352.

[2] For summary descriptions and definitions of shaman practices, see Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 133; Winkelman, M. (2002). “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 71-101; Winkelman, M. (1990) op. cit.; Grosman, L., Munro, N. D., and Belfer-Cohen, A. (2008). “A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel).” PNAS, 105(46), 17665-17669; Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., passim.

[3] Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 4.

[4] See discussions of this issue in Winkelman (1990) op. cit.; Wright (2009) op. cit., 490-91n; D.S. Whitley in Winkelman (2002) op. cit.

[5] Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 4.  Also, see Winkelman (1990) op. cit. and Lewis-Williams (2002) op. cit.

[6] In the case of Yoga, Feuerstein describes “many aspects and motifs of Shamanism” including the “yogin’s ecstatic introversion and mystical ascent,” a number of the yogic postures including the cross-legged sitting and the tradition of tapas or asceticism.  See Feuerstein, G. (1998). The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 94-5.  In the case of Chinese culture, Chang describes the “close relationship with shamanism” of ancient Chinese civilization in Chang, K.-C. (2000). “Ancient China and Its Anthropological Significance”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, pp. 1-11; Creel describes the early Chinese tradition of “wu, often called ‘shamans,’ who held séances with spirits and were believed able to heal the sick” in Creel, H. G. (1970). What Is Taoism? and Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 11-12; and Eliade notes the “presence of a considerable number of shamanic techniques throughout the course of Chinese history,” in Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 456-7.  Chang (2000) op. cit. notes the shamanistic sources of Mayan and Aztec practices, referring to the research of Peter T. Furst.

[7] Willey, G. R. (2000). “Ancient Chinese, New World, and Near Eastern Ideological Traditions: Some Observations”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum Monographs, pp. 25-36.  See also Jean Clottes in Winkelman (2002) op. cit.; Winkelman (1990) op. cit.; Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 333.

[8] Winkelman (2002) op. cit.

[9] In his argument for a “common neuropsychology,” Winkelman points out that “one must ask why shamanic practices should maintain such similarity across time and societies,  while the language and other social variables such as marriage patterns, family organization, marital residence, and kinship terminology should acquire such divergent patterns.”  He concludes that “even if the present distribution of shamanism can be attributed to diffusion from an original common source, it would not have persisted if it were based merely upon a diffused system of belief and not also upon some other objective features that made it an adaptive response.” – Winkelman (1990) op. cit.

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