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26 February 2009

Shamans Dancing on the Head of a Pin

This semester, I've been taking a class called Shamanism Past and Present with professor John Hoopes. It's been interesting, and has raised a number of questions and concerns in myself and among my fellow classmates.
As it turns out, shamanism is a very sticky subject, with a lot of uncertainty and controversy. Here I'd like to list a few issues that have come up, and I hope that some of you will throw in your two cents (cause I could really use the $).
Shamans and Shamanism
First of all, there are the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" themselves. The issue here is whether or not they are too broad. The word "shaman" comes originally from the Turkic groups of Central Asia and Siberia, and is used to describe their spiritual practitioners. Shamans in this culture are healers, guides, and mediums who use various methods, including drumming, dancing, sensory deprivation, body mutilation, and other techniques to induce trances which take them into the spirit world where they can effect a cure or solve a problem. There is no word in the Turkic language system to denote "Shamanism," but the overall pattern has been referred to this way by researchers.
The problem is that these words have been used to describe a variety of different traditions in a variety of cultures around the world. In fact, in an all but tautological move, many researchers go so far as to claim that shamanism is the universal religious practice for all primitive cultures - that it is, essentially, the original religion. Thus, the traditions of many Native American groups, Australian Aborigines, and African tribes are all lumped together under this Central Asian terminology.
Those who advocate the broad application of the terms Shaman and Shamanism say that it represents a universal aspect of human societies, and that recognizing this universal in all of its different forms helps us to understand a lot of different traditions. Opponents say that, by using this single term, we are obscuring the variety of traditions that are out there, denying individual cultures their uniqueness.
Rock Art
Another issue that has come up is the interpretation of paleolithic rock art. This has been an issue for a long time, and, in my opinion there's no way to solve it resolutely. However, one of the dominant interpretations for rock art these days comes from a guy named David Lewis-Williams, who wrote the book The Mind in the Cave, which we are reading for class.
Basically, Williams argues that rock art emerges out of a common human experience, and that this experience is grounded in our biology, and, more specifically, our neurology. It's essentially a Richard Dawkins explanation of rock art. The experience that Williams argues gives rise to the art is the trance state that is common to shamanic practices. In these states, whether they are induced by chemicals or other means, the participant goes through a series of transformations toward more and more dissociated (psychedelic) states of consciousness. Each of these transformations is associated with a particular kind of imagery, which can be seen in rock art. The first of these is entoptic phenomena, that is visual images created within the eye itself. You can get a basic idea of these by clsing your eyes and rubbing them gently or by closing your eyes and allowing a strobe light to flicker on them. They tend to be geometrical in form and become more intense with deeper trance states. These eventually change into basic iconic imagery, and ultimately into full blow hallucinations.
I wouldn't argue with the premise that these visions exist, but I might argue with his repeated insistence that they are created by the brain. However, in either case, he suggests that all rock art is the result of these trance states and the associated imagery. I don't think the evidence is as clear as he thinks it is, and I have my doubts. It's an interesting idea, though. Here is another interpretation I ran across recently.
Shamanic Healing
The final issue I want to mention here is one we've been reading about in the book Wonderous Healing by James McClenon. In it he argues that Shamanism actually helped shape our evolution. This is by far the most interesting topic we've discussed as far as I'm concerned, but still very controversial. Indeed, there's really no concrete evidence to support his view at all - just circumstantial associations of different ideas.
Here's the argument: humans that are able to enter trance states or be cured by ritual healings (i.e. psychosomatic healing) are better able to deal with the rigors and stresses of the environment and daily life. They are, therefore, better adapted to their environments, and so they will pass on their genes more readily than will other people who are less responsive to psychosomatic healing.
I'm always interested in ways that cultural phenomena might have affected our evolution. However, there are three issues I have with this theory - not that I disapprove altogether, but that there are things that need to be worked out before it can be workable. First is a complaint that my professor brought up, which is really more of a philosophical issue than a problem with the theory. That is, it implies that it is in our evolutionary benefit to be irrational. The belief that a cure will work when there is no material mechanism is fundamentally irrational, but those cures do work sometimes (due to placebo effect, I suppose). It's kind of a double-bind.
The second issue that I have is that if we try to explain how these things work - the material mechanism behind it (placebo effect again) - then those functions lose their power. Maybe it would be better if we just left it alone and didn't try to understand too much. But then I'd be out of the job, so to hell with that.
Lastly, it seems to me that those people who are more suceptible to psychosomatic healing would also be more suceptible to psychosomatic harm. There are many cases of dark shamans, witches, etc. causing ill health, mental problems or even death through the same methods they would use to heal. And anyone who knows a hypochondriac, is aware that they are anything but well adapted to their environment. It seems to me that these oposing actions would cancel eachother out, and make the overall effect on evolution negligable or non-existent. I think more research needs to be done on both sides.

The class, in general, has been fascinating, and has raised a lot of interesting and important questions. I hope some of you will chime in with your thoughts on any or all of these issues. I'll probably post more later on as we get into the topic of "Modern Shamanism," but I'll leave that one for another time.
One last thing I'd like to mention is that all of these books that we've read so far have taken an operational and positivist approach to the explanation of shamanism and related phenomena. No matter how hard they try to be open minded and relativistic, they all try to find some explanation for how things work that doesn't include spirits or gods or any of the explanations that the practitioners themselves would use to explain it (Lewis-Williams, in particular, repeatedly criticizes other theorists for using a characteristically Western perspective to explain things, while he goes on to explain all rock art in terms of neurology). Only one of our books avoids this trap - The World We Used to Live in by Vine Deloria Jr. This was Deloria's last book, and is a collection of accounts of the feats of Native American medicine men. Deloria was always critical of Western science, and in this book he uses only the explanations provided by the practioners themselves, as ridiculous as they may sound to our Western ears. But who's to say that they don't have it right? Who's to say that our explanations are any better? Maybe we could learn a thing or two from them, instead of trying to show them the "real truth."

This is a list of all of the books that we're reading for this class. I thought some of you might be interested in looking at them, and reading them for yourselves.
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade
Black Elk Speaks by Black Elk and John Neihardt
The World We Used to Live In by Vine Deloria Jr.
Dark Shamans by Neil L. Whitehead
The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams
Wondrous Healing by James McClenon
Shamans and Religion by Alice Beck Kehoe
The Archaeology of Shamanism by Neil Price
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