Lecture Three: Shamanism 3.3

3.3 Shamanic communities


Shamanism has attracted increased scholarly attention, especially from those working in the fields of religious studies and anthropology. On the one hand, practices and forms of life that can be associated with shamanism seem to exist worldwide and can be dated back to an immemorial time (as we shall see below). On the other hand, the study of shamanism is made tricky by the need to do justice to local variations and idiosyncrasies, which sometimes defy the very idea of studying shamanism as a single unified phenomenon. Moreover, shamanic traditions often rely on bodies of knowledge that are difficult to access or retrieve, because they are deeply embedded in oral traditions (which might be discontinuous), and the material culture they produce is difficult to interpret without first-hand cultural coordinates provided by their living context. For present purposes, we do not need to get into the details of this fascinating debate, nor do we need to see shamanism as a completely universal and unified phenomenon. Here, it is sufficient to acknowledge, as most scholars would do, that it constitutes a sufficiently robust and well-instantiated phenomenon—and is therefore an object of study in its own right.

Most often, shamanism is associated with at least four core features, that can receive various declensions depending on time, space and circumstances: (i) a strong embedding of shamanic practices within the life of a community, (ii) a publicly shared cosmological view among members of that community, (iii) specific forms of recruitment of the shaman, including subsequent training and mastery of techniques, and (iv) the use of these techniques in contexts like healing, divination, and the resolution of conflicts.

The word ‘shamanism’ draws attention to the role of one single individual, the shaman, who operates within a certain community. This emphasis on the shaman him or herself, though, can be misleading, since a core aspect of shamanic culture is the strong symbiosis between the community and its worldview and the enactment of a certain shamanic role by a particular individual at a particular time. While shamans are key actors, shamanism is best seen as a way in which whole communities structure and understand their own identity and the identity of their members, even if most of them are not practicing shamans themselves. To explore this phenomenon further, a good guide is provided by Thomas DuBois’ Introduction to Shamanism (2009), which offers a balanced synthesis of most of the current research in the field.

Shamanism is often associated with small-scale societies, which can be semi-nomadic and based on hunting and gathering, or can also practice forms of subsistence farming and agriculture. In these societies, the role of shamans is particularly prominent in the domains of healing, divination and conflict resolution. To understand this role, it is necessary to first appreciate the sort of cosmology that is usually endorsed by these communities and how the shaman fits it. As DuBois summarizes:

Although these cosmologies – and many others described for other shamanic traditions of the world – vary considerably in detail, certain commonalities are nonetheless evident. Unseen worlds are multiple, and become known to the human community through shamanic revelation. Shamans rely on spirit guides for assistance in traveling to one or more of these known worlds but often cannot travel to all the worlds known. The cosmologies often pay particular attention to the dead: there are often one or more locales for the spirits of the dead, and the dead must travel there on pathways known to shamans and their spirit guides. In hunting cultures as remote from each other as Inuit and Yagua, there are often deities of the hunt, who require some sort of placation or offering in exchange for hunting success. This, too, often becomes a task for a shaman. In terms of geography, the multiple worlds of the cosmos are often described as vertical in array, but spirits travel horizontally across the worlds as well. The primordial first shaman is often recalled as a key figure in the cosmos, and may live in his own abode, described as remote from the world of the living. (DuBois 2009, 50)

A key, recurrent feature of this cosmological view is what scholarship often describes in terms of ‘spirits.’ Spirits are associated with human beings, animals, plants, natural elements and phenomena. Spirits show agency and can become interlocutors, meaning that communication with them is possible. For this reason, spirits are treated as persons, partners with whom humans need to get in touch and establish a fruitful relation. Even within one single human being, often multiple spirits are acknowledged, and the fact that some of them might depart or be stolen is one recurrent aetiology for illness and disease. Spirits are also weakly embodied, in the sense that human spirits can depart from a human body and still be considered alive in their own way, and there are in fact non-human spirits that do not exist in the human world in an embodied form. Spirit worlds are thus posited as further regions of the cosmos in which spirits exist and exercise their agency. The basic scheme is tripartite: the human realm is in the middle, and (at least) two other realms are posited above and below. These spiritual realms can (but not necessarily do) acquire moral overtones, so that spirits living there are of a particular moral constitution (bad or good) or experience a particular form of existence (blessed or doomed). Despite this cosmological hierarchy, spirits can freely travel throughout the cosmos and exercise their agency in all regions. Human life (both at the community and at the individual level) can be supported or disrupted by spirits acting in this way. Members of a community usually retain a particularly strong tie with the spirits of their ancestors, who can act as guides or protectors. For present purposes, we might understand this talk about spirits as a talk about weakly embodied agents as described in the communitarian model of agency introduced above.

Ordinarily, spirits are undetectable to human beings, although their presence can be discerned by examining and interpreting certain effects or events. The invisibility of spirits can itself be understood in broader metaphorical terms, as an impossibility to communicate and establish a relation of mutual recognition between an ordinary human being and a spirit. This barrier of incommunicability is precisely what is overcome by the shaman, who acts as the community’s medium, or the bridge between the ordinary and spirit worlds. Notice that the ordinary world is not a world devoid of spirits, but rather a world in which communication with the spirits acting within it is blocked. The shaman’s task is that of removing this blockage. As DuBois explains:

the cosmos which shamans describe tends towards both spatial and spiritual differentiation. Human beings find themselves in a mysterious web of seen and unseen forces. Frail and limited figures in themselves, they are set in largely unconscious relation to a vast array of powerful sentient beings who hold the keys to success or failure in their lives. Amid this complex and threatening world, the shaman emerges as a crucial mediating figure. Human in current essence, but on speaking terms with the spirit world(s) to which the shaman has occasional and possibly (after death) permanent access, the shaman bridges the gulf between the visible and invisible, the generally known and the largely unknown. Traversing realms unfamiliar to any but other specialists in the trade, the shaman performs tasks for the good of clients or the community at large: negotiating or effecting cures, divining the future, leading the souls of the dead to their proper afterlife destinations, securing luck or misfortune for individuals or their enemies. Set apart from other people by these mediating activities performed at the edge of the human community and the threshold of the spirit world, the shaman can easily experience a sense of alienation from both human and spirit realms. Yet often, by acting as a bridge between these worlds and interlocutors, the shaman instead becomes central: an esteemed (if not also feared) prime mover in securing the needs of clients and ensuring the wellbeing of the greater community, both human and spiritual. (DuBois 2009, 82)

The mediating role of the shaman fulfils a community need. Indeed, a crucial need, given the way the community understands itself and its functioning within its environment. The shaman’s role as a bridge between spirit worlds (namely, the various domains of agency in our model) witnesses the community’s struggle for domesticating alien forms of agency.

This point can be better appreciated by considering that being a shaman is itself a community-constructed role, and something that is otherwise inconceivable.[1] Individuals who become shamans are usually co-opted in this role through a specific initiation procedure. Traditionally, a would be shaman receives a calling from a spirit or has some other kind of profound encounter with the spirit world. Often, the call happens in the context of a life crisis or a severe illness or life-threatening situation. This frequently occurs in adolescence. Shamanic initiation is sometimes kept within a family lineage in which the role is passed from one generation to the next, although in various cultures there is also room for individual initiative (both in deliberately seeking a shamanic call, and in declining one). In all cases, though, the spirit call must be complemented by societal approval, which often takes the form of explicit training of the new adept under the supervision of a senior shaman.

A very recurrent element in many traditions concerns a form of initiatory death and rebirth. During the crisis, the would be shaman is in a condition of profound suffering, due to external circumstances, physical illness, or mental discomfort. This is usually associated with forms of withdrawal from communal life, solitude, isolation, and other introverted behaviours. Such a crisis can be understood as a marked form of disharmony, which threatens the very nature and survival of the self. In this condition, the would be shaman receives a visit from a spirit, who will usually become his or her spirit helper, namely, the guide who will train the shaman and help him or her in their future career.

The encounter with the spirit helper can take various forms, from dreams to episodes of possession. Part of the initiatory process consists in the adept learning how to master and control the relationship with the spirit, how to establish a communication with it, and negotiate a form of partnership. In this new condition, the spirit will support the future shaman in their tasks, and the shaman will remain devoted and subordinated to the spirit. Domestication cannot be phrased in terms of a rigid dichotomy between activity and passivity, since the shaman is empowered by and in control of the spirit, but also dependent on it and on its support. Again, the relationship with a loyal trained animal might capture the sort of relationship that will link the shaman with the spirit helper (who often manifests in an animal form). In the process of establishing this relationship, though, the would be shaman undergoes an experience of death and rebirth, which is often described in terms of body disaggregation and regeneration. The adept might experience their own body being destroyed, and new bodily parts provided by spirits, so that the new shaman body will be essentially different, regenerated, and more apt to perform shamanic duties.[2]

The way in which the would be shaman interprets their crisis, and the way they go through it and receive further training by senior shamans, is entirely predicated on having taken on board since the beginning the sort of cosmological view described above. That view is already shared and presupposed within the community and determines how their members interpret their crisis. Even those members who do not experience any particular shamanic call or special powers believe in a world actively shaped by spirits (agents) and in need of keeping good relationship with them. Falling short of establishing this relation is regarded as the basic cause for illness and misfortune, both at the personal and at the communal level. This same view also entails that some individual will provide the community with a suitable bridge towards the spirit world, namely, with a shaman. Who is going to play this role depends on circumstances, but the fact that the role will be filled is something expected and required. The process of initiation, co-optation, and training is thus a way for the community to enact a fundamental component of its founding worldview.

DuBois comments:

singular in spiritual experience and yet highly social in professional function and career, the shaman depends upon the ambient family, clan, or community as strongly as the community depends on the shaman. Recourse to supernatural assistance is a resource of tremendous value to a community, particularly one with a small number of members, great dependency on the vagaries of hunting, fishing, and gathering, and limited means of addressing serious treats like disease or misfortune. In this context, the shaman often plays a central role and is accorded prestige, or perhaps fear, in recognition of this fact. Although shamans may describe their callings first and foremost through reference to spiritual interlocutors, it is often their human communities which spell the success or frustration of a shamanic career. For the shaman cannot mediate between the supernatural and human if the human community does not deign to participate in the act. […] It is poignant to recognize the fragility of a shamanic calling that, on the one hand, seems to offer nearly unlimited recourse to supernatural aid but which, on the other hand, may be foiled by the skepticism, hostility, or dismissal of a decidedly human community. The shaman of traditional shamanism is an intensely social being, on serving a community whose interests ultimately animate both the shaman and the spirit world. (DuBois 2009, 105-106)

The shaman and their community exist in symbiosis. During the training phase, the adept learns the repository of wisdom, knowledge, and know-how accumulated by previous generations of shamans and passed on by the teacher. The adept can thus expand and innovate on this received body of knowledge, but they will also preserve it, eventually passing it on to new generations. During their career, shamans will often rely on human assistants (not infrequently a close kin), and their community will be able to judge their performance (which is always a public event), exercising a normative pressure concerning what is expected from the shaman, and how good or badly they fulfil this expectation. Not infrequently, different shamans can compete with one another, and the community will act as a judge.

  1. In today’s neo-shamanism, the strong community embedding that is witnessed in traditional shamanism around the world seems to be less prominent. While potentially interesting, this topic falls outside the scope of this present discussion. For a summary, see DuBois 2009, 264-290.
  2. For historical details about initiatory practices, especially among Eurasian and Siberian shamanic cultures, see the classic study by Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964, first French edition 1951), chapters 1-4. For a more succinct discussion, see DuBois 2009, chapter 5.


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