CONFLICTING PERSPECTIVES ON SHAMANS AND SHAMANISM: POINTS AND COUNTERPOINTS
Abstract: Shamans work on behalf of their community and are given a privileged status to attend to that community’s psychological and spiritual needs. These practitioners claim to modify their attentional states and engage in activities that enable them to access information not ordinarily attainable by members of the social group that has given them shamanic status. Western perspectives on shamanism have changed and have clashed over the centuries, and this paper presents several points and counterpoints regarding what might be termed the Demonic Model, the Charlatan Model, the Schizophrenia Model, the Soul Flight Model, the Degenerative and Crude Technology Model, and the Deconstructionist Model. It seems apparent that Western interpretations of shamanism often reveal more about the observer than they do about the observed, and that the construction of a psychology of shamanism needs to address this challenge.
Recent developments in qualitative research and the innovative use of conventional investigative methods, have provided the tools to bring both rigor and creativity to the disciplined examination of shamans, their behavior and experiences. In reviewing Western psychological perspectives on shamans, several conflicting perspectives are apparent. These controversies are the focus of this essay.
Psychology can be defined as the disciplined study of behavior and experience. The term "shaman" is a social construct that describes a particular type of practitioner who attends to the psychological and spiritual needs of a community that has given him or her privileged status. These practitioners claim to engage in specialized activities enabling them to access valuable information that is not ordinarily available to other members of their community (Krippner, 2000). Hence, shamanism can be described as a body of techniques and activities that supposedly enable practitioners to access information not ordinarily attainable by members of the social group that gave them privileged status. These practitioners use this information in attempts to meet the needs of this group and its members.
Contemporary shamanic practitioners exist at the band, nomadic-pastoral, horticultural-agricultural, and state levels of societies. There are many types of shamans. For example, among the Cuna Indians of Panama, the abisua shaman heals by singing, the inaduledi specializes in herbal cures, and the nele focuses on diagnosis.
Shamanic Roles Winkelman's (1992) seminal cross-cultural study focused on 47 societies’ magico-religious practitioners, who interact with non-ordinary dimensions of human existence. This interaction involves special knowledge of purported spirit entities and how to relate to them, as well as special powers that supposedly allow these practitioners to influence the course of nature or human affairs. Winkelman coded each type of practitioner separately on such characteristics as the type of magical or religious activity performed, the technology employed, the mind-altering procedures used (if any), the practitioner's cosmology and worldview, each practitioner's perceived power, psychological characteristics, socioeconomic status, and political role.
Winkelman’s statistical analysis yielded four practitioner groups: (1) the shaman complex (shamans, shaman-healers, and healers); (2) priests and priestesses; (3) diviners, seers, and mediums; (4) malevolent practitioners (witches and sorcerers). Shamans were most often present at the band level. Priests and priestesses were most present in horticultural/agricultural communities and diviners and sorcerers were observed in state-level societies.
Most diviners report that they are conduits for a spirits' power, and claim not to exercise personal volition once they "incorporate" (or are "possessed by") these spirit entities. When shamans interact with spirits they are almost always dominant; if the shamans suspend volition, it is only temporary. For example, volition is surrendered during some Native American ritual dances when there is an intense perceptual "flooding." Nonetheless, shamans purportedly know how to enter and exit this type of intense experience (Winkelman, 2000). Shamanic Selection and Training Shamans enter their profession in a number of ways, depending on the traditions of their community. Some shamans inherit the role (Larsen, 1976, p.59). Others may display particular bodily signs, behaviors, or experiences that might constitute a call to shamanize (Heinze, 1991, pp. 146-156). In some cases, the call arrives late in life, giving meritorious individuals opportunities to continue their civil service. Or, an individuals’ training may begin at birth. The training mentor may be an experienced shaman or a spirit entity. The skills to be learned vary, but usually include diagnosis and treatment of illness, contacting and working with benevolent spirit entities, appeasing or fighting malevolent spirit entities, supervising sacred rituals, interpreting dreams, assimilating herbal knowledge, predicting the weather, and/or mastering the self-regulation of bodily functions and attentional states.
The “Demonic” Model
Point The European states that sent explorers to the Western Hemisphere were, for the most part, the states that were executing tens of thousands of putative witches and sorcerers. Torture yielded confessions that they had made pacts with the Devil, had desecrated sacred Christian ceremonies, and had consorted with spirits. Thus, many chroniclers were Christian clergy who described shamans as “Devil worshippers” (Narby & Huxley, 2001, pp. 9-10).
A 16th century account by the Spanish navigator and historian, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1535/2001, pp. 11-12) describes “revered” old men, held in “high esteem,” who used tobacco in order to “worship the Devil” (pp. 11-12). The first person to introduce tobacco to France was a French priest, Andre Thevet (1557/2001). He described a group of “venerable” Brazilian practitioners called the paje, describing them as “witches” who “adore the Devil.” The paje, he wrote, “use certain ceremonies and diabolical invocations” and “invoke the evil spirit” in order to “cure fevers,” determine the answer to “very important” community problems, and learn “the most secret things of nature” (pp. 13-15).
Another French priest, Antoine Biet (1664/2001) observing the rigorous training program undergone by the local doctors or piayes. To Biet, the rigors of 10-year apprenticeship provided the piayes the “power of curing illness,” but only by becoming “true penitents of the Demon” (pp. 16-17). Avvakum Petrovich (1672/2001), a 17th century Russian clergyman, was the first person to use the word “shaman” in a published text, describing one Siberian shaman as “a villain” who calls upon demons (pp. 18-20).
Counterpoint Shamans engage in shamanic rivalries, wars, and duplicity (e.g., Hugh-Jones, 1996, pp. 32-37). Even so, ethical training is a key element of the shaman’s education; according to Harner (1980), shamanism, at its best, has an ethical core (but see Brown, 1989, for a discussion of shamanism’s “dark side”). Walsh’s (1990) study of various shamanic traditions revealed rigorous systems of ethics; “the best of shamanism has long been based on an ethic of compassion and service” (pp. 247-249). Dow (1986) conducted field work with don Antonio, an Otomi Indian shaman in central Mexico, who described his fellow shamans as warriors who must “firmly declare forever an alliance with the forces of good, with God, and then fight to uphold those forces” (p. 8). In addition, shamans must dedicate themselves to ending suffering, even it if requires them to forego their own comfort (p. 39). In Retrospect: Modern social scientists do not accuse shamans of consorting with demons. However, these accusations are still being made by some missionaries (see Hugh-Jones, 1996) as well as by shamans themselves who may accuse rival shamans of using their powers for evil ends (ibid., p. 38).
The “Charlatan” Model
Point Most writers in Western Europe’s “Enlightenment” belittled the notions that shamans communed with otherworldly entities, much less the Devil. Instead, shamans were described as “charlatans,” “imposters,” and “magicians.” These appellations undercut the Inquisition’s justification for torturing shamans, but also kept Western science and philosophy from taking shamanism seriously.
However, Flaherty (1992) notes that Europe in the 18th century was not totally preoccupied with rationalism, humanism, and scientific determinism; manifestations of romanticism and the occult were present as well (p. 7). An example of this ambiguity appears in the writings of Denis Diderot (1765/2001), the first writer to define “shaman” and the chief editor of the Encyclopedie, one of the key works of the French Enlightenment. In his definition, Diderot referred to shamans as Siberian “imposters” who function as magicians performing “tricks that seem supernatural to an ignorant and superstitious people” (p. 32).
According to Diderot, shamans “lock themselves into steamrooms to make themselves sweat,” often after drinking a “special beverage [that they say] is very important to receiving the celestial impressions.” He remarked that shamans “persuade the majority of people that they have ecstatic transports, in which the genies reveal the future and hidden things to them.” Despite their trickery, Diderot concluded, “the supernatural occasionally enters into their operations…, they do not always guess by chance” (pp. 32-37).
The French Jesuit missionary Joseph Lafitau (1724/2001) spent five years living among the Iroquois and Hurons in Canada, reporting that the tribe’s people discriminated between those who communicated with spirits for the good of the community and those who did the same for harmful purposes. Lafitau argued that the latter might be in consort with the Devil, but that demonic agencies played no part in the work of the former, who he referred to as “jugglers” or “magicians.” On the other hand, Lafitau admitted that oftentimes there was something more to these magicians’ practices than trickery, especially when shamans exposed “the secret desires of the soul” (pp. 23-26).
According to Johann Gmelin (1751/2001) an 18th century German explorer of Siberia, the shamanic ceremonies he observed were marked by “humbug,” “hocus-pocus,” “conjuring tricks,” and “infernal racket” (pp. 27-28). A Russian botanist of the same era, Stepan Krasheninnikov (1755/2001) reported to the imperial government that the natives of eastern Siberia harbored beliefs that were “absurd” and “ridiculous.” Krasheninnikov wrote that shamans are “considered doctors,” admitting that they were “cleverer, more adroit and shrewder than the rest of the people.” He described one shaman who “plunged a knife in his belly” but performed the trick “so crudely” that “one could see him slide the knife along his stomach and pretend to stab himself, then squeeze a bladder to make blood come out” (pp. 49-51).
Counterpoint Not all Enlightenment scholars were hostile to shamanism; for example, the German philosopher Johann Herder (1785/2001) noted that “one thinks that one has explained everything by calling them imposters.” Herder continued, “in most places, this is the case,” but “let us never forget that they belong to the people as well and…were conceived and brought up with the imaginary representations of their tribe.” Indeed, “among all the forces of the human soul, imagination is perhaps the least explored.” Imagination seems to be “the knot of the relationships between mind and body” and “relates to the construction of the entire body, and in particular of the brain and nerves—as numerous and astonishing illnesses demonstrate” (pp. 36-37).
There is a small body of parapsychological research conducted with shamans suggesting that, on irregular occasions, some practitioners may be capable of demonstrating unusual abilities (Rogo, 1987; Van de Castle, 1977). These data were collected not only by means of controlled observations, such as having shamans locating hidden objects (Boshier, 1974), but also from experimental procedures such as asking shamans to guess the symbols on standardized card decks (Rose, 1956) or requesting that they influence randomly generated activity at a distance (Giesler, 1986).
As for the use of sleight-of-hand, Hansen (2001) has compiled dozens of examples of shamanic trickery from the anthropological literature, and adds that deception may promote healing (pp. 89-90). Unusual abilities, if they exist, are likely to be unpredictable; trickery may accompany their use, since shamans are prototypical “tricksters” and, like some contemporary psychotherapists, believe that they must often “trick” their clients into become well (e.g. Warner, 1980).
In Retrospect: Shamans operate on the limens, or borders, of both society and consciousness, eluding structures and crossing established boundaries (Hansen, 2001, p. 27). As liminal practitioners, they often employ deception and sleight-of-hand when they feel such practices are needed. Thus, shamans can be both cultural heroes and hoaxsters, alternating between gallant support of those in distress and crass manipulation. Like other tricksters, however, they are capable of reconciling opposites; they justify their adroit maneuvering and use of legerdemain in the cause of promoting individual and community health and well-being (pp. 30-31) .
The “Schizophrenia” Model
Point When mental health professionals first commented on shamanic behavior, it was customary for them use such psychopathological descriptors. The French ethnopsychiatrist George Devereux (1961) concluded that shamans were mentally “deranged,” and should be considered severely neurotic or even psychotic. The American psychiatrist Julian Silverman (1967) postulated that shamanism is a form of acute schizophrenia because the two conditions have in common "grossly non-reality-oriented ideation, abnormal perceptual experiences, profound emotional upheavals, and bizarre mannerisms" (p. 22). According to Silverman, the only difference between shamanic states and contemporary schizophrenia in Western industrialized societies is "the degree of cultural acceptance of the individual's psychological resolution of a life crisis" (p. 23).
Taking a psychohistorical perspective, deMause (2002) proposes that all tribal people “since the Paleolithic…regularly felt themselves breaking into fragmented pieces, switching into dissociated states and going into shamanistic trances to try to put themselves together” (p. 251). DeMause adds that shamans were “schizoids” who spent much of their lives in fantasy worlds where they were starved, burned, beaten, raped, lacerated, and dismembered, yet were able to recover their bones and flesh, experiencing ecstatic rebirths (ibid.). DeMause’s account is reminiscent of the portrayal of shamans as “wounded healers” who have worked their way “through many painful emotional trials to find the basis for their calling” (Sandner, 1997, p. 6) and who have taken an “inner journey…during a life crisis” (Halifax, 1982, p.5). Counterpoint Roger Walsh (2001), an American psychiatrist, has provided a penetrating analysis of shamanic phenomenology, concluding that it is “clearly distinct from schizophrenic…states” (p. 34), especially on such important dimensions as awareness of the environment, concentration, control, sense of identity, arousal, affect, and mental imagery. Critics of the schizophrenia model claim that shamans have been men and women of great talent; Basilov’s (1997) case studies of Turkic shamans in Siberia demonstrate their ability to master a complex vocabulary as well as extensive knowledge concerning herbs, rituals, healing procedures, and the purported spirit world. Sandner (1979) has described the remarkable abilities of the Navajo hatalii; to attain their status, they need to memorize at least ten ceremonial chants, each of which contains hundreds of individual songs.
Noll (1983) compared verbal reports from both schizophrenics and shamans with criteria described in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He reported that important phenomenological differences exist between the two groups, hence the "schizophrenic metaphor" of shamanism is untenable (p. 455). This assertion is supported by personality test data; for example, Boyer, Klopfer, Brawer, and Kawai (1964) administered Rorschach inkblots to 12 male Apache shamans, 52 non-shamans, and 7 "pseudoshamans." Rorschach analysis demonstrated that the shamans showed as high a degree of reality testing potential. The authors concluded, "In their mental approach, the shamans appear less hysterical than the other groups" (p. 176) and were "healthier than their societal co-members.... This finding argues against [the] stand that the shaman is severely neurotic or psychotic, at least insofar as the Apaches are concerned" (p. 179). A study using a different projective technique with 20 Zinacantecan shamans and 23 non-shaman peers in Mexico found few differences between the groups, but the shamans were described as freer and more creative (Fabrega & Silver, 1973).
The first epidemiological survey of psychiatric disorders among shamans was reported in 2002. A research team associated with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization of Amsterdam (Van Ommeren et al., 2002) surveyed a community of 616 male Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and assessed International Classification of Disease disorders through structured diagnostic interviews. Of the refugees, 42 claimed to be shamans; after controlling for demographic differences, their general profile of disorders did not significantly differ from that of the non-shamans. Indeed, shamans had fewer of the general anxiety disorders that afflicted non-shamans.
Wilson and Barber (1981) have identified fantasy-prone personalities among their hypnotic subjects. This group is highly imaginative but, for the most part, neither neurotic nor psychotic (Van Ommeren et al., 2002). It is likely that many shamans would fall within this category, as the shaman's visions and fantasies are thought to represent activities in the spirit world. Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) concludes, “The world of…a mentally dysfunctional individual is disintegrated. On the other hand, just the opposite may be said about a shaman” (p. 104). Along these lines, Frank and Frank (1991) have traced the roots of psychotherapy back to shamanism, and Torrey (1986) asserts that the “cure” rate of shamans and other indigenous practitioners compares favorably with that of Western psychologists and psychiatrists.
In retrospect: Contemporary social scientists rarely pathologize shamans, and when they describe them as “wounded healers” and “fantasy-prone,” these attributions are often combined with admiration, respect, or indifference. Of course, the variety of shamanic selection procedures undercuts these generalizations, especially when shamanism is hereditary and a novice assumes the role even if he or she has never experienced a “wounding” illness. A far greater commonality among shamanic practitioners is the attention they give to resolving the psychological problems and challenges faced by individuals, families, and communities within their purview.
The “Soul Flight” Model
Point The Romanian-American historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1951/1972) integrated the many tribal variations of shamanism into a unified concept, referring to them as “technicians of ecstasy.” According to Eliade, “The shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascent to the sky or descend to the underworld” (p. 5). For many others, ASCs are the sine qua non of shamanism, particularly those involving ecstaticjourneying, i.e., soul flight or out-of-body experience. Heinze (1991) writes, “Only those individuals can be called shamans who can access alternative states of consciousness at will” (p. 13). Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) adds, “Clearly, the shaman’s technique of ecstasy is the main component in the shamanic state of consciousness” (p. 86).
Proponents of the soul flight/ecstatic journeying model point to the close association between rhythmic percussion, journeying and healing. Neher’s (1961) investigations demonstrated that drumming could induce theta wave EEG frequency. Maxfield (1994) built on and extended Neher’s work, finding that theta brain waves were synchronized with monotonous drumbeats of 3-6 cycles per second, a rhythm associated with many shamanic rituals. Harner and Tyron (1996) studied students of shamanism during drumming sessions, observing trends towards enhanced positive mood states and an increase in positive immune response. Bittman et al. (2001) also reported that rhythmic drumming had a salubrious effect upon immune systems.
The term “shamanic state of consciousness” (Harner, 1980) infers that there is a single state that characterizes shamans, even though it can be induced in several different ways. Winkelman's (1992) cross-cultural survey of 47 societies yielded data demonstrating that at least one type of practitioner in each populace engaged in ASC induction by one or/of many vehicles. For Winkelman (2000), each vehicle to the ASC resulted in an “integrative mode” of consciousness. This mode reflects slow wave discharges, producing strongly coherent brainwave patterns that synchronize the frontal areas of the brain, integrating non-verbal information into the frontal cortex, producing visionary experiences and “insight.”
Counterpoint According to its critics, the soul flight model ignores the diversity of shamanic ASCs as well as activity that does not seem to involve dramatic shifts in consciousness. Peters and Price-Williams (1980) compared 42 societies from four different cultural areas, identifying three common elements in shamanic ASCs: voluntary control of the ASC; post-ASC memory of the experience; and the ability to communicate with others during the ASC. Peters and Price-Williams also reported that shamans in 18 out of the 42 societies they surveyed specialized in spirit incorporation, 10 were engaged in out-of-body journeying, 11 in both, and 3 in some different ASC. In other words, there are several “shamanic states of consciousness,” and not all of them employ ecstatic soul flight (Walsh, 1990, p. 214)
The soul flight model also has been criticized by those who deny that profound alterations of consciousness are the defining characteristic of shamanism. Some shamanic traditions do not use terms that easily translate into “alterations” of consciousness. Navaho shamans exhibit prodigious feats of memory in recounting cultural myths, and use sand paintings, drums, and dances in the process, but insist “they need no special trance or ecstatic vision…, only the desire and the patience to learn the vast amount of symbolic material” (Sandner, 1979, p. 242 ).
Berman (2000) suggests that the term heightened awareness more accurately captures shamanic behavior than altered states because shamans’ intense experience of the natural world is described by them in such terms as "things often seem to blaze" (p. 30). Shweder (1972) administered a number of perceptual tests to a group of Zinacateco shamans and non-shamans, asking them, for example, to identify a series of blurred, out-of-focus photographs. Non-shamans were more likely than shamans to respond, “I don’t know.” Shamans were prone to describe the photographs, even when the pictures were completely blurred. When the examiner offered suggestions as to what the image might be, the shamans were more likely than the non-shamans to ignore the suggestion and give their own interpretation.
Paradoxically, shamans are characterized both by an acute perception of their environment and by imaginative fantasy. These traits include the potential for pretending and role-playing, and the capacity to experience the natural world vividly. During times of social stress, these traits may have given prehistoric shamans an edge over peers who had simply embraced life as it presented itself, without the filters of myth or ritual (p. 81).
In retrospect: It may be more appropriate to speak of shamanic modification of attentional states rather than a single shamanic state of consciousness (such as soul flight) as a common hallmark of shamanic practice. The suppression of seances, spirit dances, and drumming rituals by colonial governments and missionaries led to the decline of altered states induction in some parts of the world (e.g., Hugh-Jones, 1996, p. 70; Taussig, 1987, pp. 93-104). More basic to shamanism may be a unique perception of the relations between human beings, their own bodies, and the natural world--and the shamans’ willingness to share this knowledge with others (Perrin, 1992, pp. 122-123.)
The “Decadent and Crude Technology” Model
Point The American transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber (1981) divides what he calls “higher states of consciousness” into several categories. His hierarchy starts with the “subtle” (with and without iconography); proceeds to the “causal” (experienced as “pure consciousness” or “the void”), and the “absolute” (the experience of consciousnesses “true nature”). He takes the position that consciousness not only unfolds during the life-span of an individual, but during the evolution of humanity, with a select number of individuals attaining the “farthest reaches” of that development (p. 141).
Wilber grants that shamans were the first practitioners to systematically access “higher states,” but only at the “subtle states” level because their technology was “crude” (p. 142). He speculates that an occasional shaman might have broken into the “causal” realm, but insists that “causal” and “absolute” states could not be systematically attained until the emergence of the meditative traditions. Wilber places shamanism at the fifth level of an eight-level spectrum.
Wilber supports his position by using examples from Eliade’s book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, calling it “the definitive study of the subject” (p. 70). Eliade’s (1951/1972) position was that “shamanism is found within a considerable number of religions, for shamanism always remains an ecstatic technique” (p. 8). However, Eliade constructs a hierarchy of his own, taking the position that the use of mind-altering plants was a degenerate way to obtain visionary experiences. According to Eliade, those states attained “with the help of narcotics” are not “real trances” but “semi-trances” (p. 24). Eliade continues, “The use of narcotics is, rather, indicative of the decadence of a technique of ecstasy or of its extension to ‘lower’ peoples or social groups” (p. 477).
Counterpoint Walsh (1990) accepts the validity of Wilber’s categories, but retorts that shamanism is an oral tradition. If they experienced states higher than those at the “subtle level,” their accounts may have been lost to subsequent generations (p. 240). In addition, unitive experiences, such as those described by Wilber, were not a priority of shamans whose efforts were directed toward community service (Krippner, 2000, p. 111; Walsh, 1990, p. 240).
Brown and Engler (1986) administered Rorschach Inkblots to practitioners of mindful meditation, discovering that their responses illustrated their stages of meditative development, reflecting “the perceptual changes that occur with intense meditation” (p. 193). One Rorschach protocol was unique in that it integrated all 10 inkblots into a single associative theme (p. 191). However, Klopfer and Boyer (1961) had obtained a similar protocol from an Apache shaman who used the inkblots to teach the examiner about his lived worldview and his ecstatic flights through the universe. Brown and Engler (1986) suggested that this may have been a response that, regardless of the spiritual tradition, points “a way for others to ‘see’ reality more clearly in such a way that it alleviates their suffering” (p. 214). Shamans’ attempts to alleviate the suffering of their communities, and what Wilber calls their “crude” technology might be exceptionally well suited for this task (Krippner, 2000, p. 111).
Wilber (1981) makes sweeping generalizations about shamanism, not recognizing the many varieties of shamanic experience. For example, he identifies “the classic symbolism of shamanism” as the bird (p. 70), although in some shamanic societies, the deer or the bear is the central totem (Ripinsky-Naxon, 1993). He claims that the “true” shamanic experience involves “a severe crisis” (pp. 73-74), although there are accounts of shamanic callings that do not involve catastrophes. Indeed, the shamanic “crisis” could be a political strategy that limits the number of contenders for the shamanic role (Krippner, 2000, p. 111).
As for Eliade’s charge that the use of mind-altering drugs represents “degenerate” forms of shamanism, Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) responds that “Eliade failed to recognize the critical role of hallucinogens in shamanistic techniques” (p. 103). The archeological evidence indicates that mind-altering substances date back to pre-Neolithic times, rather than being a later, “degenerate” addition to shamanic practices (p. 153).
In Retrospect: After surveying the cross-cultural research data, Coan (1987) warned, “It would be a mistake to assume that shamanism represents just one stage either in the evolution of human society or in the evolution of human consciousness” (p. 62). Wilber’s relegation of shamans to the “subtle” level of his “high states” hierarchy virtually ignores the role played by shamans in their community. Such descriptors as “crude” and “degenerate” ignore the “cultivation of wisdom” that has long been a hallmark of shamanism (Walsh, 1990, p. 248).
The Deconstructionist Model
Point Deconstructionism is a central strand in the intellectual movement known as “postmodernism,” which challenges the “modern” notions of rationality and objective reality. Postmodern scholarship, according to Gergen (2001), “poses significant challenges to pivotal assumptions of individual knowledge, objectivity, and truth. In their place, an emphasis is placed on the communal construction of knowledge, objectivity as a relational achievement, and language as a pragmatic medium through which local truths are constituted” (p. 803).
Deconstructionism had its roots in literary criticism, but its influence expanded as members of other disciplines attempted to show that words are ambiguous, and can not be trusted as straightforward, dependable representations of “reality” or of “something out there.” George Hansen (2001), the American parapsychologist and magician, identifies deconstruction as a key shamanic role: shamans break down categories and confound boundaries, especially those “between worlds” and specialize in ambiguity. “Trickster tales” are an example of how language can employ double meanings and paradox to provide instruction to their listeners (Babcock-Abrahams, 1975).
Deconstructionists maintain that polarities and privileged positions are simply arbitrary human constructions, thus calling the notion of “objective reality” into question (Hansen, 2001, p. 64). By consorting with spirits, shamans deconstruct the polarity of life and death. By breaking taboos to obtain magical power, shamans challenge authority. Upon returning from their “journeys,” shamans describe strange dimensions of “reality,” thus confounding their community’s sense of what is “real.” Reichel-Dolmatoff (1975/2001) observes that shamans mediate “between superterrestrial forces and society” (p. 217).
A shaman’s status depends on the complexity or his or her society. Winkelman (1992) found that shamans hold high status in bands, but their status drops in agricultural states. Eventually, they are denigrated as “psychotic,” “epileptic,” or “deviant,” especially when Western rationality becomes the dominant paradigm (Hansen, 2001, p. 101). Writing about Siberian shamans, and their persecution by both church and state, Hamayon (1996) concludes that they are “simultaneously adaptive and vulnerable” (p. 76); “there is an absence of shamanistic clergy, doctrine, dogma, church, and so forth” (p. 77).
Deconstructionism is no longer limited to literary texts, but is often employed to describe the impact of politically and financially powerful groups on societies’ priorities and worldviews. Deconstructionism is used by Hansen to describe how power is applied, both by shamans and against shamans. Shamans speak of power places and power objects, and their quest for power is carried out in service of the community, usually in public rituals (Langdon, 1992, p. 14). Once shamans are relegated to the fringes of society, they become the victims of people and institutions operating under different paradigms. They may find support in communities that also have been marginalized. These shamans, in the tradition of deconstructionism, then challenge “privileged” authority, hierarchies, and structures.
Brown (1989/2001) has provided an example of the shaman as deconstructionist in his description of “Yankush,” a pseudonym for a prominent shaman among the Aguaruna of northeastern Peru. Yankush specialized in treating victims of sorcery. Brown notes, “Shaman and sorcerer might seem locked in a simple struggle of good against evil, order against chaos, but things are not so straightforward. Shamans and sorcerers gain their power from the same source” (p. 252).
Brown continues, “The ambiguities of the shaman’s role were brought home to me during a healing session I attended in Yankush’s house” (p. 253). The clients were two women, both apparent victims of sorcerers’ darts. Yankush waited until evening (an example of blurring boundaries, in this case between night and day), and drank ayahuasca, an herbal concoction, just before sunset. “As Yankush’s intoxication increased…, he sucked noisily on the patients’ bodies in an effort to remove the darts” (p. 253). Suddenly, a woman called out, “If there are any darts there when she gets back home, they may say that Yankush put them there. So take them all out!” Brown writes, this “statement was an unusually blunt rendering of an ambivalence implicit in all relations between Aguaruna shamans and their clients…. If…results are not forthcoming, the shaman himself may be suspected of, and punished for, sorcery” (p. 254). Finally, the participants left Yankush’s house, expressing their contentment with the results of his effort (p. 255). This account is marked by a dissolution of boundaries (drinking a mind-altering brew at sunset) and by ambivalence (doubts regarding the shaman’s competence), both hallmarks of deconstructionism.
Another example is provided by Townsley (1993/2001), who explored the epistemology of the Yaminahua, a people living in the Peruvian Amazon, decoding the secret language used by its shamans. In the spirit world referred to in the songs of this language; “everything…is marked by an extreme ambiguity” (p. 264). This language “is made up of metaphoric circumlocutions or unusual words for common things which are either archaic or borrowed from neighboring languages…. They also create new songs and invent fresh metaphors” (p. 268). “The important thing, emphasized by all shamans, is that none of the things referred to in the song should be referred to by their proper names” (p. 269). Hence, this deconstructionist model returns to its original emphasis on language.
Counterpoint As Hansen (2001) notes, there have been many “furious denunciations” and “frantic utterings” deconstructionism and other aspects of postmodern thought (p. 27). Gross and Levitt (1998) agree with Hansen that postmodernists are imbued with “non-Western” modes of thought, but conclude that this posture leads to higher superstition instead of to insight. They admit that Western science has been “culturally constructed”; that its projects “reflect the interests, beliefs, and even the prejudices of the ambient culture”(p. 43); and that “no serious thinker about science, least of all scientists themselves, doubt that personal and social factors influence…the acceptance of results by the scientific community” (p. 139). Nevertheless, they use the term “shaman” derisively each time it is mentioned in their 1998 book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science.
Is shamanic thought incompatible with Western rationality as Hansen suggests? Hubbard (2002), after evaluating the issue from the perspective of cognitive psychology, concludes that "conceptual structures underlying shamanism may result from the same types of cognitive processes and the same cognitive constraints (e.g., properties of mental representation) also experienced by non-shamans and by scientists.” Hubbard continues, “Shamanic thought thus would not reflect regressive or psychotic tendencies, but would instead reflect normative cognitive functioning" (p. 136).
Physicaldeconstruction is evident in many of the dreams and visions in which some shamanic initiates report being torn apart and dismembered. However, Hansen neglects the next step in the process: for the prospective shaman, this deconstructive procedure is eventually followed by a reconstruction of bones and flesh, during which there is an ecstatic rebirth. In a similar way, shamans often reconstruct a shattered psyche. Pansy Hawk Wing (1997), a Lakota medicine woman, describes the Yuwipi ceremony in which a practitioner intercedes between community members and spirit entities in order to “pull together all the various parts of the whole” (p. 199).
The American anthropologist Jean Langdon (1992) writes that power is the key concept that links shamanic systems, enabling shamans to mediate between “the human and the extrahuman” (p. 13). Langdon grants that shamans have an “ambiguous position in society” because they may employ power in negative ways, especially when they direct it against enemies outside of their social group. Nevertheless, shamanic power is usually manifested “in public ritual for the benefit of the community or for individuals” (p. 14).
In Retrospect: Conflicts between shamans and proponents of organized religion can be seen as a struggle between deconstructionists and “privileged” authority. Those writers who call shamanism a “religion” ignore the fact that there are Buddhist shamans, Christian shamans, Muslim shamans, pagan shamans, etc. Shamans are of great interest for many postmodernist writers because they represent the “marginalized other.” More often than not, they engage in trickery; shamans improvise and engage in unpredictable behavior, they embrace the fluidity of different planes of human existence, and their sexuality may be ambiguous. In their efforts to share esoteric knowledge with their community, it is essential that shamans deconstruct order, especially if a person’s or a community’s rigidity and inflexibility have blocked adaptation and growth. Nevertheless, shamans must eventually assemble what has been disassembled, reconstructing what has been deconstructed, if they are to be of service to their community.
Shamans appear to have been humankind's first psychotherapists, first physicians, first magicians, first performing artists, first storytellers, and even the first timekeepers and weather forecasters. Dow (1986) proposes that shamans represent not only the oldest profession but are “the world’s most versatile specialists” (p. 6). This review of controversies regarding shamans and shamanism indicates that Western interpretations typically reveal more about the observer than they do about the observed, and that the construction of a psychology of shamanism needs to address this challenge.
Referring to shamanism, Walsh (1990, pp. 257-258) remarks, “people’s interpretations of the phenomena will be largely determined by their personal beliefs, philosophy, and ‘world hypothesis’.” This world hypothesis or “personal mythology” (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988) consists of the fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world and reality that underlie one’s life and work. Most people simply take the consensual assumptions of their culture and subculture unquestioningly and interpret the world accordingly (Walsh, 1990, pp. 257-258).
Information concerning world hypotheses and personal mythologies could predict the stance individuals and groups will take when confronted with shamans or shamanic phenomena. These phenomena are multi-layered and can be interpreted from various perspectives. Unfortunately, as Walsh (1990) points out in his discussion of shamanism, “at the present time, psychological studies are almost non-existent” (p. 270). Nevertheless, a psychology of shamanism would have something to offer cognitive psychologists, cultural and cross-cultural psychologists, developmental psychologists, health psychologists, humanistic psychologists, perceptual psychologists, personality psychologists, neuropsychologists, parapsychologists, postmodern psychologists, psychohistorians, psychotherapists, psychological anthropologists, social psychologists, transpersonal psychologists, and ecopsychologists.
Writing from an ecopsychological perspective, Metzner proposes that “healing the planet” is basically a shamanic journey (1999, pp. 165-167); if so, the psychology of shamanism can play a vital role in this endeavor. After reviewing the points and counterpoints on this topic, Narby and Huxley (2001) conclude, “Even after five hundred years of reports on shamanism, its core remains a mystery. One thing that has changed…, however, is the gaze of the observers. It has opened up. And understanding is starting to flower” (p. 8).
But while shamanism is becoming faddish in the West, indigenous shamans are becoming increasingly endangered (Walsh, 1990, p. 267). It is crucial to learn what shamanism has to offer the social and behavioral sciences before archival research in libraries replaces field research as the best available method for investigating these prototypical psychologists.
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