TRANSFORMATIONS OF SHAMANISM
Over the last decades, the question of shamanism has become not only a subject of academic research but also a mode for new-age practices aiming at a collective change to save the earth from utter destruction. This has led to a kind of split between a scholarly discourse about a merely social phenomenon from a safe distance and a half-psychedelic, half-ecologically-minded impulse to fuse with Shamanic practices without much reflection. Santiago López-Pavillard, a heterodox anthropologist who combines scholarly knowledge and experience in local contexts, attempts to introduce another point of view, as well as a variation in terminology to approach this phenomenon and shed further light on it.
In order to fully understand what is transformed – or not – in shamanism, we need to have a clear idea of what we are talking about when we use the concept of ‘shamanism’. In the Western culture1, one can get an inkling of the true nature of what a shaman does if a plurality of states of consciousness is acknowledged in the first place. One of the pioneering authors who wrote about this subject is William James. In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he states the following: “One conclusion is […]that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded”2. Experimental insights into non-ordinary states of consciousness became widely known in the 1960s; their point of departure was the discovery of LSD in 1943 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. This and some other substances, pharmacologically known as ‘hallucinogenic’, are characterized by absence of organic toxicity and by the fact that they do not generate any kind of dependence3. In 1966, psychiatrist Arnold M. Ludwig4 coined the expression ‘altered state of consciousness’, not to refer to a mental pathology, but rather to a faculty inherent in every human being. Seven years later, in her book Religion, Altered States of Consciouness and Social Change, anthropologist Erika Bourguignon5 showed that, from 488 analyzed societies worldwide, 90% of them have one or more institutionalized forms of ‘altered states of consciousness’. This means, among other things, that we are not simply faced with an anthropological curiosity or an esoteric trend, but with a serious anthropological matter6.
How can the Western reception of a substance of such powerful effects as those of LSD be described? The substance was discovered in a pharmaceutical laboratory and introduced in our society without previous cultural knowledge as to the possible ways of dealing with its effect and integrating the experience. The result was the mechanical application of the epithets ‘hallucinogenic’ and ‘psychedelic’. In those years, an interdisciplinary team of botanists, ethnomicologists, chemists and (very few) anthropologists such as Richard Evans Shultes, Robert Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Weston La Barre began to provide substantial evidence of a generalized use of different psychoactive substances in traditional ceremonies of the American continent. Little by little, forms of knowledge of considerable antiquity became known in the scientific world. Such knowledge forms were related to the use of psychoactive substances as well as the role – up to that point unknown in the West – of shamans in dealing with altered states of consciousness, also described as ‘visionary states’7.
Edith Turner was one of the first anthropologists who questioned her colleagues prejudices in studying spiritual practices of non-Western peoples. She called their attitude ‘intellectual imperialism’ or ‘religious frigidness’.
The use of substances such as different types of mushrooms, cactuses like Peyote or San Pedro as well as beverages or brews prepared through a combination of different plants (such as Ayahuasca), left no doubt whatsoever – in a similar way as LSD and psilocybin – of the existence of trance-like states and their central role in shamanic practice, as Mircea Eliade had already indicated in his famous book Le chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l’extase (1951)8. In the West, the dominant reception of shamanic practices and trance has been dominated by a symbolic interpretation9. Edith Turner was one of the first anthropologists who questioned her colleagues prejudices in studying spiritual practices of non-Western peoples, for example their resistance to accept the statements of native informants when they spoke about the presence of spirits during the ceremonies in which ethnologists took part. Turner called such attitude ‘intellectual imperialism’ or ‘religious frigidness’; it leads anthropologists to treat phenomena associated with the world of spirits as something unreal10. Fortunately, the discipline of anthropology has known profound theoretical changes in the last years and introduced, in its mainstream debates, the so-called ‘ontological’ and ‘decolonial’ turns. This has enabled me to justify, in my study of shamanic practices, the application of a method that I call ‘radical participation’. My field work was focused on shamanic practices of the type practiced in High Amazonia around ayahuasca and tobacco. I conducted this field work mainly in the Amazonian context (Peru) and the reception field in Spain, and to a lesser extent in Ecuador and in Brazil. This method consists in attempting to experiment the same thing as the shaman at work, and trying to grasp it from within11. Bearing in mind the results of this experiential – that is, immediate and personal – understanding of my object of study, I propose a reconceptualization of the habitual notions that surround the subject of shamanism as well as a terminological distinction between the shaman’s activity, which I will call ‘shamanhood’, and its collective or social manifestation, which I will call ‘shamanism’. To refer to both fields, I will use the term ‘shamanic practice’.
Shamans and Shamanhood
In the Western context, the term ‘shaman’ was introduced by the first Russians who came into contact with Tungusic peoples in the XVII century. Its similarity with the Manchu term ‘saman’ contributed to the term being generalized to designate a specialist dealing with spirits12. In this sense, I employ the term ‘shaman’ as an analytical category to designate those persons who have the ability to interact with the world of spirits, forces or energies, and to mediate between that world and a human group. Since Western culture in general considers that there is only one operative state of consciousness (the waking state), the shaman’s activity is taken as the manifestation of a type of belief. For this reason, it is significant to observe that the etymology of the term ‘shaman’ – like that of many other words used locally to designate that specific type of persons in different parts of the world – is ‘the person who knows’13. What do shamans know? Basically, they know how to channel and steer a non-ordinary state of consciousness by means of concrete intentionality14. In order to achieve this, they have to develop their shamanhood, that is, the ability of every human being to become a shaman15.
The concept of ‘shamanhood’ has been proposed by different authors16 in relation to everything shamans do as individuals. It entails their trance, their ontological transformation and ethical orientation, their ability to interact and mediate with the spirits, their knowledge of techniques and of the necessary paraphernalia to carry out the function they assume in the community, etc. The concept of shamanhood has an essentialist, i.e. a transcultural and non-historical character; it refers to a human faculty on a root-level – a rather biological perspective17. The appearance and development of this “gift“ – many times rejected by its very carriers – can be due to an inborn disposition, an initiatic illness that acts as a trigger or the will of the subject. It is interesting to focus on the last aspect and clear up differences existing between the type of spirituality the Western mind (born in the shadow of religion) is familiar with and a spirituality of animistic traits. Any person – Western or non-Western – that wishes to develop his/her shamanhood can attain the capacity to interact with the spirits or energies. As opposed to this, what I call ‘ethical polarity’18, that is, the intentionality that serves as a guiding mediation between the spirits and the human group with whom this person works, is not determined by the will of the subject; it is rather conditioned by a spiritual law that we can call ‘merit’. A person can very well wish to become a healer and end up performing black magic, or vice versa. This is only an example to show that animistic spirituality is no path towards ‘personal growth’ or ‘illumination’19. Shamanhood is in fact the most conscious manifestation of the animistic conception of reality.
Short after the existence of shamans had been discovered, it must have been some traveler or missionary that coined the term ‘shamanism’, and the latter began to be used to describe a set of practices that could hardly be described as ‘religious’20. As an analytical category, ‘shamanism’ poses a problem of definition from the very moment in which it is employed to characterize the practice of an individual (the shaman) as a social fact. This semantic trap21 in which the individual and the collective are mixed up becomes worse with the restrictive definition of Mircea Eliade ‘shamanism = technique of ecstasy’22, in which the notion of shamanism is related to the inborn human faculty of experiencing an altered state of consciousness. For this reason, it is necessary to distinguish between the two spheres, and this specific distinction justifies the use of a term like ‘shamanhood’. ‘Shamanism’, as opposed to ‘shamanhood’, is a concept that refers to a collective phenomenon with its own life as ‘social fact’23; it has therefore a strictly local and historically contingent manifestation. In this sense, it is logical that Jane Monnig Atkinson, in her latest and remarkable bibliographical review on the subject, chooses to speak of ‘shamanisms’ (in the plural)24 . In order to interact with the spirits or energies, shamans need to develop their shamanhood, and to mediate between the world of the spirits and a human group, they have to adapt their ‘art’ to the specific characteristics of the human group in which they live – with the exception of the function of healer, which is present in almost every type of shamanism. By way of example: In hunter-gatherer societies, precisely because of their basic dependence on the natural environment for the survival of the group, the main function of shamans is to ensure the fertility and the biological reproduction of the human group as well as of wild plants and animals, as well as to guarantee successful hunting. Quite different is the case of post-industrial societies, in which the role of shamans is centered on the treatment of emotional and mental disturbances that prevent individuals from reaching a state of total well-being. Every local manifestation of a type of shamanism is determined by different factors: what we can call ‘spiritual ecology’ (which concerns non-human beings, that is, spirits or energies of a specific geographical region), the natural environment, and the historical, cultural and socio-economic context in which shamans live with their respective human groups. Such factors, together with the ritual paraphernalia (that is, the material culture associated to the shamanic practice) determine the interaction and mediation techniques.
As an analytical category, ‘shamanism’ poses a problem of definition from the very moment in which it is employed to characterize the practice of an individual (the shaman) as a social fact.
What is transformed in shamanic practice
ion of reality, and the latter influences in turn our interpretation of the shamanic practice. This should be an exercise of ontological reflection in those who study ‘shamanism’. Some researchers consider that spirits, by definition, do not have real existence; they deny the possibility of trance states – which would theoretically enable shamans to establish contact with those subtle beings. The consequence of that is a denial of the role of shamans as defined by themselves: interaction and mediation with spirits, and the conviction that those individuals merely follow a role prescribed by their society, as if they were mere actors interpreting a role assigned by the community. Within this framework, shamanic practices are conceived as symbolic systems. They are recognized and valued in their traditional and ‘authentic’ form, whereas all practices separating themselves from the traditional context are qualified as ‘neo-shamanic’ – in the sense of spurious versions due to reinvention and cultural appropriation25. I call this theoretical perspective the ‘symbolic-ritual paradigm’. As opposed to it, some other researchers affirm that spirits exist and that it is possible to interact with them in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. I call that position and its methodological consequences ‘experiential paradigm’26.
The study of shamanic practices enables us to clearly illustrate the problem of incommensurability or unintelligibility between paradigms, which was first exposed by Thomas Kuhn in his classical work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)27. Such a problem confirms that it is impossible to establish any criterion of superiority (or inferiority) for theories concurring against each other if they belong to different paradigms. It is at this point that readers should make an ontological decision and see which interpretation of shamanism convinces them. Where do they place themselves as readers? Are shamanic practices real or symbolic? What does intuition say? What do they feel and think?28 At this point, we see that the main question is not what transforms itself and what remains the same in shamanic practices, but how to interpret those transformations and what their meaning is.
From a phenomenological standpoint, many changes can be observed in shamanic practices, with different scopes: 1. A transfer from shamanic practices in tropical forests to urban centers, which brings a considerable change in spiritual ecology; 2. A development of new forms of shamanism subjected to religious schemes, such as the American Native Church or the Brazilian Ayahuasca Churches; 3. Syncretism with the main world-religions – such as Christianity, Buddhism or Islam29, where charismatic figures are incorporated – not as referents related to a conversion process, but rather as energies to be harnessed; 4. A change of ethos in shamans (towards an individualistic position) by means of professional associations – many times under the heading ‘traditional medicine’. From the perspective of the symbolic-ritual paradigm, transformations are usually perceived in a negative way, since the ritual forms and the material paraphernalia are considered the central aspect of shamanic practices and – leaving aside the question of shamanhood. In other words, the question does not touch upon the difference between shamanism and neo-shamanism, but rather serves to establish the radical opposition between shamanism and pseudo-shamanism. The problem with that opposition is that, in order to approach pseudo-shamanic practices, the symbolic-ritual method does not possess the necessary methodological and analytical tools.
The subject of transformations in shamanism is immense. By way of conclusion, we can say that the most important change taking place in this period, which affects shamanic practice in general, is that the West is adopting an animistic attitude. This is due to the fact that secularization is no longer a strong cultural referent and that more and more people declare themselves ‘spiritual’ instead of ‘religious’30. This animistic turn began, as we already indicated, in the middle of the XX century with the discovery (in the West) of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Nowadays, in the context of globalization, shamanic practices, which have an inborn capacity to transform and adapt themselves without losing their essence, are playing an increasingly relevant role, which is also enhanced by the expansion of holistic methods and practices31.
- I employ the words ‘West’ and ‘Western’ in a double sense: as geographical terms to refer to societies of the North Atlantic, and as mental terms referring to a specific modality of being in the world related to what Philippe Descola, in his book Par-delà nature et culture (Paris 2005), calls ‘naturalism’.
- William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903 (first edition 1902), p. 388. Available online at https://archive.org/download/varietiesreligi03jamegoog/varietiesreligi03jamegoog.pdf
- David E. Nichols: “Hallucinogens”, in: Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 2004, 101, pp. 131-181, here p. 134.
- Arnold M. Ludwig: “Altered States of Consciousness”, in: Archives of General Psychiatry, 1966, 15(3), pp. 225-234.
- Erika Bourguignon (ed.): Religion, Altered states of Consciousness, and Social Change, Columbus 1973.
- Bourguignon: Ibidem, pp. 9-11. Cf. Erika Bourguignon: “Possession and Trance”, in: Ember, Carol R. y Melvin Ember (eds.): Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology. Health and Illness in the World’s Cultures, New York 2004, pp. 137-145, here p. 138.
- A basic introductory book on the close relationship between psychoactive plants and human culture is that of Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann: Plants of the Gods: Origins of hallucinogenic use, New York 1979.
- The English translation of Eliade’s book, published in 1964 with the title Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, is a second, revised and amplified edition.
- See for example Roberte N. Hamayon: “Para terminar con el ‘trance’ y el ‘éxtasis’ en el estudio del chamanismo”, in: Roberte N. Hamayon: Chamanismos de ayer y hoy: seis ensayos de etnografía e historia siberiana. Selección de textos y coordinación de la traducción de Roberto Martínez y Natalia Gabayet, México 2011. Available online here.
- Edith Turner: “The Reality of Spirits” (1992), in: Graham Harvey (ed.): Shamanism: A Reader, London: Routledge 2003, pp.145-152, here pp.148 and 150.
- Santiago López-Pavillard: La vida como proceso de sanación: prácticas chamánicas del alto Amazonas en torno a la ayahuasca en España, PhD thesis, Madrid 2015, pp. 118-133. Available here. Cf. also Santiago López-Pavillard: Chamanes, ayahuasca y sanación, Madrid 2018, pp. 41-56.
- Cf. chapter XXII of “Shamanism in general”, in: Sergei M. Shirokogoroff: Psychomental Complex of the Tungus, London 1935. A digital edition is available here.
- Cf. López-Pavillard, La vida como proceso de sanación, p. 106.
- In this essay, I refer exclusively to shamanic practices. These are only part of a much broader group of practices related with the world of spirits including possession, mediumship and dreams. The shaman’s activity is characterized by a volitional attitude in the interaction with spirits, whereas in possession or mediumship the will of the subject becoming a channel of manifestation of those energies is abolished – as a result of which the individual is compared with a horse ‘ridden’ by the spirits, or with a radio set used by spirits to communicate with humans.
- Even shamanhood has a universal character in the case of human beings, this does not mean that any person can develop this capacity, in the same way as not every person that can kick a ball is capable of becoming a professional footballer.
- Roland B. Dixon: “Some Aspects of the American Shaman”, in: The Journal of American Folklore, 1908, 21(80), pp. 1-12; Juha Pentikäinen: “Shamanism and Animism: The Values of Nature in the Mind of Northern Peoples”, in: Yamada, Takako and Takashi Irimoto (eds.): Circumpolar Animism and Shamanism, Sapporo 1997, pp. 229-253, here pp. 229 and 249; Juha Pentikäinen: “Shamanhood in the Processes of Northern Ethnicity and Identity”, in: Irimoto, Takashi y Takako Yamada (eds.): Circumpolar Ethnicity and Identity, Osaka 2004, pp. 207-215. Available here; Juha Pentikiäinen, Hanna Saressalo and Chuner M. Taksami: “Preface”, in: Pentikäinen, Juha (ed.): Shamanhood Symbolism and Epic, Budapest 200, pp. vii-x, here p. vii; Juha Pentikäinen and Peter Simoncsics: “Introduction”, in: Pentikäinen, Juha and Peter Simoncsics: Shamanhood: An Endangered Language, Oslo 2005, pp.7-16, here p. 7.
- Michael Winkelman: “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution (with comments)”, in: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 2002, 12(1), pp. 71-101, here p. 72.
- By ‘ethical polarity’ I understand a complex combination of physical and intentional properties related to the kind of effects caused by spirits and on human beings as well as to the intention with which they are manipulated by shamans. This is very close to the idea that shamans have of the forces, energies or spirits with whom they interact. On the basis of the ethical polarity, the forces can be divided into positive, negative or neutral. In this respect see López-Pavillard, Chamanes, ayahuasca y sanación, pp. 246-255.
- Perhaps the only case of shamanic practices with the aim of reaching illumination is that of Tibetan Buddhism. In this sense, it is interesting to remember the influence – usually alluded to – of Siberian shamanism on what some authors call ‘Lamanism’, and viceversa, as well as the description of shamans made by Buddhist lamas, depicted as people representing ‘the old way of thinking’.
- Cf. the description made by Alexander Badlam in: The Wonders of Alaska, San Francisco 1980, pp. 79-80. Digital version available here.
- Robert F. Spencer: Reviewed work(s): Studies in Shamanism by Carl-Martin Edsman, in: American Anthropologist, 1968, 70(2), pp. 396-397, here p.396.
- Eliade, Shamanism, p. 4.
- In traditional societies, it would have the status of ‘total social fact’, cf. López-Pavillard, Chamanes, ayahuasca y sanación, p. 67.
- Jane Monnig Atkinson: “Shamanisms Today”, in: Annual Review of Anthropology, 1992, 21, pp. 307-330. For further bibliographical revisions, cf. Åke Hultkrantz: “Introductory Remarks on the Study of Shamanism”, in: Shaman, 1993, 1(1-2), pp. 5-16; Jean-Pierre Chaumeil: “Bibliografía europea sobre el chamanismo en América del Sur”, in: Redial, 1993, 3, pp. 129-142; Robert Adlam and Lorne Holyoak: “Shamanism in the postmodern world: A review essay”, in: Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses, 2005, 34(3-4), pp. 517-568; Thomas A. Dubois: “Trends in Contemporary Research on Shamanism”, in: Numen, 2008, 58(1), pp.100-128.
- The use of this term, always with negative connotation, is rather paradoxical, since it refers to false or fake practices stemming from other practices – also fake, since they ultimately do not do what they say they do – since spirits do not exist.
- López-Pavillard, La vida como proceso de sanación, pp. 81-93. There would also be a third perspective, of those who take an agnostic position with regard to the spirits but keep a respectful attitude towards native knowledge, trying to make a phenomenological description of the practices they observe without delving into the animistic logic to experience it from within. This serious attitude towards informants and spirits, which distinguishes itself from a theological position or a conversion of the ethnologist to shamanism, has been made possible due to the so-called ontological turn and decolonial turn in anthropology. Cf. López-Pavillard, La vida como proceso de sanación, pp. 118-133.
- Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago 1962.
- In the original text the author uses the Spanish coinage ‘sentipensar’ [feelthink], which has been coined by Columbian sociologist Orlando Fals Borda with the following meaning: “the art of living and thinking with the heart”, and later on popularized by Urugayan writer Eduardo Galeano in its nominalized form ‘feeling-thinking’ [sentipensamiento], which refers to the ability of popular classes to keep mind and body, reason and emotion fused together. (cf. Arturo Escobar: “Sentipensar con la Tierra: Las Luchas Territoriales y la Dimensión Ontológica de las Epistemologías del Sur”, in: AIBR Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, 2016, 11(1): 11 – 32, here p. 14, nota 1. Available here.
- N. A. Alekseev: “Shamanism among the Turkic Peoples of Siberia. Shamans and their Religious Practices” (1987), in: Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam (ed.): Shamanism: Soviet Studies of Traditional Religion in Siberia and Central Asia, Armonk 1990, pp.49-109, here p. 93.
- Anna Fedele and Kim E. Knibbe: “Introduction: Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality—Ethnographic Approaches”, in: Fedele, Anna and Kim E. Knibbe (eds.): Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches, New York 2013, pp.1-27, here p. 2.
- Cf. López-Pavillard, Chamanismo, ayahuasca y sanación, p. 266; López-Pavillard, Santiago (under review): “Buddhism as a unit of analysis from a transnational perspective”, in: Religion and Society, Berghahn Journals.