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DEFINING SHAMANISM

© Claus von Bohlen 2011 October, 2011

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Saybrook University’s learning guide defines shamans as ‘socially sanctioned magical-religious practitioners who claim to deliberately and/or voluntarily alter their attentional functioning so as to access knowledge and power from “non-ordinary,” nonconsensual reality (i.e. the “spirit world”).’ Scott (2002), on the other hand, offers a more succinct definition: ‘In its most traditional form, shamanism is the practice of entering into an altered state of consciousness to help and heal others’ (p.17). Krippner (2002) echoes this view with his statement that ‘Shamans claim to engage in specialized activities that enable them to access valuable information that is not ordinarily available to other members of their community.’ Finally, Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) offers a somewhat broader view of shamanism: ‘…the first systematic attempt to understand and modify phenomena falling within the domain of human experience’ (p.9). There are similarities between these four definitions. One theme that emerges from the learning guide and from Krippner’s definition is the idea that shamanism provides access to information, knowledge and power. A theme that emerges from both Krippner and Scott is the notion of a community whom the shaman is benefiting. Krippner, Scott and the learning guide all refer in some way to altered states of consciousness. Ripinsky-Naxon, on the other hand, stresses the systematic aspect of shamanism. I propose to examine shamanism in terms of its relationship to information, community and altered states of consciousness. Then I will discuss a few areas which appear to be central to shamanism, but which form no part of the first three definitions. I will end by concentrating on Ripinsky-Naxon’s definition. From a practical point of view, his definition is almost too broad, and yet it captures many of the aspects which I personally find most significant. From my own perspective, the claim that shamanism provides unique access to real and useful information is one of the most interesting aspects of this field. But what is

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meant by information? Information, in this sense, is the same as knowledge; philosophically, knowledge can be further defined as true belief. There is also the claim that shamanism provides access to power. On the one level, this is an inevitable corollary of knowledge: it is often said that knowledge is power. Undoubtedly, shamanism also provides influence within the tribe or the community, and that too is a form of power. However, it also seems that there is a more spiritual element to the notion of shamanic power. This power is what enables a shaman defeat the evil spirits and to achieve the desired results, whether these are Manichean or medicinal. I have long been perplexed by the fact that the ingredients which constitute the psychotropic brew called ayahuasca are individually inert. That is to say, the active ingredient of DMT which is contained in the banisteriopsis caapi vine can only be absorbed through the digestive tract in the presence of a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) which is provided by boiling the vine together with the chacruna root. The chances of this discovery occurring by accident are surely infinitesimally small given the vast number of plants in the Amazon jungle. When I asked a Peruvian shaman how earlier shamans had discovered the ayahuasca recipe, she informed me that spirits communicated that knowledge. She told me that, when she uses plants to cure illness and disease, once again the spirits tell her which plants to use. So, shamans would appear to have privileged access to botanical and medicinal knowledge. It would be interesting to see how effective this knowledge is when examined scientifically: how well do the shamans’ plant and herbal remedies treat illness? Of course, there will be difficult issues here in so far as the shamanic understanding of the cause of illness may be quite different from a Western one. Nevertheless, even with that caveat, research on the efficacy of shamanic herb and plant treatments would surely be interesting.

 

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Shamans in the Amazon speak in terms of the spirits of plants. Do they mean this metaphorically? Once you know the properties of a plant, does that mean you know its spirit? Or does each plant really have a spirit which a shaman can see and with whom he or she can communicate? If the latter is true, then how does one square that with the Western, scientific paradigm? Would it make more sense to conceive of the world in monistic terms whereby everything is mind? In that case, the world of spirits and the world of daily experience would carry equal weight; they are all different faces of the universal constant of mind or consciousness. The hallucinogenic ayahuasca potion also appears to enable shamans to gain information by ‘seeing’ into other spatial and temporal dimensions. Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) quotes the anthropologist Kenneth Kensinger’s description of an ayahuasca-induced shamanic journey undertaken by several indigenous people: ‘On the day following one ayahuasca party, six of the nine men informed me of seeing the death of my chai, “my mother’s father.” This occurred two days before I was informed by radio of his death’ (p.97). If this is true, it would suggest that the abilities of shamans have much in common with parapsychology and the abilities of psychics. All of these pose considerable difficulties for the Western rationalist paradigm. There are a couple of ways in which shamans are thought to differ from mediums and psychics. Firstly, the first three definitions which I presented at the beginning all indicate that the information which shamans glean is used to benefit the community. The leaning guide refers to ‘socially sanctioned practitioners.’ Scott (2002) emphasizes that the task of the shaman is to ‘heal and help others.’ Krippner (2002) states that the information which shamans glean is ‘valuable to their community.’ It may be that psychics and mediums are also able to glean information from sources which are not available to other individuals.

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However, it would appear to be part of the definition of shamanism that the information thus gleaned serves the community and not just the individual. If the information is used by practitioners solely to further their own ends, then they would probably fall into Winkelman’s fourth category of malevolent practitioners such as witches and sorcerers (as cited in Krippner, 2002). A further distinguishing feature of shamans is the fact that they appear to be in control of their interactions with spirit entities. Diviners and mediums, on the other hand, do not exercise personal volition when they incorporate spirits. Winkelman states: ‘But unlike other practitioners who access altered states (e.g. diviners, mediums), shamans were not “possessed” by spirits but remained in control of their spirit allies and sometimes of demonic entities as well’ (as cited in Krippner & Combs, 2002). It is interesting to note that, despite the socially sanctioned nature of shamanism and the necessity of a community for the shaman to serve, nevertheless, there is also an aspect of the shamanic complex which keeps the shaman apart from the community. The shaman’s relationship with the community is ambiguous; he is a part of it, and yet also distinct from it. Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) describes a Master of the Animals role played by a rat-catching shaman in rural Poland: ‘But there lived in the area an older man, who had only one eye. He was very strange, appeared to live all by himself, and no one knew much about him’ (p.30). Another example of the solitary mindset of the shaman is provided by the Iglulik Eskimo Igjugarjuk who states: ‘The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering’ (Ripinsky-Naxon, 1993, p.74). Another cross-culturally interesting aspect of the role of a shaman is its vocational nature. Ripinsky-Naxon: ‘It has been reported that a potential shaman exhibits a psychological predisposition to “the calling,” which eliminates his choice, and assumes a

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compulsory guise. “Had I not become a shaman, I would have died,” was a statement confided by a Gilyak shaman from southeastern Siberia’ (p.67). Of course, this particular Gilyak shaman might have been predisposed to hyperbole as well as shamanism. Nevertheless, there would seem to be plentiful examples of individuals who have heard the call to become a shaman. If the call is resisted, then a so called ‘shamanic illness’ may result. As Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) states: ‘Most shamans believe that the only reprieve from this torturous condition is to answer “the call,” for otherwise one is exposed to great jeopardy’ (p.87). The learning guide, Scott (2002) and Krippner (2002) all refer to some form of privileged mental state which is a central part of the shaman’s role. The learning guide refers to this as the shamans’ ability to ‘deliberately and/or voluntarily alter their attentional functioning.’ Scott refers to ‘altered states of consciousness.’ Krippner refers to the fact that shamans ‘engage in specialized activities’. So, do these three descriptions all refer to the same basic phenomenon? And how similar are these privileged states which shamans are able to access? Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) states: Clearly, the shaman’s technique of ecstasy is the main component in the shamanic state of consciousness. I speak of the shamanic state because, I believe, there is only one quantitative shamanic state of consciousness, as opposed to such forms as spirit possession, for example. SSC (the shamanic state of consciousness) may be experienced in varying degrees of amplification (power), intensity (depth), and wave frequency (level), but there still is only one. (p.86)

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Winlkelman (2000) also endorses the view that there is just one shamanic state of consciousness. He refers to this as the integrative mode of consciousness. Krippner (2002) describes this mode: This mode reflects slow wave discharges, producing strongly coherent brain wave patterns that synchronize the frontal areas of the brain, integrating nonverbal information into the frontal cortex and producing visionary experiences and insight. (p.966) On the surface, it may appear surprising that all states of shamanic consciousness are thought to be so similar. After all, these states may be induced in many different ways. Shamans use drumming, dance and a host of hallucinogenic preparations – ayahuasca, psilocybe, peyote, datura, fly-agaric and ergot, to name just a few. Furthermore, some shamanic traditions do not use terms that easily translate into alterations of consciousness. Sander describes the Navaho shamans who exhibit prodigious feats of memory in recounting cultural myths, and who use sand paintings, drums and dances in the process. However, ‘they need no special trance or ecstatic vision…only the desire and the patience to learn the vast amount of symbolic material’ (as cited in Krippner, 2002, p.967). Krippner (2002) suggests that the shamanic trance, or the altered state of consciousness, should perhaps not be viewed as central to shamanism after all. He states that ‘More basic to shamanism may be a unique attention that they give to relations among human beings, their own bodies and the natural world’ (p.967). For this reason, he suggests that it may be more appropriate to speak of shamanic modification of attentional states rather than a single shamanic state of consciousness. However, the insistence on attentional states does appear to me to leave out a significant aspect of shamanism, namely the engagement with a spirit world. Perhaps, rather than change the definition of shamanism, one ought rather to

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conclude that the Navaho shamans described above, and any others like them, are not shamans in the pure sense. So far I have been considering the similarities and differences between definitions of shamanism. However, I have not asked the more fundamental question: what sort of a concept is shamanism? Is it a teleological concept, or a procedural one? That is to say, should shamanism be defined by its goals, or by its methods? If the goals are all important, then any form of human activity which encourages the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the community could be considered to be a form of shamanism. If the methods are all important, then the experience of trance - whether induced naturally or by the consumption of psychotropic plants - and the engagement with a spirit world will define the concept of shamanism. Dioszegi observes that the focus of shamanism ‘is not on the mere experience of ecstasy, but rather on the goals to be derived from it’ (as cited in RipinskyNaxon, 1993, p.86). However, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Both the goals of shamanism, and the methods used to attain those goals, must be taken into account by any conceptual definition. Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) defines shamanism as ‘…the first systematic attempt to understand and modify phenomena falling within the domain of human experience’ (p.9). This is the broadest definition I have encountered. Ripinsky-Naxon appears to be more interested than other theorists in tracing shamanism back to earliest, Paleolithic times (40,000 years ago). This would, to some extent, explain his emphasis on the primacy of shamanic knowledge which predates religion or medicine. There is also an existential aspect to Ripinsky-Naxon’s understanding of shamanism; he sees shamanism as a system which confers meaning upon human life. It was, and is, a system which enables mankind to make sense of the world.

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The breadth of this definition is attractive since it permits the inclusion of many aspects of shamanic activity which fall outside of the definitions which concentrate exclusively on altered states or healing. For instance, shamans specialize in the performance and enactment of ritual, and ritual gives meaning to human life. Rituals - coming of age ceremonies, marriages, funerals – are the coordinates by which we navigate the existential journey. As guardians of ritual, shamans are also ‘tribal timekeepers, or custodians of the calendar’ (Ripinsky-Naxon, 1993, p.9). An important historical role for shamans in hunting communities was to foster a relationship with the Master of the Animals, thus assuring a consistent bounty for their people. Alongside his role as healer and medicine man, the shaman is also the harmonizer of social and ecological dysfunction and imbalance. The shaman is the repository of group memory. This refers not only to practical knowledge of plant properties and hunting grounds, but also to myth and to the ancient stories of the tribe. Myth, like ritual, is one of the fundamental responses to the human need for meaning. The most significant aspect of the shaman’s role may lie in integrating different fields of experience and making sense of them. Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) argues that ‘It is the shaman’s task to organize and impart coherence to the inveterate journey of existential quest, thus affording ideological purpose and ecological possibilities to the human condition’ (p.10). Possibly, the most important role of the shaman, the role that trumps all the others, is as a maker of meaning. The shaman is responsible for the coherence of a community’s world view. It is this coherence which makes meaning possible. In 1922, Carl Jung went to visit the Pueblo Indians of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. There he befriended the medicine man or shaman known as Mountain Lake. Jung and Mountain Lake subsequently wrote a number of letters to each other. In one of his letters, Mountain Lake wrote: ‘As I told you, our great Father the Sun is the one who supports the

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whole world, and our duty is to help our great Father the Sun.’ Jung was very struck by this. He later wrote in his own notes: ‘My old pueblo friend thought that the raison d’être of his pueblo had been to help the sun cross the sky. I envied him the fullness of meaning in that belief’ (Jung, 1989, The Wisdom of the Dream Part II, PBS video, retrieved from www.googlevideo.com). From a contemporary Western perspective, many writers have been tempted to compare shamanism and shamanic trance to forms of mental illness such as psychosis or schizophrenia. Krippner (2002) describes the view of the American psychiatrist Julian Silverman who thought that shamanism is an acute form of schizophrenia because the two conditions have in common ‘grossly non-reality oriented ideation, abnormal perceptual experiences, profound emotional upheavals, and bizarre mannerisms’ (p.965). However, the significant difference between shamanism and mental illness is surely the shaman’s ability to integrate and make sense of his experience. From a Western, rationalist perspective, the coexistence of a material world with a spiritual world already presents problems. However, from a monistic point of view, it may be possible to integrate these seemingly contradictory fields of experience. It would certainly be rash to conclude that everyone who does not view the world exclusively through the rationalist paradigm is mentally ill. As Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) states, ‘The world of such a mentally dysfunctional individual is disintegrated. On the other hand, just the opposite may be said about a shaman. First, his worldview is characterized by intrinsic unity, with all the components fitted and integrated, yielding a cohesive world structure’ (p.104). In conclusion, I have looked at shamanism through three definitions which have all focused on the information which the shaman gleans, and the altered state through which he gleans it. I have also considered Ripinsky-Naxon’s broader understanding of

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shamanism. Going back to human pre-history, Ripinsky-Naxon is interested in the meaning making aspect of shamanism. So many aspects of human behavior fall under RipinskyNaxon’s definition that, at times, I have wondered whether it is perhaps too broad. Does his conceptualization help us to carve out a particular field, or is it the case that too much falls within its remit? But that is not necessarily a criticism; it may be that shamanism simply does not permit an elegant, clear-cut definition. From my own point of view, I think that the concept of shamanism may function like a mirror. Upon investigating the vast field of shamanism, every society and every individual will end up concentrating upon those aspects which seem most relevant to them. Making sense of experience, integrating the material world with the spiritual, and finding meaning in life are primary concerns of mine. That is why I like Ripinsky-Naxon’s definition. However, that may say more about me than it does about shamanism.

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References Jung, C. (1989) The Wisdom of the Dream Part II, PBS video, retrieved from www.googlevideo.com Krippner, S. (2002). Conflicting perspectives on shamans and shamanism: Points and counterpoints. American Psychologist, 57(11), 962-977. Krippner, S., & Combs, A. (2002). Review essay: The neurophenomenology of shamanism. ReVision, 24(3), 46-49. Ripinsky-Naxon, M. (1993). The nature of shamanism: Substance and function of a religious metaphor. Albany: State University of New York Press. Scott, G. G. (2002). The complete idiot's guide to shamanism. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books.

 

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Defining Shamanism  

A comparison of four different definitions of shamanism.

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