Towards A Better Understanding Of Shamanism

2597 words - 11 pages

Shamanism in Anthropology has been an entity in a constantmetamorphosis. It has always been considered exotic and itsexistence around the globe was never contradicted. However, overthe years it did not receive the scholarly attention that it sorequires. The age of discovery garnered a multitude ofinformation on shamanism all over the world. The reportersinvested a great deal of accuracy in the gathering of theinformation, but their observational skills were mostlyunderdeveloped. Furthermore as could be expected, they saw andevaluated things solely on the basis of European religion andsocial customs (Flaherty, 1992, pp.3) without having itnecessary to view its ramifications to the people ...view middle of the document...

Thus in a sense shamanism is the practisingof these mechanisms in trying to make sense of the world. As youcan see it encompasses various facets of the social life fromhealing illness to maintaining social order. This definition ofshamanism is very brief and really can not be upheld as a preciseand accurate definition, however shamanism within theseparameters has always been accepted both in the early and latetwentieth century. Nevertheless, differences did emerge thattransformed the definition of shamanism in anthropology in thatit added more to this vague definition.According to Mircea Eliade the shaman who is an inspiredpriest, in ecstatic trance ascends to the heavens on'trips'. Inthe cause of these journeys the shaman persuades or even fightswith the gods in order to secure benefits for his fellow men.Here, in the opinion of Eliade, spirit possession is not anessential characteristics and is no always present (Eliade, 1951,pp.434). He goes on by stating that the 'specific element ofshamanism is not the incorporation of spirits by the shaman butthe ecstasy provoked by the ascension to the sky'(pp.434). Thatis to say that the incorporation of spirit possession does notnecessarily belong to shamanism. Therefore, from Eliade's viewpoint we see that there is a wedge between shamanism and spiritpossession (Lewis,1971, pp.49). This was a view that wasprevalent in the study of shamanism in anthropology at the time.Other writers on the subject clearly accepted this view asexpressed by Luc de Heusch. He sought to develop these ideasinto an ambitious, formalistic theory of religious phenomena. Hestates that shamanism and spirit possession are an antitheticalprocess. The first is an ascent of man to the gods, the secondthe descent of the gods on men (Lewis,1971,pp.50). So shamanismin de Heusch's view is the movement of pride were man seeshimself as an equal to the gods. Possession on the other hand isan incarnation. The distinction between shamanism and possessionon the basis of whether spirits were incorporated or not wasgenerally accepted at the time. This differentiation upheld bymany anthropologists implied or rather claimed that shamans werenot really 'masters of spirits'. The so-called trance state wasdubbed unauthentic and a consternation was placed on thecredibility of the shaman who is so revered by his people. Thisnotion reenforced the idea among psychiatrists that shamans hadin fact some sort of psychological disorder.Now even much earlier than the cited works of Eliade and deHeusch there was a general notion that shamanism and possessionwere cultural abnormalities. In fact, according to the Frenchpsychiatrist Levy-Valensi shamanism is not for thepsychologically normal people, but only for the disturbed. Theshaman was thus portrayed as a conflict torn personality whocould be classified either as seriously neurotic or evenpsychotic (Lewis, pp.179). Although this was a pshyciatricsummary and one can argue that it did not repres...


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