Shamans Through Time

Posted on February 5, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Shamans are religious practitioners who occur across the globe. The word ‘shaman’ comes from the Tungus tribe in Siberia and it means spiritual healer or one who sees in the dark. Many schools of thought object to the application of shamanism to cultures outside its Tungus origin, while others suggest the term might be used universally. A common feature within shamanism is the use of altered states of consciousness. A shaman can be viewed as a highly skilled individual who ‘acts out’ or performs particular tasks within the community. The shaman, from this perspective, may be viewed as an important mediator between worlds. Shamans are actors of particular roles, skills, and arts that require the participation of others. Shamans perform, they alter their consciousness using various techniques, including hallucinogenic substances, hypnotism, trickery, chanting, dance, and healing; they are ambiguous individuals. This session will look at the evidence for shamans through time, discussing the archaeological, historical, and contemporary ethnographic evidence for shamanism across the world. Shamanism has been suggested to exist in the ancient past, from prehistory to present times. What validity is there to the claim that shamanism existed in prehistory? Where in the world today do shamans still exist? Presenters are encouraged to explore the topic from the perspective of their area of expertise, past and present. Topics might include paradigms of shamanic interpretation, misconceptions associated with the term shamanism, the social functions of shamanism; shamanic altered states of consciousness, music and ecstatic journey, shamanic power objects and materials; storytelling, performance and healing, the use of plants and food as medicines; and shamanism and cognitive evolution.

Organisers: Ffion Reynolds (Cadw) and Henry Dosedla (CINDIS)

Excavating Shamanic Objects at the Nunalleq Site Near the Village of Quinhagak, Alaska

Yup’ik belief systems are well known in the ethnographic record, reflected in collections of masks and other objects and in oral histories that describe aspects of shamanistic practice. Precontact Yup’ik culture was poorly known until excavations at the Nunalleq site near the village of Quinhagak, Alaska, dating from around AD 1400- 1670. Until recently the site had been locked in permafrost, resulting in extraordinary preservation of organic artefacts made from wood, leather, grass, and other rarely recovered materials. Objects relating to shamanism and cosmology are abundant among more than 60,000 pieces found in the last seven field seasons at the site. Here we discuss the time depth, continuity, and change in these material expressions of Yup’ik world view and shamanism.

Rick Knecht (University of Aberdeen) and Anna Mossolova (Tallin University)

Healers, Seers, Mediators: Multitasking aspects of shamanic practice among recent Neolithic societies in Melanesia

In the course of years participating in field work among New Guinean highlands tribes during the early seventies of the last century, when these still greatly presented societies of Neolithic standards, I had the unique opportunity of getting revealing insights into many of their secret spiritual traditions. Among my local informants, including herbalists, traditional healers, and so-called ritual experts, there were some exceptional people reputed as possessing outstanding mental abilities. In the vernacular of the Mbowamb, inhabiting the most part of the Wahgi Basin within the Western Highlands Province, such men were known as ‘morn wua’ (literally ‘men of power spells’), whereas women of similar reputation just were referred to as ‘poison meri’ in the sense of witches. These men were not only believed to have the gift of seers, but also of managing personal dislocation and invisibility, besides several other supernatural skills. While these topics for countless generations used to be handled as most serious secrets, even among initiated men, at the time of field research their mission influence was already gaining gradual decrease of such secrecy and, in the case of a former ‘power spell man’ who was willing to convert to Christianity, this provided best chance of obtaining first-hand information of the underlying intricate spiritual backgrounds.

Henry Dosedla (CINDIS)

Art and Shamanism: From cave painting to the White Cube

Art and shamanism are often represented as timeless, universal features of human experience, with an apparently immutable relationship. Shamanism is frequently held to represent the origin of religion and shamans are characterized as the first artists, leaving their infamous mark in the cave art of Upper Palaeolithic Europe. Despite a disconnect of several millennia, modern artists too, from Wassily Kandinsky and Vincent van Gogh, to Joseph Beuys and Marcus Coates, have been labelled as inspired visionaries who access the trance-like states of shamans, and these artists of the ‘white cube’ or gallery setting are cited as the inheritors of an enduring tradition of shamanic art. Recent scholarship on rock art contributes to this discourse in rational-materialist ‘neurotheological’ terms, locating image production and visionary experience as universal brain events. But the history of thinking on art and shamanism shows these concepts are not unchanging, timeless universals; they are constructed, historically situated, and contentious. I examine how art and shamanism have been conceived and their relationship entangled from the Renaissance to the present, focussing on the interpretation of Upper Palaeolithic cave art in the first half of the twentieth century – a key moment in this trajectory – to illustrate my case.

Robert J. Wallis (Richmond University, The American International University in London)

Tasting the Sweetness of Death: A timeless morality in dark shamanism?

Kanaima shamans gain shamanic power by mutilating, killing, and, when the contents of the putrefying stomach of their victim taste sweet, using the dismembered body parts as talismans to access the spirits. A dark deed in the shadows of shamanic literature. Perhaps too often, shamanism is considered positive; the shaman gaining power from benevolent spirits to help and heal her community. The popularity of shamanic interpretation frequently rests on these tenants, influencing our views, but belying the reality of much traditional shamanic practice. What lens do we use when we identify similar practice emerging from the prehistoric mind-set? Are their ‘shamanic’ rituals full of light or is there a darkness we are missing? Can we be sure that the dead were always ‘honoured’ in the past and given due reverence by the living; people curating body parts as a means of keeping ‘ancestral’ influence close? Or, like the Kanaima, was the relationship darker, with the living manipulating the dead for their own means and ends; tasting the sweetness of death with a morality we would find hard to stomach, putrefying or not?

Mike Williams (Brycheiniog Journal)

Stealing Women’s Clothes: Patriarchal appropriation of women’s mysteries

Various cultures have examples of religious cross-dressing but, in every case, it is men who dress as women, never the reverse. In Siberia, for instance, where women are considered ‘natural shamans’ and where men are said to ‘change sex’ upon becoming a shaman, shamans wear metal disks as surrogate breasts, as did the castrated, transvestite priests of Cybele in ancient Asia Minor. The cross-dressing renunciates of India known as Sakhi or Rasika state that they need to ‘become Radha’ in order to worship Krishna. In a celebrated episode, Krishna discovers a group of maidens bathing naked and steals their clothes but returns them when the maidens worship him. In a similar tale, the tribal deity Bir Kuar is torn apart by ‘witches’, much as the cross-dressed King Pentheus was dismembered by the female followers of Dionysos (maenads). Elements of myth, iconography, and folklore are used to advance the hypotheses (i) that all three gods are apotheoses of entheogenic plants, (ii) that these drugs were the exclusive domain of women and (iii) that the mythic motif stealing of women’s clothes records the patriarchal appropriation of their rites.

Mike Crowley

Words Come Easy: About the problematic usability of a nonoperational term for describing deviant prehistoric burials

‘The most dangerous of these vague words is shamanism.’ As the famous Arnold van Gennep wrote these words 1903, the term shamanism was already known for nearly 200 years in the western science – although the phenomenon wasn’t as old as many researchers would have guessed at the time. Having been translated from an exiled Russian priest and being used as Terminus Technicus for religious specialists all over Siberia shortly thereafter, the word very quickly became a stereotype rather than a description of reality. For this reason, van Gennep warned scientists that using the term could be problematic. Now, more than one hundred years after his words, shamanism is still a term often used to identify deviant burials in archaeology, commonly used synonymous to other terms like ‘priest’, ‘wise man/woman’, ‘healer’, ‘medicine man’ and most often handled as phenomenon with a very wide definition. In the planned paper, which is a summary of a PhD about the same theme published in 2015 in Germany, the problems of this tradition will be shown, referring to two exemplary cases, the well-known German ‘Shaman from Bad Durrenberg’ and ‘Kyss’, the jakutian grave of a young woman.

Andy Reyman (Goethe-University Frankfurt)

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