BeyondWeird Home
Index  Previous  Next 

                          What Is Shamanism? 
Since the term "shamanism" has been used in a number of ways during the
discussions here I thought it might be helpful to present some basic
information on shamanism as the inter-disicplinary subject that it has
become since Mircea Eliade wrote _Shamanism_.

The following is from the Foreward, which explains the approach that
Eliade took to study Shamanism as a magico-religious phenomena, and
which has been the foundation that shamanism as a spiritual tradition,
as well as explaining how other academic disciplines approach the


Mircea Eliade
_Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy_
Princeton University, Bollingen Series LXXVI 1964

Originally published in French as _Le Chamanisme et les techniques
archaiques de l'extase_, Librairie Payot, Paris, 1951.  Revised and
enlarged for the Bollinger edition.

ISBN 0-691-01779-4 pbk   0-691-09827-1 hdbk

   To the best of our knowledge the present book is the first to cover
   the entire phenomenon of shamanism and at the same time to situate it
   in the general history of religions.  To say this is to imply its
   liability to imperfection and approximation and the risks that it
   takes.  Today the student has at his disposition a considerable
   quantity of documents for the various shamanisms--Siberian, North
   American, South American, Indonesian, Oceanian, and so on.  Then too,
   a number of works, important in their several ways have broken ground

   for the ethnological, sociological, and psychological study of
   shamanism (or rather, of a particular type of shamanism).  But with
   few notable exceptions--we refer especially to the studies of Altaic
   shamanism by Holmberg (Harva)--the immense shamanic bibliography has
   neglected to interpret this extremely complex phenomenon in the
   framework of the history of religion.  It is as a historian of
   religions that we, in our turn, have attempted to approach,
   understand, and present shamanism.  Far be it from us to think of
   belittling the admirable studies undertaken from the viewpoints of
   psychology, sociology, or ethnology; we consider them indispensable
   to understanding the various aspects of shamanism.  But we believe
   that there is room for another approach--that which we have sought to
   implement in the following pages.

   The writer who approaches shamanism as a psychologist will be led to
   regard it as primarily the manifestation of a psyche in crisis or
   even in retrogression; he will not fail to compare it with certain
   aberrant psychic behavior patterns or to class it among mental
   diseases of the hysteroid or epileptoid type.

   We shall explain why we consider it inacceptable to assimilate
   shamanism to any kind of mental disease.  But one point remains (and
   it is an important one), to which the psychologist will always be
   justified in drawing attention: like any other religious vocation,
   the shamanic vocation is manifested by a crisis, a temporary
   derangement of the future shaman's spiritual equilibrium. All the
   observations and analyses that have been made on this point are
   particularly valuable  They show us, in actual process as it were,
   the repercussions, within th epsyche, of what we have called the
   "dialectic of hierophanies"--the radical separation between profane
   and sacred and the resulting splitting of the world.  To say this is
   to indicate all the importance that we attribute to such studies in
   religious psychology.

   The sociologist, for his part, is concerned with the social function
   of the shaman, the priest, the magician.  He will study prestige
   originating from magical powers, its role in the structure of
   society, the relations between religious and political leaders and so
   on.  A sociological analysis of the myths of the First Shaman will
   elicit revealing indications concerning the exceptional position of
   the earliest shamans in certain archaic societies.  The sociology of
   shamnism remains to be written, and it will be among the most
   important chapters in general sociology of religion.  The historian
   of religions must take all these studies and their conclusions into
   account.  Added to the psychological conditions brought out by the
   psychologist, the social ocnditions, in the broadest sense of the
   term, reinforce the element of human and historical concreteness in
   the documents that he is called upon to handle.

   The concreteness will be accented by the studies of the ehtnologist.
   It will be the task of ethnological monographs to situate the shaman
   in his cultural milieu.  There is danger of misunderstanding the true
   personality of a Chukchee shaman, for example, if one reads of his
   exploits without knowing anything about the life and traditions of
   the Chukchee.  Again, it will be for the ehtnologist to make
   exhaustive studies of the shaman's costume and drum, to describe the
   seances, to record texts and melodies, and so on.  By undertaking to

   establish the "history" of one or another constituent element of
   shamanism (the drum, for example, or the use of narcotics during
   seances), the ethnologist--joined when circumstances demand it, by a
   comparatist and historian--will suceed in showing the circulation of
   the particular motif in time and space; so far as possible, he will
   define its center of expansion and the stages and the chronology of
   its dissemination.  In short, the ethnolgist will also become a
   "historian," whether or not he adopts the Graebner-Schmidt-Koppers
   method of cultural cycles.  In any case, in addition to an admirable
   purely descriptive ethnographical literature, there are now available
   numerous works of historical ethnology: in the overwelming "gray
   mass" of cultural data stemming from the so-called "ahistorical"
   peoples, we now begin to see certain lines of force appearing; we
   begin to distinguish "history" where we were in the habit of finding
   only "Naturvolker," "primitives," or "savages."

   It is unnecessary to dwell here on the great services that historical
   ethnology has already rendered to the histroy of religions.  But we
   do not believe that it can take the place of the history of
   religions.  The latter's mission is to integrate the results of
   ethnology, psychology, and sociology.  Yet in doing so, it will not
   renounce its own method of investigation or the viewpoint that
   specifically defines it.  Cultural ethnology may have demonstrated
   the relation of shamanism to certain cultural cycles, for example, or
   the dissemination of one or another shamanic complex; yet its object
   is not to reveal the deeper meaning of all these religious phenomena,
   to illuminate their symbolism, and to place them in the general
   history of religions.  In the last analysis, it is for the historian
   of religions to synthesize all the studies of particular aspects of
   shamanism and to present a comprehensive view which shall be at once
   a morphology and a history of this complex religious phenomena.

                                            pg. xi-xiii

    Chapter One, General considerations.  REcruiting Methods.  Shamanism
    and Mystical Vocation.

    Since the beginning of the century, ehtnologists have fallen into
    the habit of using the terms, "shaman,"  "medicine man," "sorcer,"
    and "magician" interchangeably to designate certain individuals
    possessing magico-religious powers and found in all "primitive"
    societies.  By extension, the smae terminology has been applied in
    studying the religious history of "civilized" peoples, and there
    have been discussions, for example, of an Indian, an Iranian, a
    Germanic, a Chinese, and even a Babylonian "shamanism" with
    reference to the "primitive" elements attested in the corresponding
    religions.  For many reasons this confusion can only militate
    against any understanding of the shamanic phenomenon.  If the word
    "shaman" is taken to mean any magician, sorcerer, medicine man, or
    ecstatic found throughout the history of religions and religious
    ethnology, we arrive at a notion at once extremely complex and
    extremely vague; it seems, furthermore, to serve no purpose, for we
    already have the terms "magician" or "sorcerer" to express notions
    as unlike and as ill-defined as "primitive magic" or "primitive
    We consider it advantageous to restrict the use of the words

    "shaman" and "shamanism" precisely to avoid misunderstandings and  
    cast a clearer light on the history of "magic" and "sorcery."  For
    of course, the shaman is also a magician and medicine man; he is
    believed to cure, like all doctors, and to perform miracles of the
    fakir type, like all magicians, whether primitive or modern.  But
    beyond this, he is a psychopmp, and he may also be preist, mystic
    and powet.  In the dim, "confusionistic" mass of the religious life
    of archaic socieites considered as a whole, shamanism--taken in its
    strict and exact sense--already shows a structure of its own and
    implies a "history" that there is every reason to clarify.

    Shamanism in the strict sense is pre-eminently a religious
    phenomenon of Siberia and Central Asia.  The word comes to us,
    through the Russian, from the Tungusic _saman_.  In the other
    languages of Centeral and North Asia the corresponding terms are
    Yakut _ojuna_ (_oyuna_), Mongolian _buga_, _boga_ (_buge_, _bu_) and
    _udagan_ (cf. also Buryat _udayan_, Yukut _udoyan_: "shamaness")_,
    Turko-Tartar _kam_ (Altaic _kam_, _gam_, Mongolian _kami_, etc.)  It
    has been sought to explain the Tungusic term by the Pali _samana_,
    and we shall return to this possible etymology (which is part of the
    great problem of Indian influences on Siberian religions) in the
    last chapter of this book.  Throughout the immense area comprising
    Central and North Asia, the magico-religious life of society centers
    on teh shaman.  This, of course, does not mean that he is the one
    and only manipulator of the sacred, nor that religious activity is
    completely usurped by him.  IN many tribes the sacrificing priest
    coexists with the shaman, not to mention the fact that every head of
    a family is also the head of the domestic cult.  Nevertheless the
    shaman remains the dominating figure; for throught the whole region
    in which the ecstatic experience is considered the religious
    experience par excellence, the shaman, and he alone, is the great
    master of ecstasy.  A first definition of this complex phenomenon,
    and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = _technique of

                                        pgs 3-4

    Yet one observation must be made at the outset: the presence of a
    shamanistic complex in one region or another does not necessarily
    mean that the magico-religious life of the corresponding poeple is
    crystallized around shamanism.  This can ocur (as, for example, in
    certain parts of Indonesia), but it is not the most usual state of
    affairs.  Generally shamanism coexixsts with other forms of magic
    and religion.

    It is here that we see all the advantage of emplying the term
    "shamanism" in its strict and proper sense.  For, if we take the
    trouble to differentiate the shaman from other magicians and
    medicine men of primitive societies, the identification of shamanic
    complexes in one or another region immediately acquires definite
    significance.  Magic and magicians are to be foudn more or less all
    over the world, where as shamaism exhibits a particular magical
    specialty, on which we shall dwell at legth: "master over fire,"
    "magical flight," and so on.  By virtue of this fact, though the
    shaman is, among other things, a magician, not every magician can
    properly be termed a shaman.  The same distinction must be applied

    in regard to shamanic healing; ever medicine man is a healer, but
    the shaman employs a method that is his and his alone.  AS for the
    shamanic techniques of ecstasy, they do not exhaust all the
    varieties of ecstatic experience documented in the history of
    religions an dreligious ethnolgoy.  Hence any ecstatic cannot be
    considered a shaman; the shaman specializes in a trance during which
    his sould is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or
    descend to the underworld.

    A similar distinction is also necessary to define the shaman's
    relation to "spirits."  All through the primitive and modern worlds
    we find individuals who profess to maintain relations with
    "spirits," whether they are "possessed" by them or control them.
    SSEveral volumes would be needed for an adequate study of all the
    problems that arise in connection with the mere idea of "spirits"
    and of their possible relations with human beings; for a "spirit"
    can equally well be the sould of a dead person, a "nature spirit,"
    mythical animal, and so on.  But the study of shamanism does not
    require going into all this; we need only define the shaman's
    relation to his helping spirits.  It will easily be seen wehrein a
    shaman differs from a "possessed" person, for example; the shaman
    controls his "spirits," in the sense that he, a human being, is able
    to communicate with the dead, "demons," and "nature spirits,"
    without thereby becoming their insturment.  To be sure, shamans are
    sometimes found to be "possessed," but these are exceptional cases
    for which there is a particular explanation.

    These few preliminary observations already indicate the course that
    we propose to follow in odrder to reach an adequate understanding of
    shamanism.  In view of the fact that this magico-religious
    phenomenon has had its most complete manifestation in North and
    Central Asia, we shall take the shaman of these regions as our
    typical example.  We are not unaware, and we shall endeavor to show,
    that Central and North Asian shamanism, at least in its present
    form, is not a primordial phenomenon that has a long "history."  But
    this Central Asian and Siberian shamanism has the advantage of
    presenting a structure in which elements that exist independently
    elsewhere in the world--i.e., special relations with "spirits,"
    ecstatic capacities permitting of magical flight, ascents to the
    sky, descents to the underworld, mastery over fire, etc.--are here
    already found integrated with a particular ideology and validating
    specific techniques.

                                        pgs. 5-6


Next: Traveling Chant (Julia Phillips)