ABSTRACT: The development of research on shamanism
is discussed in regard to the original relationships between this form
of spiritual experience and prehistoric religion.
When Sigmund Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920, he
frightened many of his followers away. Being unaccustomed to their mentor's
new metaphysical tenor, they dispersed in confusion across the psychoanalytical
stage. In this treatise, Freud reaffirmed his strong belief in unity within
the living world, and advanced a theory about the existence of a life
force together with a death wish in all living things. Death occurs when
Thanatos overwhelms Eros, both the 'wish' and the 'will' being expressions
of an instinct force.
Two years later, through work with the chacma baboons in Africa, Eugene
Marais formulated a novel hypothesis about the human mind. He postulated
in The Soul of the Ape (written in 1922, but published only posthumously
in 1969) that the development of the intellectual reasoning faculties
in man had screened out the real psyche - the original primitive mentality
based on instinct - and had delegated it to another realm in the brain,
where it has survived as our subconscious mind. The conflict, as suggested
by Marais, between reason and the instinctive psyche bears profound implications
for the genesis of religion, birth of the Magna Mater, and the rise of
We would have to go back in time tens of thousands of years in order to
examine the nature of the religious impulse in man. This is particularly
true if we want to understand the transcendent qualities of numinous and
preternatural experiences in terms of mystical and phenomenological processes,
rather than viewing them merely as separate pieces of the intriguing and
colorful, but vitreous, glass. If beheld, in their substantive and functional
contexts, and through the lens of a skillful technique of an ethnologist
or a student of comparative religions, these properties can appear as
a newly integrated whole. The resulting outcome will create a mosaic,
a stained -glass masterpiece with its own intrinsic powers to transport.
Therefore, we must consider a time when early Homo sapiens, with their
diversified subspecies, had shared analogues of evocative experience that
we can term supernatural, and which also provided a framework for structuring
their awareness of the great procreative force.
At the early stages, this awesome and vital force had been manifested
to human creatures in the cyclical birth and death of nature, probably
as the Great Mother or some other close kindred. These hominid progenitors,
in all likelihood, shared less a common set of beliefs than a pool of
common emotional and 'religious' experiences. The biosocial and psychological
factors contributed to the formation of a special transcultural (perhaps
even pan-human) expression that we recognize today as the existential
quest for meaning. From thus enriched soil, nourishing a common existential
root, sprouted a new universal belief system, where the role assumed by
mankind as part of nature's chain of being became less passive and more
articulate. This new order of understanding can be viewed as the first
systematic attempt to understand and influence phenomena which fall within
the domain of human experience. It is known as shamanism.
Presently, it seems impossible to ascertain the true character of this
proto- or Ur-religion. We can only resort to conjectures and analytical
constructs. Although shamanism is not infrequently elevated to a proto-religion
in the literature, my own views tend to lean in the direction of deep
caves, where supplications of the Great Mother Goddess, with all her awesome
and forbidding mysteries of birth, had been ritualized into a protoreligious
cult. In all probability, such ceremonies were performed in conjecture
with other propitiatory rites connected with a Nature religion. A religious
impulse, after it had been internalized, induced the propitiation of the
supernatural in early human societies. Such psychic energy needed to be
satisfied by an instant affective response. It could not anticipate or
await the development of the more complex ritual techniques associated
It seems to me that shamanism and hunting magic arose as almost inescapable
developments. I am not treading on cultural determinism, but pointing
out that a pre-existing set of conditions can ultimately give rise only
to a finite number of possibilities, favoring some at the expense of others.
Shamanism and hunting magic constituted a natural step (not the only step)
in a world where food sources were, and are, among the main keys to natural
selection. There also appears to be a fine line between the shamanistic
initiations in places like the Franco-Cantabrian caves, and those connected
with the worship of 'Venus' goddesses or the cult of the cave-bear. Shamanism
appears to be an outgrowth of the Mother-Goddess and nature cults. Effective
shamanistic techniques are epistemologies, and as such they must be built
on previous cognitive (empirical) and emotional (affective) experiences
derived from earlier observations and accumulated knowledge. Such an intricate
lore cannot be acquired ex nihilo; its development requires an extended
period of time.
The widespread global distribution of the Late Lower Paleolithic populations
can be attributed, according to the eminent scholar Andrzej Wiercinski
(1989, pp. 20-21), to the "release of the potential of humanity."
This release, explained in terms of psycho-cerebral characteristics possibly
resulting from certain chromosome mutations, was manifest in the inherent
transformation of man and in the intensification of hunting and gathering
activities. Subsistence patterns based on hunting and gathering of the
mobile bands of early man led to role differentiation and division of
labor between the sexes, as well as age groups. Introspective and reflective
consciousness, already innate, allowed cognitive discrimination and abstract
modes of thought. This led, in turn, to 'thinking based on figurative
analogizing," which, in this particular case, is evidenced by the
awareness of the potential benefits to be derived from the observation
and understanding of the natural environment, as opposed to passive acceptance.
Rightly Wiercinski (1989, pp. 21-22) links the origins of shamanism with
the development of cognition and symbolic differentiation somewhere along
the course of human evolution. Epistemological factors became fused with
social and economic needs, leading to the development of more complex
shamanistic initiations and techniques.
The shamanistic systems, arising largely from the male-oriented traditions
of the Paleolithic hunters, form one of the central point in Father Wilhelm
Schmidt's thesis in his monumental twelve-volume work, Der Ursprung der
Gottesidee (The Origin of the Idea of God). In a nutshell, he asserted
that the idea of a sky-god is derivative from older, shamanistic deities.
The patriarchal theme of the sky-god, which recurs in the cosmogonies
of diverse shamanistic and archaic contexts, had evolved into the single
The rise and development of shamanistic practices marked the threshold
where we begin to notice mankind's efforts to arrive at a systematic understanding
of the supernatural world. In the course of its long cultural history,
shamanism endeavored to unravel the universal enigmas: the origins of
the cosmos, the earth, men, animals, and plants. It endeavored to illuminate
the proverbial paradox: the existential quest for the meaning and the
sense of life and death. Shamanism modified the character of religious
practices by evolving techniques through which a select group of individuals
could acquire the esoteric knowledge of the universe. The visions of the
cosmic worlds were perceived by means of the psychodynamic processes activated
through the ritual techniques of ecstasy. The latter were frequently aided
by use of hallucinogenic substances.
Thus, when we take into account the effects of shamanistic ideology in
organizing the universe into a meaningful order, we must also consider
the role played in these attempts by hallucinogenic substances. With the
help of trance inducing psychoactive alkaloids, the different magico-religious
credos strove to forge a key capable of unlocking the doors to the cosmic
arcana. Enhanced consciousness and cognitive abilities prompted model-oriented
images by conceiving and organizational paradigms for the cosmos. One
good example can be found in the concept of the imago mundi. It is also
known as the archetypal image of the world that mirrors a cosmic blueprint
to be found in the divine model envisaged by a given culture. Such perceptions
often reflect the recognizable imagery derived from psychotropic experiences.
By understanding the cognitive experiences which interrelate the various
dimensions of supernatural reality with that of the ordinary, we can better
grasp the ethnogenic causalities for cultural origins and growth (Ripinsky-Naxon
Essentially, the 'supernatural' experience of the cosmic order was only
a reflection of the sociocultural system known at a particular phase of
cultural development, while the secular knowledge of the supernatural
was the shaman's version of his visionary experience. In the process,
the physico-biotic environment was observed, and the ways of plants and
animals were studied, as were the movements of the celestial bodies, and
the properties of metals. The healing potencies of divine plants became
understood, and meanings were given to dreams and visionary experiences.
Thus, we find the beginnings of rationalistic epistemology. The signification
of a need of a particular society to relate causality (input) to the shaman's
worldview, and to offer a response through the mode of a visionary context
(output), is the nexus of cause and effect, interfacing as a complex system
in a dynamic process that we perceive as cultural change. This process
is, in itself, only an abstract modality, and, among others, a culturally
encouraged product of quite early and extensive adventures with the ethnoflora.
In other words, it is important to consider the role of hallucinogenic
agents in the shaman's experience and techniques that are applied to the
formulation of cosmological concepts.
The antiquity of ecstatic techniques in shamanistic practice is duly underscored
by Weston La Barre (1972, p. 161) in his erudite and stimulating study
on the development of religion:
...the ancestor of the god is the shaman himself, both
historically and psychologically. There were shamans before there were
gods. The very earliest religious data we know from archeology show the
dancing masked sorcerors or shamans of Lascaux, Trois Freres, and other
Old Stone Age caves. The worldwide distribution of functionaries recognizable
as shamans - in the Americas, north Eurasia, Africa Oceania and south
Asia, as well as ancient east and central Asia - testifies to their antiquity.
The basis of all religion in both North and South America is the shaman
or medicine man - as Boas long ago observed - so that the aboriginal New
World, seen in its common essence, is a kind of ethnographic museum of
the late Paleolithic-Mesolithic of Eurasia, whence came the American Indian
in very ancient times. Indian religious culture is of the same date and
origin as their material culture, and it is copiously documented.
Clearly, the theme of transformation is a very dominant feature in shamanistic
belief systems. The ecstatic rapture transforms the individual into a
god, and in this state of ecstasy the essential knowledge of the divine
can be attained. Only through the state of being a god can the ineffable
mystery that is 'god' be comprehended. A Tantric saying helps illuminate
this transcendent idea by telling us: nadevo devam arcayet ('by none but
a god shall a god be worshipped'). Eliade (1964, p. 7) affirmed that "Their
(the shamans') ecstatic experiences have exercised, and still exercise,
a powerful influence on the stratification of religious ideology, on mythology,
on ritualism." The mythologist Joseph Campbell repeatedly stressed
this point, too, as did others working with this problem. Vilmos Dioszegi
(p. 1031), the late Hungarian authority on shamanism, included mythic
traditions among the nine significant characteristics of this belief system.
Valuable field observations concerning this question are offered by the
respected Colombian anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff. They touch
upon wider ramifications of this issue, and help in our appreciation of
its considerable complexity. In a section entitled 'Shamanism as Religion,'
he comments (1987, p. 18): "In summary, Tukanoan shamanistic art
and religion attempt to use neurally inbuilt images in order to achieve
consciousness, to organize life, and then to guide man's soul back to
Another respected source (Furst 1982, p. 4) sheds more poignant light
on the nature of the shamanistic complex:
Now, as we know from ethnology, the symbolic systems
or religions of hunting peoples everywhere are essentially shamanistic,
sharing so many basic features over time and space as to suggest common
historical and psychological origins. At the center of shamanistic religion
stands the personality of the shaman and the ecstatic experience that
is uniquely his, in his crucial role as diviner, seer, magician, poet,
singer, artist, prophet of game and weather, keeper of the traditions,
and healer of bodily and spiritual ills.
Undoubtedly inspired by Eliade, Joan Halifax (1979, p. 3) begins her book
with the already familiar point:
Shamanism is an ecstatic religious complex of particular
and fixed elements, with a specified ideology that has persisted through
millennia and is found in many different cultural settings...They [the
shamans] can be found...wherever hunting-gathering peoples still exist
and wherever this ancient sacred traditions has maintained its shape in
spite of the shifting of cultural ground.
To Mircea Eliade, too, the ecstatic states associated with shamanism formed
part of a religious complex: "Shamanism in the strict sense is pre-eminently
a religious phenomenon in Siberia and Central Asia...Later, similar magico-religious
phenomena were observed in North America, Indonesia, Oceania, and elsewhere"
(1964, pp. 4-5). Then, "Discovering a shamanic symbol or rite...begins
to have meaning only in the degree to which one is led to see shamanism
as a clearly defined religious phenomenon" (Eliade 1964, p. 7 n.).
In an earlier article, he had written (1950, pp. 299f.):
An important distinction is to be made between the religions which are
dominated by Shamanistic ideology and techniques (as is the case of Siberian
and Indonesian religions) and those where Shamanism constitutes rather
an isolated phenomenon, limited to certain peripheral groups (Indian and
ancient China, etc.).. Shamanism is a complex phenomenon whose morphological
and historical study has scarcely begun.
Notwithstanding, Eliade (1964, p. 8) suggests that shamanism might be
better classed "among the mysticisms than with what is commonly called
a religion." His was a historic-textual approach, and according to
current research, such a view would not be acceptable without serious
qualifications. It did find, however, an inflection in the Swedish scholar
of comparative religions, Ake Hultkrantz, who prefers to view shamanism
as "a religious configuration" (a mythico-ritual system) instead
of a genuine religion (Backman and Hultkrantz 1978, pp. 10-11). "The
religious pattern" in North and South America, states Hultkrantz
in another book, is "somewhat inappropriately called shamanism,"
owing to the crucial role played by the medicine man, or shaman, in the
spiritual and ceremonial life of the community. Yet, not all medicine
men in the New World are shamans, in the strict definition of the word
that assumes ecstasy to be the main technique in achieving communication
with the spirit world. He feels that this term should be used to signify
the shaman's worldviews and ritual performances instead of denoting "an
entire religious pattern" (Hultkrantz 1979, pp. 85-86).
The essential core of shamanism or any religious institution, for that
matter, can be described by the fact that it consists of a system of rituals
and beliefs - not necessarily a codified corpus of dogma which defines
its mystical character. This point is critical for the understanding of
the problem. Ancient and classic shamanism was not characterized by a
common object of worship (e.g. a sun-god or a Buddha) or by a codified
body of scriptures. Traditional shamanism has consisted of specific techniques
and ideologies that could be used to address issues and problems of spiritual
concern. What makes classic shamanism also different from the conventional
world religions is the absence of regular hierophants (priests) in favor
of ritual practitioners (shamans).
The basic elements of shamanism describe multiple functions reflected
in the roles of its practitioners, the shamans. As individuals specializing
in the performance and the enactment of the rituals, they are also the
tribal time-keepers, or custodians of the calendar. In hunting magic,
the shamans foster and consolidated a vital relationship with the Master
of the Animals, or an equivalent figure, thus assuring bounty for their
people. As healers, they employ various methods recognized by their cultural
norms, including the ability to see the causes of disease and augur the
future. No less important is the shaman's function as a guide, or psychopomp,
for the souls of the dead. He ascertains that these do not become dispersed
in the universal vastness, but are assured proper passage to their destinies
in the spirit realms. Last, but definitely not least, in the shamans'
extensive knowledge of the sacred and powerful plants. The vital importance
assumed by hallucinogenic substances in shamanistic rituals and imagery,
as crucial factors in cultural dynamics, must be duly underscored. The
experience acquired in drug-induced visions, and later integrated through
socially approved cognitive channels, serves as a major key to culture
change. The dynamics of the force intrinsic to shamanism constitute a
pervasive note in such a process.
Moreover, the shaman's intellectual abilities are of real social consequence,
particularly as they apply to issues involving the culture-environment
system. Equipped with an impressive corpus of empirical knowledge (ethnoscience)
and a profound grasp of human behavior, the shaman fulfills the vital
role of a psycho-cultural adaptive mechanism, not merely as a healer of
diseases, but as a harmonizer of social and natural dysfunctions and imbalance.
He strives for harmony and balance in nature. In view of his ecological
significance, the shaman's role as an agent in transcendental and existential
tends to be underplayed by those who regard cultures as systems of more
pragmatic and functional configurations. The importance of the latter
is undeniable, but to de-emphasize symbolic (religious, spiritual, etc.)
considerations if to misunderstand the full integrative potential inherent
in shamanism as a dynamic factor in the cultural process.
From time to time, a voice is heard challenging shamanism as a religion
on the grounds that it lacks a body of scriptures and a priestly hierarchy,
in contrast to the recognized world religions. Such claims, however, cannot
divest genuine shamanism of its ritualism, spiritualism, magico-mythic
elements, and eschatology - all the essential ingredients of a bona fide
religious complex. Its transcultural parameters delineate the second most,
if not the most, enduring ritual tradition in human history. Undeniably,
certain differences in shamanistic practices can sometimes be attributed
to syncretism with another religion coexisting in the given culture. Other
differences result from diversity of cultural contexts, and correspond
to those encountered among distinct peoples with their own religious practices.
The idea, however, that a religion must possess a codified corpus of dogma
is a more recent and arbitrary convention. It is based on an ethnocentric
premise which characterizes more 'Westernized', and historically later,
world religions than it does ancient and tribal societies, where myth
and religious dogma (if the latter exists) do not function as disparate
components. Fortunately, it is not widely favored among anthropologists
and students of comparative religions. Its subjectivity imposes Western
values on a process much older that today's existing cultures and civilizations.
If the possession of scriptures, or their equivalent, were to become a
criterion that defines religion, then we would be compelled to ignore
the dynamics of the historico-psychocultural processes which have been
ongoing for the last 200,000 - 100,000 years.
In this vein, how are we to interpret the religion, or belief-system,
of the Paleolithic dwellers of the painted caves? Of the Uralic tribes
of Siberia? Indeed, what can be said about the indigenous religion of
the Amazonian Indians, or the dreamtime of the Australian aborigines?
None of them have had a demiurge, or a codified corpus of dogma. Have
they had a religion? Myths become the effective cultural expressions for
religious and ethical cultures. They are of great significance to shamanistic
rituals and ideology. Anyone who has studied the phenomenon of shamanism
realizes immediately the key function of myths in the shaman's repertoire.
Many of the shamanistic ceremonies worldwide are validated by myths attempting
to explain the creations of such rites, as well as of cosmic paradigms.
These myths often rationalize the enactment of rituals in terms of cultural
materialism or social pragmatism. The essence of social existence is centered
around mythic imagery, which lends an existential dimension to life. Pure
rational thought is no more an objective reality than the myths whence
such a concept is derived. Myths make up, in part, the fundamental responses
to the basic human need for meaning. This is an inescapable condition
of human existence, pervading all areas of interactions: from techno-mechanical
and sexual to highly symbolic and creative. The quest for the existential
metaphor, in the mythico-religious realm, conditioned human societies
along the lines which are interpretable by a cognitive approach - a paradigm
- germinal to a theoretical model. The attempts to understand the worldviews
and daily dramas of aboriginal cultures must take into account the roles
of the diverse factors exerting an impetus on the developmental process
(Ripinsky-Naxon 1989, p. 223).
To ensure survival, man learns and devises cognitive meanings. These can
be found in the parallel extensions formed by the antipodal worlds, and
available through the diverse techniques utilized by the shamans. 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. Shamanistic states of consciousness
are not regarded as extra-ordinary occurrences; neither are these alternate
states viewed as separate realities. It is all part of a larger monistic
whole. In contrast, the well-established Western myth (a philosophico-scientific
metaphor), developed by Descartes through dialectic reasoning, demonstrates
the existence of dichotomous systems, indicating a 'real' disparity between
antipodal cosmic entities - mind and matter.
Any genuine numinous and mystical experience of the preternatural, be
it highly personal or structured by codices, must be recognized as part
of a religious phenomenology. As such it must fall within the domain of
religion. Of course, it is understood that religious syncretisms have
taken place between shamanism and other belief systems in many parts of
the world. The persistence of shamanism can be noted in the modern world,
as some of its features have managed to survive integrated into the frameworks
of world religions. They exist in northern Europe and Asia; in Poland,
Greece, and even Egypt; among the Catholic branches and missions throughout
Asia and South America, as well as among the evangelical Protestant sects
in Central America (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993).
In my experience, I have tried to avoid the genre of New Age pop-shamanism,
generated by 'alternate mode shamanic counselors' whose practical experience
consist generally of interfacing with their followers in the setting of
a hired conference room, or other such place. Quite frequently, the 'urban'
pop-shaman views shamanism as a tool - a vocational wand for popular psychology
and mass-market self-help programs. To such groups, shamanism appears
to represent an ancillary aspect of a cultural trend. Few of them grasp
or even realize the agons of physical deprivations, the prolonged ordeals,
inner personal crises, and near-death encounters connected with genuine
shamanic callings. To learn the techniques employed by a shaman does not
make one a shaman. True, shamanism can sometimes be defined by certain
techniques, as well as by a characteristic state of consciousness. However,
it becomes meaningful only if the definition encompasses the appropriate
cultural context and behavior. One can attend school to acquire knowledge,
but to acquire wisdom is quite another matter. By the same token, one
can learn shamanistic methods in an effort to shamanize, but one cannot
matriculate as a shaman. To become a shaman is altogether different. It
calls for a serious psychological and spiritual transformation on the
part of the individual. Consequently, I am of the opinion that New Age
shamanism fails to represent accurate dynamics of the sociocultural situation,
both historically and phenomenologically. Its preoccupation with the integration
of shamanic elements into the social fabric, where shamanism has not figured
as an institution, is accompanied all too frequently by a tremendous lack
of awareness, insight and sensitivity into the true shamanic experience.
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