There are lots of books out there about shamanism -- manuals for soul retrieval, tales of adventure, personal accounts of transformational experiences, guides to power animals, instructions for self-development. In contrast, what follows is a reading list for the scholarly study of shamanism as it is embedded and practiced in various cultures. Most of these books on shamanism are thus by anthropologists, since anthropology is the academic discipline that studies culture generally. This is, in effect, the reading list I would use if I were teaching an undergraduate university-level course in shamanism.
A new student of shamanism might well begin by reading two recent general introductory texts:
Note that I am not recommending Mircea Eliade's famous study, which was published in French in 1951 and then republished in English, with some additions but no major changes, in 1964. We have learned a lot about shamanism in the fifty years since then, and these two books, I think, capture much of the current thinking about the subject. (We will list Eliade's work below under Theorizing Shamanisms.) The first is a thoughtful review of what we think we know, more or less, about shamanism; the second is an eclectic and insightful collection of excerpts, primarily from secondary sources, along with an outstanding introduction. Both are worth reading straight through.
It is important, I think, to bear in mind that the idea of “shamanism” is simply an anthropological construct; there was no –ism to it until anthropologists put it there. Religious scholar Daniel Noel calls the concept of shamanism “fantastic, fictive, a work of imagination”; anthropologist Michael Taussig calls it “the Western projection of a Siberian name”; historian Andy Letcher calls it an “orientalist construct.” The following books address, each from its own point of view, the Western reception and understanding of shamanism — that is, the ways in which we ourselves have imagined and created it:
I would suggest that beginning students read at least one of these books, just to make sure we bear in mind the interplay between a shamanism that is somehow “out there” and shamanism as a creature of our own assumptions and biases.
I believe that the way to a scholarly understanding of shamanism is to study it within its particular cultural contexts. Yes, we can make generalizations about shamanism, and we can come up with general theories about its history, functions, and cultural roles. But the raw material for such generalizations — as well as of such theoretical esentialisms as Michael Harner's "core shamanism," Mircea Eliade's "shamanism," and Michael Winkelman's "psychointegration" — continues to be ethnographic studies of the ways in which shamanism actually works, for better or worse, among individuals and their cultures. Explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists have been writing ethnographies of shamanism for more than a century; but, again, we have been learning a lot lately about ethnographic fieldwork and writing, and I think the best place to begin might well be with contemporary material that deals with our own contemporary concerns.
The following books provide thoughtful views of just such shamanism-in-place, and to learn about shamanism one should read as many of these books — and books like them — as possible. In addition, these books approach the question of shamanism-in-place in different ways, and, implicitly or explicitly, take positions on what shamanism is and what shamanism does. If this were a course, I would say that a beginning student should read at least two, in order to know something in depth about shamanism in two different cultures and from two different vantage points.
Once we have begun to think though for ourselves what is the same and what is different in shamanisms and their cultures, we can turn to those who have thought this problem through before us. Their constructs have been quite various, and the following books provide a sampling.
In much popular literature, shamanism is presented in personal terms, as a means to individual growth or transformation or healing. But shamanism is also about power, and power is inevitably political. It should come as no surprise that shamanism is involved in warfare, conflict, politics, resistance, and the formation and dissolution of of political units.