- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Hambledon & London (October 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1852853247
- ISBN-13: 978-1852853242
- Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.9 x 0.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,849,162 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination
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Siberia itself, he begins in the first of three parts, was a construction. The name itself stems from the Khanate of the Sibr being the first encountered by an expanding Czarist Russia. "Siberia", he stresses is a political, not a geographical description, and imposed from the outside. The lack of good identification of who lived where and engaged in which practices now dubbed "shamanism" erodes the foundation of ethnographic scholarship. Much of what we know of Siberian shamans was recorded by outsiders condemning its practices and seeking its destruction. Missionaries for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and finally, communism recorded various rituals from a scornful stance in recommending its abolition. "Why We Think We Know About Shamans", then, is due to the observations of those who wished to extirpate it.
His second section is largely distilled from those hostile commentators. Even more significant, Hutton notes, is how recently those observers were among their subjects. The earliest recorded observation of Siberian shamans was by an Englishman, Richard Johnson, in 1557. Whatever practices preceded the era of recording shamans' activities are lost in the mists of time. There is certainly no neither truly consistent nor even coherent picture of what pre-literate Siberian culture was like, let alone how shamans fit into it. It's fairly clear that eastern Asian societies had many levels of magic, from the family through the community to encompassing entire regions. Shamans might be employed for a number of reasons; the hunt, healing or as magical foils in intercommunity or regional conflicts. Nor were shamanic practices limited to men. Women might be engaged as shamans if their powers were recognised. Women, however, seem to have generally operated at the family or village level as healers. From what he's able to derive from various sources is that shamanic practices can be reduced to three essentials: there must be identifying dress, such as a robe or animal skin; the shaman must use a supportive musical instrument, usually a drum; and the performance must be public. In healing rituals, for example, the family, if not the entire community, must be present to witness it.
Perhaps the most valuable section of the book is historiographic. The author notes that in most of Siberia, a shaman was a "kam", which only approximately translates. However, various Asian languages have equivalents to "shaman", even in Pali, the most commonly used language in early Buddhism. After a review of Soviet and Hungarian historians of Siberia's shamans, Hutton examines the work of several scholars. Most notably among these is Mircea Eliade, whose influence in instilling forms of shamanic practices in the West is perhaps beyond measure. It is here, of course, that Hutton's quiet vivisection of faulty scholarship is brought to bear. He is a gentle critic, but he's also thorough and unremitting. Eliade, a staunch anti-communist, notes how shamans were communicants or travellers with the spirit world, yet he finally settled on a pseudo-Christian adaptation with shamans engaging with a heavenly realm. Eliade's presentation, Hutton notes, proved exhilarating to a Western audience with little knowledge of Siberian conditions. Eliade appeared at a time of disaffection with traditional norms in Western culture, particularly in the US.
After Hutton's analysis of the vagaries of shamanic scholarship, it's almost surprising to discover his concluding chapter deals with "The Prospect of A Shamanic Future". Hutton, whatever his attitude toward misreading or misusing scholarship, is a realist. "Shamanic" practices, whatever the validity of their foundations, have taken a serious hold in some places. Ethnographic scholarship, particularly in North America, has applied the term to any magical rituals in many native cultures in the Western Hemisphere. Adapted by many as a form of counter-culture, "shamanic behaviour", as one scholar has deemed it, is unlikely threatened by extinction. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
The first problem is defining shamanism - and this is much worse than you might think. In order to qualify as a shaman, does one have to control spirits, or simply ascend to heaven in a vision? Is spirit posession essential to shamanism, or just a normal part of it, or a different phenomenon altogether? Is shamanism essentially public, or can one practice shamanism privately? Do shamans specialize in healing and divination, or are those incidental to the profession? No one agrees about all this, and the result is that one person sees shamanism where another doesn't. This of course is a huge problem when we start talking about shamanism outside of Siberia; I don't know of anyone who deals with this issue as succinctly or as perceptively as Hutton.
The second problem is understanding Siberian religion, and the role of shamanism within it. We know surprisingly less about Siberian religion, including shamanism, than you'd think, given how much people have to say about it. Of course Siberian religion is diverse; there are diverse peoples, speaking different languages, with different lifestyles; can we make any generalizations about them?
The third problem is the overwhelming influence of Mircea Eliade. I'm actually a fan of Eliade. I'm happy that he drew so much attention to shamanism, but I have to admit his critics have a lot of good points when it comes to shamanism. Unfortunately, Eliade's influence overpowers them.
There are a few minor problems, such as whether shamans used hallucinogenic drugs, how shamanism relates to transexuality and homosexuality, and so on.
All of this is well dealt with by Hutton, who tends toward skepticism rather than grand systematic theorizing. For this reason he annoys people who are in the business of theory or practice, but I just can't recommend his work highly enough. I especially appreciate Hutton's consideration of "shamanism" in European pre-Christian religion.
I strongly recommend this book, if for no other reason than because most it raises serious questions about what you'll find in most books about shamanism. In fact, I recommend this as a first book about shamanism, even before Eliade's classic or the classics by I. M. Lewis.
The second book I recommend, actually, is Brian Morris' "Religion and Anthropology." After that, I would move on to Lewis and Eliade.
Main comparison is to what little is known about European shamanism.
References Russian, then Bolshevik study then extirpation of this "oppressive" system.
Does NOT characterize the resurgence of shamanism upon collapse of Soviet control.
However that is actually in Mongolia, outside the delineated study area.