Conflicting Perspectives on Shamans and Shamanism: Points and Counterpoints

Escrito por Stanley Krippner
Stanley Krippner, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco, California


Shamans’ communities grant them privileged status to attend to those communities’ groups’ psychological and spiritual needs. Shamans claim to modify their attentional states and engage in activities that enable them to access information not ordinarily attainable by members of the social group that has granted them shamanic status. Western perspectives on shamanism have changed and clashed over the centuries; this paper presents points and counterpoints regarding what might be termed the Demonic Model, the Charlatan Model, the Schizophrenia Model, the Soul Flight Model, the Degenerative and Crude Technology Model, and the Deconstructionist Model. Western interpretations of shamanism often reveal more about the observer than they do about the observed; in addressing this challenge, the studya psychology of shamanism could make contributions to cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, psychological therapy, and ecological psychologymay address this challenge.

Conflicting Perspectives on Shamans and Shamanism: Points and Counterpoints

Recent developments in qualitative research and the innovative use of conventional investigative methods have provided the tools to bring both rigor and creativity to the disciplined examination of shamans, their behavior, and experiences. However, a A review of Western psychological perspectives on shamans reveals several conflicting perspectives. This essay focuses on these controversies. Psychology can be defined as the disciplined study of behavior and experience. The term shaman is a social construct, one that has been described, not unfairly, as “”a made-up, modern, Western category”” (Taussig, 1989, p. 57). The termthat describes a particular type of practitioner who attends to the psychological and spiritual needs of a community that has granted the practitioner privileged status. Shamans claim to engage in specialized activities that enable them to access valuable information that is not ordinarily available to other members of their community (Krippner, 2000). Hence, shamanism can be described as a body of techniques and activities that supposedly enable practitioners to access information that is not ordinarily attainable by members of the social group that gave them privileged status. These practitioners use this information in attempts to meet the needs of this group and its members. Contemporary shamanic practitioners exist at the band, nomadic–pastoral, horticultural–agricultural, and state levels of societies. There are many types of shamans. For example, among the Cuna Indians of Panama, the abisua shaman heals by singing, the inaduledi specializes in herbal cures, and the nele focuses on diagnosis.

Shamanic Roles

Winkelman’s (1992) seminal cross-cultural study focused on 47 societies’ magico-religious practitioners, who claim to interact with nonordinary dimensions of human existence. This interaction involves special knowledge of purported spirit entities and how to relate to them, as well as special powers that supposedly allow these practitioners to influence the course of nature or human affairs. Winkelman coded each type of practitioner separately on such characteristics as the type of magical or religious activity performed; the technology employed; the mind-altering procedures used (if any); the practitioner’s cosmology and worldview; and each practitioner’s perceived power, psychological characteristics, socioeconomic status, and political role. Winkelman’s statistical analysis yielded four practitioner groups: (1) the shaman complex (shamans, shaman-healers, and healers); (2) priests and priestesses; (3) diviners, seers, and mediums; (4) malevolent practitioners (witches and sorcerers). Shamans were most often present at the band level. Priests and priestesses were most present in horticultural/agricultural communities, and diviners and malevolent practitioners were observed in state-level societies. Most diviners report that they are conduits for a spirit’s power and claim not to exercise personal volition once they “incorporate” (or are “possessed by”) these spirit entities. When shamans interact with spirits, the shamans are almost always dominant; if the shamans suspend volition, it is only temporary. For example, shamans surrender volition during some Native American ritual dances when there is an intense perceptual “flooding.” Nonetheless, shamans purportedly know how to enter and exit this type of intense experience (Winkelman, 2000).

Shamanic Selection and Training

Shamans enter their profession in a number of ways, depending on the traditions of their community. Some shamans inherit the role (Larsen, 1976, p.59). Others may display particular bodily signs, behaviors, or experiences that might constitute a call to shamanize (Heinze, 1991, pp. 146-156). In some cases, the call arrives late in life, giving meritorious individuals opportunities to continue their civil service, or, conversely, an individuals’ training may begin at birth. The training mentor may be an experienced shaman or a spirit entity. The skills to be learned vary, but usually include diagnosis and treatment of illness, contacting and working with benevolent spirit entities, appeasing or fighting malevolent spirit entities, supervising sacred rituals, interpreting dreams, assimilating herbal knowledge, predicting the weather, and/or mastering their self-regulation of bodily functions and attentional states.

The Demonic Model

Point The European states that sent explorers to the Western Hemisphere were, for the most part, the states that were executing tens of thousands of putative witches and sorcerers. Torture yielded confessions that they had made pacts with the Devil, had desecrated sacred Christian ceremonies, and had consorted with spirits. Thus, many chroniclers were Christian clergy who described shamans as “Devil worshippers” (Narby & Huxley, 2001, pp. 9-10). A 16th century account by the Spanish navigator and historian, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1535/2001, pp. 11-12) describes “revered” old men, held in “high esteem,” who used tobacco in order to “worship the Devil” (pp. 11-12). The first person to introduce tobacco to France was a French priest, Andre Thevet (1557/2001). He described a group of “venerable” Brazilian practitioners called the paje, describing them as “witches” who “adore the Devil.” The paje, he wrote, “use certain ceremonies and diabolical invocations” and “invoke the evil spirit” in order to “cure fevers,” determine the answers to “very important” community problems, and learn “the most secret things of nature” (pp. 13-15). Another French priest, Antoine Biet (1664/2001), observed the rigorous training program undergone by indigenous practitioners or piayes. To Biet, the rigors of of a 10-year apprenticeship provided the piayes the “power of curing illness,” but only by becoming “true penitents of the Demon” (pp. 16-17). Avvakum Petrovich (1672/2001), a 17th century Russian clergyman, was the first person to use the word “shaman” in a published text, describing one Siberian shaman as “a villain” who calls upon demons (pp. 18-20).

Counterpoint Shamans engage in shamanic rivalries, wars, and duplicity (e.g., Hugh-Jones, 1996, pp. 32-37). Even so, ethical training is a key element of the shaman’s education; according to Harner (1980), shamanism at its best has an ethical core (but see Brown, 1989, for a discussion of shamanism’s “dark side”). Walsh’s (1990) study of various shamanic traditions revealed rigorous systems of ethics: “The best of shamanism has long been based on an ethic of compassion and service” (pp. 247-249). Dow (1986) conducted field work with don Antonio, an Otomi Indian shaman in central Mexico, who described his fellow shamans as warriors who must “firmly declare forever an alliance with the forces of good, with God, and then fight to uphold those forces” (p. 8). In addition, shamans must dedicate themselves to ending suffering, even it if requires them to forego their own comfort (p. 39).

In Retrospect Modern social scientists do not accuse shamans of consorting with demons. These accusations, however, are still being made by some missionaries (see Hugh-Jones, 1996) as well as by shamans themselves who may accuse rival shamans of using their powers for malevolent purposesevil ends (p. 38).

The Charlatan Model

Point Most writers in Western Europe’s “Enlightenment” belittled the notion that shamans communed with otherworldly entities, much less the Devil. Instead, shamans were described as “charlatans,” “imposters,” and “magicians.” These appellations undercut the Inquisition’s justification for torturing shamans, but also kept Western science and philosophy from taking shamanism seriously. Flaherty (1992), however, noted that Europe in the 18th century was not totally preoccupied with rationalism, humanism, and scientific determinism; manifestations of romanticism and the occult were present as well (p. 7). An example of this ambiguity appears in the writings of Denis Diderot (1765/2001), the first writer to define “shaman” and the chief editor of the Encyclopedie, one of the key works of the French Enlightenment. In his definition, Diderot referred to shamans as Siberian “imposters” who function as magicians performing “tricks that seem supernatural to an ignorant and superstitious people” (p. 32). According to Diderot, shamans “lock themselves into steamrooms to make themselves sweat,” often after drinking a “special beverage [that they say] is very important to receiving the celestial impressions.” He remarked that shamans “persuade the majority of people that they have ecstatic transports, in which the genies reveal the future and hidden things to them.” Despite their trickery, Diderot concluded, “The supernatural occasionally enters into their operations.... They do not always guess by chance” (pp. 32-37). The French Jesuit missionary Joseph Lafitau (1724/2001) spent 5 years living among the Iroquois and Hurons in Canada and reported that the tribe’s people discriminated between those who communicated with spirits for the good of the community and those who did the same for harmful purposes. Lafitau argued that the latter might be in consort with the Devil, but that demonic agencies played no part in the work of the former, to whom he referred as “jugglers” or “magicians.” On the other hand, Lafitau admitted that oftentimes there was something more to these magicians’ practices than trickery, especially when shamans exposed “the secret desires of the soul” (pp. 23-26). According to Johann Gmelin (1751/2001), an 18th century German explorer of Siberia, the shamanic ceremonies he observed were marked by “humbug,” “hocus-pocus,” “conjuring tricks,” and “infernal racket” (pp. 27-28). A Russian botanist of the same era, Stepan Krasheninnikov (1755/2001), reported to the imperial government that the natives of eastern Siberia harbored beliefs that were “absurd” and “ridiculous.” Krasheninnikov wrote that shamans are “considered doctors” and admitted that they were “cleverer, more adroit and shrewder than the rest of the people.” He described one shaman who “plunged a knife in his belly” but performed the trick “so crudely” that “one could see him slide the knife along his stomach and pretend to stab himself, then squeeze a bladder to make blood come out” (pp. 49-51).

Counterpoint Not all Enlightenment scholars were hostile to shamanism; for example, the German philosopher Johann Herder (1785/2001) noted that “one thinks that one has explained everything by calling them imposters.” Herder continued, “In most places, this is the case,” but “let us never forget that they belong to the people as well and... were conceived and brought up with the imaginary representations of their tribe.” Indeed, “Among all the forces of the human soul, imagination is perhaps the least explored.” Imagination seems to be “the knot of the relationships between mind and body” and “relates to the construction of the entire body, and in particular of the brain and nerves—as numerous and astonishing illnesses demonstrate” (pp. 36-37). There is a small body of parapsychological research conducted with shamans that suggests that, on irregular occasions, some practitioners may be capable of demonstrating unusual abilities (Rogo, 1987; Van de Castle, 1977). These data were collected not only by means of controlled observations, such as having shamans locating hidden objects (Boshier, 1974), but also from experimental procedures such as asking shamans to guess the symbols on standardized card decks (Rose, 1956) or requesting that they influence randomly generated electronic activity at a distance (Giesler, 1986). As for the use of sleight-of-hand, Hansen (2001) has compiled dozens of examples of shamanic trickery from the anthropological literature butand adds that deception may promote healing (pp. 89-90). Unusual abilities, if they exist, are likely to be unpredictable; trickery may accompany their use, as shamans are prototypical “tricksters,” and, as do some contemporary psychotherapists, believe that they must often “trick” their clients into become well (e.g. Warner, 1980).

In Retrospect Shamans operate on the limens, or borders, of both society and consciousness, eluding structures and crossing established boundaries (Hansen, 2001, p. 27). As liminal practitioners, they often employ deception and sleight-of-hand when they feel that such practices are needed. Thus, shamans can be both cultural heroes and hoaxsters, alternating between gallant support of those in distress and crass manipulation. Like other tricksters, however, they are capable of reconciling opposites; they justify their adroit maneuvering and use of legerdemain in the cause of promoting individual and community health and well-being (pp. 30-31).

The Schizophrenia Model

Point When mental health professionals first commented on shamanic behavior, it was customary for them to use psychopathological descriptors. The French ethnopsychiatrist George Devereux (1961) concluded that shamans were mentally “deranged” and should be considered severely neurotic or even psychotic. The American psychiatrist Julian Silverman (1967) postulated that shamanism is a form of acute schizophrenia because the two conditions have in common “grossly non-reality-oriented ideation, abnormal perceptual experiences, profound emotional upheavals, and bizarre mannerisms” (p. 22). According to Silverman, the only difference between shamanic states and contemporary schizophrenia in Western industrialized societies is “the degree of cultural acceptance of the individual’s psychological resolution of a life crisis” (p. 23). Taking a psychohistorical perspective, deMause (2002) proposed that all tribal people “since the Paleolithic... regularly felt themselves breaking into fragmented pieces, switching into dissociated states and going into shamanistic trances to try to put themselves together” (p. 251). DdeMause added that shamans were “schizoids” who spent much of their lives in fantasy worlds where they were starved, burned, beaten, raped, lacerated, and dismembered, yet were able to recover their bones and flesh and experience ecstatic rebirth. DdeMause’s account is reminiscent of the portrayal of shamans as “wounded healers” who have worked their way “through many painful emotional trials to find the basis for their calling” (Sandner, 1997, p. 6) and who have taken an “inner journey... during a life crisis” (Halifax, 1982, p.5).

Counterpoint Roger Walsh (2001), an American psychiatrist, provided a penetrating analysis of shamanic phenomenology in which he concluded that it is “clearly distinct from schizophrenic... states” (p. 34), especially on such important dimensions as awareness of the environment, concentration, control, sense of identity, arousal, affect, and mental imagery. Critics of the schizophrenia model claim that shamans have been men and women of great talent; Basilov’s (1997) case studies of Turkic shamans in Siberia demonstrate their ability to master a complex vocabulary as well as extensive knowledge concerning herbs, rituals, healing procedures, and the purported spirit world. Sandner (1979) described the remarkable abilities of the Navajo hatalii: to attain their status, they must memorize at least 10 ceremonial chants, each of which contains hundreds of individual songs. Noll (1983) compared verbal reports from both schizophrenics and shamans with criteria described in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He reported that important phenomenological differences exist between the two groups and that the “schizophrenic metaphor” of shamanism is therefore untenable (p. 455). This assertion is supported by personality test data; for example, Boyer, Klopfer, Brawer, and Kawai (1964) administered Rorschach inkblots to 12 male Apache shamans, 52 nonshamans, and 7 “pseudoshamans.” Rorschach analysis demonstrated that the shamans showed as high a degree of reality testing potential. The authors concluded, “In their mental approach, the shamans appear less hysterical than the other groups” (p. 176). They ““are more mature and creative than their peers”” (Boyer, 1979, p. 79) and are “healthier than their societal co-members.... This finding argues against [the] stand that the shaman is severely neurotic or psychotic, at least insofar as the Apaches are concerned” (Boyer et al., 1964, p. 179). and were “healthier than their societal co-members.... This finding argues against [the] stand that the shaman is severely neurotic or psychotic, at least insofar as the Apaches are concerned” (p. 179). Fabrega and Silver’s (1973) study used a different projective technique with 20 Zinacantecoan shamans and 23 nonshaman peers in Mexico and found few differences between the groups, but described the shamans as freer and more creative. The first epidemiological survey of psychiatric disorders among shamans was reported in 2002. A research team associated with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization of Amsterdam (Van Ommeren et al., 2002) surveyed a community of 616 male Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and assessed International Classification of Disease disorders using structured diagnostic interviews. Of the refugees, 42 claimed to be shamans; after controlling for demographic differences, their general profile of disorders did not significantly differ from that of the nonshamans. Indeed, shamans had fewer of the general anxiety disorders that afflicted nonshamans. Wilson and Barber (1981) identified fantasy-prone personalities among their hypnotic subjects. This group wais highly imaginative but, for the most part, neither neurotic nor psychotic (Van Ommeren et al., 2002). It is likely that many shamans would fall within this category, as the shaman’s visions and fantasies are thought to represent activities in the spirit world (Noel, 1999; Noll, 1985). Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) concluded, “The world of... a mentally dysfunctional individual is disintegrated. On the other hand, just the opposite may be said about a shaman” (p. 104). Along these lines, Frank and Frank (1991) traced the roots of psychotherapy back to shamanism, and Torrey (1986) asserteds that the “cure” rate of shamans and other indigenous practitioners compares favorably with that of Western psychologists and psychiatrists.

In Retrospect Contemporary social scientists rarely pathologize shamans, and when they describe them as “wounded healers” and “fantasy-prone,” these attributions are often combined with admiration, respect, or indifference. Of course, the variety of shamanic selection procedures undercuts these generalizations, especially when shamanism is hereditary and a novice assumes the role even without having experienced a “wounding” illness. A far greater commonality among shamanic practitioners is the attentionconsideration they give to resolving the psychological problems and challenges faced by individuals, families, and communities within their purview.

The Soul Flight Model

Point The Romanian-American religion historian Mircea Eliade (1951/1972) integrated the many tribal variations of shamanism into a unified concept, referring to them as “technicians of ecstasy.” According to Eliade, “The shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascent ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld” (p. 5). For Mmany other writers agree, stating thats, altered states of consciousness (ASCs) are the sine qua non of shamanism, particularly those involving ecstatic journeying, (i.e., soul flight or out-of-body experience). Heinze (1991) wrote, “Only those individuals can be called shamans who can access alternative states of consciousness at will” (p. 13). Ripinsky-Naxon (1993) added, “Clearly, the shaman’s technique of ecstasy is the main component in the shamanic state of consciousness” (p. 86). Proponents of the soul flight/ecstatic journeying model point to the close association between rhythmic percussion (and other forms of perceptual flooding), journeying, and healing. Neher’s (1961) investigations demonstrated that drumming could induce theta wave EEG frequency. Maxfield (1994) built on and extended Neher’s work and found that theta brain waves were synchronized with monotonous drumbeats of 3– - 6 cycles per second, a rhythm associated with many shamanic rituals. Harner and Tyron (1996) studied students of shamanism during drumming sessions and observed trends toward enhanced positive mood states and an increase in positive immune response. Bittman et al. (2001) also reported that rhythmic drumming had a salubrious effect upon immune systems. The term “shamanic state of consciousness” (Harner, 1980) infers that there is a single state that characterizes shamans, even though it can be induced in several different ways. Winkelman’s (1992) cross-cultural survey of 47 societies yielded data that demonstrate that at least one type of practitioner in each populace engaged in ASC induction by one or many vehicles. For Winkelman (2000), each vehicle to the ASC resulted in an “integrative mode” of consciousness. This mode reflects slow wave discharges, producing strongly coherent brainwave patterns that synchronize the frontal areas of the brain, integrating nonverbal information into the frontal cortex, and producing visionary experiences and “insight”.

Counterpoint According to its critics, the soul flight model ignores the diversity of shamanic ASCs as well as activity that does not seem to involve dramatic shifts in consciousness. Peters and Price-Williams (1980) compared 42 societies from 4 different cultural areas and identified three common elements in shamanic ASCs: voluntary control of the ASC, post-ASC memory of the experience, and the ability to communicate with others during the ASC. Peters and Price-Williams also reported that shamans in 18 out of the 42 societies they surveyed specialized in spirit incorporation: 10 were engaged in out-of-body journeying, 11 in both procedures, and 3 in some different ASC. In other words, there are several “shamanic states of consciousness,” and not all of them employ ecstatic soul flight (Walsh, 1990, p. 214). Eliade’s statements are further constricted by his emphasis on flights to the “”upperworld”” rather than to the “”underworld,”” which is of equal importance (Noel, 1999, p. 35). The soul flight model also has been criticized by those who deny that profound alterations of consciousness are the defining characteristic of shamanismThose who deny that profound alterations of consciousness are the defining characteristic of shamanism also have criticized the soul flight model. Some shamanic traditions do not use terms that easily translate into “alterations” of consciousness. Navaho shamans exhibit prodigious feats of memory in recounting cultural myths, and use sand paintings, drums, and dances in the process, but insist “they need no special trance or ecstatic vision... only the desire and the patience to learn the vast amount of symbolic material” (Sandner, 1979, p. 242). Berman (2000) suggests that the term heightened awareness more accurately captures shamanic behavior than altered states because shamans describe their intense experience of the natural world in such terms as “things often seem to blaze” (p. 30). Shweder (1972) administered a number of perceptual tests to a group of Zinacanteco Zinacateco shamans and nonshamans, asking them, for example, to identify a series of blurred, out-of-focus photographs. Nonshamans were more likely than shamans to respond, “I don’t know.” Shamans were prone to describe the photographs, even when the pictures were completely blurred. When the examiner offered suggestions as to what the image might be, the shamans were more likely than the nonshamans to ignore the suggestion and give their own interpretation. Paradoxically, shamans are characterized both by an acute perception of their environment and by imaginative fantasy. These traits include the potential for pretending and role-playing and the capacity to experience the natural world vividly. During times of social stress, these traits may have given prehistoric shamans an edge over peers who had simply embraced life as it presented itself, without the filters of myth or ritual (Shweder, 1972, p. 81).

In Retrospect When looking for a common hallmark of shamanic practice, itIt may be more appropriate to speak of shamanic modification of attentional states rather than of a single shamanic state of consciousness (such as soul flight) as a common hallmark of shamanic practice. Attention determines what enters someone’’s awareness. When attention is selective, there is an aroused internal state that makes some stimuli more relevant than are others are, thus more likely to attract one’’s attention. The suppression of seances, spirit dances, and drumming rituals by colonial governments and missionaries led to the decline of altered states induction in some parts of the world (e.g., Hugh-Jones, 1996, p. 70; Taussig, 1987, pp. 93-104). MorHence, more basic to e basic to shamansism than “”altered states of consciousness”” may be the unique attention that they givea tounique perception of the relations between human beings, their own bodies, and the natural world and theire shamans’ willingness to share the resultingis knowledge with others (Perrin, 1992, pp. 122-123.). The suppression of seances, spirit dances, and drumming rituals by colonial governments and missionaries led to the decline of induction procedures in some parts of the world (e.g., Hugh-Jones, 1996, p. 70; Taussig, 1987, pp. 93-104). The function of these procedures has been to shift the shaman’’s attention to internal processes or external perceptions that could be used for the benefit of the community and its members. Outsiders’’ bans on these technologies diminished the social role played by shamans, and increased tribal dependence upon the colonial administrators.

About the author


Stanley Krippner

Stanley Krippner, Ph.D is an American psychologist, writer and an xecutive faculty member and Professor of Psychology at Saybrook University in California. Former director Krippner of the Kent State University Child study Center, Kent /Ohio), director of the Maimonides Medical Center Dream Research Laboratory/ Brooklyn, New York. Past. President International Association of the Study of Dreams.