Ronald Hutton's Shamans: Comments and Notes

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Pages for Shamans: ShamansIntro & Part 1Part 2Part 3Comments & Notes

Comments and Notes on this page:    Intro and Part 1 |  Part 2 |  Part 3

Introduction and Part 1

1 Publicly

Hutton refers to the public manifestations of shamanic gifts as performances rather than as rituals or ceremonies.     [Back to the main text]

2 ‘a parcel of jugglers’

One is reminded of attitudes today, like that of Richard Dawkins. See Protestant Atheism on this site.     [Back to the main text]

3 The Problems of Research

We may suppose that with there being far more historians around than anthropologists or religious studies specialists, awareness of the problems of research will be far more highly developed in professors of history like Hutton. I find that, in general, accounts of religion produced by historians seem far more satisfactory than those of these other academic types.     [Back to the main text]

4 Participation

Anisimov actually says, ‘When the shaman had sung a verse of the song, those present repeated it in chorus.’ Unfortunately, he does not indicate for how far into proceedings these repetitions continued. Does he means that the repetitions carried on throughout the ceremony? For, as we shall see, the shaman’s chanting continues throughout, expect for when he is as if dead on the floor or is dancing ecstatically.

This is not a quibble. The nature of participation in religious ceremonies of ordinary believers is of central importance for this site.     [Back to the main text]

Part 2

1 The Earliest Western Writers

Not counting Johnson. The writers were Avvakum (1672) and Witsen (1682).     [Back to the main text]

2 Authorities

Eliade's Le chamanisme was published in France in 1951 and in English translation as Shamanism in 1964. The Caroline Humphrey reference is to her important article in a 1994 book she co-edited with Nicholas Thomas: Shamanism, History and the State.

I have copies of both these titles, but the Siikala reference is to a book that is probably not going to be readily available. In such cases, I am not providing bibliographical information. Hutton, of course, has a comprehensive apparatus, with notes and a bibliography.     [Back to the main text]

3 Axis Mundi

Hutton does not actually use this Eliade term.     [Back to the main text]

4 Occupational Training

The three stages of shamanic apprenticeship are no great insight on Eliade's part. In any socially recognised occupation, admission must inevitably be a matter of some sort of three stage process, with any differences as merely a matter of emphasis. Thus ‘vocation’ focuses on the candidate’s reasons for wanting to take up a particular sort of occupation. For some occupations, we might have ‘recruitment’ instead of vocation for the first stage: with the focus on the occupation taking up particular candidates.     [Back to the main text]

5 Inherited Spirits?

Hutton seems to falter here. Firstly, we have understood from what he has told us previously, not that spirits were passed on in the manner of family heirlooms, but that shamans chose their own, or that spirits chose them. Indeed, the only family spirits we have come across in the book so far have been the ghosts of ancestors who had to be visited in the underworld by the shaman’s personal band of spirit-helpers for information about the causes of illness.

Secondly, Hutton’s observation that spirits frequently chose candidates who were not from a shamanic background suggests that heredity was not particularly significant at all. The author actually says at this point: ‘In essence, shamans were perceived as people chosen by the supernatural world.’ [p 70] This suggests that Eliade might not have been too wide of the mark after all, in not emphasising shamanic heredity.

Again, Hutton has earlier in the book evoked the contemporary ethnographic principle of offering a description of religious phenomena that does not challenge believers’ own understanding. If, as seems to be the upshot of Hutton’s examples, Siberians themselves believed that either the spirits picked out shamans for themselves or vice versa, why does he base his discussion on heredity, which seems to be a matter of scholarly generalisation.

In Britain today, and no doubt worldwide, doctor's children for example seem to follow their parents into the medical profession quite frequently and, even more so, successive generations of families carry on the family business. We have to wonder whether any principle of heredity operating in Siberian shamanism was really different in kind or more noteworthy than that.     [Back to the main text]

6 Withdrawal from Society

Hutton has offered no evidence for this last assertion about trainee shamans generally. A couple of pages earlier (p 72), he has listed only four Siberian peoples among whom trainee shamans withdrew from society.     [Back to the main text]

7 Rite of Passage?

Hutton says:

‘In the classic manner of the rite of passage, this period ended with the new shaman’s acceptance into society as a qualified practitioner.’ [p 74]

‘This period’ refers to novices withdrawing from society. But as we saw in the preceding note, the author has not established that, except in a small number of cases, they ever left society in the first place.

The use of the term ‘rite of passage’ therefore seems out of place. As far as we know from Hutton up to this point, for most would-be shamans, training was no more a rite of passage than a modern child attending school is. Slipshod journalists use the term inappropriately, but we have a right to expect Hutton to use it in this context in the manner of say, Victor Turner, as referring to a specific ritual process.     [Back to the main text]

8 Dual Acceptance

Obviously, the completion of any professional training anywhere in the world is going to require some sort of acceptance from the profession and from the public. Hutton gives several examples of Siberian shamanic rites of initiation, but only his reference to some reports for one people offers any basis for his going to the trouble of mentioning dual acceptance.     [Back to the main text]

9 Shamans and their Clientele

By definition, professionals and their clients must have some sort of relationship.

Given that Hutton has provided illustrative material in relation to so many of his other points, it is difficult to see why he does not here explore the relationships between the Siberian shamans and their social context. What did shamans think of their clients and how did they treat them as people? How did communities think of their shamans and how did they treat them?

In view of the variability Hutton has emphasised with regard to other aspects of shamanism, we would expect to find across Siberia a whole spectrum of attitudes on either side. Indeed, our author has already touched on the matter from time to time in other contexts.

Two sides of the same coin

It is, of course, an issue of central importance for this site, which takes the view that exceptional religious experience generally has to be understood in relation to its consumers. In this case, the spirit-journeys of shamans cannot be understood independently of the people for whom they were performed.

It is only because of the dominance of the Protestant understanding of religion, in purely psychological terms, that visionaries of one sort or another are considered in isolation from their social and cultural context. After all, most of the people in the world who claim to have visions, hear voices, be visited by spirits or whoever are either ignored or treated as deranged. It is only the meaning of these things within the culture and acceptance within the community that makes them significant.

Thus, from the point of view of this site, William James was entirely in error to contrast the religious elite he studied in The Varieties of Religious Experience with ordinary believers, whose religion he dismissed as second-hand. Without ordinary believers there are no special souls: they are two sides of the same coin.      [Back to the main text]

10 Polemical?

Hutton labels this last idea as polemical, but does not explain why. Early in the book he had mentioned the Soviet persecution of shamans. So here he is doubtless hinting at the notion that presenting shamanism as a matter of individual creativity rather than of popular tradition was felt to absolve the Soviet authorities of attacking the ‘people’ whose interests they claimed to represent.     [Back to the main text]

11 A Relational Being

Hutton's reference is to Humphrey and Onan: Shamans and Elders [1996]. As suggested in earlier notes, the relationship between specialists and ordinary believers is a crucial consideration for this site. The intention is to explore Humphrey's work further.     [Back to the main text]

Part 3

1 Eliade's Politics

Hutton tells us that, as a right wing refugee from Communist Romania, ‘Eliade was personally a mortal enemy of the Soviet Union and of the Warsaw Pact’ [p 120] who had gone to the USA via France.     [Back to the main text]

2 Joseph Campbell

The same sort of explanation doubtless accounts for the success of Joseph Campbell.     [Back to the main text]

3 The American Preoccupation

This site sees the thing more in terms of the absence of a social dimension in core Protestant thought.     [Back to the main text]

(c) John C Durham, 2006

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