Ronald Hutton's Shamans: Part 2 - Summary

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

Chapters on this page:
Ch 5: Shamanism: a Confused Concept |  Ch 6: Cosmological Considerations | 
Ch 7: Becoming a Shaman |  Ch 8: Shamans as Performers |  Ch 9: Further Considerations


Chapter 5: Shamanism: a Confused Concept [pp 47 – 58]

We use the term ‘shaman’ because it was one that happened to be used by the earliest Western writers to discuss the phenomenon [1]. It was not used universally by the native Siberians: each language had its own terms.

Practitioners of magic and religion:

What is more, those practitioners designated by this term or its equivalents were usually marginal in their communities and religions. They existed alongside other practitioners in the areas of magic and religion. Thus, a sick member of the Sakha people might, according to a late c19th account, turn for help to conjurors, hysterics, prophets or sorcerers rather than to either of the separate male or female types of shaman. A more recent account of the Sakha has a different set of practitioners: diviners, healers, wise persons, dream interpreters, as well as the male and female shamans.

Again, not just shamans but all kinds of people in Siberia and adjacent areas used states of altered consciousness, including some in order to make contact with spirits. Consequently, it is quite arbitrary for Western scholars to identify shamans with these practices.

Furthermore, for some peoples at least, shamanism was not so much a religion as something that certain people in a community might have recourse to in certain circumstances. And where multiple accounts from different Western observers exist, contradictions between them mean that any conclusions drawn by scholars may be arbitrary.

There is confusion not only as to what shamans did, but likewise as to who they were. Only among some peoples were shamans professional practitioners serving a locality; among others they worked only with a particular clan and among yet others again, with a particular family.

So what was shamanism about essentially? C20th scholars have come up with various formulations. Mid-century, Mircea Eliade (1951/1964) viewed shamans as defenders of the human soul against evil, Siikala (1984), as ‘troubleshooters’ [p 51] tackling problems blamed on spirits. Humphrey (1994) added to the idea of tackling problems that of affirming social structure. [2]


Hutton himself identifies healing as one of the key functions of shamans. This was central to traditional medical practice throughout the world. In shamanism, it involved dealing with spirits in particular ways: not necessarily restricted to controlling spirits or journeying to other worlds, as some scholars would have it.

Evidence is lacking as to how successful at healing sickness shamans actually were. It does seem that they were particularly ineffectual in the area of childbirth.


Divination was likewise central to shamanism, either as clairvoyance, helping people to find things, or as prophecy, advising people about challenges that lay ahead. Hutton dismisses Eliade’s exclusion of divination from his understanding of shamanism. In their divining, apart from consulting spirits, shamans in various parts of Siberia might use various other techniques, such as examining bones.

In certain peoples, shamanic functions besides healing and divination might exist. Thus, among the Nenet one particular type of shaman, called the sambana, was involved with deaths: indicating where the dead should be buried, removing pollution caused by death and conducting the souls of the dead to the next world.

Hutton suggests that Eliade exaggerated the importance of this last sort of function, found only occasionally among Siberian peoples, at the expense of the widespread function of divination.

Hunting magic:

Again, in some peoples shamans were involved in hunting magic. Thus they might make spirit-journeys to the spirits guarding the species to be hunted: in order to get permission to hunt. But among one people at any rate, shamans were specifically excluded from hunting magic.

In a 1990 synthesis, French anthropologist, Roberte Hayamon, argues that hunting magic had originally been the main activity of shamans, but that once Siberian peoples got involved in pastoralism, shamans got downgraded to other functions. Hutton suggests that the available evidence is insufficient to support this hypothesis.

Chapter 6: Cosmological Considerations [pp 59 – 67]

Hutton identifies three features common among Siberian cosmologies that have a bearing on shamanism.

Firstly, inanimate as well as living things had spirits dwelling in them. This meant, for instance, that there was a need to propitiate the spirits of mountains, forests, lakes etc, in order to exploit their animals and plants.

Secondly, the world exists on a series of levels. However, Hutton rejects as an oversimplification Eliade’s claim that Siberian cosmologies in general involved an axis mundi [3]: a world tree or something comparable, that linked together just three world levels, those of heaven, the underworld and this world between.

Thirdly, living things, including humans, had multiple spirits. Thus illness might be understood as the loss of one of a person’s spirits and the shaman’s task as recovering it.

However, Hutton cautions against making too much of these specific cosmological considerations in relation to shamans. He suggests that shamanism existed independently of particular cosmologies: these merely determined what actual forms it took in particular cultures.

External influences:

It is in fact very difficult to ascertain what the indigenous Siberian belief systems actually were, given that the available evidence shows them in states in which they incorporated external influences, frequently of uncertain provenance.

For example, in the late c19th, some Central Siberian peoples had a version of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve’s dismissal from the Garden of Eden. This could have been picked up recently from Russian Orthodox Christianity, but it could have derived instead from Nestorian Christianity, which was present in Central Asia in medieval times. And there is a third possibility: both the Biblical and Siberian versions could derive independently from a common Middle Eastern source dating back maybe several thousand years.

These sorts of problem extend to all types of religious motifs that seem to be linked not only to Christian but also to Islamic, Chinese and Buddhist originals. Thus the points of similarity between Siberian religions and Buddhism may represent the influence of the latter on the former, but they may equally mean that Siberian religions and the relevant forms of Buddhism share a common ancestry.

Hutton argues that the safe course is to seek to understand the connections between shamanism and cosmology as they existed at the time the evidence was collected by scholars, in say the 30 or 40 years either side of 1900. This gives us the view that shamans worked mainly with animal spirits: those of mountains, lakes etc being regarded as too powerful. The particular animals involved varied not merely from one people to the next, but among individual shamans within a given people.


Some peoples believed that shamans had one special spirit-helper, an animal-double, the spirit of a deceased shaman, or even a spirit-lover of the opposite sex. Other peoples believed that shamans had two spirit-helpers, such as one animal-double and one deceased shaman.

Some shamans found their spirit-helpers from among peoples other than their own. Thus one is recorded as having a Russian saint for a helper.

Hutton now challenges the theory of Eliade to the effect that, worldwide, shamans were characterised by the ability to control spirit-helpers. This generalisation derived from a 1935 book by S M Shirokogoff, itself based on fieldwork done among the Southern Evenk before 1914.

Eliade’s theory has been challenged by others in so far as it could be applied to other parts of the world. Hutton now questions its applicability to Siberia itself. Our author points out that two accounts of a researcher working in the field at the same time as Shirokogoff seem to demonstrate that even among the neighbours of the Southern Evenk shamans were not believed to control the spirits they worked with. Hutton goes on to demonstrate that a whole range of relationships could exist between Siberian shamans and their helpers: including the shaman being the servant of his spirits.

Shirokogoff psychologised shamanic belief, claiming that on the one hand spirit-helpers represented the shaman’s states of altered consciousness and on the other that the spirits he fought against represented psychological problems. It is an approach taken up at the end of the c20th by Piers Vitebsky (in The Shaman [1995]).

Hutton sees this approach as making a lot of sense to present-day people. However, it is not how the Siberians themselves understood things and, moreover, it is entirely hypothetical.

Chapter 7: Becoming a Shaman [pp 69-83]

Hutton now turns to the selection and training of shamans. Eliade (1964) had identified a shamanic apprenticeship in three stages: vocation, training and acceptance. 30 years later, Siikala (1992) had come up with something similar. But Hutton finds that in reality things were more complicated. [4]

In Siberia shamanism was usually hereditary, something that Eliade did not give its due importance. Hutton points to examples of the hereditary principle, including where it was a matter of alternate generations: the scholarly gloss being that a new shaman would be needed only in alternate generations.

What was being inherited was spirits, with inheritance usually being a case of the spirits themselves taking on a new candidate. Also, the spirits on a regular basis chose candidates who did not have a family background in shamanism, particularly if candidates with such a background were lacking. [5]

Only in the North West did candidates have to attract a spirit into becoming their helper. In every other part of Siberia, it was the spirits who sought out the humans, the presence of the former often being signalled by the individual becoming either physically or mentally ill. These illnesses have been seen as psychomatic by Siikala and another scholar, Basilov.

Moving on to the training of shamans, Hutton tells us that it was a matter partly of instruction from existing shamans and partly of contact with the spirits, in some cases that of an ancestral shaman.

Initiation dreams:

The author goes on to refer to shamanic initiation dreams, detailing one recounted to the Soviet scholar, Popov, (presumably in the 1930s). In this dream, the initiate was guided by a spirit through a succession of tents, meeting the spirits of the illnesses he would need to cure and learning how to do so. Hutton quotes the account of the initiate’s experience of the seventh tent, in which he is reduced to a skeleton and sees the spirits of the iron pendants that will hang from his ceremonial clothes.

Eliade was wrong to claim that shamanic initiates throughout the world necessarily had a vision involving their dying and being reborn. This does not hold true even for the region of Siberia where the particular example quoted was recorded. All that can be said in this context about shamanic candidates generally is that they withdrew for a time from society as part of their training. [6]

We now come to the final phase of the shamanic training process, introduction to society. [7] This involved two sorts of acceptance: by fellow practitioners and by the community. Hutton instances a people where there could be ceremonies for both. [8]

The shamanic training process arose from a culturally generated need and took particular forms. Beyond that there is no pattern discernible in Siberian shamanistic training generally, let alone in shamanic training worldwide.

Also, the only generalisation possible about the relationship between the Siberian shamans and those they worked for is that such a relationship was essential. [9]

Shamanic psychology:

Hutton now goes on to explore shamanic psychology. His main point here is that scholars derived divergent views from their observations in the field.

At the start of the c20th, the view had been accepted scholars generally were mentally ill. This conclusion was later modified, to make shamans socially abnormal in some way. However, further evidence suggested that this was no necessarily the case. One consistent feature that Hutton seems to find is that shamans ‘were somehow different’ [p 77].

Regarding relations between shamans, it again seems difficult to generalise. Hutton notes various local peculiarities, such as the Buryat people believing that their shamans specialised in working with either good or evil spirits and that the two types were hostile to each other.

Clothing and equipment:

Siberian shamans generally had specialised clothing and/or equipment for their rituals. The details varied considerably.

In Central Siberia, shamans usually had a ceremonial robe, commonly ornamented in various ways, the profusion of ornaments perhaps reflecting the status of the wearer. Some practitioners might not have a robe at all.

Hutton is dubious about Eliade’s claim that skeleton ornaments signalled that shamans were individuals who had come back from the dead. The motif was localised and not susceptible to any generalised conclusion.

The majority of shamans in Siberia, though not all, had some sort of drum as part of their equipment. Eliade deserves credit for recognising variation in the types of drums that might be used and in what they might signify.

The author concludes that Siberian shamans always had some particular form of costume or item of equipment , but that just what that might be varied not only from one place to another but also from one individual to another.

Chapter 8: Shamans as Performers [pp 86 – 98]

Hutton now devotes a chapter to shamans as performers. In their ceremonies they variously displayed the skills of singers, dancers, actors, story-tellers etc. It was an aspect of shamanism that the earlier visitors to Siberia and the later scholars were particularly struck by.

The performances of shamans were basically about calling up spirits and getting them to deliver some benefit. As we have seen from the descriptions quoted earlier, this involved the deployment of various performing arts. Each shaman performed in his or her own particular way. Thus members of the same family might have quite different styles.

Possession and dialogue:

For Eliade and, more recently Humphrey and Vitebsky, what characterised shamans, setting them apart from other traditional practitioners, such as sorcerers and healers, was the spirit-journey. But Siikala (1992), and before her Reinhard (1976), had argued that there were actually three types of shamanic strategy involving spirits: possession and dialogue as well as journey. In possession, spirits entered the shamans and spoke through them; in dialogue, the shamans called up spirits and conversed with them.

Hutton finds in favour of this latter approach, making spirit-journey merely the most common strategy. He emphasises that each shaman did things his own way. In fact, a given performer might even combine all three approaches, first becoming possessed by spirits, then talking with them, then going on a journey with them.

Hutton reminds us of two considerations. First, Siberian shamans employed other methods alongside their engagement with spirits. Second, Siberian shamans not only had their own individual way of going about things, but also adjusted their performances according to particular circumstances .

One Soviet scholar had suggested that shamanic dancing among one particular people was basically improvised, another that shamanism might not be an expression of popular tradition but of each individual shaman’s artistic creativity. [10]

Various considerations:

Hutton concludes his chapter with a series of accessory considerations re the performances of shamans.

Firstly, a shaman’s career of performing in public could be extremely demanding. Survival into old age required a shaman to pace himself, in terms of the number and length of his performances and of the amount of strenuous activity.

Secondly, major performances took place in special spaces, such as tents.

Thirdly, while some shamans worked alone, others performed with the help of one or more assistants.

‘A relational being’:

Fourthly, the audience was important. Hutton quotes Humphrey: the shaman was ‘a relational being’. [11]His performance required audience participation, as in singing the refrains to his chants. Hutton refers back to the accounts of performances quoted earlier in the book, in which the involvement of the assembly was a significant feature.

Fifthly, some shamans could be very sensitive to the context of their performance, with one abandoning the whole thing on account of a distraction and another totally oblivious to his surroundings. At the end of this point, our author remarks:

If Siberian shamanism was a form of spirituality, and a form of therapy, it was also a form of entertainment. [p 93]

Judgements on shamanism:

Sixthly, Hutton considers the history of outside observers’ assessments of the performances of shamans. In early accounts, the usual attitude was that the spirits being called up were real but demonic, meaning that the performances were evil. Then came the attitude that the spirits did not exist, meaning that the performances were illusions that needed to be exposed. The attitude of current scholars is to be non-judgmental, to ignore the issue of the status of the spirits and to understand the phenomenon in terms of the belief system that supported it.

Hutton homes in on the consideration that by the end of the c19th it was coming to be realised that deception was not a sufficient explanation of what was going on. One researcher found that not only was the audience deceived by the shaman’s business with a knife, but apparently so was the shaman himself: and that some sort of cure of the person being treated occurred. Another researcher found it impossible to come up with any explanation as to how a particular illusion he witnessed could have been pulled off.

The same researcher also noted a range of performance phenomena that he found very comparable to those being encountered in spiritualism, which was enjoying a vogue in the West at that time: spirit voices, levitation etc. Hutton specifically refuses to share the researcher’s rejection of both shamans and spiritualist mediums:

a blanket condemnation of all is historically unsupportable, and ultimately the same doubt, coloured by conflicting prejudices, hangs over the accomplishments of mediums as over those of shamans. [p 96]

More recent responses to the matter have included that of Vitebsky, who suggested that the idea of trickery is irrelevant when a performance transforms in various ways the consciousness of those involved .

Extraordinary powers:

One Russian researcher, Basilov, had even offered the possibility that the training of shamans might develop extraordinary powers in them, such as the ability to endure extreme cold or even to recognise illnesses and to treat them. Hutton sees this as an example of a Soviet willingness to consider the possibility of extraordinary powers being latent in human beings: hence the Soviet interest in the paranormal.

Chapter 9: Further Considerations [pp 99 – 110]

Hutton now has a chapter in which he runs through a series of minor considerations regarding the Siberian shamans.

First, comes payment. The conclusion is that, generally speaking, 100 years ago shamanism was ‘a vocation rather than a profession’ [p 100]. Few shamans seem to have made a living at it, most got some fairly limited payment in kind for their performances.

Second, the question of drugs is raised. In the middle of the last century, there was some suggestion that mind-altering drugs, particularly the fly agaric mushroom, were in use among Siberian shamans. This idea was rejected by Eliade and later by Siikala.

Fly agaric was widely used by Siberian peoples as an intoxicant, but that only in North West Siberia did shamans use it in their performances and even then to a very limited extent.

Third, there is shape-shifting, the idea of shamans taking the forms of animals when making their spirit-journeys. This was extremely rare in Siberia. Confusion may have arisen on account of the animal-double notion found in a few peoples and referred to earlier in the book.

Fourth, there is the British New Age argument, linked to the idea of ley lines, that shamanic spirits used regular routes made up of straight lines in order to traverse the landscape. The only evidence for this comes from three Central Siberian peoples among whom spirit-journeys were symbolised by cords stretched between posts. For Hutton the case remains unproven.

Fifth is the question of female shamans, to which Hutton devotes several pages. It seems that up to a third or so of shamans were women and shamans altogether were maybe 1% or 2% of the native population.

The status of female shamans was, with some notable exceptions, generally lower than that of their male counterparts. But our author emphasises that in a world where women’s status was very low, shamanism did offer talented women the opportunity of gaining social recognition.

The sixth and final topic in this chapter concerns the sexuality of shamans. Hutton labels this as another ‘cross-cultural issue’ [p 109]: derived from American parallels . The only evidence he offers is the existence among one people of a type of shaman called ‘soft men’ and in another area the occasional wearing of women’s attire by male shamans.

(c) John C Durham, 2006

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