Ronald Hutton's Shamans: Part 3 - Summary

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

Chapters on this page:
Ch 10: How Shamanism Developed |  Ch 11: Shamanism in Europe |  Ch 12: Neoshamanism


Chapter 10: How Shamanism Developed [pp 112 – 127]

Hutton devotes this chapter to looking at scholars’, particularly at Eliade’s, understanding of how shamanism developed historically. He distinguishes two models. In one, shamanism was an extremely old form of spirituality and a major influence on Hinduism, Buddhism and other Asian religions. In the other, Siberian shamanism developed as late as at the time of our Middle Ages, as a fusion of Buddhism with indigenous traditions.

The lack of evidence:

The absence of written descriptions of any kind prior to the c13th makes any definitive answer to the problem impossible. Other pointers are no great help. In the last half century, Russian scholars have studied Siberian rock art intensively, but to little avail.

The resort to linguistics has been no more fruitful. For instance, the Tungu term, ‘shaman’ (from which our own term derives) is almost the same as the Chinese term, ‘sha-men’, meaning a Buddhist monk, and comes from Pali. Now it could be that the Tungu term was anciently borrowed from Pali, but it could equally be the case that the similarity between the two words is pure coincidence.

The social context:

Soviet scholars offered understandings of the history of shamanism based on the Marxist view of history. All these understandings shared the notion that shamans were part of the process by which primitive communism was replaced by less egalitarian forms of society.

Hutton agrees with Humphrey that, while these Marxist approaches are speculative, they do link changes in religion to those of society generally. Humphrey herself linked the contrasting religions of the western and eastern Buryat peoples to differences in social structure. In the historical period, the western region was economically and culturally conservative, which was conducive to shamanism, with its veneration of ancestors and of spirits associated with the land. The eastern region was relatively more modern, making it more conducive to Buddhism.

The comparative method:

Another approach to understanding the development of shamanism over time has been the comparative method. This has been a matter of comparing the various Siberian societies in order to determine which might include shamanism at its most basic and therefore original.

Hutton finds little merit in this approach. Thus he is unconvinced by the view that the professional shamans found in the Koryak people were a later development than the family shamans also found there: it could just as easily be the other way round. In general, it has not been established whether particular shamanisms when studied by scholars represented survivals of some earlier stage of development or some recent ones.

Eliade’s Shamanism:

Hutton contrasts the deep but narrow focus in shamanistic studies of Soviet scholars and also of their Hungarian associates with the global focus of Western scholars, largely under the leadership of Mircea Eliade. [1]The latter had a view of religion that was in total contrast to that of the Communists: for him, it was an extremely valuable human phenomenon.

Eliade’s immensely influential Shamanism was published in France in 1951 and in English translation in 1964. In it, the historian of religions pointed to shaman-like figures all over the world and claimed that shamanism had been the basis of the world’s religions.

This approach of selecting parallel examples from all over the world and building a grandiose theory out of them – the way Frazer had done in The Golden Bough – had long since been abandoned by anthropologists.

Eliade identified Siberia as providing the essential shamanism. He saw the Siberian shaman as ‘the master of ecstasy’, a member of a spiritual elite who accessed mystical experience through their twin powers of being able to control spirits and to travel to the world of the spirits.

A Supreme Being and a holy war:

What is more, at the end of the book, Eliade claimed that shamanism had been based on the belief in a Supreme Being who could be encountered personally on journeying to the heavens. Again, shamans were essentially engaged on behalf of their people in a holy war between good and evil.

Eliade had made his case by including whatever evidence supported it and omitting whatever did not. This was heady stuff for a readership who had no prior knowledge of the subject.

The historian of religions drew in examples of comparable phenomena from all over the world, ignoring or dismissing problems that threatened his picture of an early worldwide shamanism. Thus, he ignored the possibility that shaman-like phenomena could have arisen independently in different parts of the world and supposed that those areas from which shamanism was apparently absent, such as Melanisia, had had it at one time but lost it.

Hutton on Eliade:

Hutton comments:

He was imposing an ideal type on a very diverse and complex set of phenomena. It was both a free-floating and a static model, lacking much sense of either specific social contexts and specific historical development. It was an image of direct, transformative and socially powerful religious experience, disassociated from institutions or dogmas and represented as more ancient, fundamental, universal and ancestral than they.

[p 123]

Eliade found favour because his image of the shaman as a hero in the fight between good and evil who had received power from encountering a heavenly Supreme Being struck a chord in the West. [2]

Ioan Lewis:

At the start of the 1970s, British anthropologist, Ioan Lewis, had explained Eliade’s success as a matter of an ‘American preoccupation with culture rather than society’, which meant that US scholars treated religion as an independent phenomenon on a world scale, divorced from particular social contexts [3].

According to Lewis, anthropologists in Britain largely ignored ‘spirituality’, made little use of the term ‘shaman’ and were more interested in the social context of religion.

Lewis himself defined shamans more broadly than Eliade: to include those through whom spirits spoke (as well as those who controlled spirits and went on spirit journeys). Also he pointed out that phenomena comparable to Siberian shamanism had been far more frequently encountered in North and South America than in other parts of the world, particularly Africa, the main focus of British anthropologists.

Moreover, Lewis saw shamanism as having represented an ‘egalitarian view of man’s relations with the divine’ and an ‘original accord between God and man’ that he referred to as an ‘ecstatic mystery’.

A tidal wave:

In the following decades there was a tidal wave of scholarly publications on shamanism: as variously defined. One consideration that came to the fore was that shamanism had been associated with hunter-gatherer societies. But this is problematic. On the one hand, Siberian shamanism had been associated not with hunter-gatherers but with herders, while some other Asian shamanisms were associated with agriculture. On the other hand, the existence of shamanism was not conclusively established for the hunter-gatherers of Australia and Africa.

So far, there has been no definitive answer to the issue of whether, as Eliade thought, the existence of shamanism in various parts of the world was the result of diffusion from Old Stone Age Europe and Asia, or else, as Vitebsky has recently suggested, of independent developments arising from the parallel experiences of individuals all over the world while in states of altered consciousness.

Chapter 11 Shamanism in Europe [pp 129 – 149]

Hutton now considers the impact of shamanic studies on our understanding of European prehistory and history. 60 years previously, the British classical scholar, Francis Cornford, had suggested comparisons between some Greek poets and Siberian shamans; a scholarly debate on the matter had ensued. However, after 40 years the case had still not been proved.

Rock art:

For western Europe, Eliade and others claimed that Palaeolithic art was evidence of the early existence of shamanism. But the problems did not go away: firstly, the lack of general acceptance of the alleged links between shamanism and hunter-gathering, secondly, the vagueness surrounding the very notion of shamanism, thirdly, the difficulty in identifying beliefs on the basis of artefacts.

Starting in the late 1980s, renewed impetus to the debate came from the work of Lewis-Williams and Dowson. These South African archaeologists linked Palaeolithic art to shamanism in two ways. First, they pointed to a surviving Southern African hunter-gatherer people called the San. San art is comparable to that of Palaeolithic Europe and, what is more, the San explain it as having to do with shamanism. Second, Lewis-Williams and Dowson claimed that the images and motifs of Palaeolithic art correspond to the ‘entopic’ visual images experienced by people in states of altered consciousness.

These ideas have been challenged, but for Hutton, while they are not conclusive, they do provide the best explanation yet for Palaeolithic rock art.

However, we have to ask why, assuming shamanism existed in Palaeolithic Europe, it apparently disappeared here when it did not do so in Siberia. It has been claimed by archaeologists that certain grave goods found in Western European burial excavations are indicative of shamanism. Hutton is not convinced.

Celtic literature:

Another area explored for evidence of European shamanism has been early Celtic literature. In the early 1940s, British academic, Nora Chadwick, wrote a book in which she saw Celtic druids and bards as linked to Siberian shamans by a shared tradition of communing with the world of spirits. Recently, Leslie Ellen Jones has identified shamanic figures in ancient Welsh literature.

But again, Hutton is not convinced. Celtic literature does not give instances of characters engaging in shamanic performance involving personal spirit-helpers.

The Votyaks and the Saami:

Two European peoples did indeed have shamans: the Votyaks of Eastern Russia and the Saami of Lapland. Documentation on shamanic performance among the latter goes back to the c12th. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, it predates any written evidence of shamanism in Siberia. Secondly, it undermines the theory that Siberian shamanism derived from Buddhism: Lapland being too far distant geographically.

C13th Icelandic literature offers evidence of practices in Scandinavia that show some shamanic elements. However, these are insufficient to establish the presence of Siberian style shamanism. Thus there are accounts of shape-shifting, but these refer to witches and sorcerers going about their evil work in this world rather than to shamanic performances involving journeys to the spirit world to find cures for illness.

Indeed, the Siberian peoples and likewise the Votyaks and Saami did not believe in witches or the like. Consequently, their shamans were never required to identify and deal them: unlike the equivalents to shamans among most peoples in Europe and many other parts of the world, where the existence of malevolent individuals was believed in.

Given that the Magyars, who arrived in Hungary in the c10th, appear to have come from the Urals area, i.e. from the western borders of Siberia, it has been claimed that their popular culture showed evidence of a prior shamanism. Again, a tradition in North East Italy of individuals being able to send their spirits to fight the spirits of witches has been linked to shamanism. In fact, it has been argued that these two instances were part of a tradition stretching right across the Balkans.

But there are fatal flaws in this line of thought. The similarities with Siberian shamanism are too flimsy to carry any weight. However, there does exist a mid-c17th report of shaman style performance in Moldavia which cannot be easily dismissed.

Hutton reflects to the effect that that shamanic studies are so lacking in consensus that individual scholars are free to erect whatever theories they see fit.

A psychological basis for shamanism:

He ends the chapter by suggesting to a probable psychological basis for shamanism. He points to the case of a c18th Swedish faith-healer whose ability to cure had been revealed to her by a spirit-helper. If this woman had been born in a Siberian people, she would undoubtedly have been accounted a shaman.

Again, Hutton tells us that he is himself acquainted with individuals who are visited by spirits, including a friend of his who works as a healer. It is simply a matter of cultural difference that this woman and others do not see themselves as shamans and do not get the sort of public recognition they would have had in Siberian societies.

Thus Vitebsky’s proposition is correct, that:

the traits which underpin Siberian shamanism occur naturally in individuals throughout humanity, although they are given different cultural expression at particular times and places. [p 149]

Chapter 12 Neoshamanism [pp 151 – 162]

In his final chapter, Hutton considers the possible re-emergence of shamanism in Siberia today and, at greater length, the phenomenon of neoshamanism in the West.

The official Soviet line in the 1980s had been that Siberian shamanism was by then extinct. However, since the collapse of the Soviet regime there has been some doubt about that. Individuals have emerged, claiming to be shamans; in Tuva, in Central Siberia, there is even an association of shamans.

But the evidence for the reappearance of traditional shamanism is unconvincing. Today’s practitioners documented by scholars are not shamans (in the sense of working with spirit-helpers and going on spirit-journeys). Instead, they appear to be practising either other forms of folk medicine or else Western style alternative therapies.


Hutton now makes four points about neoshamanism, the use in the West of practices modelled on the shamanism of traditional societies.

Firstly, neoshamanism stems from the work of two American anthropologists, Carlos Castenada and Michael Harner, both of whom abandoned academic careers in favour of addressing a wider audience. They both presented materials drawn from Central and South America: so the Americas are the main source for neoshamanism, though Siberian shamanism does have some place.

Hutton argues that the native American ‘medicine men’ were not in fact true shamans in the Siberian sense at all. Where they existed, which was not everywhere, these practitioners rarely worked with ancestral helpers or undertook spirit-journeys. Indeed, there is some resentment among today’s native Americans that the comparison between their ‘medicine men’ and shamans should be made at all.

Hutton offers a brief summary of Harner’s message. It is about drumming and dancing techniques for attaining a state of altered consciousness which will make possible access to alternative realities for personal empowerment and the ability to heal.

Secondly, Hutton touches on the significance of Eliade for neoshamanism. Our author finds that it was the interest generated by Eliade's Shamanism that made the rise of neoshamanism possible. A (key) difference between Eliade and neoshamanism is that for him the shaman was a member of a member of a spiritual elite, whereas for the movement, anybody can become a shaman.

Thirdly, there is the contrast between attitudes to shamanism in earlier centuries and those of today. Whereas formerly shamans were condemned, today they are emulated. What is more, the focus has switched geographically from Siberia, which represented the mysterious for Europe, to the lands of the native Americans, representing the mysterious for the USA.

Fourthly, neoshamanism is not without controversy. One of the issues is whether it exploits traditional culture or reveres it. Another is whether it is genuinely comparable to traditional shamanism: a matter unlikely to be settled, given that there is no agreed definition of what shamanism is.

The difficulties are likely to get worse as time goes by, because the neoshamanisms of Siberia and America are converging. For there is a two-way traffic of influences between them. Thus, Harner’s ‘core shamanism’ is actually being taught in Siberia now.

Finally, Hutton notes that academic attitudes in the former Soviet bloc have been changing since the collapse of Communism. There is now a willingness to accept that shamanism may have a value.

(c) John C Durham, 2006

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