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Conflicting Perspectives on Shamans and Shamanism

Points and Counterpoints: excerpt by Stanley KrippnerShamans’ communities grant them privileged status to attend to those groups’ psychological and spiritual needs. The Epistemology and Technologies of Shamanic States of ConsciousnessShamans 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 decadent 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 study of shamanism could make contributions to cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, psychological therapy, and ecological psychology.

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 review of Western psychological perspectives on shamans reveals several conflicting perspectives. This essay focuses on these controversies.

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). This term describes a particular type of practitioner who attends to the psychological and spiritual needs of a community that has granted that 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 its 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 used; 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 (1992) statistical analysis yielded four practitioner groups: (a) the shaman complex (shamans, shaman-healers, and healers); (b) priests and priestesses; (c) diviners, seers, and mediums; (d) 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 have incorporated these spirit entities. When shamans interacted with spirits, the shamans were almost always dominant; if the shamans suspended volition, it was only temporary. For example, shamans surrender volition during some Native American ritual dances when there is an intense perceptual flooding. Nonetheless, shamans purportedly knew 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 individual’s 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 mastering their self-regulation of bodily functions and attentional states.

The Demonic Model


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).
A 16th-century account by the Spanish navigator and historian, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1535/2001) described “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” (pp. 13, 15). 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 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” (p. 18) who called upon demons.


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 M. Harner (1980), shamanism at its best has an ethical core (but see M.F. 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” (p. 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 as well as by shamans themselves who may accuse rival shamans of using their powers for malevolent purposes (Hugh-Jones, 1996, p. 38).
The Charlatan Model


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 (Diderot and associates, 1713-1784/1965), 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” (p. 33), often after drinking a “special beverage [that they say] is very important to receiving the celestial impressions” (p. 35). 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. 34).

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 “diviners” (p. 25), 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. 24).

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” (p. 29). Krasheninnikov wrote that shamans were “considered doctors” and admitted that they were “cleverer, more adroit and shrewder than the rest of the people” (p. 30), 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. 30).


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” (p. 36). 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” (p. 36). Indeed, “Among all the forces of the human soul, imagination is perhaps the least explored” (p. 37). 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” (p. 37).
The small body of parapsychological research conducted with shamans 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 locate hidden objects (Boshier, 1974), but also through 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 (Giesler, 1986).

As for the use of sleight-of-hand, Hansen (2001) has compiled dozens of examples of shamanic trickery from the anthropological literature but 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 becoming 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 use 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


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” (p. 1089) 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). According to DeMause, shamans were “schizoids” (p. 250) 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. This account by DeMause 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).


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” (p. 455) of shamanism is therefore untenable. 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 (practitioners who considered themselves shamans, but had been denied that status by their community). Rorschach analysis demonstrated that the shamans showed as high a degree of reality-testing potential as did nonshamans. Boyer et al. concluded, “In their mental approach, the shamans appear less hysterical than the other groups” (p. 176) 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 Zinacanteco shamans and 23 of their 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 (World Health Organization, 1992) using structured diagnostic interviews. Of the refugees, 42 claimed to be shamans; after controlling for demographic differences, the shamans’ 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 participants. This group was highly imaginative but, for the most part, neither neurotic nor psychotic. It is likely that many shamans would fall within this category, as shamans’ 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) asserted 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 consideration they give to resolving the psychological problems and challenges faced by individuals, families, and communities within their purview.

The Soul Flight Model


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” (p. 5). According to Eliade, “The shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld” (p. 5). Many other writers have agreed, stating that altered states of consciousness (ASCs) are the sine qua non of shamanism, particularly those ASCs 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 among 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 to 6 cycles per second, a rhythm associated with many shamanic rituals. S. 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 on immune systems.

The term shamanic state of consciousness (M. 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 demonstrating 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.


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 four 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 spirit incorporation and out-of-body journeying, and 3 in some different ASC. In other words, there are several shamanic states of consciousness, and not all of them use ecstatic soul flight (Walsh, 1990, p. 214). Eliade’s statements are further constricted by his emphasis on flights to the shamanic 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 shamanism. 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 they 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) suggested that the term heightened awareness captures shamanic behavior more accurately than altered states because shamans describe their intense experience of the natural world with such statements as “things often seem to blaze” (p. 30). Shweder (1972) administered a number of perceptual tests to a group of Zinacanteco 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 about what the image might be, the shamans were more likely than the nonshamans to ignore the suggestion and give their own interpretations.

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

It 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). Attention determines what enters someone’s awareness. When attention is selective, there is an aroused internal state that makes some stimuli more relevant than others, thus more likely to attract one’s attention.

More basic to shamanism may be a unique attention that they give to the relations between human beings, their own bodies, and the natural world—and their willingness to share the resulting 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 altered states induction in some parts of the world (e.g., Hugh-Jones, 1996, p. 70; Taussig, 1987, pp. 93-104). The function of these procedures had 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 of these technologies diminished the social role played by shamans and increased tribal dependence upon the colonial administrators.

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