For anyone who is interested in the history of shamanism, or an overview of different practices and beliefs across
most geographical areas of the planet, this book is an excellent read. It is as much photos as text, and written in easy to understand language even for
someone who may be totally unfamiliar with shamanic ritual.
However, the author is not a shaman, but a professor of Social Science at the University of Cambridge and his interest is more in the societal aspect and impact of shamanism. If you are interested in becoming a shaman, or feel you are being called to explore this vocation, I suggest you read books written by practicing shamans. I strongly recommend the writings of Dr. Alberto Villoldo. You can learn more about him at The Four Winds Society. He spent decades in the Amazon and other areas in South America studying with authentic Inkan shamans, and now leads training groups there, and also trains at his center in Utah.
This book, however covers all main shamanistic societies and compares their practices, and also compares the way different societies view shamans and their standing within the community. As for myself, being a shaman for over a decade, I learned so much about the origins of this unique religion/practice/vocation. For instance, I was always under the impression that shamanism grew out of the rituals of Native Americans, whether North, South, or Central. Not so. The oldest shamanistic societies come from Siberia. The word "shaman" itself "comes from the language of the Evenk, a small Tungus-speaking group of hunters and reindeer herders in Siberia."
So, what exactly is a shaman? According to Vitebsky, "Shamans are at once doctors, priests, social workers, and mystics." But he also notes that shamans have been accused of being madmen or women, and in New Age jargon, any person who is in touch with spirits could be called a shaman. Most societies that embrace shamanism believe that his or her soul can travel in the spirit world, and these peoples also have a much more expansive view of reality that includes non-physical realms. Many shamans are able to achieve trance state or a dreamlike state, but unlike dreams, they are able to control the events while in the dream. Shamans may use songs, drums, or other objects or rituals to enable them to contact spirits. Many, especially in the Americas, also use hallucinogenic plants to reach higher states of consciousness, but some consider these means a corruption of true shamanic powers.
Modern day shamans, such as those trained at The Four Winds Society may pursue the vocation because they feel called to do so, or even because they are curious or wish to explore. In many other societies, however, the shaman was "chosen," perhaps by the previous one who had died, or pointed out through some other divine means, as the Dalai Lamas are chosen in Tibet. (See my review of Magic and Mystery in Tibet.) Often shamanic initiations were terrifying and or tortuous. Vitebsky says of Siberian and Mongolian initiations:
"Typically, the shaman is initiated by being tortured and dismembered by spirits and then put back together again. Through much of the area, there is a special association between the shaman and the blacksmith."
I find that last statement interesting and enlightening. In Nordic Hero Tales from the Kalevala,
one of the two heroes was a blacksmith, believed to be imbued with supernatural powers.
Shamans can either be primarily men or women or both, depending on the society. Among the Sora, an aboriginal tribe in Orissa, India, the "greater" shamans are women and the "lesser" are men, and each have a particular role to play. And what exactly is the role of a shaman? It can be a healer, a retriever of lost souls, a diviner, or a protector for the his or her community. They may also intervene with the spirits to ensure a good hunt or food supply. Because of this social role, at least in the context of native or less modernized peoples, shamans also were performers. They needed to be able to convince the people of their powers, even if a bit of fakery was used, and these could range from simple attention-getters to downright deception, as is found in any profession or vocation. Vitebsky relates an interesting example of Quesalid, a Kwakiutl man from Vancouver, Canada who was convinced that shamanism was quackery. To prove this, he apprenticed, and indeed learned some "tricks" to make his works appear real. Unfortunately, circumstances forced him to actually become a practicing shaman, and a very successful healer. Ultimately, he changed his opinion, and realized that shamanism was a legitimate vocation, and that many were true healers.
There is so much fascinating information in this book that I could go on and on. But I would rather just recommend it as highly readable, well researched and documented, and inclusive of all the main aspects of shamans and their work. It is also filled with beautiful colored photos and illustrations, greatly enhancing its enjoyment factor. But for me as a practicing shaman, perhaps, the most beneficial consequence of reading this volume was a confirmation that my own occurrences , though sometimes very strange, are nonetheless universal in the world of shamanic experience.
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