The Shaman – Piers Vitebsky

The Shaman
Piers Vitebsky
Little, Brown and Company, 1995
184 pages

This is one of my favorite books on basic shamanism from an anthropological perspective. I’ve read it before, but this is the first time I’ve read it since I started this review blog. I think it’s well worth talking about, though, so here’s my official review 🙂

The author, an anthropologist, has spent several decades studying shamanism within the context of a number of cultures. He presents a nice collection of facts and anecdotes about the shamanic experiences of people in these cultures. From the altered states of consciousness to the spirits encountered along the way, from healing to showmanship, from the political status of shamans to neoshamanism today, Vitebsky offers one of the best introductions to the concept of shamanism and what it is the shaman does. This concise book is quite thorough, and while the material is densely packed it’s written in a manner that even a rank beginner can understand. You won’t find a bunch of how-to instructions, but what you will get is solid research to get a good understanding of the context of shamanism.

Unlike earlier anthropologists, Vitebsky’s viewpoint is quite enlightened. He points out the shortcomings of his predecessors, who characterized shamans as everything from archaic leftovers to mentally disturbed outcasts. He also cautions against trying to boil shamanism down to a particular facet, such as trance, while tossing out other important aspects, like community and culture. He is not overly critical of neoshamanism, though he only devotes a very small portion of the book to it and explains how it differs from traditional shamanism. He clearly shows his research, and is not afraid to critique other scholars; for example, he challenges Mircea Eliade’s assertion that shamanism has “an apparently timeless quality…[and] appears to stand outside political history” (p. 116). To back up this criticism Vitebsky goes into great detail how shamanism has interacted, both positively and negatively, with both political and religious bodies in various cultures, and how it has sometimes come into great conflict with various powers thereof. (I should also add that I have no opinion myself on Eliade yet, though his work is on my reading pile.)

This contributes to a very down to Earth look at shamanism worldwide, though it does NOT purport to be the do-all and end-all resource; nor does it try to claim that all shamanisms are one shamanism. Rather, as I said, it’s an excellent introductory book, mixing text and illustrations to create a good resource for anyone interested in traditional shamanism from a theoretical point of view (as opposed to a hands-on workbook).

Five pawprints out of five.

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