The Way of the Shaman – Michael Harner

The Way of the Shaman
Michael Harner
HarperSanFrancisco, 1990
172 pages

This is the fourth time in the past decade I’ve read this book cover to cover (as opposed to looking up specific factoid and techniques) and I’m finding that this time through, I’m not so fond of it. It’s not that it’s horrible; it’s just not as impressive to me these days, now that I know more than I used to.

Harner’s book is pretty much a classic on NEOshamanism; it forms the foundation of core shamanism, a shamanic practice that is (mostly) devoid of specific cultural trappings. His background in anthropology, as well as experience training as a shaman in the Jivaro and Conibo tribes, make this a well-researched and well-informed book. There are plenty of endnotes, and a good bibliography, so it’s easy to trace where he got his information from.

The problem is the presentation of the practical material. First off, my main complaint is that his selection of techniques seems incredibly arbitrary. He draws on the tobacco ties of certain Native American traditions, Jivaro-flavered sucking shamanism, and the spiritual canoe from a particular Northwest Native tribe. And he seems to ignore a number of shamanic practices that may not be necessarily appealing to the New Age crowd, such as spiritual dismemberment and reassembly.

Also, he fails to mention that even within a specific culture there are several types of shamanism. He should have, IMO, either billed this as a form of healing shamanism, or stuck to one of the cultures he trained in, rather than adding in elements of numerous cultures. He doesn’t quite draw shamanism far enough away from its cultural roots to make it fit together well; rather than doing as Peter J. Carroll did with Chaos magic, and making a system that is not at all culturally specific (and so can be plugged into any culture), Harner attempts to make (certain) cultural artifacts relevant for people outside that culture, while also trying to make it relevant to modern mainstream American (and other postindustrial) culture. Unfortunately, the end result still retains enough of the original cultural material (such as biases against certain animals like snakes and insects) without explaining the contextual relevance of such elements.

Finally, he waters down certain pieces of information. “The SSC [Shamanic State of Consciousness], it can be said, is safer than dreaming,” he says (xxii). Yet shamanism, even in modern practice, is NOT safe. He doesn’t talk about spiritual defense, other than talking about how one’s power animal and other guardians are supposed to protect you. He barely brings up any dangers, other than seeing animals with bared fangs. Nor does he talk about how close to the edge shamanism can bring a practitioner (or the skills needed to maintain a proper balance).

In short, this is shamanism for the living room. The techniques itself are solid, despite the contextual issues, and can be easily used by most people who pick up this book. If presented as a book on shamanic techniques, I give it a four. However, as a book on *shamanism*, I give it a two. This balances out to….

Three pawprints out of five.

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11 Comments

  1. Lilith said,

    September 24, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    I would like to see your review of a book I’m just finishing called The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine by Barbara Tedlock. I’ve really enjoyed it, and it covers a lot more shamanic techniques and gender-shifting among other things.

  2. lupabitch said,

    September 24, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    It’s on my to-read list, though I don’t yet have a copy.

  3. September 26, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    I’ve read Tedlock’s book, and would also recommend it highly.

  4. November 6, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Your reservations about Harner’s book are undoubtedly well founded, but you have to remember that when he wrote it, his ideas were highly controversial. I was in a training session of his at American University in Washington, DC, in the building for international studies, no less, when police came to throw us out. Somebody had called them to complain that Harner was “practicing voodoo.” Instead of knuckling, Harner locked the door and continued to drum and lead us through a shamanic journey. He may not have presented the material as well as he might now, but he definitely lived what he taught.

  5. lupabitch said,

    November 6, 2007 at 10:10 am

    My thought on that as an author is that, especially if you’re given the chance to put out a new edition of your work, then update it accordingly. Address people’s concerns, even if it’s just in a new introduction. Surely there were indigenous people concerned about the work by the time the 10th anniversary edition was getting underway. While Harner did do some very valuable work with this book, there are some concerns about both it and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies that both indigenous and neopagan people have raised.

    Additionally, I still stand by my point that he offered a very incomplete picture of what shamanism is. If he had presented it as a derivative of *some* of the practices of the Jivaro shamans he had trained with, it might be different. However, it seemed to be a much broader presentation of shamanism. I’ve met people who have read the book who were convinced that sucking shamanism is a universal technique, and that all shamans have power animals (there are at least a few traditions that do not).

    Finally, I still take issue with his somewhat patronizing view on what “Westerners” want and expect of shamanism. While I understand that he probably was affected by the restrictions of academia, he probably should have made it more clear that these were the parameters he had been working within.

  6. Walking With The Night said,

    January 8, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    I appreciated this review on the book! Just found your website today, and will spend some time here to see what else you have to say!

  7. Darkstar said,

    February 7, 2008 at 8:33 am

    I too have this book. I have recommended it to those wanting to learn shamanism as a very basic beginning to a start. It gives a good view of some aspects of shamanism, but I also warn people not to set anything in stone.
    I also think it’s rather dry and unsatisfying to those with more knowledge, as it has no culture to it.
    But you have to admit his works were instrumental in bringing shamanism into American culture, for better or worse. (Some people are just BUTCHERING the practice to make money from it.)

  8. Qarka said,

    February 8, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Awesome book. Michael really knows what he is writing about! Non-Ordinary reality is there whether or not you are able to perceive–hey, do not blame the techniques outlined in Michaelś book if you are unable to reach non-ordinary reality.

    peace & light and may you find your spirit guardians by the pond 🙂

  9. lupabitch said,

    February 8, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    Darkstar–I’ll agree that he’s done a lot to improve the awareness of shamanism, as well the the cultures it comes out of. I just don’t think core shamanism is the do-all and end-all of shamanic practice that a lot of people seem to think.

    Qarka–Where does “I don’t think this is a complete view of shamanism” equal “I can’t reach an altered state of consciousness to save my life”?

  10. Darkstar said,

    February 9, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Oh don’t get me wrong. I agree with you. Just added my opinion 😛
    Keep up the good work. ^_^

  11. June 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    This book is total cultural appropriation for a profit, ugh


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