The Spirit of Shamanism – Roger N. Walsh – October BBBR

The Spirit of Shamanism (reprinted as World of Shamanism, 2007)
Roger N. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D.
Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990
286 pages

I can’t say enough good stuff about this book. It’s this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review, and it’s quite possibly the best one I’ve picked up.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against shamanism for years has been that shamans are schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill and generally dysfunctional. This goes against more recent observations that the shaman is actually one of the most psychologically healthy people in hir society. This excellent book is an in-depth look at the psychology of shamanism, from a very positive, constructive and yet objective viewpoint. Euro-centric bias is tossed out the window, and shamanism (or, rather, the various forms thereof) is explored from within the contexts of the cultures it stems from.

Walsh draws upon a number of ideas and inspirations. Campbell’s explanation of the Hero’s journey is applied to the shaman’s development, from ordinary citizen to community leader. Of particular interest is the motif of the initiatory crisis, the time in which the shaman undergoes extreme changes internally and may exhibit incredibly odd behavior to the consternation of other members of hir society. This, and the seeming “delusion” of the shamanic journey are studied in great detail throughout the book, and the importance of these two experiences in particular cannot be ignored.

To me, the most valuable gift this book offers is the detailed explanation throughout of how shamanism, rather than paralleling the unhealthy and disorganized experience of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, in fact has much in common with modern psychological practices ranging from psychoanalysis to Jung’s work, and in particular to the modern practice of transpersonal psychology. The placebo effect is explored, and its effectiveness in both shamanism AND in Western medicine is discussed; in fact, there are a couple of chapters that focus specifically on shamanic healing and how/why it works. Finally, the altered states of consciousness inherent to shamanic practice are shown to be, not a matter of escapism and trickery, but of a path towards enlightenment-like states of being, though different from the states achieved through yoga and other forms of meditation.

It’s an incredibly well-researched book as well. Unlike too many of the texts on shamanism today, this one takes an academic approach rather than a New Age one, yet as mentioned doesn’t fall prey to the usual academic pitfalls. There are numerous in-text citations and a nice, meaty bibliography.

In all, we’re left with a picture of shamanism that has less to do with dysfunctionality, quackery and superstition, and more to do with modern healthy practices that, in some cases, Western psychologicy has only recently “discovered”. While the author does not go so far as to tell people to dump their therapists and become shamans (which anyone with good sense knows is irresponsible), he undoes decades of Western bias as well as the later romanticism that has all too often been applies to shamanism. In this text we’re allowed to see that shamanism is both terrifying and ecstatic, and is an evolution rather than de-evolution of human consciousness.

Five enthusiastic pawprints out of five.

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3 Comments

  1. fannyfae said,

    October 5, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks for the heads up about this book. If it got your stamp of approval then I will definitely have to check it out. Was this the first edition of this book? I’ve seen it under both titles on eBay for example.

  2. lupabitch said,

    October 5, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    Yes, this is the older version. Not sure what differences there are between it and the new edition.

    Glad my review helped 🙂

  3. Metta said,

    August 30, 2008 at 10:21 am

    I was so glad to see this book return, even if under the Llewellyn imprint *cringe*. They definitely prettied it up, and there’s new material tacked on, but I’ll take that in exchange for the return of one of the best books on shamanism, which has become very hard to get hold of.


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