Shamanism – Graham Harvey (ed.)

Shamanism: A Reader
Graham Harvey (editor)
Routledge, 2003
~430 pages

Well, it took me the better part of two weeks, but I finished this academic anthology over the weekend–and found it to be worth the effort. It was good to see a collection of essays that both approached traditional shamanism with an open mind, and also embraced the existence of neoshamanism (while also bringing up issues with it). I do have to agree with Erynn Rowan Laurie on her observation that the quality of the essays varied quite a bit, and the themes and topics didn’t always seem to mesh well. Though I do also agree that there were some real winners there. So here are my personal opinions on some of them:

I Liked:

–Ioan M. Lewis’ “Possession and Public Morality”, which was an intriguing essay on how shamanic rituals can be used to uphold community moral standards through using public peer pressure to extract confessions of broken taboos. This process then allows the community to heal rifts caused by these violations and release the social tension.
–Alan T. Campbell’s “Submitting”, which got me thinking about attitudes towards shamanism and seemingly implausible realities.
–Edith Turner’s “The Reality of Spirits”, an *excellent* argument against the fear of “going native” by anthropologists and other academics. Based on the experiences of the author and her husband, and a really good commentary on the practical application of anthopological research.
–Chungmoo Choi’s “The Artistry and Ritual Aesthetics of Urban Korean Shamans” is a fascinating look at Korean shamanism, which isn’t nearly as well known outside of academic circles (and the Koreans themselves, of course).
–Mihaly Hoppal’s “Ethnographic Films on Shamanism” is another good one, specifically covering films of Asian (primarily Siberian) shamanism, how these films have progressed and what they contribute, as well as the political climates at the times they were made. This essay and the last were particularly unique contributions.
–Both Bernard Saladin d’Anglure’s “Rethinking Inuit Shamanism Through the Concept of ‘Third Gender'” and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s “Sacred Genders in Siberia: Shamans, Bear Festivals and Androgyny” are excellent perspectives on gender issues within shamanism; the latter is also a nice look at the Carnival-esque feel of the bear festivals.
–Piers Vitebsky’s “From Cosmology to Environmentalism: Shamanism as Local Knowledge in a Global Setting” didn’t surprise me when I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m generally a fan of Vitebsky’s works, including The Shaman. Here he explores the juxtaposition of shamanic knowledge that’s designed for a specific environment into global society, and how removing the inherent cosmology of a shamanic system necessarily changes it. One of the best in the collection.
–Ward Churchill’s “Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men” is an essay that I actually really like; it’s a good commentary on cultural appropriation.

I Didn’t Care For:

–The reprinting of a chapter of Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman; I would have liked to have seen something different from him, though it was one of only two essays on the initiation process of shamanism. In fact, there were a few reprints in here, and it would have been nice to encounter more original material.
–There were a couple of essays I simply could not get into, primarily because I found them rather dry, or otherwise uninteresting. These included Thomas A Dowson’s “Like People in Prehistory”, Marina Roseman’s Remembering to Forget: The Aesthetics of Longing”, Gordan MacLellen’s “Dancing on the Edge: Shamanism in Modern Britain”, and Robert J. Wallis’ “Waking Ancestor Spirits: Neoshamanic Engagements With Archaeology”.
–Sandra Ingermann’s “Tracking Lost Souls” wasn’t horrible, per se, but it was rather jarringly discordant with the rest of the collection. It’s a very New Agey interpretation of core shamanism, and it didn’t fit in with the more scholarly approaches. An examination of neoshamanism, or a critique and comparison of various modern systems, would have worked better than Ingermann giving us a play-by-play of her method of soul retrieval.
–Beverley Butler’s “The Tree, The Tower and the Shaman” was just strangely written and arranged; I had trouble following it, and ended up skipping a good portion of it. I’m also not sure how relevant it is to shamanism, from what I could gather.

Despite my personal dislikes, I still think this is a good anthology to have in your collection if you have any interest in shamanism. The good essays are excellent, and they outnumber the not so great essays by quite a bit. I’m quite pleased with this collection, and I’ve already used it as source material in my writing, as well as gleaned some inspiration for the further development of therioshamanism.

Four pawprints out of five.

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