Shamanism – Mircea Eliade

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Mircea Eliade
Arkana (Penguin), 1989
610 pages

Nope, I didn’t fall off the face of the planet. Instead, I’ve been plowing my way through this massive text. This is considered the grandtome of shamanic resources, and rightly so. For its time, it was the most complete reference on the topic, and while research since the 1950s has illuminated areas of knowledge that Eliade had no exposure to, nearly half a century after its first English translation Shamanism is still required reading for anyone interested in shamans and shamanism.

The first few chapters cover general shamanic subjects, such as being “called”, the initiatory ritual and illness, and how shamans obtain their power and spirit helpers. These are followed by a number of chapters on shamanism in various regions of the world; not surprisingly, Siberia and surrounding areas get the most in-depth coverage. Finally, there’s an excellent chapter on the various common elements found in shamanisms around the world, certain themes and practices that are universal, or very nearly so.

I’ll admit that when I first bit into the foreword, I was a bit intimidated. It’s excessively dry, even for academic writing, and I was wondering if I was going to suffer through hundreds of pages of this. However, once I got into the first chapter, I was pleasantly surprised to find that his heavily formal tone shifted to a much more informative and readable style. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read; it took me about two weeks to finish this off, and I found myself occasionally having to re-read paragraphs as I began to skim rather than comprehend.

I think really the only areas where I have any complaint whatsoever are primarily content based. While Eliade makes an excellent observation on the common elements of many shamanisms, I’d like to know his perspective (if any) on if there’s anything significant about their differences. Unfortunately he died over two decades ago, so short of journeying to the underworld (or sky, depending on cosmology) to talk to him, I’ll just have to weep that I’ll never know for sure, at least not in this life. The other small gripe is his treatment of anything that deviates from a certain “standard” of shamanism as “degraded” or, in his words, “decadent”. Given that the “classic” Siberian shamanism may have been influenced by middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, as well as more southerly Asian ones, some shifting and hybridization is to be expected anyway. A lot of his argument does center around the loss of the actual ecstatic “flight” through dance and other actions, replaced in some cultures by mediumship, feigned trance, and/or drug use. I’m going to have to read more to decide whether I really agree with his assessment of the latter as being lesser (especially the first and third) or not.

Still, overall, this is a must-read. Expect it to take some time (unless you really, really like academic writing). Take notes, or underline things. It’s full of information, and while it should be supplemented with newer source material, a lot of it still stands quite firmly as a resource.

Sort of off topic, I’ve always wondered how you pronounce “Mircea Eliade”. Not being Romanian, I had to ask Google. It appears that I was close in some respects, but not in others–here’s a lively discussion about it.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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1 Comment

  1. July 3, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    “The other small gripe is his treatment of anything that deviates from a certain “standard” of shamanism as “degraded” or, in his words, “decadent”. Given that the “classic” Siberian shamanism may have been influenced by middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, as well as more southerly Asian ones, some shifting and hybridization is to be expected anyway.”

    Interesting point. The same thing could be said of the “guru” or the “saint”–two words with ever-changing connotations. Are the more recent meanings disrespectful, degraded, just different or maybe even better?


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