The Elements of Shamanism – Nevill Drury

The Elements of Shamanism
Nevill Drury
Element, 1995
118 pages

If you want the do-all and end-all of shamanic practice, this book won’t do it for you. However, if you want a good, if a little dated, overview, this is your book. Drury first wrote this text in 1989, before most non-academic texts on shamanism were published, and offers a brief but wide-ranging overview of the topic. I have the older edition, which is significantly different than the new edition. In comparing some pages from the two, the new edition has some information rearranged, and appears to have some new additions. However, this one is still a valid text, so I’ll primarily focus on it.

The first four chapters are essentially information that could be found in Eliade and other academic sources, though without the academic language and jargon. A bit of Michael Harner’s core shamanism is thrown in for balance as well. The research is solid, though introductory. Chapter five, which is dedicated to plants used in various shamanic traditions, gets a lot more interesting, as Drury goes over everything from peyote to psilocybe mushrooms. It’s a controversial subject, and Drury covers it in a mature, even-handed manner.

In chapter six, Drury talks about several shamanic figures in more recent times–Black Elk, Luisah Teish, Brooke Medicine Eagle, and Sun Bear. Of these, only Black Elk was an active member of an indigenous community. Teish is better-known in Afro-Caribbean religious contexts, where she is well-respected; her section in this chapter focuses some on being possessed by the Orisha. Brooke Medicine Eagle and Sun Bear, despite being largely disliked among some Native Americans, are shown as practitioners of tribal practices, albiet with some additions.

Chapter seven seems to be missing in the new edition (chapter eight in this edition becomes chapter seven in the new edition). I had to rely primarily on online previews of the new edition, which had only some of the pages, but I couldn’t find anything from the old chapter seven, and no mention of it in the table of contents. I’m guessing that it was too controversial, as it skewered both Carlos Castaneda and Lynn Andrews as hucksters. While Drury does defend them to a point, he does explain in great detail their respective backgrounds and the holes in their stories, such as the fact that neither don Juan Matus nor Andrews’ two guides even remotely resembled the people of the tribes they supposedly came from.

Chapter eight wraps up the book nicely, focusing a lot on Michael Harner’s core shamanism, and the need for shamanic practices in modern postindustrial society. The book ends with some resources (probably outdated, but you could look them up online with any search engine). There’s also a good collection of endnotes to show Drury’s research.

Overall, this is a decent basic book to give to someone who has never encountered shamanism, and wants a really brief overview. It’s most definitely not your only resource, but for what it was intended as, it’s good.

Four pawprints out of five.

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1 Comment

  1. Kenn Day said,

    May 25, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    It was good to come across a review of Nevil’s book. I met him back in the early 90’s, when the book was still more up to date and my own shamanic studies where finding their feet. I appreciated what he said about Castaneda and Andrews – and certainly share his opinion.


    Kenn Day

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