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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The Ghosts of Blood and Innocence – Storm Constantine

The Ghosts of Blood and Innocence: The Third Book of the Wraeththu Histories
Storm Constantine
Tor Books, 2006
464 pages

This book is one of the reasons why I love Storm Constantine’s work. She manages to take everything she built up in the first two books of the trilogy, and bring it all together. There’s no stretching the text or trying desperately to fill pages; the pacing is wonderful, and it’s a page turner right to the end.

And it gets complex! All the hints from the first book, as well as some from the original Wraeththu trilogy, are brought together here in a plot that’s more bizarre and fascinating than I’d imagined. Ancient angelic lore, occultism and interplanar travel are featured as Wraeththu work through a truly monumental period of growth in their history. The story is full of suspense, with an incredibly satisfying ending.

As is Constantine’s style, we get to see some really interesting sides of various characters; I was particularly surprised to see what happened to Ponclast in this book. She has a good sense of balance for switching from one set of characters to the next, not letting us go too long without checking on everyone.

This book really brought the trilogy together, and it’s going to be a favorite read of mine for years to come.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Shades of Time and Memory – Storm Constantine

The Shades of Time and Memory: The Second Book of the Wraeththu Histories
Storm Constantine
Tor Books, 2005
448 pages

The second book of a trilogy has the toughest job, I think. The first book is the one that gets to introduce the setting and characters, while the third is the one to wrap it all up. The second book, though, has the task of fitting it all together. Shades accomplishes this quite nicely.

New characters as well as old are brought in to flesh out the world of Wraeththu. A leftover group of Uigenna, the Freyhallans who are descended from Norse humans, and others are brought in to join Pellaz, Cal, Caeru and other better-known main characters. Once again we’re treated to seeing how the various har develop as the story continues–there are no flat, emotionless beings here.

At first, some of the threads of story may seem to have no connection whatsoever. However, Constantine is skilled at taking these and weaving them together, so that by the end of the book we’re curious to see just what happens next and how it’ll all turn out.

Shades is an excellent bridge, neither being too long and boring, nor too hastily sketched out. It thrives in the role of second book, and is a wonderful addition to any sci-fi/fantasy fan’s shelf.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure – Storm Constantine

The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure: The First Book of the Wraeththu Histories
Storm Constantine
Tor Books, 2004
496 pages

This book continues the story of Wraeththu, Constantine’s first trilogy surrounding magical androynous hermaphrodites in a post-Apocalyptic world. Years after she wrote the first trilogy, she returns to this complex realm to weave more mythos.

There’s a definite difference in quality of writing between this series and the previous. This isn’t bad; it’s not a matter of one being better than the other. However, the feel of her writing has matured, adn doesn’t have quite as many rough edges as the original trilogy does.

As with the first time, though, we’re brought back into a world of well-developed characters and even better stories. There’s more information on the Parazha, a second group of hermaphroditic beings who sprung from women instead of men, and we get to see the development of hara who were relatively minor players in the first trilogy come into their own. Ulaume, who had a rather small, negative part in Wraeththu, ends up becoming quite a different person through the adoption of Lileem, an abandoned harling. Flick leaves Saltrock and is oenof the first hara to work with the Dehara, the gods of Wraeththu, through shamanic experiences in the desert. And there are some very unexpected twists and turns to the tale beyond even these.

I really enjoyed getting back into Storm’s writing, especially as Wraeththu is a favorite of mine. Highly, highly recommended for a good read.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Wraeththu – Storm Constantine

Storm Constantine
Orb Books, 1993
800 pages

This was my first introduction to Storm Constantine’s dark fantasy/sci-fi works. “Wraeththu” contains the first trilogy, The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, and The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire.

Set in a post-Apocalyptic near-future, the stories are centered around the growth of Wraeththu, a species that mutated from huamnity. Wraeththu are hermaphroditic, and in a unique twist they develop from the male of humanity rather than the female, as some other authors have done. Seemingly immortal, they struggle both with their own natures and with overcoming the mistakes of humanity before them.

Each book is told in first person; the first tells the story of Pellaz, a young man taken away by Wraeththu and incepted (made into one), and what befalls him from there. Swift, one of the first second-generation Wraeththu (born rather than incepted), tells the second story, while Calanthe, a key character in the first two, rounds out the trilogy with the third.

Constantine has a wonderfully rich writing style. She’s adept at weaving together complex characters and a believable setting, and while her stories aren’t packed full of action, they more than make up for it in storytelling. This isn’t the kind of book that resembles a Hollywood movie; rather, it draws you into the tale and makes you want to see what decisions the characters will make next. Constantine also works a good bit of subtle occultism into the world of Wraeththu, both in ritual practices and in philosophy.

If you’re tired of fluff fantasy and want something with a little more meat to it, pick up this excellent introduction to Storm Constantine’s works.

Five pawprints out of five.

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