Wednesday, November 4, 2009

235. The Baseline Scenarios -- part 11: Shamanism

The term "shaman" originated in Siberia, and there has been ongoing controversy regarding the appropriateness of that term when similar practices from other regions are being discussed. Nevertheless, most researchers agree that very similar practices are found among indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. According to Mathias Guenther,
While in a strict ethnographic sense the shaman's cultural province is Siberia, the term and category are used in a generic sense by most writers. . . Shamans everywhere enter altered states of consciousness, in order to gain spiritual inspiration or divinatory guidance, or to effect their mystical cures. . . A classic example is the Kalahari Ju/'hoansi Bushmen . . . (The Cambridge Encycopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, p. 427).
Rituals of a shamanistic nature have indeed been frequently reported for various Bushmen groups where, according to some reports, more than half the males, and also some females, are "shamans." According to Megan Biesele and her Ju/'hoansi Bushmen collaborator, Kxao Royal-/O/OO,
Ju healers have access to supernatural powers such as n/om, magical energy/potency with which Ju/'hoansi can counter malevolent ghosts, heal the sick, and resolve conflicts. When one sings special songs, Ju say, n/om comes out. Ju/'hoan ceremonies feature intense, exhilarating, all-night healing dances, where the power of n/om heals, protects and gives well being (The Cambridge Encycopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, p. 208).
As I already reported (in post # 231),
The “supernatural energy-songs” representing almost half of the Ju|’hoansi repertoire are [according to Emmanuelle Olivier] given to healers in dreams or during trance, where the spirits of dead ancestors, sing “in the three tessituras” while the healer sings a melody along with them “in the principal tessitura” (1998:366). Upon awaking, "he/she sings this melody to his/her spouse without variations (repeating it identically) and the spouse follows the healer’s vocal line, but tries to avoid an identical reproduction of what he/she is singing."
And, as we learned in the same post, a very similar practice has been reported among the BaAka Pygmies:
Significantly, dreams through which spirits transmit songs to the living, as described above . . . are a part of Aka culture as well. [Michelle] Kisliuk recounts a story told by an Aka woman about the dream origin of an eboka (a performance combining song and dance), transmitted by a deceased man to his sister, who is expected to teach it to her husband, who will then teach it, in turn, to the young men of the group. According to Kisliuk, “an eboka can emerge as a mystical, dreamed gift within a family, transferred across genders and across the threshold of death” (Seize the Dance:177–78).
Specialized healers known as Nganga are also reported among the BaAka, though it's not clear to what extent their activities could be characterized as "shamanistic" in the strictest sense -- see Barry Hewlett, Aka Pygmies of the Western Congo Basin. In Seize the Dance, Kisliuk describes a ritual dance called Njengi, where the dancer, who becomes possessed by the Njengi spirit, is completely covered by a mask made of leaves. The mask itself is strictly "off limits to women," who are expected to believe the leaves are inhabited by a spirit.

Spirit possession of a similar sort is an essential aspect of the Mbuti Molimo ceremony, as described by Turnbull in The Forest People (see especially Chapter Four). The molimo is understood to be both a musical instrument and an animal and, again, the women are expected to believe that it is in fact a spirit-animal. As with the Njengi mask of the BaAka, they are forbidden to see the instrument itself. Though Turnbull never refers specifically to shamans, shamanism or even healers among the Mbuti, there are instances where individuals fall into trance, which is, as I understand it, not unusual among pygmy groups generally.

Mauro Campagnoli refers to spirits which dance along with the Baka Pygmies and dances which are healing rituals led by Baka healers. Again it's hard to say whether these healers are in fact bona fide "shamans," though they would seem to perform at least some of the same functions.

[Added Nov. 6: From the Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Tropical Forest Foragers, by Barry Hewlett:
Religious Practitioners. All the forager groups have traditional healers, and several of them (e.g., the Aka, Baka, and Mbuti) recognize the supernatural abilities of great hunters, who can communicate with the supernatural world, make themselves invisible, and take the forms of various animals.]
While I would not be so bold as to assert that such evidence proves that shamanism was practiced by HBP, the fact that we find instances of supernatural healing, trance, and spirit possession among representatives of EP, WP and Bu, does strongly suggest that practices very close to shamanism in certain respects were part of HBC. The evidence also suggests that the ancestors of the Bushmen subsequently went farther in this direction than the ancestors of the Pygmies, since rituals of a shamanistic nature would appear to play a much greater role among the former than the latter. Possession, trance and healing appear to be treated much more casually and informally among Pygmies than among Bushmen. The roots of shamanism are of course a very complex and difficult topic which requires much more knowledge than I have at the moment. All I'll say at present is that it looks like some form of shamanism or proto-shamanism was part of HBC, but to what extent or what this might mean is hard for me to say.


German said...

"The roots of shamanism are of course a very complex and difficult topic which requires much more knowledge than I have at the moment. All I'll say at present is that it looks like some form of shamanism or proto-shamanism was part of HBC, but to what extent or what this might mean is hard for me to say."

Good. I hope you can make the same caveat when it comes to huts and arrow poison.

Quite a bit of research on shamanism exists out there, and the very notion of "shamanism" is rather vague. Siberian shamanism is uniquely characterized by the notions of a hierarchy of spiritual levels and the "magic flight" whereby a shaman travels across these worlds in pursuit of a stolen soul or similar entities. The hierarchical structure of the shamanic universe is absent in the Americas. South Asian and Central Asian versions of shamanism are different, too.

Without a working typology of the "shamanic complex" it's hard for me even to start thinking where Pygmies and Bushmen belong and what kind of HBC this implies.

Manjunatha Vadiarillat said...

In my region, South-West coastal India (Tulu and Malayalam speaking regions), Shaman acts as a medium. He would go into a trance and a spirit would enter his body. The spirit then speaks thro' him. Once he comes out of trance, he is oblivious of the things he told (or spirit told) during his trance(that's the belief). May be not relevant to the present topic but just thought of adding it.

DocG said...

German: "Good. I hope you can make the same caveat when it comes to huts and arrow poison."

The making of a hut is a far simpler and more straightforward practice than shamanism. While I certainly don't know everything there is to know about such huts, the photographic evidence does seem compelling. Unlike you, I see no reason to assume that these huts emerged independently in three totally different regions of Africa and in two totally different environments simply because functionalist dogma requires it.

As for poison arrows, I admit that not enough is known at present to formulate a meaningful hypothesis.

As far as shamanism is concerned, we don't need a "working typology," all we need is to identify certain features associated with shamanism found among all three populations, WP, EP and Bu. Which suggests that the same features may have been present as part of HBC. Does that mean HBP practiced "shamanism" in the strictest sense of the term? That's impossible to say. But clearly we have good reason to believe that trance, possession, magical healing, and certain other practices associated with shamanism were a part of HBC.

German said...

A very relevant note. You hinted at a critical distinction that exists between different forms of shamanism. Shamans either leave their bodies to engage in a "magic flight", or they invite a spirit to enter their bodies.
In both cases, a shaman's personality is altered, but in each case differently. It's possible that there's a third type, namely the one in which a shaman absorbs knowledge from a spiritual entity without transcorporation, as in the case of Odin receiving information from the two ravens sitting on his shoulders.

Siberia is the region in which Shamanism A (shaman leaves his body) prevails. Outside of Siberia, Shamanism B (a spirit enters a shaman's body) is more common. Pygmy shamanism belongs to type B.
I'm not sure about Khoisan.

DocG said...

Welcome, Manjunatha. What you say about the role of the "shaman" in your region of India is very interesting. It seems clear that practices identical to or very close to shamanism are found in many parts of the world, and they have a great deal in common. I think it's also clear that in most cases, the experience of trance and/or possession is genuine, not faked. We know that sleepwalkers can move around without being consciously aware and don't recall what happened when they wake up. And there have been many experiments verifying hypnotic trance -- and also multiple personalities.

The question is: where did such practices get started and how early in human history did they begin? I don't think there is any animal that is known to experience trance or possession, including chimps and bonobos, so this practice had to have a starting point somewhere in human history.

J.A. Brown said...

Victor, you might want to check this article that I found: I have no idea how reliable this is, but near the end there are some remarks about chimpanzees apparently going into trance.

DocG said...

Thanks for the link to this very interesting article. Looks like there's a lot more to be learned about chimps and other primates. For more thoughts on the relation between primates and human trance experience, see Chapter Sixteen of my online book, Sounding the Depths:, especially under the heading "A biocultural link?"