Between Body and Mind: Shamans and Politics among the Anga, Baktaman and Gebusi in Papua New Guinea

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In his book Mind, Body and Culture, Geoffrey Samuel (Geoffrey Samuel 1990:106 ff.) has extended the definition and study of shamanism beyond its immediate context of healing into the sphere of community influence. Such a move is amply warranted by the fact that shamans often do, in fact, by virtue of their medico-religious role, command such influence and therefore should be regarded as also having a political role. We can consider this role both in terms of our outsiders' categories of thought and analysis and in terms of the people's own representations. For example, one commonly found feature of the shaman's role is that he or she can protect the community against intrusions by hostile spirits (e.g. Crocker 1985:215 on the Bororo of Brazil). This is in itself both a religious activity (from the Bororo viewpoint), and a political one (from the standpoint of the observer) since it involves the perceived defence of a territorial boundary by means of (shamanic) force. In turn, we can hypothesize that this capacity must give the shaman some further influence within the community, if only because loss of the shaman's services would be seen as deleterious to the community itself. In this regard the shaman's political role becomes comparable to that exercised by important elders among the Nigerian Tiv people who are held to protect the local territory or tar of their lineage against mystical aggression through the use of their own mystical powers akin to tsar ('witchcraft') (Bohannan 1989). There is always a potential here for ambivalence if the same capacity is held both to protect, and to be usable for attack against, a local community. The upshot is that both shamans and elders may be viewed with ambivalence, yet this ambivalence becomes a part of their political power. The ambivalence can result from the potentiality that the shaman will directly harm his/her own people; or that he/she will allow hostile forces to penetrate the boundaries of defence that are normally protected. Political activity would then be directed towards ensuring the continuing fidelity of the shaman (or elder) to the local group.

In New Guinea Highlands studies, emphasis was first placed on the role of the supposedly 'self-made' big-man as a secular leader who won his control over others through the handling of exchanges of wealth. Such at least was the stereotype we are accustomed to trace back to the early work of Marshall Sahlins (1963). Following Sahlins' broadly-drawn characterizations many specific versions appeared (e.g. A. J. Strathern 1971, M. J. Meggitt 1974), until Maurice Godelier challenged their overall applicability and introduced his concept of the 'great-man' as an alternative political type (Godelier 1982, 1986; Godelier and M. Strathern 1991). Several suggested axes of differentiation between big-men and great-men have been developed, although their association with system-wide typologies is not entirely clear. One main typological point is found in the distinction between leadership based on the manipulation or management of production and exchange of material items and leadership based on other capacities, such as warriorhood, hunting, or shamanistic powers. Shamanism thus enters into the sphere of political roles in this schema also, but less attention has subsequently been given to it than to roles of warriorhood, largely because the latter have been linked to issues of political evolution while the former has not been so linked (e.g. Lemonnier 1990). Elsewhere I have broadened the discussion of this point by considering generally the importance of ritual power in both great-man and big-man systems and as a means of tracing transitions, either typological or historical, between these systems (A. J. Strathern n.d.). Here I want to narrow my focus to shamanistic roles, while following the broad definition of these given by Samuel. Specifically I am interested in the following questions:

1. Is there a link between the religious roles of the shaman (or mediumistic practitioner) and his overall influence or standing within the community? …