Shamans: The Next Generation

Article excerpt

In an old photograph from the Museum's archives, a Koryak shaman beats her drum and chants herself into a trance, preparing to confront the spirits that have stolen her patient's soul. Eighteenth-century travelers to Siberia brought back descriptions of such shamans, who entered into frenzied trance states at will and claimed extraordinary powers through intimate knowledge of the spirits. Europeans in the Age of Enlightenment reacted to these accounts with disgust and fascination. These two contradictory responses are still with us as anthropologists describe the activities of shamans all over the world, in places as diverse as Chinese market towns and the Amazon rain forest.

Governments spanning the political spectrum have condemned shamanic practices as irrational and dangerous, obstacles to progress and enlightenment. Romantics have sought out shamans as guides to a primal religious experience, while nationalists have celebrated them as the bearers of ancient cultural knowledge. In Siberia, where shamans were suppressed during the Soviet period, they are now reemerging as rallying points of ethnic identity. Shadowy figures in old ethnographies, shamans have become a vivid presence in our own popular culture, even appearing as pivotal characters in romantic fiction and murder mysteries. Workshops in shamanic techniques are part of the contemporary urban scene in North America and Western Europe. …