The Archaeology of Shamanism

The Archaeology of Shamanism

The Archaeology of Shamanism

The Archaeology of Shamanism

Synopsis

In this timely collection, Neil Price provides a general introduction to the archaeology of shamanism by bringing together recent work on the subject. Blending theoretical discussion with detailed case studies, the issues addressed include shamanic material culture, responses to dying and the dead, shamanic soundscapes, the use of ritual architecture and shamanism in the context of other belief systems such as totemism. Following an intial orientation reviewing shamanism as an anthropological construct, the volume focuses on the Northern hemisphere with case studies from Greenland to Nepal, Siberia to Kazakhstan. The papers span a chronological range from Upper Palaeolithic to the present and explore such cross-cutting themes as gender and the body, identity, landscape,social perceptions of animals, prehistoric 'art' as well as shamanic interpretations of rock art and shamanism in the heritage and cultural identity of indigenous peoples. The volume also addresses the interpretation of shamanic beliefs in terms of cognitive neuroscience and the modern public perception of prehistoric shamanism.

Excerpt

When a dissident priest called Avvakum arrived in the lands of the nomadic, reindeer-herding Evenki in the early 1650s, having been exiled to central Siberia by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, no outsider had ever heard of a šaman, let alone written the word down or explored the cosmological understandings that underpinned its meaning. By the time of his execution for heresy in 1682, Avvakum's descriptions communicated during his sojourn among the Evenki had already laid the foundations for what anthropologists would later term the study of shamanism.

Over the following 150 years, as Siberia was traversed by missionaries, political exiles (often highly educated intellectuals), Tsarist agents and European travellers, more and more stories were recorded of the intriguing beliefs and practices to be found among the tribal peoples there: from the Nenets, Mansi, Khanty, Ngansan and Enets of the Uralic group around the Yamal peninsula, the Ob and Yenisei river basins and the north Siberian coast; the Turkic-speaking Yakut and Dolgan on the lower Lena; the Tungusic-Mandchurian peoples of central Siberia, including the Even and the Evenki themselves; and the Yukaghir, Chukchi, Koryak and Itelmen of eastern Siberia and the Pacific coast, amongst many others.

The tales told by these early voyagers were startling, and aroused intense interest in Russia and Europe. A fragmentary picture emerged of an 'ensouled world' in which everything was alive, and filled with spirits - animals, natural features, even what to Western eyes were inanimate objects. To such beings could be linked almost every aspect of material life: sickness and health, the provision of food and shelter, success in hunting, and the well-being of the community. The maintenance of good relationships with these spirits was thus of crucial importance, and the most striking of the travellers' stories concerned the special individuals who attained states of trance and ecstasy in order to send out their souls to communicate with these beings, to enlist their aid or bind them to their will, sometimes even to engage them in combat. The operative sphere of these people, whom the Evenki called šaman, was revealed as a world of mediation, of negotiation between the realm of human beings and the adjacent, occasionally coincident, planes of existence in which dwelt the gods, the spirits of nature, and the souls of the dead. The complex variety of equipment used in these ceremonies was also described: the strange headgear and jackets hung with jingling amulets, the fur and feathers of animals, metal images; the masks and veils; the effigies and figurines; and above all, the drums.

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