The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination

The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination

The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination

The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination

Synopsis

For the past forty years shamanism has drawn increasing attention among the general public and academics. There is an enormous literature on shamanism, but no one has tried to understand why and how Western intellectual and popular culture became so fascinated with the topic. Behind fictionaland non-fictional works on shamanism, Andrei A. Znamenski uncovers an exciting story that mirrors changing Western attitudes toward the primitive. The Beauty of the Primitive explores how shamanism, an obscure word introduced by the eighteenth-century German explorers of Siberia, entered Westernhumanities and social sciences, and has now become a powerful idiom used by nature and pagan communities to situate their spiritual quests and anti-modernity sentiments. The major characters of The Beauty of the Primitive are past and present Western scholars, writers, explorers, and spiritualseekers with a variety of views on shamanism. Moving from Enlightenment and Romantic writers and Russian exile ethnographers to the anthropology of Franz Boas to Mircea Eliade and Carlos Castaneda, Znamenski details how the shamanism idiom was gradually transplanted from Siberia to the Native American scene and beyond. He also looks into the circumstances that prompted scholars and writers at first to marginalize shamanism as a mental disorder and then to recast it as high spiritual wisdom in the 1960s and the 1970s. Linking the growing interest in shamanism to the rise of anti-modernismin Western culture and intellectual life, Znamenski examines the role that anthropology, psychology, environmentalism, and Native Americana have played in the emergence of neo-shamanism. He discusses the sources that inspire Western neo-shamans and seeks to explain why lately many of these spiritualseekers have increasingly moved away from non-Western tradition to European folklore. A work of intellectual discovery, The Beauty of the Primitive shows how scholars, writers, and spiritual seekers shape their writings and experiences to suit contemporary cultural, ideological, and spiritual needs. With its interdisciplinary approach and engaging style, it promises to be the definitive account of this neglected strand of intellectual history.

Excerpt

In the summer of 1998, I was working in south-central Alaska among the Athabaskan Indians, exploring their past and present spiritual life. In addition to visiting several remote villages, my research took me farther to Anchorage, where some Athabaskans live. When my trip was nearing its end, in the downtown of this large metropolitan center, I ran across two interesting persons by chance and talked with them almost half a day. Let us call them Jim and Caroline. Both of them are deeply interested in the Native American and Siberian indigenous spiritualities that they call shamanism. In fact, our mutual interest in “tribal” religions was the spark that ignited the conversation. What intrigued me was that not only were they interested in the topic but that they also tried to live those spiritualities, selecting from them those things they could use in their own lives.

Both Jim and Caroline are Caucasians of middle-class background with northern European ancestry. Jim is a real estate agent, and Caroline works in the University of Alaska health system. They are highly educated people, voracious readers, and very tolerant of other cultures, experiences, and religions. They are also what one might call metaphysical dreamers with antimodernist sentiments, but, at the same time, they struck me as cosmopolitan people who are more open to science and the modern world than, for example, some members of mainstream religious denominations. Another attractive feature of their thinking is the way they strive for natural harmony. To them, the sacred is present in nature rather than in a force called “God” that inflicts apocalyptic horrors on those who do not follow one “true” path. Jim and Caroline shared with me the difficulties they . . .

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