It should come as no surprise that the definition of shamanism is profoundly contested terrain. One of the problems has been that definitions of shamanism have been entangled in our own political and cultural concerns. We see in the figure of the shaman what we need to see — cultural resister, compassionate healer, master of ecstasy, psychotherapist, embodiment of indigenous wisdom. Shamans — irreducibly individual humans — thus become petrified, mute objects of our own imagination, stripped of language and voice; we face the shaman and repeat what postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak calls the “obsessively self-centered” question, Who are we? How are we?
After all, the term shamanism is simply an anthropological construct; there was no –ism to it until anthropologists put it there. Religious scholar Daniel Noel calls the concept of shamanism “fantastic, fictive, a work of imagination”; anthropologist Michael Taussig calls it “the Western projection of a Siberian name”; historian Andy Letcher calls it an “orientalist construct.” Like other anthropological constructs — think of terms such as totem, taboo, fetish — a word and practice found in one particular culture is used to label more or less similar practices in other cultures which are more or less distant, geographically or conceptually, from the original. It is, of course, in the more-or-less that the trouble lies, for four reasons.
First, it is inherently problematic to analogize across cultural lines. An American tattoo and a Tahitian tatu share ink pushed under the skin with a needle, but have such different — and often shifting — social meanings that we can question whether it is appropriate to call them by the same name; similar arguments would apply to generalizing the idea of shamanism outside the Siberian-Arctic complex. Second, the labeling of a practice in one culture with a word from another can be — or be construed as — a political act of imposition or appropriation; many Native Americans, for example, object strongly to having their traditional healers called shamans, as a term imposed from outside by the dominant culture. Third, calling someone a shaman is what Gayatri Spivak calls a catachresis — a linguistic error that subsumes the particular histories and lives of individual shamans under what she calls a master word, thus naming and defining their ineluctably unique experiences. And, fourth, defining the exotic other is a form of what Jean Baudrillard calls museumification, a way to label and then shelve the living specimens of our inquiry.
So what can we do? Part of the problem lies, perhaps, in how we think about defining things. Lawyers often break down a concept such as ownership into a metaphorical “bundle of sticks.” Ownership, for example, consists of a bundle of rights in property — rights to sell, lease, share, bequeath, donate, alter, repair, alienate, or destroy. Owning different things, or owning the same thing under different circumstances, may alter the number or type of sticks included in the bundle. So what I propose is a a shamanic bundle of sticks.
- The shaman has a special relationship with the spirits, different from that of people who are not shamans. Relationships with these other-than-human persons, like relationships with human persons, are often subject to renegotiation, and may involve different and shifting amounts of power on either side. Relationships with different spirits may involve different degrees of trust, persuasion, control, or subordination. These other-than-human persons, like human persons, may be helpful, harmful, callous, malicious, indifferent, or tricky, and they may unilaterally terminate their relationship with the shaman. Such relationships with the spirit world may be considered demanding, dangerous, and exhausting.
- The shaman has a special way of interacting with the spirits, different from that of people who are not shamans. The means of contacting, visiting, or inviting the spirits include, but are not limited to, ingesting psychoactive plants and mushrooms, fasting, dreaming, drumming, dancing, and undergoing states of pain, deprivation, and isolation.
- The shaman interacts with these other-than-human persons on behalf of human persons, either individually, as clients, or as a community. The shaman may interact with the spirits as his or her own client as well, as when, say, seeking revenge against another shaman; but the actions of the shaman are embedded in community values, beliefs, and expectations.
- At least some of the shaman’s performances are public, and involve the elements of dramatic performance — props, costumes, music, movement, players, audience, plots, comedy, suspense, stagecraft, conjuring, poetry, and dialogue. The shaman’s performance very often has a rhythmic accompaniment — a drum, a rattle, a maraca, a bundle of leaves tied together by a cord.
- The shaman shares with the community a belief system, very frequently animistic, which constitutes a theoretical justification of the shamanic performance, although the shaman may have more elaborate metatheoretical constructs, as well as a greater knowledge of mythology, history, genealogy, rules, and plant and animal lore than people who are not shamans.
- The shaman has a distinct social role in the community, and this social role may have a specific name.
- The shaman sees things that people who are not shamans cannot. The shaman may be able to find lost objects, know where game is plentiful, discern who has cast a curse, diagnose the location or cause of an illness, persuade the animals to give themselves for food, or heal the sick by retrieving a lost soul or by removing intrusive objects from the body. The shaman may perform one, a few, or many of these functions.
- The shaman’s relationship with other-than-human persons is usually achieved only after arduous training. A person may become a shaman willingly or unwillingly, sometimes after a life-threatening accident or illness, or may inherit or purchase the role.
- The shaman’s power may be encapsulated as a physical object — a stone, a crystal, darts, phlegm, poison — kept hidden inside the shaman’s body. The shaman’s power may be manifest as one or more songs which the shaman has been taught by the spirits, and which may be in secret, archaic, or unintelligible languages.
- The shaman can use the same techniques and objects to harm or kill that can be used to help or heal.
People may have a few or many of these sticks in their bundle; different people may have different bundles, with many, or few, or even no sticks in common. Yet they may all be shamans, or we may decide that one has just too few sticks, or just the wrong combination of sticks, to be included.
Now we can — I hope — engage in constructive discussion about these sticks. Perhaps I have left out some important sticks; perhaps some of the sticks I have included are only of marginal importance. But this approach has the advantage of directing debate toward specific features of the complex rather than toward a search for its single defining feature.