Wouldn’t it be great to be back in hunter-gatherer days? Back before the human spiritual quest had been corrupted by the “relentless onslaught of Western scientific materialism” and “dogmatic male-dominated religion”? Back when there were shamans—spiritual leaders—who could plug us into “the realm of the magical,” show us “the reality behind apparent reality,” and thus lead us to understand “how the universe really works”?
The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism, which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age spirituality. But the basic idea—that there was a golden age of spiritual purity which we fallen moderns need to recover—goes beyond New Age circles. You see traces of it even in such serious scholars as Karen Armstrong, who wrote in A History of God that early Abrahamic religion had created a gulf “between humanity and the divine, rupturing the holistic vision of paganism.”
As the author of the just-published book The Evolution of God, about the history of religion, I’m primed to do some debunking. But before I start, I want to stress two points: 1) I think it’s great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism; 2) I don’t doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were earnest seekers of a “holistic vision” who selflessly sought to share that vision.
What I do doubt is that these earnest, selfless spiritual leaders were any more common in the heyday of shamanism than today, or that the spiritual quest was any less corrupted by manipulation and outright charlatanism than today, or that there was a coherent philosophy of shamanism that makes more sense than the average religion of today.
Of course, there’s no way to resurrect long-dead cultures to find out, and there is by definition no such thing as a written record of prehistoric societies. But we have the next best thing: accounts from anthropologists who visited hunter-gatherer societies before they had been corrupted by much contact with modernity. These anthropologists observed shamans doing what shamans do: prophesying, curing people, improving the weather, casting spells, casting out evil spirits, etc. And the anthropological record suggests the following about the age of shamanism.
1) There was a lot of fakery. Eskimo shamans have been seen spewing blood upon contact with a ceremonial harpoon, wowing audiences unaware of the animal bladder full of blood beneath their clothing. The sleight of hand by which shamans “suck” a malignant object out of a sick patient and then dramatically display it works so well that anthropologists have observed this trick in Tasmania, North America, and lands in between. Other examples abound.
2) Shamans—lots of them—were in it partly for the money. In exchange for treating a patient, a shaman might receive yams (in Micronesia), sleds and harnesses (among the Eastern Eskimo), beads and coconuts (the Mentawai of Sumatra), tobacco (the Ojibwa of northeastern North America), or slaves (the Haida of western Canada). In California, if a Nomlaki shaman said, “These beads are pretty rough,” it meant that he would need more beads if he was to cure anything that day.
3) Shamans—some of them, at least—were in it for the sex. In his classic study The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that, among some Eskimos, “A forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. … An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning).” Nice work if you can get it. Sometimes the magic-for-sex swap was subtler. Ojibwa shamans, one anthropologist reports, received “minimal remuneration,” working for “prestige, not pay. One of the symbols of religious leadership prestige was polygyny. … Male leaders took more than one wife.”
4) Shamans—some of them, at least—ran protection rackets. Here is anthropologist Edward Horace Man on shamans in the Andamanese Islands: “It is thought that they can bring trouble, sickness, and death upon those who fail to evince their belief in them in some substantial form; they thus generally manage to obtain the best of everything, for it is considered foolhardy to deny them, and they do not scruple to ask for any article to which they may take a fancy.” Among the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, payment for service was rare, but, as one anthropologist observed, “One abstains from anything and everything” that might put the shaman “out of sorts or irritate him.”
As for the “philosophy” of shamanism—the vision that, in Rutherford’s words, shows us “how the universe really works”: Well, for the most part, the worldview of shamans was a lot like that of followers of early Abrahamic religion, except with more gods, more evil spirits, and more raw superstition (though there’s more raw superstition in the Bible than most people realize).
Of course, some shamans did have the advantage, compared with biblical figures, of psychedelic drugs. An Amazonian drug, as described by one anthropologist, led the shaman to lie in his hammock, “growl and pant, strike the air with claw-like fingers,” signifying that “his wandering soul has turned into a bloodthirsty feline.”
So if shamanism is so crude, how did it get glamorized? In 1951, the esteemed scholar Mircia Eliade published a book called Shamanism. While he didn’t whitewash shamanism, he did his best to see its more refined side. He wrote that Eskimo shamanism and Buddhist mysticism share as their goal “deliverance from the illusions of the flesh.”And shamanism, he said, features “the will to transcend the profane, individual condition” in order to recover “the very source of spiritual existence, which is at once ‘truth’ and ‘life.’ “
It’s certainly true that ordinary consciousness could use some transcending. Thanks to our designer, natural selection, we tend to be self-absorbed, with a wary sense of separation from most of humanity. And it’s true that various shamanic techniques—fasting, for example—can improve things in this regard (though fasting can also, as in the Native American “vision quest,” convince you that you’ve been adopted by some spirit that will, say, help you kill more people in battle). Anthropologist Melvin Konner once partook of the !Kung San curing dance, which can last 10 hours and send the dancer into a trance state that converts his or her healing energy into useful vaporous form and fosters discourse with gods. Konner didn’t speak to any gods, but he did report getting “that ‘oceanic’ feeling of oneness with the world.”
I’m for that! In fact, I once did a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat that gave me just that feeling. And there are traditions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are big on oneness. I recommend trying one of them—or trying neo-shamanism. But if you try neo-shamanism, don’t be under the illusion that you’re helping to recover a lost age of authentic spirituality. Religion has always been a product of human beings, for better and worse.