Shaman and Medicine Man

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The Tungus term shaman, probably derived from the Sanskrit šramana (ascetic) via the Pali samana (Buddhist monk) is used by anthropologists for that class of male and female religious practitioners who acquire or purchase supernatural power to be used primarily in causing, diagnosing, or curing disease, but also in divination, rainmaking, communication with the dead, finding lost objects, and in hunting, war, and fertility magic. Shamans are differentiated by social scientists from priests in that they do not study a specific body of doctrine, but acquire their powers as the result of a "vision quest" or other contact with the spirit world, while others pay to learn these skills through apprenticing themselves to famous practitioners. Also, shamans do not follow prescribed rituals, as priests do, but are free to develop individual "performances" that may involve narcotically induced trances, singing, dancing, drumming, sleight of hand, and such theatrical effects as the "shaking lodge" of the Salteaux or the private "angakok" language of Eskimo shamans. In early reports of travelers, and still in the popular press, shamans are often described as "medicine men," but this term and its synonyms, "conjurer," "witch doctor," "wizard," and "magician," are too imprecise for scholarly use.

Shamanism in its most developed form exists in eastern Siberia and Manchuria among the Tungus, Koryak, Ostyak, Chuckchee, Yakut, and Samoyed, where the shaman maintains his position as spiritual leader by acting as intermediary between the ethnic group and the unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits. Related magical curing practices extend across northern Asia to the Lapps and Finno-Ugrian communities of Europe, and have been incorporated into popular buddhism in Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan.

Shamanistic practices vary so widely throughout the New World that some may have resulted from independent invention rather than from diffusion from Asia. For instance, only Eskimo shamans are thought actually to be possessed by their spirit helpers during trances, as in Siberia, while elsewhere in the New World the spirits merely communicate their wishes through the entranced shaman as medium. Because shamans are paid for their services, they often become the richest members of their groups, and because their power is feared, they usually become politically powerful. In at least three areas, the American Southeast, among the Guarani of central South America, and in Sumatra, shamans have exercised effective political control. Thus, although a manifestation of epilepsy, transvestism, crippling disease, or other physical and mental disorder is often interpreted as a call to become a shaman, the evidence suggests that most shamans are fully in touch with their own cultural realities.

Like fetishism, shamanism has sometimes been used as a general category of primitive religion, stressing the role of the magic practitioner in controlling spiritual forces. But such attempts to classify religions systems on the basis of one or more criteria have been superseded principally by studies that show how a religious system is integrated with its social and cultural matrix.

Bibliography: h. n. michael, ed., Studies in Siberian Shamanism (Toronto 1963). m. czaplicka, Aboriginal Siberia (Oxford 1914) pt.3. s. m. shirokogorov, Psychomental Complex of the Tungus (London 1935), pt.4. m. eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, tr. w. r. trask (Bollingen Series 76; rev. ed. New York 1964).

[d. j. crowley]