The Shaman: Culture-Carrier, Teacher and Social
Integrator; Status, Ethics and Gender Ratios
The positions of shamans in their societies are as varied as are their approaches to their principal roles as healers and intermediaries. Wherever shamans appear, however, there are certain continuities in their relations to society.
Shamans are primary sources of cultural identity, being the carriers of myths, rituals, traditions and folkways reaching back as far as antiquity and as close as an hour ago. Shamans are teachers and educators for their communities, and often function as leaders and arbiters in disputes. (Rogers, 1982, 13-14) Shamans basically seem to assist the forces that maintain social cohesion.
As a mediator between human beings and the spirits, the shaman maintains the delicate balance of relations between the psychic, ecological, political and spiritual aspects of social life. Peter T. Furst notes that "the goal of the biological and cultural continuity of the society presupposes the delicate interplay and balance of a whole series of material and metaphysical constellations, under the guidance of the shaman. In other words, as we now know from Tukano, Huichol, Yarao and other contemporary ethnology, physical survival depends on a multi-dimensional equilibrium of which the shaman is guardian and for whose maintenance he marshalls all his gifts." (Furst, 1977, 13)
The shaman is the "guardian of the physical and metaphysical equilibrium of his society", and maintains cohesive cultural values during times of social crisis. (Ibid., 25) Furst notes that "one may find that those societies which have maintained the shamanic connexion have also maintained a healthier psychological disposition in times of rapid change than those in whom shamanism has deteriorated." (Ibid.) Shamans provide an example to their communities of strength, resolve of spirit, humor, wit, intelligence, emotional balance and self-control, and the helping-healing valuation of altruism. (Ibid.)
Indonesia's "Wayang Kulit," or shadow-plays, are led by the shadow-master, a man in whom the traditional Hindu myths of the plays are preserved and animated. (Rogers, 1982, 13-14) The shadow-plays are living representations of ancient cultural wisdoms, many of which are based on the traditional epic, the Ramayana, in which the forces of good are challenged and threatened by the forces of evil. The shadow-master, as an interpreter of these traditional wisdoms, teaches younger generations the values of their elders and ancestors.
In primal and shamanic societies, there appears to be a sense of solidarity and security from knowing that one of one's own people can go into the invisible world of the spirits to do work for the maintenance of that society. (Eliade, 1964, 511) By dealing with the realm of archetypes and self-hood beyond the personal ego, the shaman provides his culture with a living example of one who has survived the rigors of death and dismemberment, and who can communicate the wisdom derived from such experiences in a common language with other culture members. (Ibid.) Cora A. DuBois observed that in Wintu society shamans "'in many different ways were allowed to direct and shape social undertakings.... In their hands lay the transmission and molding of speculative thought.'" (cited in Park, 1938, 105)
Shamanic ritual provides a drama in which "everything seems possible." The use of magic tricks and gimmicks aids in a general suspension of disbelief and allows the audience to mentally transcend, if only for a brief time, the traps and habits of the secular world. (Eliade, 1964, 511) The shaman's role as social healer and cultural craftsperson facilitates a loosening of the bonds of the "present" and at the same time reinforces traditional solidarities. The numinous qualities of cultural symbols are reaffirmed within shamanic rituals through the narration of mythical scenarios and in artistic, theatrical productions.
Andreas Lommel asserts that so-called "primitive man is quite exceptionally susceptible to various forms of mental disorder. Psychoses, neuroses, hallucinations, mass hysteria and the life are of very frequent occurrence. The shaman can cure these states-- but only when he has overcome them in himself... The shaman is the center, the brain and soul of a community. He is , so to speak, the soul of a group or tribe, and his function is to adjust, avert, and heal defects, vacillations, and disturbances of this soul. Looked at biologically, the whole life of primitive people is more strongly influenced by the subconscious than seems to be the case among ourselves. It is clear that in this situation the position of the shaman is one of paramount importance." (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 11 citing Lommel, 1967, 73)
Though primal cultures do seem to have a strong motivating connection with the sub-conscious, I disagree that modern societies have lost this connection. "Civilized" peoples are just as susceptible to moods, dreams, wishes, fantasies, hopes, aspirations, visions, trances, "psychic-channeling," the sense of "higher powers" and all of the afore mentioned disturbances listed by Lommel. These unconscious processes influence members of modern societies as strongly and deeply as they do primal peoples, if not more so. What is often missing is the "psychic-neuron" of the shaman who demonstrates wholeness and strength from dealings with the supernatural, rather than alienation and breakdown.
Many societies show a close correspondence between the shaman and the political leader or chief. "Among some of the proto-Malay tribes the Batin is both chief and shaman." (Winstedt, 1951, 9) "Both [chief and shaman] hold offices that ideally are hereditary and... require some form of consecration; both are masters of an archetypal world: both have insignia baleful to the profane; both have been credited with the possession of familiars and with supernatural ability to injure and to heal and to control the weather; both have been honored by tree burial." (Ibid.)
Though not all political leaders have as illustrious credentials as the traditional Malays, those that also have spiritual leadership often have increased influence upon their societies' sense of values and social goals. Among the Paviotso, "the stronger his [the shaman's] supernatural power the greater his social prestige." (Park, 1938, 66) The shamans were "frequently consulted on secular affairs, and their opinions were respected." (Ibid., 67) The most powerful chiefs were both shaman and headman, and they "enjoyed perhaps even greater respect and influence than a political figure without supernatural power or a practitioner without chiefly title of office." (Ibid., 67, 103) As a leader of the 1890 Ghost Dance movement, Wovoka was not a chief, but his counsel was held in high esteem, and he was credited with strong curing powers. (Ibid., 67)
The shaman's position depended heavily upon "individual abilities and accomplishments" rather than on inheritance in Paviotso society, (Ibid., 68) but in Malay society we find the reverse situation. In Malaysia, the shaman who inherits his powers is often popularly held in higher esteem "than one qualified by seeing visions or by study under a teacher." (Winstedt, 1951, 9) In Southern California, the Chumash "Alcuklas," "Paxa" and "Wot" were recruited from members of the "?antap" cult," and were all in positions of high social and economic status. (Blackburn, 1975, 13)
In other societies, the connection of the shaman to the political leadership was not so strong. "In daily life the shaman follows the same pursuits as those who are less gifted with supernatural power." (Park, 1938, 68) His authority and prestige in the community were often dependent upon his ability to perform as a healer and a mediator. His highly developed knowledge of spiritual affairs and the sources of cultural traditions in the myths, stories and songs gave him a high level of responsibility. If he failed to maintain the image, his healing power might be lost and his use to the community destroyed. (Rogers, 1982, 14-15)
The McKennas note that in some shamanic "societies not only is the shaman in possession of an elaborate body of traditional teachings regarding his illness, but his adjustment is made much easier by virtue of his.accepted and respected social position." (McKenna and McKenna, 1975, 25) This position is a delicate affair, however, and the shaman must maintain "a constant equilibrium between ordinary reality and the supernatural realm." (Ibid.) "The shaman's psychic life is not unlike the unnaturally dexterous dances he performs at the height of ecstasy; it is a constant balancing act, as though he were a psychic tightrope walker on the razor's edge between the external world and the bizarre, magical, often terrifying 'world within.'" (Ibid.)
The ambivalent attitude towards the shaman in some societies is reflected in Blackburn's hypothesis concerning the social status of the shaman-figure in Chumash cultures. Blackburn sees Chumash reality as being uncertain and dangerous, but orderly, with shamans being powerful supernatural intermediaries whose abilities are essentially a-moral and can be used for either good or evil. (Blackburn, 1975, 42) Because of these abilities, the shamans command the respect and, in some cases, the fear of their communities. Blackburn sees them as necessarily marginalized and "outside the social system, no longer responsive to the same claims of kinship or sentiment that motivate and control the average person. Their shamanistic contests and demonstrations serve to reinforce their prestige (and of course their psychological effectiveness) while dramatizing the gulf that divides them inevitably from the rest of society." (Ibid.)
Are shamans necessarily an elite whose function is never clearly understood by the societies from which they develop but who do not share their level of participation in matters of the supernatural, or are they an expression of a predictable form of human personality development ubiquitous to human societies? Though the outer forms may vary, the phenomenon seems consistent in nearly all societies within the shamanic complex. It is, however, the society which is the final arbiter as to whether the shamanic candidate is considered crazy and anti-social, or creative and socio-genetically inspired.
The shaman in Buryat society is considered to be potentially "dangerous, a highly specialized and necessary evil, valued therefore." (Krader, 1978, 184) "He was the projection of all the group defenses against the threats of nature and threatening social relations, the external and the internalized, and the collective fears of disaster of both kinds." (Ibid., 185) The Buryat shaman gradually lost his "role as sustainer of the cosmic and moral order" during the 19th century "Russian-ization" of Siberia. The shaman came to be considered aberrant by Russian perspectives, and their prestige declined to the advantage of the modern state. (Ibid., 188)
The same process of the degradation of native leadership by an invading culture can be seen among many Native American groups. Among the Penobscott Indians, the shamans held positions of greater esteem and supernatural powers were more highly developed before the coming of European Christianity and capitalism. (Speck, 1919, 248) The same is true for the Paviotso who experienced a lowering of status for both shaman and chief under the reservation system. (Park, 1938, 67) Perhaps the general destruction of hunting grounds and sacred places, being uprooted-from ancestral homelands, suffering tremendous decreases in population from plagues, disease and warfare had some deleterious effects upon the position of the medicine-person in Amerindian cultures. Most North, Central and South American Indians, however, accord shamans a "place of prominence in the [social] group." (Ibid., 107)
Non-Christian Euro-Asian cultures also tend to hold shamanic practitioners in high esteem. (Karsten, 1955, 90) Among the Lapp Samek, the "'noidi' had to be a man in good health and faultless body condition." (Ibid., 65) In India, the "dehar" was treated with reverence and awe, although the position was not popularly sought after because of the heavy restrictions placed upon young men, especially relative to sexual and marital relations with women. (Suger, 1967, 87)
In the Himalayan country of Nepal, the "Bonpo" is frequently landed, highly esteemed, married, above average in intelligence, and though rarely poor, is frequently illiterate. (Schmid, 1967, 83-84) This contrasts with the common poverty of many highly literate lamas, who exist side by side with, and recognize the spiritual leadership of the "Bonpo." (Ibid., 87) Though lamas derive authority through the complex hierarchies of the Lamaic Buddhist monasteries, the "Bonpo," as a "part-time specialist" and a "cultural broker," develops his authority from personal experiences with the supernatural. (Peters, 1981, 9)
Though societies of shamans are rare, 18th century Perak had a "state shaman who was of descent fully royal and bore the title of Sultan Muda or Junior Sultan" and was "head of all the magicians in Perak." (Winstedt, 1951, 10) Malaysian shamans still retained positions of elevated social standing even well into the 20th century. "Even now the shaman is so respected that in Kelantan if he is operating in a district all other medicine-men are disqualified for the time being." (Ibid., 8) The "Pawang" augments his own experiential knowledge with information from a variety of super-cultural sources. The "Malay magician, whether ordinary practitioner or shaman, commands respect by possessing a body of occult knowledge derived often from cultures greater than his own and framed by the ingenuity of many forerunners into an acceptable dogma of superstition." (Ibid.)
In order to maintain the respect of his society, the shaman must express himself in ways that do not overtly threaten the basic ethics of his community, whether encoded into law or merely accepted as the norm. The Okinawan shaman asks himself, "Am I doing the right thing? Is what I am doing real?" (Rogers, 1982, 8) The shamanic practitioner “must be highly attuned to culturally validated forms of "creativity and showmanship" while continually pushing the barriers of what are considered "real," acceptable patterns and perspectives. The shaman is often an observer-participator and interpreter of his society and its mind-sets, and not the creator of the messages from the other worlds between which he is an intermediary. (Nordland, 1967, 182)
It is often true that'"powers situated outside the ego will generally be accepted as having the greater authority." (Ibid., 181) A common difference between shaman's and pseudo-shamans is that the latter is more interested in ego-fulfillment and personal gain while the legitimated shaman is "not interested in the interpretation of messages on his own behalf." (Ibid.) The real shaman often has a "readier access to all levels of development as an individual and a greater possibility for remembering and re-experiencing earlier events and emotions than the pseudo-shaman." (Ibid., 182)
This split can be seen in the difference between the Penobscott "Maede olinu" and "Ki ugwa sowi no." Whereas the former was often engaged in contests with others of his kind to prove his supernatural prowess, the "dreamer" never inflicted injury or curses as the others were wont to do, and were generally "harmless in their behavior towards other men." (Speck, 1919, 269) They did not seek political authority and did not form any "society of dreamers," but acted as individual members of their tribe. (Ibid.)
In some societies the "Hypocratic ethic" of the shamans determined the extent to which they were required to assist the ill or infirm. Among the Paviotso, the shamans "rarely refuse to accept a case. It is generally agreed that the shamans are required to treat the sick whenever they are asked. It is said that if a shaman refuses to go [to the aid of a sick person] his power will be angry, and sickness and loss of power will result." (Park, 1938, 49) Though in many cultures shamans are not paid for their public ceremonies to benefit the community, they often charge a fee for personal and private rituals, which attests to the strong "professional stamp" shamanic practitioners hold in their office.as healers and intermediaries. (Holtved, 1967, 24)
The office of shamanic practitioner is open to men, women, and children of both sexes in many societies. (Ibid.) When hereditary transmission is the norm, the shaman's position is considered "familial property." (Rogers, 1982, 13) While anyone can be a shaman, in some societies there is a division of labor between the sexes, and women tend to develop close affinities for herbs, while men maintain ecstatic connections with spirits of the dead, etc. Asian shamans may be either male or female as they become a "product of inspiration as much as of lore." (Winstedt, 1951,13) "The female shaman's services [continued to be strong as of 1951] among the Mu'o'ng of Indochina and the Dayaks of Borneo." (Ibid.)
Among Native American groups such as the Penobscott, both men and women were shamanic candidates, the latter being referred to as "Maede olinu kwe" or drumming-woman. (Speck, 1919, 246) Other societies west of the Rockies admitted both men and women, as among the Paviotso, where men were often, but not always considered the more powerful practitioners. (Park, 1938, 88) In some societies, shamanic practitioners were predominantly women, as among the Northern Californian Yurok, Tolowa, Hupa, Wiyot, Northern Maidu, Shasta, Achomawi and Atsugewi. (Ibid., 89) Further south among the Pomo, Huchnom, Wailakai, Wappo and Coastal Miwok, both males and females could become "doctors" via contact with the supernatural. (Ibid., 90)
In some societies, shamanic practitioners were exclusively female. The Ashanti of West Africa, some peoples of Borneo, Australia, Siberia, the North American Creeks and Dakota and some Eskimo cultures accord women, especially elderly women, places of spiritual prominence. The Hurok of California have two kinds of “shamankas:” “root doctors” who specialize in herbs and natural medicines, and "barking doctors," diagnosticians who use a "dog dance" to decipher the cause and cure of illness. (Rogers, 1982, 26) This practice is remarkably similar to that of the Navaho (Diné) "hand-tremblers" who wave their quivering hands over a person's body to find where the disease is located and what caused it.
In Korea, the "Manshins" were predominantly female practitioners, Modern Korea reveals that "more than 95% of the practicing shamans of the ecstatic tradition are women, while an equal proportion of their customers are also women." (Covell, 1983, 10) The few male "Paksu" that do perform "kuts" often do so in drag. (Ibid., 20) Because of the severe sexual repression of women under Confucian rule in Korea, shamanizing gives women (and men) an outlet for their emotions and feelings, and gives them at least some personal form of empowerment, even though the "Manshin" has historically been considered the lowest class of religious practitioner. (Ibid., 11-16)
Because it has until recently not received state support, the shamanistic tradition in Korea has been maintained as a household folk-faith by women of all social classes who used it to extend their influence over social and personal life in an extremely restrictive society. "In a prescientific age before the development of [modern] psychology, a Kut was the best known remedy " for anxieties and cognitive dissonances caused by the constant repression of natural emotions. (Ibid., 87)