P.6: Neo-Shamanists and Pagans Today

As earlier reported on SESN, Harner’s FSS has recently been involved in the revival of shamanisms in post-Soviet Siberia (mythns.html).

First, the FSS portrays its core-shamanism as 'shamanism' to indigenous people, when it is, as argued, a Western construction - indeed its appeal to 'core' features is reminiscent of Buhner's universalist approach. Shamanisms in Siberia involves traditions idiosyncratic to Buryatia, Tuva, Khakassia and so on, not a universal American or Western neo-Shamanism. Promoting Western quick-fix shamanism, core-shamanism weekend workshops, and earlier in the 20th. Century mesmerism, Allan Kardec’s type Spiritism, and so on, have for more than a century started to replace traditional shamanic inheritance.

And in that sence, without the commercialism of Harner’s organization already, Western influences on indigenous shamanisms have occurred in other parts of the world, including the syncretism with Roman Catholicism from S.America, the Philippines, and so on.

The Sakha (Yakut) of Siberia have been reviving 'shamanism' as part of a nationalist revivalist statement in the post-Soviet era in notable contrast to the 'traditional' practices subjugated by communist Russia. 'Shamanism' of the Sakha revival is comparable with Western neoShamanisms. Vitebsky for example argues a radical environmentalism influences their perception of the Siberian landscape, and that as well as shifting their locative indigenous ideology to a more global level, the Sakha are psychologising and cle-religionising their shamanism (P. Vitebsky, From Cosmology to Environmentalism, 1995, 195).

Elsewhere in Siberia/Central Asia, in the shamans' clinic at 41 Lenin Street, fees start at 5,000 rubles, or about a dollar, and go up. The clinic resembles a GP's practice, with treatment rooms and signs on each door, one of which reads 'Sarayglar Borbakhol, 7th generation shaman'. But while the treatment begins with the shaman taking the pulse of each patient and lasts around fifteen minutes, the shaman's instruments of healing consist of 'a shiny brass disk he uses as a mirror, the clawed feet of animals, seeds, feathers, rattles and what appears to be the shoulder blade of a deer.

Another shaman 'diagnoses illness by studying skin colour and pulse, and by detecting "bloenergy" ... In the rebirth of old traditions in Tuva, this is a new synthesis ... He combines shamanism, lamaism and modern medicine. Kenin-Lopsan quotes 34 registered shamans, and more than a hundred studying. He holds up the card all board-certified shamans get once they are approved. It's in a folding red leatherette case just like the ones that used to hold Communist Party membership cards…

In situations like these in Siberia it is no longer possible to make rigid distinctions between Ishamanisms' and 'neo-Shamanisms', 'authentic' and 'inauthentic' today are permeated. 

As indigenous shamans revitalise their own traditions with 'borrowed' Western elements, as they have done for more than a hundred years by now, as they enter the 'global village', the neo-colonialism charge levelled at neo-Shamans becomes too simplistic.

As has been pointed out on SESN already in the case of how first Hindu Reform movements created a distorted view of S.India including Tibet. But next as pointed out on SESN also in the above countries itself (haveah.html).

For example in a recent book “Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land” 
Patrick French discovers Tibetans who inform, Tibetans who collabo rate, Tibetans who joined the party, and, no doubt, Tibetans who think being a part of China is the only modern and sensible thing to do. His search for reality however often starts from a mythology created not by Tibetans but by westerners. 

Studies of colonialism have never been purely one-sided, shamans in Colombia, illustrate how 'the oppressed' negotiate colonial relations.

And transferal of knowledge from local contexts to global ones certainly effects changes of meaning. And the situation is by no means as simple as saying 'Give the natives their culture back.' The 'New Age' stereotype - having little in common with indigenous shamanisms, indeed often completely misrepresenting these. Wannabe Indians' perpetuate notions of the 'Indian' as Other, and romanticise Native Americans. In so doing, real living Indians were ignored, distanced further from the present into a 'dead' and 'primitive' past. So today (July 2003) the diversity of shamanic and neo-Shamanic practices and their meeting might best be explored without the prejudicial assumptions of 'real' versus 'new' shamanisms.

Also assuming all neo-Shamans are the same is not only a dangerous misrepresentation but also extremely naive. We have on SESN also demonstrated how neo-Shamanisms have heavily influenced anthropological and archaeological perceptions of shamanism. 

But alternative writers would do best to open up more to external scrutiny, in an era of globalisation, pluralisation and multivocality, in which also academics are forced to negotiate, broker and indeed give up some of their hold over knowledge - if they are to transform populist stereotypes.

Neo Shamic groups however, such as the Odinic Rite and Hammarens Ordens Sallskap in Britain, and the Asatru Folk Assembly in the USA, are more explicitly caught up also in issues of racism and nationalism.

See: racialp.html


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July 4, 2003






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