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Tuwinische Schamanin, Ai-Churek (Moon Heart, gestorben 22.11.2010) während einer Zeremonie am Feuer bei Kyzyl, Tuva, Russland – Dr. Andreas Hugentobler via Wikipedia

Shamanism is the practice and anthropological study of the shaman.

Some say the word shamanism is an academic construct and an umbrella term applying to a wide range of phenomena. And different people do, in fact, use the term for distinct ideas and purposes.

For example, in her forward to Shamanism, Jean Houston hopes that

[the book’s] scope and depth…will cause us to rethink our tendency to label and pathologize that which may be one of the most valuable and courageous forms of our human condition.¹

Michael Harner, at the time of the last update to this entry in 2009, emphasized the healing and creative aspects of shamanism, but didn’t always. In the 1970’s Harner defined the shaman as

A man or woman who is in direct contact with the spirit world through a trance state and has one or more spirits at his command to carry out his bidding for good or evil.²

These days, Harner seems more ambitious. At his website he now seems to be in the same league as a leading Hindu yogi and Japanese scholar:

What Yogananda did for Hinduism and D.T. Suzuki did for Zen, Michael Harner has done for shamanism, namely bring the tradition and its richness to Western awareness.³

The late Terrence McKenna said that shamanic cosmologies surpass current scientific models which, like any hegemonic idea, dogmatically influence our culture and outlook.

An excerpt from Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution by Terence McKenna - originally uploaded by oceandesetoiles

An excerpt from Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution by Terence McKenna – originally uploaded by oceandesetoiles

However, the word shamanism, extends beyond the realm of academia, self-promotion and New Age book publishing.

Jim Morrison from the The Doors was interested in shamanism, at times envisioning himself as a kind of flower power shaman. The Doors wrote successful songs like “Shaman’s Blues,” “Break on Through” and “Celebration of the Lizard” that evoked shamanic ideas.

Artists like Norval Morrisseau use the words “shaman artist” to describe themselves and promote their work. And graphic artist Heidi Reyes puts an interesting twist on the idea of shamanism with her work “Me at The Shamanism Centre.” Her artwork seems to imply that shamanism can exist in virtual reality without being grounded in any specific earthly location.

Heidi Reyes Me at The Shamanism Centre

Like some magicians and pagans, a few enthusiasts of Shamanism seem unduly impressed by alleged miracles. One student of Shamanism once told me with amazement about a Shaman who (apparently) can create butterflies out of nothing. Big deal, I thought. The whole idea of spirituality is to try to do God’s will, not to amaze and befuddle with paranormal tricks.

But I guess this critique could be leveled against adherents in most paths who fanatically seek the magical or miraculous as a kind of compensation for unresolved psychological complexes. It’s easier to see oneself – or exalt others – as “special,” “unique” and “gifted” in place of dealing with unresolved psychological pain.

"Hamatsa emerging from the woods--Koskimo...

“Hamatsa emerging from the woods–Koskimo” “Hamatsa shaman, three-quarter length portrait, seated on ground in front of tree, facing front, possessed by supernatural power after having spent several days in the woods as part of an initiation ritual.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Shirley Nicholson ed., Shamanism, Wheaton, Il.: A Quest Book, 1988, p. xiii.

² Michael Harner, Hallicinogens and Shamanism, 1973, cited in Michael C. Howard, Contemporary Cultural Anthropology, 2nd ed., Toronto: Little, Brown and Co. , 1986, p. 448.


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Soul Loss

Photo: Barney F

Photo: Barney F

In shamanic traditions, soul loss is the notion that psychological or physical illness is caused by the loss or spiritual abduction of the soul from the physical body.

Through rituals, dancing or entry into a trance (sometimes induced by hallucinogenic drugs such as mushrooms or peyote)¹, an experienced shaman allegedly undergoes a mystical voyage to return a lost, wandering or abducted soul to its body.

Reasons for leaving the body could also involve severe trauma, such as those associated with accidents or sexual abuse.

While the shamanic view of soul loss is an intriguing idea not too difficult to imagine in our age of digital graphics, video games and films like The Matrix, critics of Shamanism believe that shamans are lost in a world of fantasy or possibly astral, even demonic realms.

Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Along these lines, Sri Ramakrishna once said that all religious and spiritual paths lead to the same place and involve the same type of numinosity. But not everyone agrees with this view. For some, Ramakrishna’s claim is questionable. And some believe that demons may pretend to be angels or helpful guides when really, they just want to mess people up.

¹ The eminent scholar of religion and mythology Mircea Eliade seems to call this state of mind “ecstasy.” But he has been critiqued for not giving a clear definition of just what he means by ecstasy. See for instance,

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Sir Edward Burnett Tylor

Sir Edward Tylor was responsible for forming t...

Sir Edward Tylor was responsible for forming the definition of animism currently accepted in anthropology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) was an English anthropologist who developed a theory of animism to try to explain the origins of religion. Tylor believed that so-called primitive man developed a belief in spirits existing in nature from the actual experience of sleep, dreams and breathing. Like many researchers who think they know better than the people they are researching, it was probably too much of a stretch for him to take the idea on its own terms.

Generally regarded as the founder of social anthropology, Tylor believed that social systems gradually evolve from the simpler and ruder to the complex and sophisticated. For Tylor, the belief in God is nothing more than a primitive, somewhat outmoded survival mechanism. He also believed that science could explain what were once religious issues.

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Image by InSidE oUt via Tumblr

According to old school anthropology, a totem is a symbol that represents a spiritual ancestor for a group in aboriginal Australia and North America. The totem usually takes the form of an animal or sacred plant. Normally there are taboos against slaying or eating the totem.

More recently, definitions of the totem have broadened to include the entire globe. Wikipedia says:

A totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. The totemic symbol may serve as a reminder of the kin group’s ancestry or mythic past.[1] While the term “totem” is Ojibwe in origin, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to cultures worldwide.¹

Not to be confused with the totem pole, most thinkers probably project their own ideas onto the meaning of the totem. For instance, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim said the totem is nothing more than an emblematic center for a social group. For Durkheim, the aboriginal’s belief in ancestral spirits is spurious but the totem plays a crucial role in ensuring the social cohesion of the clan. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to know if the belief in ancestral spirits is somewhat misguided or genuine. But to dismiss it outright seems arrogant.

Sigmund Freud used the idea of totem to create a fanciful history of mankind that apparently supports his theories about the Oedipus Complex and the development of the superego. Today, Freud’s history isn’t taken too seriously, except, perhaps, by ardent Freudian psychoanalysists.

English: Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken...

Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anthropologists have advanced so many different ideas about the totem that one leading anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, questions the validity of the term.

However, the many and conflicting interpretations of the totem have raised some important questions:

  • Can one cultural system really understand another?
  • Do all members of a given culture hold the same beliefs?
  • What is a cultural system?
  • Could a researcher answer the above questions with any kind of certainty?


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Artificial Intelligence (AI)

English: The famous red eye of HAL 9000

The famous red eye of HAL 9000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the more interesting questions in philosophy and science fiction is whether or not machines possess consciousness.

When we consider that human consciousness is affected by our bodies and especially the biochemical currents running through of the brain, nervous system and organs, we’re compelled to ask if the organizational properties of a machine or electrical circuit could have a similar effect.

In other words, some wonder if “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” within the realm of man-made machines.

This may sound far-fetched to the contemporary scientific mind but several religious perspectives, especially within Asian and New Age traditions, believe that energy, itself, is conscious. Further to the idea that the degree of energy organization is linked to the degree of specialization within consciousness, one could imagine that a computer, when turned on, generates a more specialized kind of consciousness than that of a single electron or simple electric current.

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Critics of this hypothesis say it represents mere projection—an observer wrongly imagines that his or her type of consciousness belongs to an external object.

Today, conventional science tends to use the term “AI” in reference to speech and character recognition. More recently, “digital seeing” links optics with computers so robots can identify shapes and navigate environments.

The idea of AI has been explored by numerous science-fiction writers, sometimes humorously and other times intelligently.

Many TV and film robots have become a part of Western pop culture—e.g. The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Robbie the Robot in Lost in Space, Hymie in Get Smart, Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars, Commander Data in Star Trek: TGN, The Terminator in the film of the same name, and the Cylons in BattleStar Galactica.

Science fiction also asks whether AI could possess not only intellectual consciousness, but emotions and a soul.

For more, check out Wikipedia’s detailed entry:

History (including Mythology) »

Philosophy »

Ethics »

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Museum of Anthropology by masabu via Flickr

Anthropology (Greek anthropos: humans + logos: thought) is the all-inclusive study of human beings.

Its two main branches are physical and cultural anthropology. Physical anthropology deals mostly with physiological issues while cultural anthropology, not surprisingly, examines cultural development. The systematic study of language, art and myth emerged from cultural anthropology.

In the 1930’s a further distinction was made between cultural and social anthropology. Cultural anthropology came to mean a holistic view of how social acts relate to larger systems, whereas social anthropology became the study of specific social practices.

Also related to anthropology is archaeology and its various attempts to recreate historical societies and accurately date uncovered artifacts.

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Carlos Castanada

Las enseñanzas de Don Juan

Las enseñanzas de Don Juan: arugatse / Geronimo De Francesco via Flickr

Carlos Castanada (1925-1998) was a Peruvian born anthropologist and author who immigrated to California hoping to attain an academic career.

For his master thesis, he published the book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968).

The book was promoted as an anthropological account of Castanada’s encounter with a wise, benevolent Yaqui sorcerer in Mexico. It sold very well and Castanada continued with a series of best-sellers, all making the same claim of authenticity.

Critics of Castanada’s work point out that he took no real field notes and is elusive about his past, suggesting that his books are cleverly crafted fiction.

Whether they be fictional, embellished facts, or factual, these widely acclaimed stories outline a belief in interactive fields of reality. In the broadest sense these fields could be differentiated as ordinary and non-ordinary worlds, or as Mircea Eliade put it, mundane and supramundane realities.

But Don Juan’s teachings involve more than a simple “this or that” cosmology. Schematically, his vision is not unlike the mathematical fractal. The sorcerer is said to control interactive fields of power. Accordingly, he or she may exert influence from one power region to another to bring about an ethically good outcome.

Yaqui indians

Yaqui indians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An apparent physical illness, for instance, could be healed by inwardly perceiving spiritual disturbances or fields that are interacting with a patient’s bodily organs. Don Juan claimed that, by focusing awareness and exerting the will, the sorcerer can correct a seemingly isolated physical disturbance.

This is now called distance healing. And in Don Juan’s story, distance healing could be a single or complex, multi-layered event.

This approach might seem fanciful to some, but semiotics wedded to subatomic physics seems to point in a similar direction. Leading physicists and modern science writers say that matter and energy are two humanly constructed concepts. As such, the ideas of matter and energy apparently represent two forms of one underlying essence.

Interestingly, Castanada criticized the beatnik, drug guru Timothy Leary for suggesting that psychotropic drugs, alone, could cure. For Castanada, ingesting drugs was only an initial step in a complicated inner journey requiring a great deal of prolonged training and personal discipline.