Book Review of Vitebsky – Shamanism

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Anthropologist Piers Vitebsky, Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute, has been doing fieldwork among shamanic cultures since 1975. His researches range from Siberia to India to Sri Lanka and beyond. In his book Shamanism he has provided a clear, non-technical introduction to a badly misunderstood field. Included: bibliographic information (including citations of his own studies) and a glossary. The book begins with a discussion of shamanism and its worldview, moves on to regional traditions, talks about shamanism from the shaman’s viewpoint, and ends with a brief discussion of the new shamanic “movements” (fads).

As with “Far Eastern wisdom” reinterpreted and sold by people educated in the West, shamanism has been the target of intense cultural appropriation. A worldwide esoteric spiritual tradition has been diluted into self-help, with guided imagery exercises sold as “shamanic journeying.” As Vitebsky notes, “Many forms of neo-shamanism use elements from North American native religions which I have characterizedin this book as not strictly shamanic. In addition…native organizations have started to criticize some of these systems for cultural imperialism or intellectual piracy.” It would seem to be a characteristic of the empire psychology so many of us share but do not see that we feel entitled to uproot practices and traditions that grew up in very different societies instead of exploring our own.

A strength of this book is its presentation of shamanism as actually studied in its indigenous contexts. This frees it of the choking layer of common mischaracterizations (e.g., shamanism as dark night of the soul, self-improvement method, or spiritual path for people taking drumming lessons). I often recommend this book in my graduate holistic studies classes because here in California everyone and their mother think of themselves as shamans after attending some workshops and watching a few videos. The real shaman does not decide to become one but is selected from a long shamanic lineage by imaginal guides (“spirits”) whose manifestations vary across cultures. The selectee then works as a shaman if he or she survives the initiatory illness (some do not). Nobody who has lived through the illness would choose to walk it as a spiritual path. It has nothing to do with self-improvement, and genuine shamans sometimes report feeling wounded by it for decades after enduring it.

Bonuses of this book include the glossy text stock and beautiful photography. Most of the pictures are small, but evocative, especially the agonized expressions of the shamans who appear throughout the book (e.g., pages 10, 58, 65, 98, and 156). The book also discusses the arduous training the shaman will need for a lifetime of dissociating and painful ecstatic trances that (in the shamanic view) hold the energies of the world community in balance beyond the healing work done with an occasional human client.