Page 16 - Shamanism
P. 16



The richness of the ield of study called shamanism is obvious in many ways. Researchers in the 
ield come from areas as diverse as history, anthropology, psychology, religious studies, sociol- 

ogy, medicine, and art. The phenomena studied are equally diverse. The use of the term 
shamanism might give the false impression that the phenomenon so labeled is a single ixed religious 

system, which exists in various societies in the world. In reality the term shamanism covers a number 
of beliefs and rituals, which are continuously changing and evolving as new historical and religious 

situations arise in different societies. It can be argued that it would be more appropriate to speak of 
shamanisms, related dynamic religious processes, but at least the term is usually written with a small 

initial s, rather than a capital S, as would be the case if it were the name of a speciic religion.
In the Preface, a broad working deinition of shamanism is given; it is deined as a religious be- 

lief system in which the shaman is a specialist in the knowledge required to make a connection to 
the world of the spirits in order to bring about beneits for the other members of the community. 

Later in this Introduction, the controversies associated with the deinition of shamanism will be 
handled in more detail, but those controversies will be more meaningful in the context of a histori- 

cal perspective on the way the West has come to know shamanism.

A Historical Perspective
Ancient Societies and Shamanism

Many scholars have seen evidences of shamanistic elements in prehistoric and ancient societies; 
among the societies covered in this encyclopedia are ancient Egypt, Iran, North Asia, and South 

India, as well as the Celtic world and pagan Europe as a whole. Any discussion of shamanism in 
prehistoric and ancient societies must rely to a great extent on archaeology, and here as in so many 

areas of study related to shamanism there is great controversy. David Whitley’s entry on “Archaeol- 
ogy and Shamanism” introduces the work that has been done in this controversial area, stimulated 

by the idea that shamanism may well be the oldest religion of hunter-gatherers. He discusses the 
three types of evidence used by those who work in the ield, namely data on hallucinogenic plants 

in the archaeological record, evidence derived from a study of the iconography and symbolism of 
ancient rock art, and evidence based on other types of ritual or ceremonial remains.

The work done on the symbolism associated with rock art in Eurasia, the Americas, and south- 
ern Africa has certainly created heated debate between the archeologists who promote the idea that 

Paleolithic rock art provides the irst evidence of shamanism in art and those who oppose such a 
notion. J. David Lewis-Williams and Tomas Dowson (1988), as well as others, see in this ancient 

art what they call “entoptic images” (on which Lewis-Williams has written an entry for this ency- 
clopedia), which are derived from the human nervous system, as it functions during certain altered


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