Page 18 - Shamanism
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A French Jesuit missionary, Joseph Laitau (1724), reported two types of shamans among the 
Iroquois and Hurons in Canada: Evil shamans who consorted with the devil to harm people, and 

“jugglers,” or “diviners,” who communicated with the spirits for the good of the community. He 
acknowledged that shamans were not just preoccupied with magic and trickery, but also explained 

dreams and exposed “the secret desire of the soul” (24). Thus he can be seen, as Narby and Huxley 
noted, as an authentically enlightened precursor of modern anthropology because he admitted 
that there was something more to shamans’ practices than just trickery.

According to Gloria Flaherty, in her Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century, the shaman during 
this early period was being described with the word giocolare in Italian, jongleur in French, Gaukler 

in German, and wizard in English (Flaherty 1992, 6). Before the end of the eighteenth century, 
however, the Siberian Tungus word shaman became the common term in the West (7).

The intellectuals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment held to a scientific methodology 
based on objectivity and rationality, yet, as Flaherty noted, an interest in irrationalism, supernatur- 

alism, and romanticism coexisted with the prevalent humanism and scientiic determinism. The 
second half of the eighteenth century was marked by academic expeditions, undertaken in the at- 

tempt to understand shamanism through scientiic observation in the ield and the collection of 
native drugs for the analysis of data (67).

Among the scholars and explorers who led expeditions to Siberia were several notable European 
scholars. One of these scholars was Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt (1685–1735), commissioned 

by Peter the Great, who learned about indigenous illnesses, especially epidemics. Like many other 
Western observers, he regarded shamanism as “nothing but lies and trickery and saw no scientiic 

value in it whatsoever,” and his report clearly indicated his position as a Eurocentric European sci- 
entist (Flaherty 1992, 48). Similarly the Russian botanist Stepan Krasheninnikov, who obtained 

and analyzed the substances various shamans used to induce ecstasy in Kamchatka, in a report 
published in 1755 called shamans “absurd” and “ridiculous” (Narby and Huxley 2001, 36).

Some later Enlightenment scholars showed more understanding of shamanism. The German 
critic, theologian, and philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, in a work published in 1785, 

made clear that he regarded shamans as imposters, but he also stressed that imaginary representa- 
tions among tribal people, who were misunderstood in the past, should be considered valuable. 

He explained that an understanding of the nature of imagination is important for understanding 
shamanism, since this phenomenon involves myriad relationships between mind and body, which 

depend on the workings of the brain and nerves, as human illnesses demonstrate (Narby and Hux- 
ley 2001, 37).

Scholars of many different disciplines in the eighteenth century were fascinated by shamanism. 
Whether they were philosophers, missionaries, writers, archaeologists, physicians, botanists or 

ethnographers, these observers from different backgrounds in the West reported their perceptions 
of shamanism, despite their limited understandings of the religion and culture of the peoples they 
observed. This trend toward broad interest in shamanism continued into the nineteenth and twen- 

tieth century, and the framework for discussion about shamanism widened as shifts in methodol- 
ogy occurred. One of the major shifts was that both anthropologists and psychologists in Europe 

and America entered with full force into the study of shamanism.

Pioneers of Cultural Ethnography

In the early twentieth century, Franz Boas (1858–1942), often described as the father of American 
anthropology, created the foundation for a holistic approach to the studies of different cultures 

based on ethnographic documentation. In his approach to anthropology, he stressed the need for 
understanding a particular culture through many disciplines, such as archaeology, psychology, ge- 

ography, biology, linguistics, and mythology. He believed that an ethnography that made use of all 
these perspectives would provide a more objective and comprehensive understanding of shaman- 

ism, since shamanism, like any cultural phenomenon, is the product of a cultural system as an in- 
tegrated whole.

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