[3.5] This was an impulse purchase over ten years ago, so I can't really blame it for not being structured as I'd like now.
Laid out like a kids' or c[3.5] This was an impulse purchase over ten years ago, so I can't really blame it for not being structured as I'd like now.
Laid out like a kids' or coffee table non-fiction book, it has plenty of pictures, short 'articles' of 2-5 pages and text boxes all over the place with tangentially related info and anecdotes. It's arranged thematically, using examples from all over the world (particularly a handful of Siberian tribes, the Sora of India, and Amazonian and Central American groups); whilst some idea of each culture builds up as you read, frustratingly, a fuller sense of their worldviews and religion isn't present as it would be if each tribe was given a proper chapter of its own. That could then be followed by further chapters of comparison and synthesis. Dates for the collection of stories, or lives of the named shamans are hardly ever given - to the historian for whom context also means 'when', this looks sloppy. There are some references in the back, but they are far from detailed. As it is, it might be good reading for a teenager wondering whether to apply for an anthropology degree - it's an introductory guide by a Cambridge academic - but otherwise it seems too superficial for what most adult readers might want from a book on this subject.
The tone is that of a sympathetic academic, and reminded me a little of Ronald Hutton's work on British pagan traditions. I'm genuinely mystified by another GR reviewer, one of whose comments states Vitebsky "probably has to professionally disbelieve everything". At almost any page one could open the book and find paragraphs written in a manner that respects the shamans' beliefs. "The shaman is chosen by the spirits..." it says, not 'the shaman reports/says/thinks/believes he is chosen by the spirits', or worse. When contradictory beliefs of different groups are compared close by, there is necessarily more detachment, but it's never dismissive. And underneath the professional phrasing, there is clear dismay at those who've destroyed indigenous beliefs, missionaries, Communists and others. Vitebsky is, unlike Hutton, not always sympathetic to neopagan forms, perhaps because they can affect and interact with surviving ancient tribal practices in a way that, say, a modern druid can't change Celts who've been dead for centuries. For instance he contemplates contemporary neo-shamans being critical of indigenous tribes from vegetarian and feminist viewpoints, and as hunting magic may have been the earliest origin of shamanism, seems to feel there's something fundamentally inauthentic about vegetarian shamanism - although both relate to the practitioner feeling attuned to nature in a way appropriate at the time their belief system was formed. In fairness, he does have respect for some other aspects of these practices, and was writing 20 years ago.
A general impression is that in the north of Asia - Siberia - shamanism is dominated by men (I recalled Colin Thubron saying that much Siberian tribal lore gave women a low status, and that at least one tribe considered them to be given souls by men), whilst further south, for instance among the rural Sora, and in Korea where forms of shamanism survive in a fairly commercial context, most shamans are women. The book concentrates on spiritual shamanism that involves spirit journeys, ritual display and psychological forms of healing that may take place through an apparent placebo effect, or in ritualised conversations akin to psychotherapy - it isn't about herbal medicine at all. The book portrays a good combination of fascinating practices alongside aspects of life that now sound frustrating - most people of both sexes were subject to strict social roles that seemed necessary to the survival of these small communities; the shaman, psychologically a sort of outsider with unusual experiences, was sometimes employed to make them return to or conform to those roles. Some interpretations of the world were personally quite depressing: e.g. an Amazonian tribe that considers all illness to be caused by evil darts from enemies, and that the only cure is to send the darts back to the enemy tribe - cure inevitably involves the intent to make someone else ill again, and they are engaged in an eternal spiritual warfare with their neighbours.
There was nothing about development of reasoning or possible use of unconscious cues, which I'd always thought was interesting in the context of traditional healers and magicians; all the discussion is about what's done outwardly or the stated beliefs about spirits. For example, I assumed that a shaman over time would learn by observation about which ailments and people were and were not likely to get better by themselves, and their forecasts would be based on that. Or that the 'right time' for a hunting ritual might be announced because the shaman had, not necessarily consciously, registered some change in nature associated with abundance of animals in previous years. And - something more pertinent historically than as late as the twentieth century - did some of them experiment with different treatments? I'm sure many intelligent humans all over the world must have independently come up with a form of scientific method before it became a widespread way of thinking ... but of course such people didn't leave records.
An interesting enough book, but not substantial enough on any of its topics, unless perhaps you're completely new to the subject.
And in case you were wondering, the guy on the cover is from Nepal....more