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Shamanism as a Controversial Phenomenon


Shamanism is a term used in Europe to describe people from different tribes who performed different rites. In different tribes Shamans perform different functions. Mostly they were treated like doctors or people who know medicine. Some people also believe that shamans have ability to communicate with spirits. The term itself derives from Tungus language used in Siberia, Russia. At the present moment shamanism exists in different places of the world and should be treated as global phenomenon. Many scientists regard shamanism as archaic phenomenon which derives from pagan religions. There is another group of scholars who treat Shamanism as abnormal phenomenon.

Attitude to shamanism greatly changed with the flow of time. First Christian missionaries who discovered the tribes and shamans treated them as healers, who used the help of devil. Such an attitude reflected an attitude of “civilized” Europe to new phenomenon from another culture. This attitude is explained to great extend by Christian doctrine, which did not recognize other religions and confessions. Shamanism was treated as competitive force, which had a lot of adherents. An attitude to shamanism in the nineteenth century did not change to great expand. Most people from civilized countries still treated it hostilely. An accent on the serving to devil was not so strong during this time. At the same time shamanism and communication with spirits was still treated like a fantasy and daydreaming of people who used it in order to manipulate others. This attitude also reflected prejudices which existed at that time. Changes in attitude, which occurred in the beginning of the twentieth century did not bring much faith in shamanism.

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A big group researches, scientists and writers did not treat shamans seriously. They regarded shamans as charlatans and put much effort trying to persuade wide publicity that shamans did not possess and kind of special power and only deceive people. Famous French writer Diderot gave negative descriptions of shamans. He described them as servants of Devil, supporting the theory of evil nature of shamanist practices. He believed that shamans “persuade the majority of people that they have ecstatic transports, in which the genies reveal the future and hidden things to them. The supernatural occasionally enters into their operations. They do not always guess by chance” (Diderot, 2001, p. 34). Form the other side he made an attempt to uncover deceitful nature of shamanism, describing different falsifications used by shamans. Diderot stated that “shamans lock themselves into steamrooms to make themselves sweat, often after drinking a special beverage that they say is very important to receiving the celestial impressions” (Diderot, 2001, p. 35).

The use of psychological descriptions in order to explain shamanism was popular during the middle of the twenties century. George Devereux, a famous anthropologist, expressed an opinion that shamanism is a kind of neurotic diseased. By his mind shamans are mentally ill people.

Devereux believed that shamans were mentally deranged. He also believed that they should have been treated as neurotics. Julian Silverman went even further. He believed that shamanism was a form of schizophrenia. He believed this because it corresponded to two conditions of schizophrenia, which were “grossly non-reality-oriented ideation, abnormal perceptual experiences, profound emotional upheavals, and bizarre mannerisms” (Silverman, 1967, p. 22).

At the same time contrast opinion on shamanism appeared that time. Some famous psychologists, such as Stanley Krippner stated that shamanism was a kind of psychological practice and that shamans possessed an outstanding abilities of indigenous psychotherapists. Mircea Eliade in her work, published in 1950s that that “shamanism is an archaic technique of ecstasy, involving soul flight, or “journeying” (Eliade, 2004, p. 154). Despite her ideas were greatly criticized, they became were important for further development of Neo-shamanism and growing interest to shamanism.

Another group of scientists, such and Walsh (2001), Basilov (1997) and Sander (1979) gave counter arguments to the point that shamanism was a kind of mental illness. They believe that shamanism has clear differences from schizophrenic states. Remarkable abilities and good mental skills, peculiar to shamans make them different from mentally ill people.

Nowadays shamanism becomes more widespread among people, who do not belong to aboriginal tribes. Neo-shamanism becomes a part of New Age movement and gains popularity all over the world. The meaning of the term New Age is really broad nowadays. It is used for describing all alternative spiritual subculture, which makes a combination of channeling, meditation, holistic practices, and environmental practices.

The New Age Movement is a combination of ideology, religion and spiritual methods peculiar to contemporary Western culture. The name New Age is used in many meanings. It describes many practices, beliefs, rituals peculiar to this movement. New Ages combines religions and spiritual prophesy of East and West. It also includes the knowledge from psychology, biology and ecology.

There are many religions, which influenced this movement. Among these religions are Buddhism, Spiritualism, Hinduism, Wiccan, Taoism, paganism, Sufism and many others.

New Age emerged as a response to new social, political and cultural trends in the society. Exhausted by social conflicts, wars, and political withstanding, people started losing faith in conventional religions and neo-shamanism is often regarded as a part of this movement.

Shamanism combines a lot of spiritual and mystical teachings became that new force, which managed to give people hope for future and confidence in themselves. Nowadays we can see that Christian faith has lost its meaning for younger generations.

Strict norms and regulations of Christianity do not appeal to younger generations any more. It is not surprising that New Age became especially popular in the United States, since this country had many different alternative religions and philosophical movements. The American elite of the nineteenth century became greatly affected by Oriental mentality and European occultism. Masonic movement has also caused a great impact on the intellectual elite of the United States. The difficult situation of the sixties of the last century resulted in the crises of faith. People could not be satisfied with the existing explanations, provided by the conventional religion.

Dogmatic explanations about God did not satisfy the spirit of the time and people started looking for other source of inspiration.

Different alternative religions and spiritual practices became especially popular during that time. People rediscovered their interest in yoga, mediation, occult knowledge, paganism, Celtic culture and shamanism. “As might be expected New Age unleashed counter-forces from the side of fundamentalist Christian denominations. Especially after Marilyn Ferguson wrote in her book The Aquarian Conspiracy that the fraternity dedicated to this philosophy constituted a worldwide network” (Hanegraaff 105). Since New Shamanism is comparatively young movement, its ideas are in the stage of growing and development.

Specialists do not have one opinion concerning shamanism and neo-shamanism. Some do not place it to the category of religion. They state that New Age is rather a combination of mystical traditions. The word “movement” describes the status of this religion best of all. Some specialists place this movement to the category of alternative religion. The idea of conceptual integration of body, mind and spirit makes one of the core ideas of neoshamanism as a part of New Age movement. There are several characteristics, which give reasons to compare New Age movement with religion. This system is based on basic beliefs. The main ideas of New Age movement are the ideas of Evolutionary Godhood and Global Unity. Evolutionary Godhood assumes spiritual evolution. The real evolution can be expressed not on the physical level. True evolution assumes a great leap into another dimension, where people will be able to realize their God-like nature. According to the teaching of New Age, the nature of people is originally good and divine. Thank to divine nature man has divine qualities, which can be discovered with the help of New Age. The followers of New Age movement often believe in reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation is connected with the idea of Karma, or responsibility for all thoughts and actions. Reincarnation or repeated births are necessary in order to pay for all bad things, committed in the past. At the same time New Agers pay less attention to the idea of karmic debts and see a reincarnation as a way to achieve unity with God.

Shamanism is a historical prophesy and widespread practice for many people. When it was first discovered by people who did not meet it before, shamanism caused a lot of wrong interpretations and speculations. It was treated like magic practice, like serving to devil and like deception of people. Later scientists and psychologists made an attempt to regard shamanism as a kind of mental illness. This opinion was expressed by several respectful authorities in the field of psychology. Another group of scholars gave their counter-arguments which prove that shamanism is not a kind of mental illness. They prove that shamanism is a complicated phenomenon, which can not be treated like something abnormal. Shamanism does not fit into the judgments of ordinary European people but this no way means that it does not have right to exist and should be treated like something abnormal. Many innovations and important discoveries were rejected by wide publicity in the beginning and later became useful for mankind. I believe that shamanism also should be explored from this position, and this way it will be possible not only to save this unique practice, but also to use to for common good.

Basilov, V. (1997). Shamans and their religious practices from shamanism among the Turkic peoples of Siberia. In M. M. Balzar (Ed.), Shamanic worlds: Rituals and lore of Siberia and Central Asia (pp. 3-48). Armonk, NY: North Castle Books.
Braden, Charles: (1963).Spirits in Rebellion; the Rise and Development of New Thought.
Devereux, George, (Oct., 1961), “Shamans as Neurotics”, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 63, No. 5, Part 1. pp. 1088-1090.
Diderot, D. (2001). Shamans are imposters who claim they consult the devil—and who are sometimes close to the mark. In J. Narby & F. Huxley (Eds.), Shamans through time: 500 years on the path of knowledge (pp. 32-358). New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
Eliade, Mircea Shamanism (2004). Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1964; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
Hanegraaff, W.J. (1999). New Age religion and Western culture. Esotericism in the mirror of secular thought, New York.
Naisbitt J. & Aburdene P., (1990).Megatrends 2000, William Morrow & Company, New York, NY.
Sandner, D. F. (1997). Introduction: Analytical psychology and shamanism. In D. F. Sandner & S. H. Wong (Eds.), The sacred heritage: The influence of shamanism on analytical psychology (3-11). New York: Routledge.
Silverman, J. (1967). Shamans and acute schizophrenia. American Anthropologist, 69, 21-31.
Walsh, R. (2001). Shamanic experiences: A developmental analysis. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41(3), 31-52.

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