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Shamanism and Spirit
taken from the Tungus of Siberia where it
means “spirit healer.” Shamanism, or working
with spirits, is found today in many parts of the
globe among people who live by what Lévy-
Bruhl, in , called “the law of mystical participation,” that
is, the sense of a spiritual connection that exists between
everyone and everything in the universe. Among such people,
shamanism is neither a religion nor a science, but an activity
in a world that is ordinary yet spiritual. It can be viewed as a
healing or helping technology — the technology of the sacred,
as it has been called — acts and experiences instead of a set of
beliefs or customs.
In the shamanic view, spiritual connections between
people are already in place and that is just how things are.
Such a sense still lingers on among hunter-gatherer peoples in
the Arctic, northern Asia, central Australia, around the
Pacific, and among Native Americans. Furthermore, shaman-
ism is now recognized to exist widely in Africa. All are cul-
tures in which corporate economies have less power.
To access the power that spirits can give, shamans make a
spirit journey. In times past, people drummed or sang, and the
music would become so powerful that shamans would lose the
ordinary sense of being present in the world. These people
would find themselves speeding along in a different world —
not a world created by the shaman’s imagination, because the
experience came to them — they were some place else.
Access to this different world could be gained beneath
the ordinary world, beneath the earth, under water or ice, or
reached high up on a mountain or in the clouds. The
shaman might encounter a spirit animal or an ancestor
spirit with knowledge of healing, both figures being helpers.
Over the course of such a journey, the helper could
empower the shaman to rescue the lost soul of a sufferer,
bringing it back to its owner.
The elements of shamanism are curiously similar
throughout the world. “Shaman” is a universal title for a per-
son who does such work, though “visionary” or “one who
experiences spirit events” would also describe the practi-
tioner, and those terms link shamanism to religion.
Mircea Eliade, who wrote what was, in the s, the
definitive treatise on shamanism, believed that what defines
a shaman is his ecstatic ascent to the sky or descent to the
underworld on mystic flights. Eliade shows there is often an
“entrance,” “door,” or “bridge” to these different realms, and
he also traces an interesting feature of shamanic initiation.
When a person first receives the call to be a shaman, he
or she experiences a vision in which his or her old, non-spir-
itual body is spiritually dismembered in some way and yet
brought together again in a new body with power — a
process known as “sparagmos.” This spiritual ordeal curi-
ously echoes the Biblical saying, “you must be born again.”
Later, in the s, Michael Harner, one of the present
world’s major authorities on shamanism, included a fre-
quently encountered commonality in his definition: the
assistance of a spirit helper, either animal or human.
Generally, shamanism provides powers that are greater
than the ordinary physical powers we possess in everyday
life. The following are the powers of a shaman: the hands-on
power to heal by removing harmful spirit stuff from the
body or restoring the body’s energy; the power to see in a
visionary manner into the body of a sick person; and the
power to retrieve the lost soul of the sick. Shamanism also
provides a kind of knowledge that is hard to describe, that of
a connection with animals, even help from an animal spirit;
it gives the sense of the presence of one’s ancestors or
friendly dead who come to give help.
A shaman while in a dream or on a spirit journey may
receive a vision of future events; shamanism may provide
knowledge of the whereabouts of lost things or persons,
along with the power to find them. Shamanism can oddly
alter the weather; give a person physical strength that seems
impossible; and curiously, give the power of bilocation, to
be in two places at once. It very often gives joy or makes
people laugh.
The sea-hunter’s umiak canoe. Ice still surrounds the village.
. . .
T ” derives from saman ,
kind of substance—then shamanic healing works. The ill-
ness or injury appears to be a spirit thing, offending inside
the body of the sufferer, telling lies to the afflicted person and
infecting her. These are not germs seen under a microscope,
but “spirit germs,” as it were, that one may sense. This heal-
ing story from the Iñupiat provides insight into this reality.
Dancing the eagle. The January Kivgiq ceremonies.
I listened in wonder to a story given by Clem, a whaling man
and a seer. (I have changed people’s names to preserve their
privacy.) It was the story of a sick man whose spirit was fail-
ing. In this story, it was the seals that healed. It may seem
strange that healing should come from humble animals, but it
was highly meaningful from the Iñupiat point of view.
Clem said, “A man was very sick. When he was about to
die, he found himself traveling under the sea ice to the
underwater house of the seals. When he came to the door of
the seal house, he went in by the double porch, the place
where people take off their parkas and hang them on pegs.”
Clem then pointed to his own double porch where rows of
parkas were hanging.
He continued, “The clothes hanging on the pegs in the
seal’s double porch were all sealskins. The man went inside.
He thought he was going to find seals without their skins, but
no, they were people .Underneath their skins, the seals were
people, sitting around in a circle. One of them had very long
ears. This was the seal-person who could hear everything that
went on in the village — you’ve heard of the Long-Eared One.
“The seal people took the man in and he stayed with them
for a whole year, learning shamanism. At the end of the year,
the seal people showed him the way back under the ice to his
house and said goodbye. He came to himself in his bed, quite
well, and found he’d only been away from home for one hour.”
This kind of experience has happened to others. The soul
sometimes travels when in extreme danger — and in our cul-
ture, we have heard of the near-death experience. Also, the
story attests to the fact that wisdom or skills may be imparted
in one great event.
One begins to understand why the Iñupiat hold seals in
reverence. In this ice-bound environment, hunters are con-
tinuously among wild animals, and they are dependent on the
generosity and self-sacrifice of animals in order to exist. Thus
the spirit power of the animals looms large, especially those of
seals, whales, and eagles.
It is a curious thing that before I ever came to Alaska, I
had a vivid shamanic message in which I saw a television
screen showing an animal’s internal organs. It was puzzling.
Ye t months later, ensconced in Clem’s house in northern
Alaska, I saw that animal in reality. It was a seal, and, in reality,
My own work on shamanism was among the Iñupiat of
northern Alaska. Shamanism with the Iñupiat does not
appear on the surface, but during my research of this Inuit
culture, I was able to trace many events that were shamanic
in character. Such spirit occurrences were a frequent source
of strength and healing to the Iñupiat. My main visit took
place from August to August . The shamanic events
that occured were each different, representing different
shamanic gifts. I have written about these experiences and
events in my book The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit
Presence among a Northern Alaska People .
Wherever shamanism is found, healing is a shaman’s
principal function, among his or her numerous roles. For
instance, among the Iñupiat, one has to see illness as some
Successful Iñupiat hunters drum and sing in the shelter of their whaling
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I was helping to open up its body for our food. I saw then the
selfsame sight I had seen on the dream television, the internal
organs. That earlier flash had been a predictive sight,
fortelling the future.
Seals, even dead and giving of themselves, have spirit
power. In order to be at one with their power, the Iñupiat
carve many beautiful seals in ivory, just as the Dordogne cave
artists in ancient days shaped their spirit animals on the cave
walls to activate their spiritual power.
A way to understand shamanism is to sense a kind of
medium in which all people live that liberates faculties that
are beyond the ordinary, a kind of medium that also makes
people permeable to each other. One understands this best
through stories of actual experience because, otherwise, the
power is hard to put into words. These stories demonstrate
both the sense of connectedness the Iñupiat share with
spirit animals and the power of experiencing spirits. They
are serious stories.
What then is the nature of the consciousness that can
develop in shamans when they are healing? When an Iñupiat
healer puts her hands on suffering human tissue, this is an act
of actual spiritual connection with the other. The sufferer
does not feel merely the hand’s pressure, nor does relief occur
only because the sufferer believes something will happen.
What happens is a phenomenom not much examined in
research, though those who experience this feeling know it
very well when it is in progress. It is a matter of connections.
People know they have connections with one another;
they are continually accessing the usual connections simply in
order to live. We “read” body language, we can even “read” love,
but in healing there is an extra charge, a kind of booster charge,
passing along through the healer’s hands. I have felt it myself.
That continuous, universal presence of connectedness
can carry energy and power from person to person, just as the
air carries our voices. Through this connectedness, people
receive the shaman’s powers. In most religions there is an
awareness of a spirit or power entity that intervenes and pro-
vides the gift (though rarely is this awareness found in the
philosophical or intellectual aspects of world religions). A
kind of connective spirit, then, exists that can join people, so
that a shaman can connect with others to heal.
Due to this spirit, a shaman may also be able to return
after death to help others and send unmistakable messages
when vitally needed; and in life, like a saint or the Delphic
oracle, may become conscious of purposes that flash
throughout the entire, all-connecting web. Awareness and
incorporation of these connections are more explicitly found
in folk religions, as well as in the experience and practice of
hunter-gatherer societies.
My study among the Iñupiat was funded by a grant from the
We nner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. I
am grateful for the kindness of the Arctic villagers and for the
support of colleagues at the University of Virginia. I am also
grateful to James and Mary McConnell for their generosity in
sending equipment for the research and gifts for the Arctic
Edith Turner with her host’s baby.
, lecturer at the department of anthropology
at the University of Virginia, specializes in ritual, religion, heal-
ing, and aspects of consciousness including shamanism. She has
done fieldwork among the Ndembu of Zambia (healing and
divination), in rural Ireland (ritual, spiritual experience, and
healing), and in northern Alaska among the Iñupiat, where she
studied Eskimo healing and its relationship to shamanism.
Among her publications are “From Shamans to Healers: The
Survival of an Iñupiat Eskimo Skill,” “The Whale Decides:
Eskimos’ and Ethnographer’s Shared Consciousness on the Ice,”
and The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit Presence among a
Northern Alaskan People .She is the editor of the journal
Anthropology and Humanism .
For Further Reading
Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. How Natives Think . Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1985 [1910].
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972 [1951].
Harner, Michael J. The Way of the Shaman . San Francisco, CA:
Harper and Row, 1980.
Turner, Edith. The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit Presence among a
Northern Alaska People. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press,
. . .
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