On Neo-Shamanism

Neo-shamanism (for “new shamanism”) is a phenomenon that has been mainly developing in recent societies of Europe and of North America since the second half of the 20th century.

The practice mostly draws its influences from Amazonian, Mesoamerican, and North American traditions. It is comprised of many modalities, and is the marriage of spiritual and psychotherapeutic practices applied to a modern context above all else. Joan B. Townsend defines neo-shamanism as¹ :

[…] an eclectic collection of beliefs and activities drawn from literature, workshops, and the Internet. It is an invented tradition of practices and beliefs based on a constructed metaphorical, romanticized ‘ideal’ shaman concept which often differs considerably from traditional shamans

In the twentieth century, the work of Eliade and Lévi-Strauss on shamanism led to the emergence of a first theory considering the therapeutic benefits of shamanic practice, thereby contrasting with antecedent theories in anthropology that defined shamanism as a mental illness or as a farce.According to Lévi-Strauss, the “efficiency of symbols” in shamanic practices structures a mythology and a set of actions that are beneficial to one’s psyche. In Eliade’s work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, the ecstatic journey and trance became the heart of the shamanic experience. His approach defines the shamanic experience as the expression par excellence of these “masters of chaos”. Inspired by his works, many authors have not hesitated to reinterpret the phenomenon of ecstasy and of trance in order to propose a whole set of modi operandi in order to democratise states of ecstasy. And Eliade himself was a nostalgic at heart who wished to restore a relationship with mythical times, wherein the experience of the Sacred was more accessible². This universalist approach fuelled the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, a pivotal period for a population forged in rebellious attitudes and in search of new answers. For many, this movement meant defining new codes and new alternatives in the domains of ​​well-being and health. A growing interest in a spirituality detached from all Judeo-Christian theology contributed to the emergence of a true transcultural movement integrating indigenous, Mesoamerican, and European spirituality. Millions of people sought to rediscover the experience of the Sacred, buried under the weight of materialism and positivism, both contributing to a certain ill-being in our contemporary world. The impetus was the need to get closer to nature, and increase an ecological awareness and foster deeper ecological values, in line with the ethos ​​of many indigenous peoples.

Similar to other New Age movements (such as “Wicca” practices, or neopaganism), neo-shamanism is a syncretism based on a reinterpretation of traditional shamanic practices, and is sometimes practiced in urban areas. The practice attempts to tether some of its expression to ancestral traditions (mainly Pan-Indian movements), all the while remaining centered on the individual who seeks modified states of consciousness. Neo-shamanism uses a set of heterogeneous modalities — often for therapeutic purposes — among which we can mention: fumigations, songs, meditations, collective trances, and drumming.

Writers such as Carlos Castaneda³ and Michael Harner⁴ paved the way for neo-shamanism by publishing books that suggested a new reading on shamanic practice in the 1980s. Castaneda’s approach appeared as a radical expression of the anthropological approach, which admitted the limitations of classical epistemology: one can only understand a phenomenon or an experience by fully participating in it. Albeit some criticism in intellectual circles, C. Castaneda did not hesitate to experiment with certain psychotropic substances, in doing so attempted to get closer to the truth of the shamanic experience, that is, understanding its ontology from a subjective perspective (we speak of a “total participation”, that allows to better understand the border between reality and fiction, and between social and mythological structures and real world).

M. Harner used a similar approach to lay the foundations of what he called “core shamanism”. Core shamanism was inspired by his reading of indigenous people practices and traditional shamanic practices. Similar to Eliade, Harner offers hermeneutics that reveal the foundations and universal principles of the shamanic practice. Harner’s approach is unique since he does not hesitate to reinforce the importance of psychotropic substances, as well as the use of the drum for healing and spiritual development as more important than the exploration of consciousness. However, researchers such as Hobson have criticized Harner’s work, denouncing in this approach an expression and a justification of what he defined as “cultural imperialism”⁵.

From the 1990s and onward, a pivotal shift occurred with the sudden and spontaneous resurgence of interests for multidisciplinary practices in the realms of spirituality and well-being, all supported by an important circulation of images, ideas, books and activities related to Native American spirituality. But Neo-shamanism is not limited to the European and North American countries. In Latin America, El Camino Rojo(“the red path”) is the expression of the recycling of certain traditions within Pan-Indian and New Age communities. The individualistic approach, which is a reinterpretation par excellence, did reach many countries, and in doing so, democratized many of the shamanic practices.Neo-shamanic practices shy away from the more classical definition of rituals, as they are innovative and creative — often performative — thus, contrast with the traditional character of ancient cultures’ rituals; the practices adapt their expression to the many needs of the modern world. The neo-shaman does not hesitate to draw inspiration from many traditions before integrating a new set of practices into an eclectic cosmogony applied to modern contexts (such as sun dances, sweat lodges, or vision quests).

So, we have a practice that moves away from the traditional and focuses on the individual; it thus democratizes the shamanic experience and makes it more accessible. This explains why any aspirant can proclaim himself or herself a shaman. The importance of the shaman figure is not the same, nor is the scope of reach, which sharply contrasts with the shaman’s election and initiation in traditional societies. According to Tatyana Bulgakova, another main difference exists between shamanism and neo-shamanism, that of the role of fear⁶; indeed, rarely neo-shamans integrate fear, failures, or malevolence into their mythology, which differs from the difficulty of trials and pain that traditional shamans exposes themselves to. Without any doubt, this is the result of the modern and secular experiences, which incorporate a plethora of strategies to claim the same authenticity as those of traditional people, yet bypassing any ordeals. Such experiences are nothing but the search for a permanent well-being — a salvation perhaps — , to alleviate the weight of a malaise against which the individual expresses a deep need to find meaning in Life.

The reinterpretation of shamanic practices appears as the need to live a religious experience, or as the need to be initiated. The need for symbolization revives some traditional practices in a modern context. Shamanic practices are thus adapted and updated ; more than mere vestiges of the past, their reinterpretation allows for the creation of shared actions — a sort of collective redemption — and the generation of meaning when moments of doubts and anxiety cast their shadow on one’s being. This explains why the neo-shaman inscribes his or her practice in a positive and optimistic sphere, as it brings new hope and abolishes anxieties that many of us experience. Such reinterpretations can be thought of a soteriological enterprise aimed at saving the individual from their own suffering, and allow the emergence of a new psychology. This illustrates the irreducible need for a spiritual experience, and to transcend the mysteries of Life, even more so when crises and anxieties affect the individual.

Yakut shaman sitting with men. © AMNH
Yakut shaman sitting with men. © AMNH

As such, it can be said that neo-shaman representations drift away from the expression of the shaman as the one that maintains a cosmic order or a social cohesion, to an individualistic and transcultural mythos mostly focused on the search for well-being. The neo-shaman exists in the sphere of positive actions, afar from any dangers⁷. It is equally intriguing to note that some Native Americans — whether being shamans or not — , participate in neo-shaman festivals in several countries such as Colombia, Mexico, France, or Bolivia. These neo-shamans are true performers and artists who offer spectacular performances and displays (such as fire dancing, the smoking of the pipe, or the summoning of spirits), and who do not hesitate to offer a whole set of services (which includes private consultations, reading tarot cards, and holding retreats or drum-making workshops). On the Internet, one can find kits for building sweat lodges, and numerous tutorials are now available that explain how one can master the art of fire dancing. Those are clearly the artifacts of globalism and of consumerism that manage to inscribe the circulation of goods (whether tangible or not) in a market logic. Thus, Westerners “consume” their spiritual experiences, that are the coalescence of a romanticized image of indigenous peoples and of their own desires. Even more disturbing are those underdressed celebrities or models who wear the War bonnet (headdress of the First Nations peoples of the Great Plains of North America), and who, without grasping the true meaning, inscribe their doing in a real marketing apparatus that commodifies spirituality. What we have here is a consumerist mechanism that knows how to address the many needs of the contemporary person.

In Mexico, the development of New Age practices led many indigenous people to innovate and adapt, and to offer new readings of some of the Aztec traditions⁸:

[translation] Thus, in Mexico, on the archaeological site of Teotihuacàn, we follow the cult of the sun […], energy concerns found in Mexican cosmology find there a privileged ground of expression; they adapt admirably to the aims of […] Neo-Indian philosophies” […] Witnessed by tens of thousands of tourists, massive rituals of pan-american influences are being invented. They encourage the revival of cults evolving around the sun, and if they seemingly align with the great Aztec tradition, they nonetheless remain entirely fabricated. This ideology has a universalist and multiethnic purpose; it develops a millenarian discourse with a strong inflection that aims at a sort of collective redemption through the continuous celebration of a pre-Hispanic past (215).

Shamanism has become a touristic phenomenon that one consumes and experiments. In Brazil, the União do Vegetal (the Union with the plant in Portuguese) is a syncretism with Christian influences that also incorporates elements of modern spirituality. The União do Vegetal considers the Ayahuasca brew (South-American brew with hallucinogenic properties) as the vehicle that allows for the manifestation of the Sacred. We therefore have a movement that is the result of the inspiration from many cultures, the reinterpretation of which allows the existence of seemingly traditional practices, but which truly are contemporary. Their symbols and mechanisms are akin to Baudrillard’s notion of “simulations”, that is to say these symbols function as sets whose scope and expression are primarily intended to reproduce a past experience that one judges as “authentic”.

Crisis that our societies are going through seldom offer spiritual solutions, which explains why New Age communities find their outlets in the individual transformation, thus becoming salvific, all the while rejecting materialistic and capitalistic values that they hold responsible for ecological and environmental disasters. As a true disruptive social movement, neo-shamanism allows the individual to escape and upset an order that he or she considers as limited and limiting.

In short, neo-shamanic practices maintain with shamanism only a very weak relationship, but that does not surprise us. After all, the shamanic initiation is often kept secret, and we only have from its diffusion sparse information, or certain accounts and testimonies from ethnographers. Those are mostly fragments that are sometimes reinterpreted, as was the case with C. Castaneda’s writings. By approaching shamanism as an animist and pantheist phenomenon, but more importantly, as a universal one, one fails to fully grasp its subtleties, which are first and foremost culturally defined. This does not mean that the “crisis” that shamans experience (which catalyses their initiation) solely exist in a hermetic sacrosanct complex. After all, many people are experiencing such episodes. Such was the case for Jane Kent, an Australian naturopath and psychotherapist who has experienced crises that she believes are authentic shamanic crises. This “ontological shock” led her to offer a new discursive cultural model, supporting new heuristics for understanding the nature of these experiences⁹.

Neo-shaman practices can not be dismissed, for they possess values worth investigating. They are detached from the shamanic practices in certain aspects, yet still allow for new fields of reflection and research to emerge ; they permit the articulation of new epistemological models, as was the case with the work of Jane Kent. To this day, there is no unified definition as to what a shaman is and is not, or what constitutes the environment in which he or she is evolving. Hulttkrantz to explain to us that the term “shaman” has been used as well to describe the activity of certain healers, as to define the activity of “masters of ecstasy”, or even mediators between the earthly world and the chthonic world (world of spirits)¹⁰.

According to Dawne Sanson, the use of the term “shaman” in Europe and North America from its roots, that are defined by culture and geography, has contributed to what she calls a “semantic dilemma”¹¹. For proof, the use of the term in such a broad context that encompasses personal development, Jungian psychoanalysis, or cultural activities. The term leads to a polysemy that seems to define primarily idiosyncratic, unusual or unique behaviours. Modern dialectics, whether academic or not, evolve in the paradox frought with a double ambiguity: how to define what the neo-shaman practice is (or is not) if we can only articulate a definition of what a shaman is (or is not) that shouldn’t be universalist nor totalizing?

Neo-shamanism has faced many critics, and still does to this day. Among these, the denunciation of many stereotypes and false perceptions that one associates with indigenous culture; those are fictional constructs of the “noble savage”, which one pictures as living a plenary and full existence in harmony with nature. This narrative projects the image of happy and flourishing people, who are more intimate with the world around them. But these very same communities reject such ideals; some Native American communities denounce neo-shamanism as a form of cultural appropriation or even fraud; perhaps because many neo-shamans proclaim themselves true spiritual leaders, yet fail to really grasp the meaning of the traditional rites and rituals that they themselves practice. In recycling traditional practices or fabricating them, neo-shamans fail to respect what shamanic practice means for traditional shamanistic communities. Others denounce the dangers of these practices, which are nothing but the excesses of affluent social classes, but above all, as the product of a culture that decimated the majority of indigenous people, yet still feel entitled to tinker with their practices.

Western rituals are new creations or re-creations that are condemned to suffer from both the influence of globalization and of the weight of History. And if the ideology that transpires in such inventions has a universalist aim, the ambiguity persists, without it being able to erase the facts of a cultural hegemony that imposed itself on more than one people. The bad conscience is here tightly linked to the reminder of a colonialist past that has assimilated more than one ethnic group, more than one culture, and more than one language. The “assimilated” denounces in such inventions the misdeeds of the “assimilator”, who to this day still reinforces the weight of its own past through its cultural handicrafts. More than denouncing the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, indigenous communities denounce above all the pains of a colonial past and of an assimilation which suffers from the negative connotations of such a past.

We are thus passing from native traditions to modern reconstructions, which are just as confused, because the communities that practice them present them as “authentic”, but in so doing they further handicap the living traditions of indigenous communities. More importantly, these same neo-shamans fail to understand their socio-historical complicity in the oppression of the traditional people of America. The latter denounce the glorification of the “Imperial Indian”, which is nothing but the indigenist expression of a certain national colonialism. The neo-shaman, which is a caricature created from scratch, can be seen as the projection of the modern individual of what he or she thinks a shaman is. This cultural hegemony sheds light on some confusion and on the presence of projections intended above all to evacuate the weight of a certain guilt through the reinterpretation of the past of the indigenous people, meant to recreate a certain “golden age of indigenous culture”.

Can we then speak of a “traditional” shamanism, if in the eyes of some, this practice takes on a character of appropriation, that is forged in the assimilative mentalities that justified colonialist elements? The globalist ideology recreates there a favorable ground to a certain heterodoxy fed by a worldwide diffusion of images; it does not hesitate to reinvent the traditions while failing to honor its roots. More than ever, working classes express their confusion when they integrate into their praxis a legacy that does not belong to them, and do not hesitate to project an idealized form of the shaman (“we pretend to be indigenous!” says Philip J. Deloria)

Modern societies manage to conceal their own difficulties and anguish through the creation of a mythical and romanticized prestige of Aboriginal people. The Westerner who romances the figure of the shaman and that of the neo-shaman becomes here the author of an indigenist construction which builds and diffuses a figure of the shaman that corresponds to the need of the Westerner. These new creations, which are intended to be the substitute for the “authentic” experiences of indigenous peoples, reveal in part their weaknesses: if such syncretisms wish to embrace and assimilate all the cultural specificities of traditional cultures, they are just as unable to fully understand and identify such specificities. And by wishing to get closer to these same communities, neo-shamans end up moving away with so much more emphasis.

In their eyes, the expression of this cultural cross-fertilization is the expression of Western hegemony. If the counter-culture movement of the 1960s aimed at disrupting the social order and criticizing the misdeeds of capitalism, we do not fail to notice that neo-shamanism itself appears to have been shaped by such as society.


Footnotes

  1. J. Townsend, “Individualist religious movements: core and neo-shamanism”. Anthropology of Consciousness, vol. 15, 1 (2008), pp. 1–9.
  2. Alice Kehoe does not hesitate to criticize Eliade’s definition, calling out the reductionism instrinsically lined to the universalistic perspective (she goes as far as qualifying Eliade’s notion of ‘ecstasy’ as incomplete, condescending, and racist. For more information, see Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking. Waveland Press, 2000.
  3. On this subject, cf. The teachings of Don Juan, University of California Press, 1968.
  4. Harner M., The Way of the Shaman. Harper & Row, 1980.
  5. Hobson G., The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism. Red Earth Press, 1978.
  6. Bulgakova Tatyana , “Shaman on the stage (shamanism and northern identity)”. Pro ethnologia, vol. 11, 5 (2001), pp. 9–24.
  7. For more information on the distinctions between shamanism and neo-shamanism, refer to J. Scuro and R. Rodd, Neo-Shamanism. Encyclopedia of Latin American Religions, 2015, pp. 1–6.
  8. Segalen Martine, Rites et rituels contemporains (Modern Rites and Rituals). Armand Colin, col., 128 Sociologie (Sociology), 2013, p. 95.
  9. Kent J. A., The Goddess and the Shaman: The Art & Science of Magical Healing. Llewellyn Publications, 2016.
  10. Hultkrantz Å, “A Definition of Shamanism”. Temenos — Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, vol. 9 (2012).
  11. Sanson Dawne, Taking the spirits seriously: Neo-shamanism and contemporary shamanic healing in New-Zealand. Auckland University, New Zealand, 2012, p. 22.

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