This book could be seen in some ways as a sequel, at a popular level, to David Lewis-William's The Mind in the Cave. The authors trace the story of shamanism from its presumed beginnings in the late palaeolithic as far as the Middle Ages.
As they acknowledge in the beginning of their book, there is no agreed definition of shamanism, but it seems to include a number of themes, such as a voyage to a spirit world, often in trance induced in a variety of ways; shape-shifting into animal forms; the use of various stage props for the performances; belief in a tiered cosmos, the shaman being the expert in visiting other layers; symbolic dismemberment; and divination.
The authors draw on a very wide range of evidence to support their view that there is long continuity of shamanic ideas and practice outside Siberia. This includes art on rock walls and elsewhere, objects found in tombs, bog burials of individuals who appear to have been ritually sacrified, epic poetry, folk memory and legends, and, in the historical period, written records.
They undoubtedly come up with some impressive parallels. I was particularly struck by the fact that in parts of Iberia there are stories of saints emerging from clefts in the rock; this recalls the late palaeolithic, where animals were depicted as if emerging in this way in caves. Bones and other objects were sometimes implanted into clefts in cave walls, as if sending them through to the other side. All this suggests an enduring belief that the rock constitutes a membrane separating our world from the spiritual. Recall, too, that Bernadette's vision at Lourdes took place in a cave.
The material cited in this book is undoubtedly fascinating, but inevitably there is a considerable amount of speculation involved in its interpretation. There is a lot of 'perhaps' and interpretations that are 'tempting'.
In dealing with such a remote period of the past, identifying the actions of persons who might have been shamans (in the broadest sense of the term) is problematic, simply because as we travel more deeply into the past, we find that less of the evidence survives and that we must be, accordingly, more tentative in its interpretationI wasn't fully convinced that a continuity from the very distant past has been shown here, but the book is still very much worth reading for the abundance of remarkable information it provides.
14 October 2008