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Ronald Hutton


Siberian spirituality and the Western tradition

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Shamanism is a very widely used term in anthropology and religious studies. But there is no agreement about what it refers to. Originally associated with Siberia, it now has much wider application and often refers to all kinds of practices in many different parts of the world. Hutton provides a pretty comprehensive view of the history of the subject, which would serve as a useful starting point for anyone wishing to go into particular aspects.

The book has three sections. The first explains the steps by which knowledge of Siberian shamanism reached scholars in the wider world. Part 2 describes what we think we know about shamanism, showing that many of our impressions are based on inadequate information, the real situation being much more complex than is often supposed. Part 3 looks at how shamanism has been treated in the West, especially in relation to our understanding of the European past.

Although shamanism in Siberia has a long history, most of what we know about it does not go back very far. And, like many ancient practices, it has declined a long way in recent times. Matters were made worse because it was suppressed by both the Tsars and the Soviets, often brutally. Even today, shamanism is still seen by many Russians as an outdated superstition which is out of place in a modern state.

A common misconception is that shamanism is the Siberian religion. In fact, although there is overlap between the two, shamans existed alongside the main religious stream. Shamanism was important but shamans were not numerically the largest element in Siberian spirituality.

Shamanic cosmologies are bewildering in their variety. It is often said that the shamans believed in a three-tier cosmos, with heaven above and a lower world below, but the reality is far more complex. Some peoples had a stack of nine worlds; others spoke of three, seven, or nine in the sky alone, with more beneath the earth. The earth was sometimes imagined as a disc supported by a giant fish. Alternatively, you could have a heaven with ninety-nine provinces, and a separate realm in the north for evil spirits.

There was nothing airy-fairy about all these worlds; they were conceived as physical landscapes as real as our own world, the roof of each level being the floor of the one above. Shamans who visited them might have quite difficult navigation tasks to perform, as they moved up and down between the various levels, and sometimes sideways.

There was no set route for becoming a shaman, though it often involved an apprenticeship to an older shaman, and also perhaps a lengthy period in isolation to make contact with the spirit world. Shamans could be of either sex. Their role in society varied, though it always included a large theatrical element; shamans were performers. They often combined the functions of doctor, priest, social worker and mystic.

Hutton's appoach to his subject is sympathetic. In fact, like many of those who have written on this subject, he seems to be something of a cultural relativist. He finds that rationalist interpretations of the shamans' spiritual explorations and their own explanation of what they are doing are functionally equivalent, and from one or two hints, especially in his closing pages, I get the impression that he is prepared to accept shamanic claims that the shamanic world is in some sense real.

Whether or not one is willing to go this far, I think he is right to say that the kinds of experiences the shamans describe are intrinsic to human consciousness and not unique to Siberians.

14 October 2008

%T Shamans
%S Siberian spirituality and the Western tradition
%A Hutton, Ronald
%I Hambledon and London
%C London and New York
%D 2001
%G ISBN 1-85285-324-7
%P ix + 220pp
%K anthropology, religion

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