Shamans. Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination

Shamans. Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination

Jonathan Roper

Shamans. Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. By Ronald Hutton. London: Hambledon, 2001. 220 pp. 16.95 [pounds sterling] (hbk). ISBN 1-85295-324-7

In this thorough study, Ronald Hutton, best known as an iconoclastic historian of early modern England, turns his critical eye on the figure of the shaman and the concept of “shamanism.”

His work is divided into three parts: “Why we think we know about shamans,” “What we think we know about shamans,” and “Siberia in the shamanic world.” The first of these, which draws on James Forsyth’s fine account of the colonisation of Siberia to provide a historical context for what follows, is somewhat brief (twenty-four pages) and might as well have been combined with the following section to give the book a bipartite structure echoing its subtitle.

When he addresses the question of “What we think we know about shamans” (note the significant use of “shamans” rather than “shamanism” here), Hutton examines the surviving evidence of shamanic practice. What becomes clear from his account is just how late and incomplete the ethnographic record is both of native Siberian spirituality in general, and of shamans in particular. We lack, for instance, any data on these traditions from the period before the three significant missionary faiths, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam were active in the area. We have no direct testimony from a shaman working in a traditional Siberian society. And, furthermore, much of the material we do have regarding shamanic practice is potentially flawed by having been collected by those indifferent or hostile to shamanism, even during the twentieth century.

Hutton dislikes the word “shamanism” both as a term (“shaman” is not the word most native Siberians would have used) and as a concept, for it neglects the fact that all North Asian societies had other magico-religious specialists alongside shamans, and often several different types of shaman. The Khanty, for example, had eleven different terms to denote “shaman” and possessed additionally seven other types of spiritual practitioner. One can certainly join with the author in regretting “that a set of words and concepts which might so usefully have transcended national and disciplinary boundaries has been productive of so much confusion and incoherence.”

As he freely admits, Hutton has not done special archival or field research for his study, but he has clearly read widely in the literature on the subject. The value of his book is in its new synthesis of the classic data. While strong thinkers such as Eliade or Dioszegi have made certain patterns from the material, Hutton, noting that “scholars may join up the spaces between ethnographic dots” in different ways, makes his own patterns. And his position is a remarkably minimalist one. He sees that shamanism may be an ancient phenomenon, but given that “Siberian mythology shares [many motifs] with Judaeo-Christian, Islamic or Indian tradition,” it could also be the result of more recent cultural contact (in this context he notes that one category of spirits among southern Tungusic speakers was “that of entities recently acquired from other peoples”). He concludes that, because of the lack of early historical evidence, there is no way for us to assess which of these positions is correct.

Another rather minimalist position is found in his description of native Siberian beliefs in recent times as being “a typical folk Christianity,” as opposed to the maximalist case that substantial untouched aspects of the earlier ethnic religions existed until recently. On the other hand, his position is quite open to the claims of shamans themselves–he remarks that it is just as valid to believe in spirits as to interpret them psychologically as aspects of mind, and further that the question of whether shamans had any real power “is a disturbingly open” one. As Hutton notes, “the reality, as far as it can be recovered at all, was clearly complex”; he is sceptical about scholarly over-generalisations, and is also quick to point out when assertions/suggestions found in the literature are not susceptible to proof or disproof. And where they are, he is refreshingly eager to substantiate or refute them. Overall this second section is the strongest part of the book.

One criticism of the work is that it could profitably have been twice as long and have provided a more extended treatment of the issues involved, especially those raised in the final third of the book, which charts the notions “shaman,” “shamanism,” and the “shamanic” in the wider Western imagination. There is clearly much more to be written on the ramifications of the work of Eliade, and that of Castaneda and Harner. Furthermore, the contested nature of “shamanism” in post-Soviet Russia is another area ripe for documentation, as is the interaction of neo-shamanism and the native peoples of North Asia, a subject on which Hutton touches only very briefly. To provide anecdotal evidence of my own on this last topic, we found in Russian Saamiland in summer 2003 that local people had attended as pupils neo-shamanic workshops run by visiting Americans. This particular cultural intervention, which may well have all sorts of long-term implications, is unlikely to be an isolated example in our globalising world.

It should be said that the author has been let down in the production of the book. There are no illustrations (such as the amazing photographs of shamans and shamanic equipment found in recent Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian publications little known here) and there is no map showing the locations of native Siberian peoples. Furthermore, old fashioned ethnonyms, such as Votyak or Cheremis, should not be used in this day and age (at least not without the accompaniment of their preferred equivalents, Udmurt and Mari), and it is surprising that Hutton, who follows contemporary practice by using Saami in place of the earlier Lapp, should do so. Overall, however, his book can certainly be recommended to readers as an important work. Nevertheless, just as Hutton has approached the topic of shamans before this book, it is to be hoped that he will also return to treat this fascinating topic in even greater depth in future.

Jonathan Roper, University of Sheffield, UK

COPYRIGHT 2005 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group