New Age spirituality is no more pure than old-time religion.
By Robert Wright
Of course, there's no way to resurrect long-dead cultures to find out, and there is by definition no such thing as a written record of prehistoric societies. But we have the next best thing: accounts from anthropologists who visited hunter-gatherer societies before they had been corrupted by much contact with modernity. These anthropologists observed shamans doing what shamans do: prophesying, curing people, improving the weather, casting spells, casting out evil spirits, etc. And the anthropological record suggests the following about the age of shamanism.
1) There was a lot of fakery. Eskimo shamans have been seen spewing blood upon contact with a ceremonial harpoon, wowing audiences unaware of the animal bladder full of blood beneath their clothing. The sleight of hand by which shamans "suck" a malignant object out of a sick patient and then dramatically display it works so well that anthropologists have observed this trick in Tasmania, North America, and lands in between. Other examples abound.
2) Shamans—lots of them—were in it partly for the money. In exchange for treating a patient, a shaman might receive yams (in Micronesia), sleds and harnesses (among the Eastern Eskimo), beads and coconuts (the Mentawai of Sumatra), tobacco (the Ojibwa of northeastern North America), or slaves (the Haida of western Canada). In California, if a Nomlaki shaman said, "These beads are pretty rough," it meant that he would need more beads if he was to cure anything that day.
3) Shamans—some of them, at least—were in it for the sex. In his classic study The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that, among some Eskimos, "A forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. … An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning)." Nice work if you can get it.
Moreover, relying on the written records of early anthropologists is fraught with peril. Many of these "scientists" were badly biased against their subjects and didn't have a clue what they were recording.
Some specific thoughts on Wright's claims:
1) If the "fakery" cured the patient, it's not exactly fakery. I suspect some shamans were staging supernatural or psychological "plays" for the patient's benefit. The goal was to persuade the spirits to heal the patient, or the patient to heal himself.
I think this is the same idea as "sympathetic magic." You know...stick a pin in a "voodoo doll" and the person it represents feels pain. Stage a "fake" act of healing and the spirits will accomplish the real thing.
Some of this may just be the clever shamans employing the placebo effect to help their patients. I think it's well documented that if you pretend to do something to heal people, they'll often heal faster. Again, "fakery" isn't the correct term if the process works.
2) Trading goods for services isn't exactly "payment." Not unless the "fees" are specified and the payment is mandatory. Many payments may have been voluntary gifts of gratitude.
How many doctors in Western societies work for free? Not many. I'm guessing traditional shamans gave away their services a lot more often than today's doctors do.
3) Wright offers only one real example of shamanic sex. That is, one example of "some Eskimos" (how many? One or two bands out of a hundred?) taken from a book published in 1954. If that's the best he can do, I'd recommend leaving this point out of his essay.
In short, Wright's claims that traditional shamans were just as corrupt and venal as modern healers is unpersuasive. The fact that he didn't even consider the points I raised suggests he isn't presenting a rational argument. Rather, it seems he's prejudiced against "primitive" indigenous religions.