July 30, 2009

Shamans did it for sex and money?

Do Shamans Have More Sex?

New Age spirituality is no more pure than old-time religion.

By Robert Wright
What I do doubt is that these earnest, selfless spiritual leaders were any more common in the heyday of shamanism than today, or that the spiritual quest was any less corrupted by manipulation and outright charlatanism than today, or that there was a coherent philosophy of shamanism that makes more sense than the average religion of today.

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.
Comment:  A lot of Wright's Native American examples rely on Eskimos. The Eskimo cultures were small, isolated, and unrepresentative of the rest of the Americas.

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.


alanajoli said...

Love the comic. :) It's perfect to accompany this article.

I remember when we were reading... gosh, I think Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy, but it could have been in one of the videos that accompanied that section of my Native American Religions class. Anyway, an anthropologist interviewed a contemporary shaman, who acknowledged that part of the healing process is for show. People heal *better* when they think you're doing something flashy, rather than something simple. They believe it'll work better if it's a big production -- and because they believe it, it works faster. So the healing is there, underlying the pomp and circumstance, if you will, but the show is just as much for the benefit of the patient as the stuff that "actually works."

If I can find my citation, I'll post it here.

Stephen said...

It never fails to amuse me how people expect 'spiritual' individual to be selfless aesthetics. For instance, one woman I met was claiming that a certain Lama sexually harassed her because he asked if she wanted to sleep with him. I pointed out that the Lama in question is not a monk, and that given the cultural differences it was probably good for him to make his intentions so blunt. When she declined, he didnt get upset, so I fail to see what the problem was. She replied that because he is a Lama he should be "beyond all that". Ah, problem revealed.

Anonymous said...

But native shamans do accept sex and money in exchange for fakery. Good thing Indians don't have shamans. ;)