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Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination [Paperback]

Ronald Hutton
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

1 Jun 2007
With their ability to enter trances, to change into the bodies of other creatures, and to fly through the northern skies, shamans are the subject of both popular and scholarly fascination. In Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western ImaginationRonald Hutton looks at what is really known about both the shamans of Siberia and about others spread throughout the world. He traces the growth of knowledge of shamans in Imperial and Stalinist Russia, descibes local variations and different types of shamanism, and explores more recent western influences on its history and modern practice. This is a challenging book by one of the world's leading authorities on Paganism.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Continnuum-3PL; New Ed edition (1 Jun 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847250270
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847250278
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.5 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 312,152 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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About the Author

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol. As well as several major works on the British Civil War and seventeenth century history he is also the author of the Stations of the Sun, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford University Press), Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination and Witches, Druids and King Arthur (both Hambledon).

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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probing view of an elusive subject 25 Mar 2008
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
Ronald Hutton has a reputation among New Age adherents. A researcher of almost clinical severity, he demands clear and unequivocal evidence to back up any assertions. The subtitle offers warning to the reader that "Western Imagination" will be under scrutiny as well as historical accounts. His other books have laid bare the inadequacies of modern "paganism", "druidism" and the "wicca" movement. Over the past generation, "shamanism has become one of the most heavily worked [words] among scholars of anthropology and religious studies", he says. Widespread in use, particularly by US academics and others, "shamanism" has gained in area, if not in accuracy. Although most are aware of its Siberian roots, few understand the scholarly efforts to construct a proper setting for its use. He hopes this book will redress some of the lacks.

Siberia itself, he begins in the first of three parts, was a construction. The name itself stems from the Khanate of the Sibr being the first encountered by an expanding Czarist Russia. "Siberia", he stresses is a political, not a geographical description, and imposed from the outside. The lack of good identification of who lived where and engaged in which practices now dubbed "shamanism" erodes the foundation of ethnographic scholarship. Much of what we know of Siberian shamans was recorded by outsiders condemning its practices and seeking its destruction. Missionaries for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and finally, communism recorded various rituals from a scornful stance in recommending its abolition. "Why We Think We Know About Shamans", then, is due to the observations of those who wished to extirpate it.

His second section is largely distilled from those hostile commentators.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars critical scholarship 7 Sep 2006
By Wyote - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A lot of stuff is said about shamanism both in academic and popular circles, with far too little critical thought about it even in academia. This is the best introduction I know to all of it.

The first problem is defining shamanism - and this is much worse than you might think. In order to qualify as a shaman, does one have to control spirits, or simply ascend to heaven in a vision? Is spirit posession essential to shamanism, or just a normal part of it, or a different phenomenon altogether? Is shamanism essentially public, or can one practice shamanism privately? Do shamans specialize in healing and divination, or are those incidental to the profession? No one agrees about all this, and the result is that one person sees shamanism where another doesn't. This of course is a huge problem when we start talking about shamanism outside of Siberia; I don't know of anyone who deals with this issue as succinctly or as perceptively as Hutton.

The second problem is understanding Siberian religion, and the role of shamanism within it. We know surprisingly less about Siberian religion, including shamanism, than you'd think, given how much people have to say about it. Of course Siberian religion is diverse; there are diverse peoples, speaking different languages, with different lifestyles; can we make any generalizations about them?

The third problem is the overwhelming influence of Mircea Eliade. I'm actually a fan of Eliade. I'm happy that he drew so much attention to shamanism, but I have to admit his critics have a lot of good points when it comes to shamanism. Unfortunately, Eliade's influence overpowers them.

There are a few minor problems, such as whether shamans used hallucinogenic drugs, how shamanism relates to transexuality and homosexuality, and so on.

All of this is well dealt with by Hutton, who tends toward skepticism rather than grand systematic theorizing. For this reason he annoys people who are in the business of theory or practice, but I just can't recommend his work highly enough. I especially appreciate Hutton's consideration of "shamanism" in European pre-Christian religion.

I strongly recommend this book, if for no other reason than because most it raises serious questions about what you'll find in most books about shamanism. In fact, I recommend this as a first book about shamanism, even before Eliade's classic or the classics by I. M. Lewis.

The second book I recommend, actually, is Brian Morris' "Religion and Anthropology." After that, I would move on to Lewis and Eliade.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probing view of an elusive subject 25 Mar 2008
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Ronald Hutton has a reputation among New Age adherents. A researcher of almost clinical severity, he demands clear and unequivocal evidence to back up any assertions. The subtitle offers warning to the reader that "Western Imagination" will be under scrutiny as well as historical accounts. His other books have laid bare the inadequacies of modern "paganism", "druidism" and the "wicca" movement. Over the past generation, "shamanism has become one of the most heavily worked [words] among scholars of anthropology and religious studies", he says. Widespread in use, particularly by US academics and others, "shamanism" has gained in area, if not in accuracy. Although most are aware of its Siberian roots, few understand the scholarly efforts to construct a proper setting for its use. He hopes this book will redress some of the lacks.

Siberia itself, he begins in the first of three parts, was a construction. The name itself stems from the Khanate of the Sibr being the first encountered by an expanding Czarist Russia. "Siberia", he stresses is a political, not a geographical description, and imposed from the outside. The lack of good identification of who lived where and engaged in which practices now dubbed "shamanism" erodes the foundation of ethnographic scholarship. Much of what we know of Siberian shamans was recorded by outsiders condemning its practices and seeking its destruction. Missionaries for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and finally, communism recorded various rituals from a scornful stance in recommending its abolition. "Why We Think We Know About Shamans", then, is due to the observations of those who wished to extirpate it.

His second section is largely distilled from those hostile commentators. Even more significant, Hutton notes, is how recently those observers were among their subjects. The earliest recorded observation of Siberian shamans was by an Englishman, Richard Johnson, in 1557. Whatever practices preceded the era of recording shamans' activities are lost in the mists of time. There is certainly no neither truly consistent nor even coherent picture of what pre-literate Siberian culture was like, let alone how shamans fit into it. It's fairly clear that eastern Asian societies had many levels of magic, from the family through the community to encompassing entire regions. Shamans might be employed for a number of reasons; the hunt, healing or as magical foils in intercommunity or regional conflicts. Nor were shamanic practices limited to men. Women might be engaged as shamans if their powers were recognised. Women, however, seem to have generally operated at the family or village level as healers. From what he's able to derive from various sources is that shamanic practices can be reduced to three essentials: there must be identifying dress, such as a robe or animal skin; the shaman must use a supportive musical instrument, usually a drum; and the performance must be public. In healing rituals, for example, the family, if not the entire community, must be present to witness it.

Perhaps the most valuable section of the book is historiographic. The author notes that in most of Siberia, a shaman was a "kam", which only approximately translates. However, various Asian languages have equivalents to "shaman", even in Pali, the most commonly used language in early Buddhism. After a review of Soviet and Hungarian historians of Siberia's shamans, Hutton examines the work of several scholars. Most notably among these is Mircea Eliade, whose influence in instilling forms of shamanic practices in the West is perhaps beyond measure. It is here, of course, that Hutton's quiet vivisection of faulty scholarship is brought to bear. He is a gentle critic, but he's also thorough and unremitting. Eliade, a staunch anti-communist, notes how shamans were communicants or travellers with the spirit world, yet he finally settled on a pseudo-Christian adaptation with shamans engaging with a heavenly realm. Eliade's presentation, Hutton notes, proved exhilarating to a Western audience with little knowledge of Siberian conditions. Eliade appeared at a time of disaffection with traditional norms in Western culture, particularly in the US.

After Hutton's analysis of the vagaries of shamanic scholarship, it's almost surprising to discover his concluding chapter deals with "The Prospect of A Shamanic Future". Hutton, whatever his attitude toward misreading or misusing scholarship, is a realist. "Shamanic" practices, whatever the validity of their foundations, have taken a serious hold in some places. Ethnographic scholarship, particularly in North America, has applied the term to any magical rituals in many native cultures in the Western Hemisphere. Adapted by many as a form of counter-culture, "shamanic behaviour", as one scholar has deemed it, is unlikely threatened by extinction. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
5.0 out of 5 stars Mostly specific to Siberian performance shamanism 3 April 2014
By Joe O'Laughlin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Excellent content and comparatives.
Main comparison is to what little is known about European shamanism.
References Russian, then Bolshevik study then extirpation of this "oppressive" system.
Does NOT characterize the resurgence of shamanism upon collapse of Soviet control.
However that is actually in Mongolia, outside the delineated study area.
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