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]