A quest is a story-teller's archetype and the story of this book is the persistence of shamanism from the earliest humans through history to the present day. It is the identification of shamanism in Europe before Christianity and its continuation as folklore and mythology afterwards. This is a book rooted in academic research based on ancient objects, cave paintings, rock carvings and classical writings. It is not a book about the contemporary practice of shamanism nor is it about any New Age revival.
The word shamanism, according to this book, comes from a Siberian word meaning the ecstatic one. The shaman and their people lived in a world alive with spirits in animals, in the landscape and in natural events. This was a three-tiered world with the underworld below, the middle-earth of people and animals and the upper-world of spirits. The shaman moves between these worlds via trance or psychotropic drugs. The shaman can be a shape-shifter, can merge with animals and sprits, can provide physical and mental healing, can connect the people with the spirits and the ancestors and can predict the future. This is the shaman of Siberia, the medicine-man of North America, the witch-doctor of Africa, the Celtic druid. The shaman echoes through the ages in the wise man or woman, so distrusted by the church.
Examples are taken from the late Palaeolithic, the Mesolithic through to the Neolithic and the introduction of farming. It continues into the Iron Age. Quotes are given from Greek and Latin writings. The Celts are heavily referenced. Early Greek and Roman religion shows influences, as do the religions of pre-Christian Scandinavia and Germany.
This book reflects the interests of the authors. Both are professors at the University of Wales, one of Archaeology and the other of Human Origins. The authors are often tentative in their assignment of shamanism to the objects, paintings and rock carvings they describe. I would take a more robust view that all early religion was shamanic and that this religion pervaded daily life.
It is published by Thames & Hudson and has this imprint's high production values for books on art and antiquities. There are 134 illustrations, 24 in colour, spread over 212 pages. There are also 28 pages of notes, bibliography and an index.
This is a good book for anyone interested in the history of shamanism, the origins of religion, early artistic expression or just looking at the pictures.
on 17 April 2012
I admit to not having read this book in full, I was doing some research into art and artefacts based around Shamanic practices, but I gave up and started just skimming the latter parts due its uselessness. The book is full of thinly stretched assumptions about the links between ancient european ritual and culture with Shamanism, seeming to put forth the concept that our ancestors were incapable of imagining or enacting anything at all not based around it in some way, to the extent that imagery of a figure simply raising it's arms into the air must be interpreted as someone in trance induced ecstasy. The authors have clearly done a lot of research into a variety of archaeological sources, but to apply such a narrow depth of meaning to all of it is foolish and pointless. I found the structure of the writing which i did read through to be irritating in its constant attempts to bring everything round to the good ol' Shaman as though it were justified, despite the lack of any contextual evidence beyond simple assumptions. The amount of straws the authors were clutching at began to amount to a collection so great it was rivalled in its size only by the imagined physical presence of their arrogance in expecting me to believe those straws were magic shaman wands.
They aren't, they are just straws.
Ultimately this book seemed to be closer to Historical fiction or the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, rather than something I could trust for solid information. If you're looking for the former, you'll have plenty to read here. I simply wanted to warn anyone looking for the latter to avoid this book.
(But then again I didn't read it in full so maybe I missed some twist at the end that made it all work)
The 2 stars are for the competent writing and effort that's gone into inventing explanations for artefacts from almost nothing, and the quality of the presentation.