Most people associate shamans with small-scale societies and many scholars contend that shamanism was the first “religion,” practiced by hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic. These perspectives ignore the fact that shamans can be found in large-scale societies, and that shamanic practices are an important aspect of spiritual life in several first-world countries.
Laurel Kendall, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, has been studying South Korean shamans for nearly three decades. Kendall recently published Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion, which should be required reading for those who essentialize shamanism as the primordial religion of imaginary hunter-gatherers.
As noted in a recent press release from the AMNH, Kendall’s book nicely illustrates the connections between political economy and religious practice:
As the Republic of Korea—spurred by the world’s fastest-growing economy from the 1960s to the 1990s—has rapidly developed, shamans and the rituals they perform have adapted to their new hyper-modern landscape and transformed their work in the process. “The shamans manifest gods whose anger wreaks havoc but whose benevolence brings boundless fortune, an idea of volatile divine intervention that is suitable for both the 21st century’s global economy and the business problems experienced by small entrepreneurs,” says Kendall. “Skillful shamans deal with people’s needs, fear, and anxiety about doing business in a risky environment.”
In the United States, something quite similar is happening in the context of a religious tradition — Christianity — that on the surface would seem to be fundamentally different from shamanism. Evangelical proponents of the “prosperity gospel” have many things in common with Korean shamans. The only difference? The particular God/gods who promise riches and alleviate anxiety.