Why “Shamans and Shamanism”?

Shamans are ritual and spiritual practitioners found in both traditional small-scale and modern centralized societies.  They are not, therefore, associated exclusively with hunter-gatherers or tribal groups, as some scholars have suggested.  It is a fact, however, that all known foraging groups include individuals who are recognized or recognizable as shamans.  This has led many to suggest that “shamanism” is the original form of religion.

Whether “shamanism” is indeed a religion, in the Western sense of the term, is open for debate.  While shamans and those who avail themselves of shamanic services certainly believe in the supernatural and contact with spirits, these beliefs are not organized in a way that is necessarily “religious,” and shamans are not the keepers of some spiritual glue that holds groups together.

Anthropologists have long been interested in shamans for all these reasons, and there is a large body of literature on shamans and shamanism.  Much of this literature focuses on shamanic “altered states of consciousness” or trances, and the soul flights which most shamans report.  Piers Vitebsky, Michael Winkelman and Michael Harner are particularly well known for their work on shamans and shamanism.

In Wondrous Healing: Shamanism, Human Evolution , and the Origin of Religion, James McClenon makes a compelling argument that shamans are healers, and that in the empirically observed fitness benefits of shamanic practices one can locate the origins of religion.

This Category will examine these assertions and many others regarding shamans, shamanism, and their relationships to the history of religion.

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