Thoughts on Shamanism

Often I have marveled about the ubiquity of shamanic complexes throughout the world. In my opinion, variations of the shamanic paradigm were present in all hunter/gatherer/foraging groups. I have also wondered “why is this the case?” After reading work by Michael Winkelman, I have been moved to believe that within the shamanic paradigm aspects of behavior have served to integrate human minds more fully between notions of the individual and its relationship to the social world. Aspects of the shamanic complex can be seen as increasing the adaptability of humans. Winkelman suggests that, and I agree, that the shamanic complex grew out of ancient hominid ritual capacities and practices. There are even similarities between the shamanic ritual complex and activities of chimpanzees. These include community rituals focused on alpha male displays involving vocalizations, drumming, and bipedal charges. Similarities between shamanism and behavior of chimpanzees include: community bonding rituals that involve emotional vocalizations and drumming as social signaling and communication processes; altered states of consciousness (ASC) that involve the elicitation of an integrative mode of consciousness; and healing effects, including ritual effects in eliciting opioid responses and the ASC that provide physiological relaxation and integration (Winkelman 2009, Winkelman and Baker 2008). I was fascinated when I first heard of the accounts of chimpanzees performing a “rain dance” in which males hoot, run up and down a hill, and break branches while a storm is approaching. Winkelman suggests that these rituals reflect a biological basis. “Communal rituals elicit attachment bonds and related physiological mechanisms that reduce endogenous opiates (opioids), producing psychobiological synchrony and community cohesion within the group. Opioid release stimulates the immune system, producing a sense of euphoria, certainty, and belongingness, enhancing coping skills and maintenance of bodily homeostasis, and enhancing stress tolerance and environmental adaptation” (Winkelman 2009).

James McClenon suggests that the roots of shamanic healing may go as far back as controlled use of fire. Sitting around the fire may have enhanced trance states and other altered states of consciousness among early humans. During altered states of consciousness, humans are more open to suggestion and McClenon (1997) suggests that hypnotizability was hardwired into humans and was adaptive. This hypnotizability would increase the impact of shared experiences and knowledge among a group of people, indeed providing the shared knowledge which leads to cultural development. McClennon goes on to suggest that all hunter gatherer groups at some point probably practiced some form of shamanism, and the shamanic complex laid the groundwork for further religious beliefs and practices throughout the world (1997).

According to Lévi-Strauss (1963), the healing that the shaman performs occurs within a shamanic complex which depends on the shaman, the sick person, and the surrounding community to believe in the efficacy of the treatment. The shaman manipulates socially constructed and maintained beliefs and symbols to create a socially authorized translation of the problem causing sickness. Through this process, the shaman reorganizes the reality of the patient and his or her social network. As mentioned above, the performance of the shaman ultimately contributes to the belief in the healing ritual and produces what can be called a meaning effect which can be compared to the case of modern pharmacology in which patients improve even when they are receiving a placebo or sugar pill.

In my opinion, the shamanic paradigm was an important factor in contributing to the complexity of the workings of the human brain. The human brain must orient the individual self and its relationship to its environment and all the social relationships it can encounter. It is no surprise that many people seek out modern-day experiences with ritual and altered states of consciousness to treat drug addiction, chronic pain, and various psychological issues. Aspects of the shamanic complex provide opportunities for healing of the individual and social reintegration.

Levi-Strauss, Claude.   1963   The Sorcerer and His Magic. From Structural Anthropology. Basic Books.

McClenon, James.   1997   Shamanic Healing, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36(3):345-354.

Winkelman, Michael.   2009   Shamanism and the Origins of Spirituality and Ritual Healing. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 458-489.

Winkelman, M., and J. Baker.   2008    Supernatural as Natural: A Biological Theory of Religion (New Jersey: Prentice Hall).

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