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The Shamans of Siberia.
Ronald Hutton.
Isle of Avalon Press 1993. £3.50 (including postage, from Isle of Avalon Press, The Courtyard, 2–4 High St., Glastonbury BA6 9DU).
The Shaman.
Piers Vitebsky.
Macmillan 1995. £9.99.

These are two excellent, and very different, books about shamanism. An example of the differences may be found by looking at the bibliographies. Hutton cites references in many languages, the longest list being in Russian, with the smaller German and English ones of almost the same size. By contrast, all Vitebsky’s references are in English. Their lists of English books relating to Siberian shamanism are almost identical. Hutton seems to expect the interested reader of his book to read in detail at least the English material in his list, and so gives no specific references in his text, while much (though not all) of Vitebsky’s material is given full page references for easy access. Both authors include detailed descriptions by outside observers of shamanic practices. Most of us who have any interest in shamanism are aware that the word comes from one of the peoples of Siberia. And we probably have a vague idea of Siberia as a large cold place where the Russian state (both before and during the Soviet regime) sent its political prisoners. One of the most important features of Hutton’s book is his detailed account of Siberia, its geography and climate (he speaks of his own experiences of the cold there), and its history. This gives us a context for the shamanic practices which few of us previously had.

Sections of the book cover shamanic costumes, performances, training  (he points out that in Siberia shamanism is a task to be avoided, not a vocation to be sought). Rather surprisingly, there is no section on what the purpose of shamanism was, only a few scattered sentences. We often tend to think of shamans as healers. As he mentions, ordinary healing of injuries or illnesses was not their business. Rather, they acted on illnesses with no known cause, and with psychological problems. To some extent, they are closer to psychotherapists than to doctors. But (as he does not mention), their work goes beyond that, at least in related cultures. They may act to cure disturbances in the social structure. And among the Inuit, whose survival depends greatly on hunting, much shamanic work is devoted to ensuring a plentiful supply of animals.

In New Age usage, the word ‘shaman’ often means no more than a tribal practitioner of magic. Indeed, it is used in Europe and the USA to refer to anyone who makes a spirit journey, even when this is done for their personal benefit and not on behalf of a community. Perhaps in reaction to this very wide usage, Hutton uses an extremely narrow definition. As a result, he finds that shamanism only exists in Siberia and among the Inuit, Saami, and (until recently) the Magyar. He makes it clear that this is just his choice, and that a wider definition  (though not as wide as the New Age usage) could well be chosen.  Nevertheless, I feel that Professor Hutton’s standing among pagans is so high that there is a danger that his definition could easily come to be regarded by them as the only correct one. Also, it is not clear that his definition would be accepted among the Siberian peoples themselves.  Vitebsky states that among the Buryat and Yakut there are people who we would describe as ‘shamans’ and ‘priests’, but who are named in their own language by the same noun with different adjectives; he translates the terms as ‘black shaman’ and ‘white shaman’. (While Vitebsky and Hutton mostly agree when they are dealing with the same matters, there are two minor but interesting points of disagreement. Hutton states that the last shaman died by 1970, while Vitebsky refers to the death of a shaman in 1992. Also, Vitebsky states that “In both Russia and China there is now a great interest in old shamanic traditions, and in Russia attempts are being made to revive some of them.” Hutton sees no such tendency; possibly the change has occurred in the time between the dates of writing of the two books).

On a first glance at Vitebsky’s book one might be inclined to dismiss it as another coffee-table book, with its glossy pages in different colours and its many illustrations. This impression vanishes on reading the book, or even more quickly by reading the information about the author on the inside back cover. He is a senior academic at Cambridge, an anthropologist who has done fieldwork in both Siberia and tribal areas of India, and who has knowledge of several of the local languages. His definition of a shaman covers primarily (though not exclusively) all those who retain control of their trances and make soul-journeys; this is wider than the definition Hutton uses, though it is more restricted than Hutton’s suggested wide definition. In particular, his definition includes the Sora, a tribal people in Orissa  (India), among whom he has done much fieldwork. It may be that he has chosen for a popular book a definition wider than the one he would use with his colleagues. The difficulty in deciding what is the best definition is shown by the fact that the Buryat and Yakut ‘white shamans’ do not even enter trances; also, at one point he says that “In most of North America and eastern Asia, shamans do not go on voyages when in trance”, which is not in accord with his primary definition.

In addition to the main text and illustrations in Vitebsky’s book, separate feature boxes cover specific occurrences related to the text.  The book covers shamanic practices throughout the world, but is careful to look at the specific practices of each people, rather than making generalisations. Sections of the book cover the shamanic worldview, regional traditions, becoming a shaman, shamans and clients, and understanding shamanism; these sections are divided in subsections, including levels of reality, costumes, tricks of the trade, protecting the community, and others.  I was interested to learn that Siberian rock art has shown a remarkable continuity of style over thousands of years, although this does not necessarily imply any continuity of meaning.

He takes a sympathetic attitude to the “new shamanic movements” of Harner and others, which he sees as valid practice in their own right, although he warns that they are of varying authenticity and integrity.  However, he sees “a risk that the new shamanists may create their own ideal image of shamanism and then judge traditional societies as failing to live up to that image.” This strikes a chord with me, as I feel that those of us who learn from traditional societies (whether Native American or other) have a duty to those societies and to their struggles, political and economic (and, sadly but sometimes necessarily, military), which is rarely performed. In this context, I would mention that I recently attended a meeting in London of the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum. Most of the gathering was private to those people themselves, but the last day was a public meeting. It seems that the same problems, caused by mining, logging, etc., can be found all over the world, whether in North and South America, in Papua New Guinea, in Saamiland, or in Siberia (from which there were several delegates). Indeed, those who attended last Easter’s conference in the English Lake District on Nature Religions Today will recall the stirring oration by someone involved in combatting very similar problems in Scotland.

Which book should one buy? The choice is between a short book focussed very specifically on one area, and a longer book with a much broader scope, and this is a matter of personal preference. I would suggest buying both books, and reading them together for the light and shade they cast on each other.

Wood and Water 56, Autumn 1996
© Daniel Cohen

 

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