Shamans: Preserving History

As a skeptic of the legitimacy of shamanistic practices; naturally, I decided to research shamans. The supernatural has always been a topic of fascination for me, even if I do not believe. We live in a world where supernatural beliefs tend to get suppressed. In the past, spirits were used to explain the unexplainable; to give answers to life’s questions. I wanted to explore the roles of shamans today, that went beyond the “crazy people who are possessed by spirits.” Shamans must hold some value in cultures otherwise, they would not still be around.

The form of my project is a research paper. The focus is on Chinese shamans and various ethnic minority groups found in China. The focus is specifically China because that is the focus of this course, Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors. I believe that shamans fill a similar role in other cultures. I wanted to research the nuanced roles of shamans and I felt a paper would do the best job at conveying that. Other forms, such as a game pitch, would be better at conveying the common view of shamans – one who communes with the spirits to perform supernatural feats.

In academia, there are two main interpretations of the meaning of the word “shaman.” There is debate on what the Manchu-Tungus word “saman” is derived from. The first translation is a person who dances because they are excited. This comes from an analysis which believes “saman” was derived from “sam,” the Manchu word for “exciting.” The second translation is a person who knows everything or a title meaning “the wise one.” This comes from an analysis which believes “saman” was derived from “sa,” the Manchu word for “knowing.”

Both translations have some merit in understanding the current role of shamans. The first translation can be seen through the various rituals that shamans are known to conduct. To understand the importance of rituals, I looked at a study that involved a Chinese nationalist shaman who went to a Naxi ethnic minority village to cure a villager who went mad.

The ritual the shaman performed was largely unsuccessful. The reactions were also not very positive. Many of the villagers were confused as to what the shaman was doing. The incantations were supposed to invoke nationalistic feelings, such as calling upon Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping as the “gods” to help her drive out the demons in the madman. Those names are not traditional gods found in Naxi culture or in traditional Chinese culture; they are the political leaders of China after the revolution.

The Naxi people had a particularly unpleasant experience with Mao, the communist leader of China, and here was someone calling symbols from that time. After Mao’s death, his influence in this village diminished and the villagers felt very little from the performance of the shaman. It is no wonder that the villagers felt very little from the performance.

The second translation can be seen in history through influential leaders and scholars who were considered shamans. Emperors of the Jin Dynasty were thought to have supernatural powers because they made military and political decisions based on their dreams. Wanyan Xiyin was an advisor who was renowned as a shaman because he created laws and a written language for this people. Shamans like these were not considered shamans due to extraordinary supernatural talents, they were just incredibly intelligent for their time. People thought they must have gotten help from the supernatural; it was how they contextualized an uncommon occurrence.

I took the ideas of shamans being ritual leaders or people who carried the wisdom of their culture and applied it to various ethnic minority groups in China. You see similar roles of shamans in these groups. Shamans tend to lead the ceremonies, for events like holidays because they understand the importance of these events and carry on the traditions from the past. If an outsider were to lead these events, the people would not feel as connected. Shamans are typically not leaders anymore, but they carry on the teachings of old and pass it down to future generations.

In my mind, the importance of shamans comes from the preservation of a culture. This way of thinking and acting typically are not taught in school anymore because it is seen as archaic. This coupled with the fact that most older tribes are oral in nature. Shamans are needed to continue passing down this knowledge or we could see cultures completely vanish overnight.

4 thoughts on “Shamans: Preserving History

  1. Noah Roulat

    I like the skeptical approach you take to this assignment, as I too feel the same way about shamans. I also agree with the stance you take, that the most important part of this is preserving the culture. I do not personally believe Shamans are any more in touch with the supernatural than any other person, however, they are still a valuable look into ancient culture and life. Good job Bryan!

  2. John Tyner

    Your commentary on the importance of shamans in preserving culture was very riveting. I like how you took apart the actual definition of a shaman to demonstrate how it originated and how it fits into today’s society.

    in my Life of the Amazon class, we talked at length about shamans in the Amazon River Basin and how important they are to preserving ancient culture and traditions. It is also important to note that when a shaman dies, so does the thousands of years of knowledge they have inherited. Recently in Brazil, practices such as deforestation and privatization of land occupied by tribes has threatened the indigenous way of life and consequently threatened the shamans that live in these communities. These shamans have a wealth of knowledge that includes but is not limited to ancient history, ancient hunting practices, herbal remedies, and sustainable living practices. It is interesting to see that even in the far east shamans are imperative to retaining culture and knowledge passed down by ancestors for thousands of years. I very much agree with your final statement that says shamans are needed to preserve cultures, or else they will disappear overnight.

  3. Daniel Konopka

    I like your insight into the cultural significance of shamans in other places around the world; it can be difficult at first growing up in western culture to buy into all that. I am personally very fascinated by shamans and shamanistic practices, as they are almost unbelievable coming from a western standpoint. But as you said, they clearly are of great significance to some other cultures, which in a way adds to the mystery. I absolutely agree with you in that one of the most important purposes of shamans is cultural preservation; this is actually much of what I researched for my Life in the Amazon class. Cultural preservation is one of the biggest concerns for indigenous tribal communities living in the Amazon as they continue to be threatened by outside forces (commercial logging, resource exploitation etc.). And shamans are undoubtedly those with the most cultural knowledge, and are therefore the most important in ensuring the culture is passed down correctly.

  4. Brendan Daneau

    It is interesting to understand the various translations of shaman. Within your research, I am wondering if there are parallels in practices between shamans in the Chinese culture and those that may resemble Haitian shamans. Another interest that I have with this research is if you came across any information that painted shamanism as a sort of placebo. In other words, if in your research if you came across anything that opposed and tried to debunk the ideas behind shamanism as a practice.


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