Will the real shaman please stand up?

100306_tuva_shamans_600acopyIn Tuva (Southern Siberia), people expect that each class of beings contains singular individuals that distinguish themselves by atypical bodily and behavioral features and capacities. Among humans, such beings are shamans, but Tuvans also identify shamans among animals and trees. Even in the landscape, some atypical places are strong personalities.The supposed relationship that connects all these singular beings across their different classes, is found in a number of magical traditions, but sadly this does not make those traditions shamanism . This treatment of atypical beings, which is widespread among Northern Asian traditions, is based on a ‘singularity detection device’, an inferential schema that links individuality and categorical norm in a specific way. This cognitive device sheds light on representations about metamorphosis as well as on interactional strategies between clients and shamans. The singularity detection device, as opposed to categorical thinking, appears to be at the foundation of Northern Asian shamanism.

Some years ago, the Tuvan shaman Saiana was called on by a family to heal a hunter who had been struck by a fit of madness. The family explained: ‘He’s been like this since yesterday, since he came back from hunting. He no longer recognizes his wife or his mother.’ Saiana had the hunter tied up and gave the order for him to be whipped. While he was being whipped, he cried out and chanted: ‘Come on, hit me, keep going!’ The shaman performed a ritual and the hunter fell asleep. The next day he explained: ‘I wandered for a long time through the taiga. As I was coming back, I shot a squirrel. It had long hair, very thick. I had never seen anything like it and I thought to myself: What kind of beast is this? No one will buy it from me.’ And he threw the squirrel away. As he went on with his journey, he heard voices and very loud laughter around him. He ran home, but couldn’t remember how he got there. The Shaman concluded: ‘This squirrel was no ordinary squirrel; it was a servant of the master of the place’.
The Tuvans recall many instances of meeting animals of a strange aspect that turn out to be connected with the ‘masters of the place’, i.e. the spirits of the forest. And it is to particular human beings, shamans, who they turn to solve the problems, anxieties and illnesses that can arise from these dangerous encounters.
In Ceremonial Magic, native knowledge is most often presented in the form of classificatory systems that sort the world into categories; taxonomies indicate knowledge of fauna and flora; nomenclature demonstrates the way in which bonds of kinship are thought of, and it is in categorical terms that Magicians summarize the peculiar features of the various thought systems under study: This dates back to the Victorian age of classification, and was solidified with the Golden Dawn Qabalistic Tree of Life  filing system that is so prevalent in the Western Ritual Magic.But no matter how hard we try to graph Shamanism on to the Tree, “the suit just doesn’t hang well”.tree

Ritual magic in the west also presents Spirit knowledge as categorical and organized into ontological fields, but they reveal little about how we understand what an individual Spirit is, not as a token within a category, but in terms of it’s own singularity. In our everyday interactions, it is not enough to identify a being as belonging to the category of ‘horse’, ‘dog’ or ‘human’; one has to be able to recognize that it might be my horse, my dog, my friend. The Qabalistic systems are of even less help when it comes to explaining the numerous ethnographically recorded situations in which people encounter extraordinary beings or events that they deliberately refuse to acknowledge as tokens of everyday categories, such as the long-haired squirrel above. More specifically, those traditions that we group together under the umbrella of ‘shamanism’ do not operate using categorical knowledge, but rather according the unknown, the bizarre, paradoxical knowledge, the confrontation of complex identities, the voluntary feeling of communication, going deep into situations of confusion and misunderstanding, and the irony of Subconscious Observation.
In this context, what can Ceremonial Magic and the ethnology of shamanism offer one another? On the face of it, it seems that the best we can hope for is less knowing and more “feeling” or intuition of what is being told to the Magician.Shamanism,as seen by The Tuvans, can not be put in neat Qabalistic Spheres .

Today the term ‘shaman’ is widespread in the West, which can give a false impression of familiarity with the local concepts that are translated by the word. In the West shaman’ suggests a category of people who perform colourful rituals in certain exotic cultures using costumes and instruments. Yet the use of the notion of ham (‘shaman’) in Tuvan practice is quite different. The shaman’s typical guise is neither necessary nor sufficient. Thus it is possible for a child, without costume or ritual objects, and who carries out no ritual function, to be deemed a shaman if he displays certain signs, such as a piercing stare, and if she has shaman ancestors. Tuvans do not in fact consider everyone who wears shamanic costume and performs rituals to be ‘true shamans’ (shyn ham). Tuvans believe that many of those who carry out rituals with a costume and a drum are actually ‘charlatans’, or ‘false shamans’ (mege ham) unlike in Ceremonial Magic, the tools don’t make the Shaman.


Furthermore, Tuvans do not think that shamans only manifest themselves in exotic cultures.According to Charles Stépanoff and his informants, shamans were also born in the West, but that Westerners were incapable of recognizing them as such. For Tuvans, shamanism is not a cultural phenomenon, nor even a specifically human one. The term ham is generally used as an adjectival determiner: one says ham kizhi ‘a shaman man’. But Tuvans also recognise the existence of ham yiash ‘a shaman tree’,or ham diiŋ ‘a shaman squirrel’. The anthropologist Pascal Boyer has stated that a shaman consists of the following characteristics:

•One does not become a shaman, one is born one.
•Authentic shamans are male or female cognatic descendants of shamans (but one cannot predict which descendant will be the shaman).
•Appearances alone are not enough to identify an authentic shaman: the quality of being a shaman is something that is hidden and difficult to verify. It is marked into the body: shamans have a ‘white skeleton’ and various bodily features that differ from those of ‘normal people’ (anaa kizhi); they have special powers of perception, as summarised by the following formulaic utterance: ‘he/she sees that which the eyes of plain people do not see and hears that which their ears do not hear’.
•The development of the shaman and her growing into the role are marked by violent processes that are not the result of her own will. A true shaman does not wish to become a shaman.
•The quality of being a shaman allows one to perceive, communicate and come into contact with non-human beings (animals, spirits…). People have spirit helpers precisely because they are shamans (and not the other way around).
•Shamans differ from one another both in manner and in practice. They are often in conflict and ‘consume one another’ (chizhir), i.e. they can kill one another from a distance.

Shamans are seen as shamans on the basis of their individual essence; not as members of a collective similar to a species, but rather individually, as singular characters who deviate from the human norm, but still are humans.And in this we find the true difference between Ceremonial Magic and Shamanism,Magicians tend to classify themselves in Grades and belong to a Lodge, Shamans on the other hand stand out from their classes: animals, plant life, minerals and ‘societies of places’. A exceptional individual essence is what makes you a Shaman, no book or wand can give that to you.And I for one am ok with that, best to respect the Shaman and the ways that they spring from, Learn from them and perhaps find out you are one, rather then group them in with the Magic of the West and strip away the singular character that makes them Shamans in the first place.

But what do I know? I’m just some guy in a Hat……


Pedersen, M. A. 2011. Not quite shamans: spirit worlds and political lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press.


Boyer, P. 1994. The naturalness of religious ideas: a cognitive theory of religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gow, P. 2001. An Amazonian myth and its history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Will the real shaman please stand up? was originally published on The Hidden Left Hand

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