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With their ability to enter trances, to change into the bodies of other creatures, and to fly through the northern skies, shamans are the subject of both popular and scholarly fascination. In Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination Ronald Hutton looks at what is really known about both the shamans of Siberia and about others spread throughout the world. He traces the growth of knowledge of shamans in Imperial and Stalinist Russia, descibes local variations and different types of shamanism, and explores more recent western influences on its history and modern practice. This is a challenging book by one of the world's leading authorities on Paganism.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ronald Hutton has a reputation among New Age adherents. A researcher of almost clinical severity, he demands clear and unequivocal evidence to back up any assertions. The subtitle offers warning to the reader that "Western Imagination" will be under scrutiny as well as historical accounts. His other books have laid bare the inadequacies of modern "paganism", "druidism" and the "wicca" movement. Over the past generation, "shamanism has become one of the most heavily worked [words] among scholars of anthropology and religious studies", he says. Widespread in use, particularly by US academics and others, "shamanism" has gained in area, if not in accuracy. Although most are aware of its Siberian roots, few understand the scholarly efforts to construct a proper setting for its use. He hopes this book will redress some of the lacks.
Siberia itself, he begins in the first of three parts, was a construction. The name itself stems from the Khanate of the Sibr being the first...
A lot of stuff is said about shamanism both in academic and popular circles, with far too little critical thought about it even in academia. This is the best introduction I know to all of it.
The first problem is defining shamanism - and this is much worse than you might think. In order to qualify as a shaman, does one have to control spirits, or simply ascend to heaven in a vision? Is spirit posession essential to shamanism, or just a normal part of it, or a different phenomenon altogether? Is shamanism essentially public, or can one practice shamanism privately? Do shamans specialize in healing and divination, or are those incidental to the profession? No one agrees about all this, and the result is that one person sees shamanism where another doesn't. This of course is a huge problem when we start talking about shamanism outside of Siberia; I don't know of anyone who deals with this issue as succinctly or as perceptively as Hutton.
Don't let the kind of crappy cover fool you -- this is one of the better researched books on the subject of siberian shamanism that I've read. A particularly great book to read right after reading Eliade's indispensible 'Shamanism,' as it points out both the strengths and weaknesses of that work.
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