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[The Pomegranate 12.2 (2010) 139-58] doi: 10.1558/pome.vl2i2.139
ISSN 1528-0268 (Print) ISSN 1743-1735 (Online)
Shamanisms and the Authenticity of Religious ExperienceSusannah Crockford [email protected] AbstractShamanic practices and practitioners in Western countries are often derided as "inauthentic" by both scholars and members of indigenous communities. The experience derived from such practices is therefore also implied to be contrived. This paper analyses shamanism in the United Kingdom as part of "Western shamarusm" rather than "neo-shamanism." Western shamanism is understood to be a valid religious tradition found in Europe and America that is based on Western cultural and religious traditions. The concept of authenticity is critically examined as a cultural construct, and the validity of a religious experience is located subjectively.
There are shamans in other parts of the world (except in Western industrialised cultures - people calling themselves shamans there are with a relatively high degree of certainty commercial "plastic shamans").'
Western shamanism is routinely dismissed in academic accounts of shamanism. The main bone of contention is that it is inauthentic: based on the fabricated fieldwork of Carlos Castaeda, misappropriating nonWestern cultural forms, and motivated by consumerism and naive materialism.^ It is seen as commercial and artificial or simply "plastic." This assessment of Western shamanism is reified by a distinction between "traditional" and "neo" shamanism that is made by many scholars, based on a simplisfic split between Western and non-Western cultural forms.^ Shamanism is a term that is so broad that it can incorporate a vast1. Ina Rosing, "Lies and Amnesia in Anthropological Research: Recycling the Waste/' Anthropology of Consciousness, 10, nos. 2-3 (1999): 23. 2. See Daniel Noel, The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginai Realities (New York: Continuum, 1998), 26-105, for a critical view. Noel considers Western shamanism a neo-colonialist "fictive fabrication" and proposes an alternative-the Merlin myth as a cultural archetype in a Jungian framework for Euro-Americans desiring to create a "new shamanism." 3. Olav Hammer, Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010, Unit S3, Kelham House, 3 Lancaster Street, Sheffield S3 8AF
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conceptual terrain, yet the borders of this terrain firmly stop at Western industrialised cultures. Yet what does it mean to say that a religious practice is inauthentic? Authenticity seems like a self-evident concept, but like so many ostensibly axiomatic terms it resists easy description. There are two main themes in debates conceming authenticity that I would like to highlight for their significance to the present discussion. The first theme concerns appropriation. Charles Taylor in his The Ethics ofAuthenticity argues that while the idea of authenticity has a complex history, the core of it is that we are authentic when we exhibit or are in possession of that which is most our own: our own way of flourishing or being fulfilled. To be separated from that which is most our own is to be in a state of alienation."* What is it, then, that is most our own? In terms of religion, it is the practices and rituals that are derived from the culture of our birth that are often deemed to be most our own. If we adopt a ritual or practice from another culture, this is deemed to be appropriation. We are pretending to be something that we are not. However, the problems with this formulation are manifold as it privileges an idea of discrete cultures into which individuals are born. The second theme is coherence to established fact or record, the idea of genuineness, that something factually is what it claims to be. In terms of a religious practice, the "truthfulness" of its history is raised, and if the origin can be clearly demonstrated to be human then it is less likely to be seen as "real" religion. This means that new religions can often be condemned as "cults" or derided as "fakes," while older, more established religions are granted authenticity.^ Rather than accept or restate this demarcation, the present paper will examine why Western shamanism is considered inauthentic. Western shamanism is seen as rooted in Western cultural tradition, consequently Ithe New Age (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 136; Paul C Johnson, "Shamanism from Ecuador to Chicago: a Case Study in New Age Ritual Appropriation," in Shamanism: A Reader, ed. Graham Harvey (London: Routledge, 2003), 335-354. 4. Charles Taylor, The Ethics ofAuthenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 81. 5. So for example, world religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism are "real" religion while shamanism. Paganism, etc. are not. This reproduces a theological bias toward "true" religion, which is problematic if religious truth claims are to be treated equally. For further discussions on authenticity in religious discourse see Frans P.M. Jespers, "Longing for Authenticity: Religious Transformations in Late Modern Europe," International Journal in Philosophy and Theology 67, no. 4, (2006):369390; Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis, "Beyond Sacred: Recent Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments Current Findings of the Sacred Sites Project," The Pomegranate 11, no. 1 (2009): 97-123; Douglas Cowan, Bearing False Witness: an Introduction to the Christian Countercult (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2003); Matthijs van de Port, ed.. Authenticity (Mnster: Lit Verlag Mnster, 2004). Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010
will refer to Western shamanism rather than neo-shamanism.'^ The examples used will primarily be from the UK in order to give some degree of ethnographic clarity, although the situation in the USA will also be discussed due to the sharpened politicisation of the issue of authenticity there. The theoretical scope will be limited to the question of whether Western shamanism can be called authentic and what this says about authenticity in the wider debate on contemporary Paganism. Following several recent works, shamanism is described as a plurality of culturally variable forms.^ If universal applicability of the term is denied, then Western shamanism becomes a rip-off, an appropriation of a specific Siberian cultural form. If shamanism is defined as a universal form with culturally specific styles then Western shamanism is the Western form typified by elements common to Western culture. The present paper analyses a shamanic field of discourse in Western culture, where social actors are struggling for recognition and symbolic capital and authenticity is an important selling point for accumulating both.^Three Western Shamans
The etymology of the term shaman is problemafic. Kehoe argues that because the term came from Siberia it can only be applied to Siberians.' However, the root of a term is not its essence; the origin does not determine the course of a concept's evolufion. "Shaman" came from Tungus but is no longer restricted to that linguistic family, for it has crossed linguistic and cultural boundaries and mutated its symbolic associations and meanings along the way. Shaman is not the only term metamorphosed from its original meaning; a parallel can be found in the term "paganism," which originally meant heretic, non-Christian, and is now6. Following Kocku von Stuckrad, "Reenchanting Nature: Modern Western Shamanism and Nineteenth Century Thought," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70, no. 4 (2002):771-99; see also Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans (London: Routledge, 2003), 30, for a critique of the term 'neo-shamanism'. 7. There are a number of studies which adopt this position, see Kocku von Stuckrad, Schamanismus und Esoterik: Kultur- und Wissenschaftsgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Leuwen: Peeters, 2003), 19-22; Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans, 30-31; Thomas DuBois, An Introduction to Shamanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 2778.1 am here using Bourdieu's concepts of field of discourse and social/symbolic capital, see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 16-22,159-97; Richard Shusterman, Bourdieu: a Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999). 9. Alice Beck Kehoe, Shamans And Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical TInnking (Prospect Heights, 111: Waveand Press, 2000), 102. Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010
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used to denote a variety of reconstructed nature-based spiritualities. The solution is not to return to the root but to be aware of the etic and emic disfinctions, sensitive to cultural differences and biases in interpretafion, and to understand the positive aspects of Western sbamanism for those who participate in it. Western shamanism offers a universal yet individualised spirituality, sometimes by revivifying pre-modern ancestry such as Celtic shamanism, somefimes by adapfing and appropriating non-Western cultural forms. It offers an alternative to a perceived shallow, empty modernity, while remaining compatible with modern life, being neither too time- nor effort-consuming to interfere. This alternative to a perceived shallow, empty modernity is then itself perceived as shallow and empty by critics. By trying to resist modernity, shamanism becomes modernity par excellence. Shamanism is deemed inauthentic because moderrty in the industrialised West is deemed inauthentic. In the Urted Kingdom, anyone claiming to be a shaman can expect to be greeted with scepticism, because there is no cultural category or established tradition to support the role. So who in the UK calls themselves a shaman and why? Gordon MacLellan, an envirorunental educator and shamanic pracfitioner, says t