The Woman in the Shamans Body
The Woman in the Shamans Body
by Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D
As we explore Barbara Tedlocks fascinating book, I hope to refine
and enlarge our understanding of shamans and shamanism. Throughout my
review of this book, I was reminded of the late Ruth-Inge Heinzs
admonition that some (or even many) workshops on shamanism do not a shaman
My dear friend Ruth frequently spoke about Ruth-Inge, her teacher at
Saybrook Graduate School and a noted scholar of shamanism.
Ruth-Inge was a very large woman and
a former actress. She didnt just say, You are not a shaman.
She bellowed it at the top of her lungs! She used to say that constantly
at residentials, in seminars, during table talk at meals, etc. The last
residentials at which I remember spending a lot of time with her
or attending her workshops were in June and October of 1996.
You are not a shaman! and Ruth-Inges context for that
statement echoed in my mind as I read The Woman in the Shamans
Tedlocks book is a rare one on the subject: the best of written
research combined with personal experience. The author seamlessly weaves
extensive anthropological research with stories about her childhood with
her herbalist Ojibwe grandmother in Saskatchewan. Anthropologist Tedlock
studied in Guatemala and, through a series of remarkable events, was initiated
by a traditional shaman there. It is this unique combination of experiences
that gives the author her authoritative voice about women shamans.
So what is a shaman? Tedlock offers a fine definition: Shamanism
consists of both a healing practice and a religious sensibility, with
startling similarities between shamanistic ideas and activities in cultures
as far apart as Siberia, the Amazon basin, Southeast Asia, and Nepal.
Shamanism and shaman are words that have been bandied about in our alternative
spiritual circles, particularly in the last couple of decades. I first
started hearing about neoshamanism in the 90s, when a woman in my circle
told me about another woman in a nearby town who did soul retrievals.
The theory behind a soul retrieval is that when an individual experiences
trauma, parts of her soul fly away (psychology would call this disassociation).
The job of the shaman is to find and bring back those parts
of the soul so that the individual can be more integrated. I became fascinated
with this and indeed went to the shamanistic practitioner twice and launched
into study of shamanism, starting with what I will call Harner-style shamanism.
Michael Harner is an anthropologist who discovered that various shamanic
cultures shared what he calls a core shamanism
similarities in techniques for attaining altered states of consciousness.
These techniques emphasize drumming and soul flight, or journeying
into the spirit world on behalf of clients. Harner created The Foundation
for Shamanic Studies,
which sponsors basic research and assists indigenous people in their
attempts to recover lost shamanic traditions. It also carries out an experiential
training program in which it teaches members of Western Societies shamanic
techniques. (p. 271)
I wish Tedlock had said more about shamanic techniques, because despite
the great good that the Harner foundation has done, Harner-style shamanism
has been soundly criticized for co-opting techniques and using them without
supporting cultural foundations or a traditional relationship to the participants
ecosystem. Because people in our alternative communities are most likely
to associate shamanism with Harner-trained individuals, exploring traditional
roles is helpful, particularly if we want to determine where women come
into the picture.
Barbara Tedlock makes this important distinction:
Despite the seemingly universal nature of
shamanism, different cultures and individuals have elaborated distinctive
forms of shamanic practice. Shamanism as a practice, however, has rarely
become a formal social institution. Almost everywhere, shamanism was in
the past and still is today a set of local activities and perspectives,
rather than an ethnic or national institution. Thus, it is best to think
in terms of shamanic activities and perspectives rather than about shamanism
as an ideology or institution. (p.
Other writers I admire add to this perspective. In his gorgeous book,
The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram states that, The most
learned and powerful shaman will be the one who has first learned from
the land itself. (p. 116) 
Ecofeminist Gloria Feman Orenstein, in her fine essay, Toward an
Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred, enlarges on Abrams
idea of a shamans relationship to the land. I think Orensteins
ideas should be central to any earth-based spirituality. She talks about
the sacredness of our everyday life on earth and says:
Core shamanism stresses the shamanic
journey induced by drumming as the central feature of all Shamanism,
and it teaches students to travel out of the body to the lower, middle,
and upper spirit worlds, to meet with their power animals, their spirit
guides, to learn how to perform soul retrieval, and to do shamanic healings
and counseling. One of the dangers that I see, from the ecofeminist perspective,
in focusing on the spirit journey as the central concept of shamanism,
is that it both reproduces the patriarchal dualism that separates spirit
from matter and prioritizes spirit over matter (that is, heaven over earth
or the otherworld over this world).
So, with this bigger picture of shamanism, where do women come in? Tedlocks
approach is organic and integrated and avoids dualism. She demonstrates
the primacy of female shamans the world over and shows the ways in which
evidence of female shamanism has historically been misinterpreted, ignored,
or simply covered over. The reasons for this eclipsing are myriad, with
researchers and historians deliberately downgrading what Tedlock calls
Feminine shamanic paths on which women
attention around birth
Tedlock places some of the responsibility for the eclipse of female shamanism
at the feet of the religious historian Mircea Eliade. Eliades widely
read and accepted book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
has what Tedlock calls serious limitations
among them, that
he never met a living shaman and went out of his way to deny shamanic
status to women, calling them sorceresses. (p.
Eliades bias, according to Tedlock, was preceded and influenced
by the conclusions of psychoanalyst Geza Roheim, who described Hungarian
women shamans as witches who were just pretending to
be healers. (p. 28)
Particularly fascinating in the biased scholarship Tedlock describes is
the differentiation between masculine or feminine shamanic states. For
example, Following Roheims lead, Eliade limited shamanism
to soul flightwhich he regarded as not only transcendent
but also phallic. Eliade separated this function from possession,
which he considered immanent and assigned to women. (p.
Tedlock describes the actual situation of shamanism, which is far
more complex than essentialist schemes of masculine and feminine
shamanism would indicate. Examining such traditional womens activities
as midwifery, herbalism, and weaving, Tedlock gives womens work
due respect. She says that women shamans are nearly always midwives. The
act of helping souls to transform themselves in order to cross from the
other world into this world turns out to be at the heart of feminine shamanic
traditions worldwide. (p. 206)
This richly illustrated and carefully researched book describes the work
of numerous women shamans and examines aspects of shamanic traditions:
subtle energy, dreams, herbs, midwifery, animal teachers, and shamanic
use of psychedelics. The author describes each of these traditions thoroughly
and clearly. She dispenses with any sensationalism around potentially
controversial subjects such as psychedelics, sacred sexuality, or gender
flexibility. Instead, the author provides a context, describes the culture
and the land, and explains the traditions in a down-to-earth fashion that
leads the reader into more understanding, because as Tedlock says, At
the heart of shamanic practice is the active pursuit of knowledge.
This is an excellent book that adds to knowledge about women, scholarship,
leadership, and religion.
- Heinz, Ruth-Inge. 1990. Shamans of
the 20th Century (Frontiers of Consciousness). Irvington Publishers.
- Ruth Crocker, personal communication,
- Abram, David. 1997. The Spell of the
Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World.
- Orenstein, Gloria Feman. Toward
an Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred. http://www.angelfire.com/realm/bodhisattva/she-shaman.html
- Mircea Eliade. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques
of Ecstasy. Bollingen, 1972.