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The Woman in the Shaman’s Body

The Woman in the Shaman’s Body
by Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D
Bantam, 2005

As we explore Barbara Tedlock’s 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 Heinz’s admonition that some (or even many) workshops on shamanism do not a shaman make.[1]

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 didn’t 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.”[2]

“You are not a shaman!” and Ruth-Inge’s context for that statement echoed in my mind as I read The Woman in the Shaman’s Body.

Tedlock’s 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.” (p. 27)

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,[3] 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. 20)

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) [4]

Ecofeminist Gloria Feman Orenstein, in her fine essay, “Toward an Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred,” enlarges on Abram’s idea of a shaman’s relationship to the land. I think Orenstein’s 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).[5]

So, with this bigger picture of shamanism, where do women come in? Tedlock’s 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… focus their attention around birth….” (p. 202)

Tedlock places some of the responsibility for the eclipse of female shamanism at the feet of the religious historian Mircea Eliade. Eliade’s widely read and accepted book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy[6] 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. 64)

Eliade’s 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 Roheim’s lead, Eliade limited shamanism to ‘soul flight’—which he regarded as not only transcendent but also phallic.” Eliade separated this function from ‘possession,’ which he considered immanent and assigned to women.” (p. 72)

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 women’s activities as midwifery, herbalism, and weaving, Tedlock gives women’s 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.” (p. 23)

This is an excellent book that adds to knowledge about women, scholarship, leadership, and religion.

Notes

  1. Heinz, Ruth-Inge. 1990. Shamans of the 20th Century (Frontiers of Consciousness). Irvington Publishers.
  2. Ruth Crocker, personal communication, April 2008.
  3. http://www.shamanism.org/fssinfo/fsswork.html
  4. Abram, David. 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage.
  5. Orenstein, Gloria Feman. “Toward an Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred.” http://www.angelfire.com/realm/bodhisattva/she-shaman.html
  6. Mircea Eliade. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Bollingen, 1972.

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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
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