ANTC61H3 Chapter Notes -Transvestism, Two-Spirit, Pharmacognosy
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Shamanism is a religious phenomenon centered on the shaman, an ecstatic figure
believed to have power to heal the sick, and to communicate with the world beyond.
The term 'shaman' means literally, 'to know'.
It is likely that shamanism evolved before the development of class society in the
Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age. It was practiced amongst peoples living in the
hunting-and-gathering stage, and that it continued to exist amongst peoples who
achieved domestication of plants and animals is well established.
We use the term freely in anthropology. There is, however, no single definition of
shamanism that applies to the elements of shamanistic activity found in the
Americas, in southeast India, in Australia, and in small areas all over the world as well
as to the phenomenon amongst the north Asian, Ural-Altaic and Paleo-Asian peoples.
Shamanism achieved its most articulated and specialized form in northern Asia, from
where the term is derived. Shamanism there is distinguished by its special clothing,
accessories, rites, and a specific world view. Among these people, the person was
often epileptic or had other physical abnormality with an intuitive, sensitive and
Phenomena similar to the traits of shamanism may be found among primitive peoples
everywhere in the world. Such detached traits, however, are not necessarily
shamanistic. The central personalities in such systems--sorcerers, medicine men, and
the like--may communicate with the 'other world' through ecstacy. Unlike the shaman,
they have attained their position through deliberate study and application of rational
knowledge. Part of the knowledge is some cultures is a knowledge of healing plants, a
topic we cover elsewhere in a forthcoming unit on ethnobotany and pharmacognosy.
True shamans acquire their position through inheritance, learning, or by inner call
(which we would call 'self proclaimed'). Shamans vary in quality and degree. It is the
obligation of the shaman to know all matters that humans need to know in everyday
life but are unable to learn through their own capacities. Shamans may be men or
women, or in some societies, transvestites (My note: berdache amongst Native
American Indians is a third gender, a transvestite.) In a course such as this, we are
primarily interested in their healing capacities. Their healing talents (apart from
applications of ethnobotany) are aided by the force of their unique personalities.
Cross-culturally, most shamans appear able to hallucinate or enter trance. Sometimes
it is with the use of drugs, at other times by their inborn ability to do so entirely on
their own. At such times they are believed to be possessed by spirits whom they have
invited into their bodies. Usually, a shaman must undergo 'uncontrolled' invasions of
such beings, and able to recover. This is like being 'born again.'
An essential element of their healing in many societies is to perform the 'sucking
cure' in which they claim to suck the 'evil' from the body of the afflicted. Successful
shamanism involves the shrewd manipulation of both information and props. Levi-
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