Healing Spirits

HealingDaniel Mason in Lapham's Quarterly:

In his 1943 study of the psychology of medicine men, historian Erwin Ackerknecht surveyed a vast anthropological literature and distinguished between two patterns of initiation into the healing arts. For one group, medical knowledge was obtained through carefully practiced ritual, induced by fasting, drugs, or ceremonies invoking spirits who could lead the healer to a cure. For the second, Ackerknecht cited Russian travelers to Siberia, who had reported rituals among the Yakuts that were anything but methodical:

He who is to become a shaman begins to rage like a raving madman. He suddenly utters incoherent words, falls unconscious, runs through the forests, lives on the bark of trees, throws himself into fire and water, lays hold on weapons and wounds himself, in such ways that his family is obliged to keep watch on him.

Despite the ubiquity of the word shaman today, its diffusion is recent. It comes from saman, from the Tungus—known today as the Evenk—people of Siberia, and the first outsiders to take detailed note were exiled Russian intellectuals. After a trickle of reports in the late nineteenth century, shamanism arrived in the West in two principal waves: during the Russo-American cooperation in the 1897-1902 Jesup North Pacific Expedition, and later, in more popular works, describing convulsive “pre-shamanic psychosis” as a disease unique to the North Asian steppes. From then, the word proved infectious, acquiring the hazy meaning of any healer who works by mysterious means. Seeking a definition for his monumental survey, Shamanism, the historian of religion Mircea Eliade worried over these loose boundaries between medicine man, sorcerer, medium, physician. At the same time, he felt there was an essence—an archaic “technique of ecstasy”—that could be found in a spectrum of practices from around the world.