The Making of a Shaman: A Comparative Study of Inuit, African, and Nepalese Shaman Initiation

SilenceAccording to the thinking of many societies, spiritual forces outside of ourselves exist. In our illnesses and breaks from normalcy, there then opens a space for something spiritual to “come through” to us. This is not a matter of mere belief, however; those who have had their lives transformed in this way insist they know from experience what is spiritual, owing to the work of a spirit or divine being who has taken the initiative. Their spiritual life crisis has been followed and supported by rituals, the help of a guru, or the comradeship of similar sufferers, as in Alcoholics Anonymous.

It is the character of these events, their typical episodes, their order, in which I am interested. Briefly, the spirit speaks first, commonly appealing to the person to become a healer and sometimes reaching no result at first, but then, through further strong demands—even through the person’s illness—making connection. Finally, in the midst of illness or fear, comes the spiritual gift.

Compare a similar order of events as seen through the world-view of a psychologist or moralist. For example, an individual may fall into the habits of a bad lifestyle, or may commit breaches in the social order. Society tends to repudiate them, punish them, or require them to take treatment. They succumb to the pressure of society and, perhaps aided by the kindness of a psychologist, may contrive by their own efforts to suppress the bad actions. I posit that this theory of therapy flattens the process into something near-rational—however beautifully described.

In contrast, the life events of persons destined for the life of a spiritual healer or shaman may vary, but there is one distinguishable pattern that may be followed in many cultures. Healers’ initiations are not planned for them by society; they are not a “social construction of society.” Healers begin by “falling” into their initiations, initiations that are bestowed by spirit agencies. The novitiate healer feels the impending sense of something beyond his or her comprehension—that is, the shamanic gift-to-be—then suffers many troubles, and finally is granted a sense of opening, and with that the gift arrives. The pattern is evident, for example, in the case of the Pomo Indian woman healer Mabel McKay (Saris 1994), the Balinese woman healer Jero (Asch and Asch 1980), Roy Willis the Scottish anthropologist (Willis et al. 1999, 80), Sacin the Hindu (Samanta 1998, 37), the Inuit hunter Kehuq (E. Turner 1996, 207), Bhirendra of Nepal (Peters 1981, 79–110), Muchona of Zambia (V. Turner 1967, 131–45), in many Arabian and African stories, in stories about healers in the Western world, and in the books of the great religions, to name but a few of the people and sources.

This chapter discusses these features of shamanic initiation as evident in three major world regions: the New World Arctic, Old World Nepal, and Central Africa. Each case also tells of a central moment of wonder and realization. One may ask, why does this kind of visitation occur from without, why this fear and suffering before the gift is given? The days of suffering—a condition psychiatrists would probably term fugue—are quite recognizable in each case and are often diagnosed by medical authorities as episodes of mental disturbance and hallucination. But this phenomenon of suffering is rather sparagmos, the “break-up” of the personality in order to allow the formation of something much more powerful.1 The suffering frees incipient shamans from the everyday world, an event which could not happen without the shamans being shaken to their depths. Then the shaman or healer has a new perception of a world of spirits where healing can happen. This experience is especially common in shamanic societies, and its details are too precise and similar in all the cases I present to be ignored. Taking the view of the experiencer, it is the spirits who have called the neophytes; they give the neophytes the faculty to see and know the spirit world. We learn from the spirits that we live in symbiosis with the spirit world, and we are beginning to understand that this spirit world is a real part of the natural world, and amenable to study by the natural historian.

Our first account of shamanic initiation approaches that initiation from two perspectives. One story describes the first hint of the shamanic faculty as experienced by an Alaskan Inuit hunter, whom I call “Kehuq,” a man living at the beginning of the twentieth century. I will then give a recent example, the story of a modern Christian healer who would not call herself a shaman, but who had the same kind of experiences.

Kehuq’s story is about the one-eyed ancestor spirit who gave him power. It represents a case typical of these initiations, the kind of decisive episode that can change a person and, indeed, the life of a village. His story records how he gained shamanic powers and taught these powers to his village. In my own time, in Kehuq’s village in 1987, the Kehuq family kept a framed photograph of the shaman on the wall beside the dinner table in their prefabricated house. The photo shows Kehuq, a stocky man, wearing a parka with an enormous fur ruff. Looking at the photograph, you can feel the eyes in the somber face penetrating you and staring beyond you. The following narrative describes the key to the spirit-created shaman initiation. It is the story of Kehuq’s flying boat and his strange vision.

The Story of Kehuq, the Inuit Hunter

When Kehuq was a young man, he was out on the tundra when he heard the sound above him like paddles dipping slowly into water. He looked up and saw a boat high in the air, circling around and around as if it were descending from the moon. Men were evidently in the boat paddling, but when it came nearer and landed on the ground in front of him, he couldn’t see anyone. Soon a man stood up, Anguluk, a shaman of ancient times. He wore a fine parka and his mittens were decorated with pieces of copper. He had one big eye instead of two, with a protruding brow and the eye in the middle of it. The shaman danced and the copper ornaments on his mittens rattled, giving Kehuq pleasure. Here the vision ended. Kehuq looked about him but there was nobody to be seen. He took the trail home to his tent and on the way the event vanished from his mind.

Late that night he awoke and started up naked, about to leave the tent. His wife called, “Kehuq, come back, are you crazy?” She made him put on his clothes. The man was like a crazy person and kept wandering away. He continued crazy for four days, getting worse whenever he ate anything. After four days he began to improve.

When he recovered, Kehuq could dance. His spirit left him, and he was possessed by the strange shaman’s spirit. Kehuq taught the people the shaman’s songs and also taught them how to carve the shaman’s face in wood. He was now gifted with shamanic powers. He taught them how to let their spirits go out from their bodies and come back in, pulling themselves back into their bodies as if they were pulling themselves backward into their underground igloos. The songs gave them power, power to heal the sick, to close up mortal wounds, to predict the future, bring animals to the hunter, change the weather, and speak with the dead. (see E. Turner 1996, 207)

This is just one of many Inuit accounts telling of a four-day “crazy” period, typically followed by a very successful hunting period, and also by healing gifts and other benefits.

The Story of Claire, the Inuit Healer

My Inuit healer-friend Claire belonged to an unspoken sisterhood of shamans (E. Turner 1996, 204–7), and experienced curious “timeout,” or blanking-out, episodes. Claire, who was a Christian and a respected local healer, experienced at different stages of her life at least four gaps in ordinary consciousness that psychologists in our culture would diagnose as fugue or even psychosis—but these episodes did not derive from psychosis. They were irruptions of shamanic powers just as the ancient Inuit knew such irruptions, typically lasting four days. They involve meeting with something fearful, such as the spirit of a dead or dangerous animal, after which this entity, having first afflicted the budding shaman, then changes and becomes the shaman’s helper.

Claire’s first recorded chaotic state should not be given a psychological label, however, because we cannot regard it as an illness described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association 1994). It appears that in 1970 Claire was in Anchorage in an expensive hotel, alone for four days, for reasons unknown. There she had some kind of transformation. A person who did not know Claire’s powers would think she was crazy. Her condition was characterized by glossolalia, the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues.”

That was one episode. Then in 1984, when Claire was not doing much healing, she had another visitation, a very disturbing one. Claire began to continually see a devil figure in her peripheral vision. In the negative phase of this episode, Claire uttered a torrent of nonsense words that nobody could understand. It was glossolalia again. This greatly upset her relatives. Claire told them irritably, “Don’t be like that, you don’t think I’m anything, do you? I can’t help it, it comes to me.” But at the end of the episode’s four-day period Claire was able to pray again to Jesus, and afterward her healing power was stronger than before, as it was after each of these events. Jesus, of course, is the obverse of the devil, and if he were Clarie’s helper spirit he would then be her guide in healing. This switch from dangerous to helpful is one that often manifests itself in spirits in precontact days.

Claire went through another encounter with her trouble, whatever it was—maybe the devil again. On Thursday January 14, 1988, I found her lying on her couch, very depressed. She had her eyes shut, and she blurted out words critical of her family and others. I was frightened. Was she angry with me? I put down beside her some ripe pears I had brought for her, and left. Four days later she was herself again. What I had seen had all the hallmarks of a shamanic episode.

During a visit I made in 1991, yet another repeat of this state seemed to occur. I heard that Claire had returned from the hospital where she had been a patient from May 28 to June 2. I went to her house with a gift. When she saw me she turned convulsively and flung herself into my arms. We were crying. I stroked her wild gray hair and haggard face. When we recovered she told me the doctor at the hospital had given her the wrong medicine. She was really mad at him. “I’ll get an attorney,” she said. Now she was off all medicine and feeling better by the minute. I wondered what ailment the doctor thought he had prescribed the medicine for.

Such is the way a shaman is made. The vision, the four-day crazy period, and the coming of the shaman’s powers appear in all the stories of the creation of Inuit shamans. This is also the general pattern of the other shamanic initiations I describe here, though these are from altogether different societies. All three initiations, Inuit, African, and Nepalese, happen to the chosen person at the will of a spirit and are preceded by something like a near-death experience or a frightening depression. The three shamans who undergo these initiations learn that they must never renege on their craft, must never refuse to heal, must cause no harm by their power, and must not attribute the power to themselves. This is the shaman ethic, and it is commonly found wherever Shamanism exists.

In the journey I have made through the experiences of healers, I have encountered various understandings, not only of spirits but of the human soul. Among the Lungu of north-eastern Zambia, for example, ngulu spirits struggle with their human host so that their host will allow them to appear (Willis et al. 1999, 95), and for this reason there is blackness at first. Both Kehuq and Claire experienced similar cruel episodes outside of normalcy, without realizing there would be a gift at the end of it. Such episodes are a matter of the deepest being, a matter of that “thing” beyond value, the soul. These episodes fragment a person’s ordinary existence, and afterward there follows the entry of a beneficent spirit of overwhelming power, causing shock and blackness at first—as with Saul (later Paul) on his horse (Acts 9:1–6).

The soul exists in reality, a sensitive living entity. When the breakthrough occurs, the heart fires up, the lungs suddenly spread wide with a kind of recognition—with a gasp, like the lungs of a newborn baby. The very pores quiver in goose bumps. It is one’s consciousness that is changed, for it is set at-large, “with no fixed boundaries . . . There was a permeability and flexibility between self and other, an infinite flexibility,” as the anthropologist Willis described it when he shared the change of consciousness with the Lungu of Zambia (1999, 103). This soul is not in our own hands. It does not operate by the laws of ordinary consciousness.

My next account of shamanic initiation, also full of similarities to the previous ones, is set in Nepal some six thousand miles away from northern Alaska, among stone huts straddling the mountain slopes of the Himalayas. The religion here is Shamanism and Animism, with a trace of Buddhism. In 1976 anthropologist Larry Peters was working in Nepal when he encountered the shaman Bhirendra. Bhirendra told Larry the story of how he became a shaman. The episodes of initiation Bhirendra described proceed in almost exactly the same manner as in the stories above: affliction, followed by benefits.

The Story of Bhirendra of Nepal: “How I Became a Shaman”

When I was thirteen, something came over me. I started shaking violently without knowing why. I couldn’t stay still for a minute even when I wasn’t trembling. My grandfather was making me mad through possession, and I ran off into the forest, naked, for three days. I found myself where three rivers cross, in the cemetery. The cemetery was terrifying. Out came a horde of demons with long crooked fangs, and others with no heads at all and eyes in the middle of their chests. Some of them carried death flags, and still others brought decaying corpses along with them. I ran. They chased me and leapt on me and started eating me. This was the end.

“Help, help!” I cried. “Help me, gods, I’m only a boy!”

I drew out my dagger to defend myself, but I dropped it. It fell on a rock and out came a long spark. Immediately everything changed. It was daytime and I was alive. The demons were gone.

When I got home I told my parents everything. They said, “Your grandfather saved you. It was his dagger that saved your life. You have to know that your grandfather went off to Tibet nine years ago and never returned.”

My father said, “You’re going to need a guru to train you in Shamanism.” My shaman uncle started to teach me: rituals, prayers, everything. My good grandfather’s spirit, the one who made me mad in the first place and who protected me, was with me all the time, inside of me, teaching me.

I had no choice in being a shaman. I was chosen. If I refused, I’d have gone completely mad and committed suicide. I’d never have been able to stop shaking. I was cured by becoming a shaman.

I learned to do healing. I learned the ritual to open the top of my head and let my spirit go out on a journey accompanied by my protecting spirit, in order to seek lost souls separated from their bodies.

The last stage was a ritual of vision in the cemetery, a climb to the highest heavens. For this the people went to the cemetery and erected a temporary shelter on stilts and decorated it with white soul flowers. For six days I played my drum alone, fasting. On the seventh day I saw myself walking into a beautiful garden with flowers of many colors. I saw a very tall building that reached up into the sky. It had a golden staircase of nine steps leading to the top. I climbed the nine steps and saw at the top Ghesar Gyalpo himself, the supreme god of the shamans, sitting on a white throne covered with soul flowers. He was dressed in white and his face was all white. He had long hair and a white crown. He gave me milk to drink and told me I would attain much power, shakti, to be used for the good of my people.

I left the sanctuary and returned to the village. The people and my guru were on the way out to meet me, and cheering they carried me back.

It’s hard to explain this experience to you. It—it makes me cry. It was the most significant experience of my life, and from then on, my entire life changed. (paraphrased from Peters [1981, 79–110 passim])

The story shows precisely the same days of confusion and wild action as the “craziness” of Kehuq, even the scenes of running off naked, the not eating, the presence of an ancestor spirit who makes the first call and who is later felt to be inside the shaman teaching him, and the drumming. Here in addition is a ladder to heaven, a connection like the IÒupiat boat in the sky, the tunnel in a near-death experience, or, as in the story of Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:11–19), the radiant path to the light. A curious similarity can be noted between Kehuq’s vision of the shaman with one eye in the middle of his brow and Bhirendra’s vision of demons with eyes in the middle of their chests. Another similarity is in the matter of the soul entering and exiting the body: with Kehuq, it is the way you let yourself down backwards into your igloo, and with Bhirendra, it is through the top of the head before going on a shaman journey.

Shamans are thus given the gift of healing through spirits, and their miracle medicine is beneficent power. Their call is to take up a different mode of being in the world, a mode taught them by the spirits and sometimes called the “shamanic state of consciousness.” In this state, experienced shamans are able to release their souls from their bodies and to “fly out” to the place where the soul of a sick person is wandering, lost.

My final story of the initiation of a healing shaman describes how a Ndembu medicine man, Muchona, was caught up in the spirit’s purpose. The Ndembu are a forest people of northwestern Zambia. This story tells of Muchona’s first initiation into the work of spirit healing. His vocation as a spirit healer started with an affliction caused by the spirit of his dead mother, who herself had had illnesses and whose spirit, after her death, wanted Muchona to become a healer. This spirit attack and its cure began Muchona’s career as a medicine man.

Muchona of Zambia Tells the Story of His Vocation

I kept getting ill. I was caught by a very heavy sickness in the body, and I found it hard to breathe. It was like being pricked by needles in my chest, and sometimes my chest felt as though it was blown up by a bicycle pump. I could only mutter, “Boyi, boyi.” My ears felt completely blocked up. I was like a drunken person and kept slipping to the ground in a fit. Then I kept dreaming of two of my mother’s brothers and of my father. And I dreamed of my mother. My relatives went to a diviner to see what was wrong. When the diviner tossed the objects in his basket, the seed of the palm tree came up on top of the objects in the basket. This is the tree used for palm wine.

The diviner said, “That means you’re suffering from the sickness of Kayong’u. It’s the sickness that comes before the call to be a doctor and diviner. Those four spirits in your dreams have come out of the grave to catch you and enter you, because they want you to become a diviner and treat people’s illnesses. I can’t make out who that fourth spirit is, the image is too weak.” It was the shadow of my mother.

So, I realized that four spirits were determined to make me take on this difficult job. And it’s a dangerous one! I could tell the divination was true: it was my destiny to take this course; the spirits wanted it. The drum ritual for making a doctor began. All night long the elder doctors washed me with medicine. I kept shuddering convulsively to the Kayong’u drum rhythm; the spirits were doing whatever they liked with me. Every time I shuddered it was like being drunk or epileptic, as if I was suddenly struck in the liver by lightning or beaten with a hoe-handle and stopped up.

Early in the morning while it was still dark the doctors seated me before a new ritual fire of green wood. When it began to be light, the old doctor who was in charge, a hunter-diviner, came up to me holding a red rooster by its legs, wings, and at the top of its head. The rooster, who crows in the morning, was there to end my sleep, to wake me up. The Kayong’u spirit also wakes up people it has caught. It makes them breathe hoarsely, like a rooster or a goat. The same thing happens when an initiated diviner is about to shake the basket full of divining objects: the person’s voice changes and the person doesn’t use the Lunda language anymore, but speaks hoarsely in another tongue. Diviners sometimes make a deep wheezing noise in the course of ordinary conversation. I can’t help doing it myself when I talk. It’s the voice of the Kayong’u spirit inside me.

Faced with the rooster I saw its color was red, the color of the shedding of blood. My mother used it in her women’s rituals. It came to me. Blood!

I sprang forward in a sudden spasm, in a trance. My teeth snapped, and the rooster’s head lay apart from its body. What had I done? I had beheaded it. I seemed crazy. Blood was pouring out of the head, so I took it up as it bled and beat it on my heart to quiet my mind. Then the big doctor ordered a goat to be beheaded. Its blood poured out on the ground—and the blood was also for the spirit in me. I lapped it up where it puddled.

They took the rooster’s head and put it on a pole made from the tree of the ancestor’s tears. My dead rooster was up there in contact with the ancestors, with the spirits. All was opened, now that the rooster was killed. The openings of my body that had been stopped up, my nostrils, ears, and eyes, were released and became supersensitive. From the killed animal I obtained wakefulness and sharpened senses, necessary for a diviner who needs to seek out hidden things.

Now the sun was rising. The doctors kept me quietly waiting while they went on some strange business in the bush. This is what they were doing: the old doctor took a hoe, a cupful of the goat’s blood, the hearts of the rooster and goat, and a collection of special sharp objects. The old doctor led a procession of men and women doctors out of the village into the bush. Soon the path forked. Usually people make a choice which fork to take because they know the way, but these people were diviners. They didn’t take either of the forks but went straight on into wild bush. They were seeking a certain path to a secret place. They knew more than other people; they had secret knowledge. That’s how they found a kapwipu tree, a hard wood, a sign of misfortune to begin with followed by success. They hunkered down and prayed to the spirits who were burdening me, then started to hoe up a mound of earth at the foot of the tree in the shape of a crocodile, with legs and a tail. Next they took the hearts of the rooster and goat and used some of the special sharp objects, a needle and razor, to prick the hearts. The pricking was the pain that sick people feel before they’re healed. Now that the hearts were pricked, the sick person wouldn’t feel it again because it was already done. They hid all these objects, including a knife, a bracelet, and a string of beads, in various places under the soil of the crocodile mound. Then they brought the drums and beat out the Kayong’u drum rhythm. They were ready.

They came for me. They led me to the crocodile in the bush and seated me on its neck.

“Okay,” said the old doctor. “What have you come here for, eh? Speak up.”

“To look for divination,” I said. “To be healed. To be a healer. I’m looking for my spirit.”

“Now, divine! Find the objects.”

A great power came upon me. My hands went out over the mound and a fierce pricking entered my fingers. My fingers plunged in, pushed by the spirit, and in a flash I found everything except the needle, and I snatched up the needle an instant later. I could divine. Now, whenever I work at divining, the sense of that pricking returns. It’s the thing that tells the diviner how to scan the objects tossed in the basket and see the cause of the client’s illness or bad luck, or see whether someone’s death was brought about by a witch or sorcerer. The diviner will gain the sharpness of the needle and the cutting power of the knife and of the sharp teeth of a human or crocodile. The diviner goes straight to the point in hidden matters. He sees the right ritual to use by shaking the basket, and his fingers see by the sharpness of the needle. The divining objects and sharpness help one another.

Because I found all the objects the doctors praised me and the women trilled aloud. I was extraordinarily happy. We danced home. I was cured of my illness, which had completely disappeared, and I was protected. The very spirit that had made me sick cured me and immediately entered my body to aid me in making correct decisions. As the saying goes: Making a new healer starts by the healer getting sick. Kutachika wakata.

Shortly after the ritual I sought out an experienced diviner and apprenticed myself to him. Now I could learn the difficult craft operations and interpretations needed for the profession. I learned all the herbs; I even learned how to cure a woman who was suffering from delusions as a result of puerperal fever. For that cure I had to venture alone into the graveyard, full of ghosts and far from the firelight. Only there could I exorcize the agencies of evil at work on the poor woman, making her writhe and babble nonsense. I had to subdue my fear to my curative vocation. (paraphrased from V. Turner [1967, 131–45])

Here are the same themes of sickness, falling in a fit as if drunk, an ancestor spirit’s intention that the chosen person become a diviner, the moment of opening up, and the shamanic gifts: healing, second sight, and happiness. All these healers-to-be know the dream-like state, the falling (or falling into forgetfulness), and in the case of the last two, Bhirendra and Muchona, the sense of being beaten and tormented. Muchona’s voice becomes “different” after his experience; his life too changes. These healers knew happiness and helped their people, and we note how the teaching of the power enters all of their stories. The basic features of spontaneous spirit initiation are all here, in these initiations in Arctic America, Nepal, and Africa. The similarities of these stories from cultures so distant from each other are obvious, and the significance of this cannot be denied. One has to accept that humans anywhere may go through the same processes, and that the processes are spiritual ones. It dawns on us that this tendency toward religion is inborn, an endowment, a biological predisposition, existing for the purpose of just such a communication with spirits, and that perhaps the only common human process to which it can be compared is childbirth, a biological event. The practice of religious healing is the most generally beneficent activity in which anyone can engage, for it is a matter of full consciousness and the expansion of being.


This chapter is not written from the point of view of regular anthropology—which itself is in need of expanding its field of study and correcting what is now termed its “cognocentrism”—nor does it follow the complex philosophy that plumbs the mystery of the individual, a separate, solitary being who is likely to create his or her own imaginary life. What it does do is present facts about the mystery of human permeability. Humans are permeated by each other and by spirits. Willis among the Lungu of northern Zambia made a bridge to this discovery when he experienced communitas, the prime, natural, unstructured social sense (1999, 117–19). This may be the same sense felt among the Pentecostals and in many sacred communities. The IÒupiat tribe, in order to survive in their fearsome land, needed a battery of power from their ancestors. They surely needed to know how to switch it on more than they would need to know in later years how to switch on the furnace in their prefabricated houses.

Peters (1981) documented how the good grandfather of Bhirendra, the man who had been a shaman, came back from his grave in Tibet. Yet a dead shaman is not truly a dead shaman, but rather a shaman all the more powerful over time and space. In the case of Bhirendra’s grandfather, it was a matter of the passing of ten years and of a distance of a thousand miles. So Bhirendra was to learn. The spirit of his grandfather entered into his body and rooted itself there, in all benevolence, giving the young shaman its own powers to overcome the illnesses and fears of his patients and to point them to the beauty of the healing that came from the heavenly throne of Bhirendra’s vision.

My old friend Muchona is dead, and his son now stands as elder in the Christian Fellowship church—a church related to the Apostles of Maranke, the Assemblies of God, and the Pentecostals. There Muchona the younger gives healing through the Holy Spirit, and the brethren also fall in the spirit and remember nothing.

So the threads weave back and forth. Muchona still lives. The Pentecostals draw down the power. Healers throughout America—little by little—learn the power. That peculiar language of the spiritual world is heard. Healers of different persuasions stare at each other in conferences, suddenly recognizing they are talking about the same thing, something very hard to put into words. The hands of the healers can feel it. Is the spirit pricking? Truthful accounts from all over the world—accounts of actual experiences—do succeed in saying it, just as William James found when he took on a similar task in assembling The Varieties of Religious Experience (1958/1902). He let the spirit flow in his words describing the many religious conversions. He did not adopt a cold objective style, and his book has never been equaled.

As for talking about what spirits are, I have found this cannot be done without “listening,” without a kind of prayer or an “invocation” to the spirits, as it is grandly called. But it’s more like pleading, “C’mon, give, give. Please.” Could people—possibly—know what spirits are? One gets the sense that the drive to analyze according to ordinary comprehension has never and will never learn the language of such matters. But through stories, for some reason, one can understand. This is a very serious business, this matter of stories. One asks, why does the inquiry work through stories? It is because of human permeability, because other people’s experience may become actually “one’s own.” One sees through such a story—as Victor Turner said of the spontaneous social drama—right into the experience of the person who experienced it and it becomes one’s own, “whole cloth.” Stories touch on a very spiritual matter, they slip under one’s skin, so to speak, they cause one spirit to slide into another in the same way that healing works, by the cominginto-concrete-reality of sympathy—sym-pathy, which has the literal meaning “feeling with.”

This very sympathy is needed in order to grasp the idea that humans are contacting other entities and are in active relationship with them, and that there is a spiritual world “out there” that has its own patterns and its own ways of acting. In our stories about spirits, that world appears to be not so hard to describe, because the spirits come visually, unlike energy or power, which are not visually experienced. People experience possession by spirits, incorporation by them. All this makes the psyche look much simpler than what many of today’s psychologists and psychiatrists have concluded when they say that spirits are a condition of the mind. Furthermore, up comes in 3-D an understanding of the soul, very much a spirit, wedded deep to the human body and spreading in an aura outside, creating it, the permeable organ itself, and everything that shakti, or power, says it is, and what Jacob Levy Moreno says it is, and just as LÈvi-Bruhl put it, even Jung: it is the unlimited psyche, connected with everything else in mystical participation.

The theory, then, is that there is a soul, and that the work of examining it will add to the knowledge of humanity—which is anthropology. This prime claim, the existence of the soul, is accepted by the mass of humanity. But it is philosophically unhealthy for scholars who have no sense of the soul—because they have been trained otherwise—to describe healing in reductive language (as if we took our food in the form of carbon, nitrogen, and calcium atoms). Furthermore, the principle of human rights is involved. All societies have a right to the knowledge of the spiritual experiences of their sister-societies, each story set out with respect and honor, and dealt with in accordance to the people’s own accounts.


1Sparagmos once meant the tearing to pieces of a live victim in a Dionysian orgy. Mircea Eliade describes this tearing apart in the making of a shaman (1972, 43–45).



American Psychiatric Association. 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Asch, T., and P. Asch. 1980. Jero on Jero (film). Ipswich, U.K.: Royal Anthropological Institute Video Library.

Eliade, M. 1972. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

James, W. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Mentor, 1958.

Peters, L. 1981. Ecstasy and healing in Nepal: An ethnopsychiatric study of Tamany shamanism. Other Realities 4:37–54.

Samanta, S. 1998. The powers of the guru: Sakti, “mind,” and miracle in narratives of Bengali religious experience. Anthropology and Humanism 23 (1): 30–50.

Saris, G. 1994. Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Turner, E. 1996. The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit Presence among a Northern Alaskan People. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Turner, V. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Willis, R., with K. B. S. Chisanga, H. M. K Sikazwe, K. B. Sikazwe, and S. Nanyangwe. 1999. Some Spirits Heal, Others Only Dance: A Journey into Human Selfhood in an African Village. Oxford: Berg.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!