View Full Version : Shamanic Ideologies And Techniques Among the Indo-Europeans (by Mircea Eliade)

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005, 10:47 AM
Shamanic Ideologies And Techniques Among The Indo-Europeans
by Mircea Eliade

Like all other peoples, the Indo-Europeans had their magicians and ecstatics. As everywhere else, these magicians and ecstatics filled a definite function in the total magico-religious life of the society. In addition, both the magician and the ecstatic sometimes had a mythical model. Thus, for example, Varuna has been seen as a "great magician" and Odin as (among many other things!) a particular type of ecstatic: Wodan, id est furor ("Odin is the fury") wrote Adam of Bremen, in which lapidary definition shamanic overtones have inevitably been detected.

But it is possible to speak of an Indo-European shamanism in the sense in which we speak of an Altaic or Siberian shamanism? The answer to this question depends partly on the meaning that we give the word "shamanism". If we understand by it any ecstatic phenomenon and any magical technique whatever, it goes without saying that a number of "shamanic" features will be found among the Indo-Europeans, just as, to repeat, they will be found among any other ethnic or cultural group. To discuss, even with the utmost brevity, the immense documentation on the magico-ecstatic techniques that have been found among all the Indo-European peoples would require a special volume and competence in many disciplines. Fortunately, it is not necessary for us to attack this problem, which far exceeds the scope of the present study. Our role is limited solely to discovering to what extent the various Indo-European peoples preserve vestiges of an ideology and technique that are shamanic in the strict sense of the term, that is, which exhibit one of its essential features: ascent to heaven, descent to the underworld to bring back the patient's soul or to escort the dead, evocation and incarnation of the "spirits" in order to understand the ecstatic journey, "mastery over fire," and so on.

Such vestiges remain among almost all the European peoples and we shall present them in a moment; there are probably more of them, for we do not pretend to have exhausted the documentation. However, two parliamentary remarks are in order. To repeat what we have already said in regard to other peoples and other religions, the presence of one or more shamanic elements in an Indo-European religion does not justify regarding that religion as dominated by shamanism or as having a shamanic structure. Secondly, it must also be remembered that, if care is taken to distinguish shamanism from other "primitive" magics and techniques of ecstasy, the shamanic survivals that may be detected here and there in a "developed" religion in no way imply a negative value judgment in respect to such survivals or to the whole of the religion into which they are incorporated. It is proper to stress this point, because modern ethnographic literature tends to treat shamanism as something of an aberrant phenomenon, whether in confusing it with "possession" or in choosing to emphasize its degenerate aspects. As this study has shown more than once, in many cases shamanism is now found in a state of disintegration, but nothing justifies regarding this late phase as representing the shamanic phenomenon as a whole.

Attention must also be drawn to another possible confusion to which the investigator lays himself open as soon as, instead of making his subject of study a "primitive" religion, he approaches the religion of a people whose history is far richer in cultural exchanges, in innovations, in creations. There is the danger that he will fail to recognize what "history" may have done to an archaic magico-religious schema, the extent to which its spiritual content has been transformed and re-evaluated, and will continue to read the same "primitive" meaning into it. A single example will suffice to show the danger of this sort of confusion. It is well known that many shamanic initiations involve "dreams" in which the future shaman sees himself tortured and cut to pieces by demons and ghosts. Now similar scenarios are found in Christian hagiography, notably in the legend of the temptations of St. Anthony; demons torture, bruise, dismember saints, carry them high into the air, and so on. In the last analysis, such temptations are equivalent to an initiation for it is through them that the saints transcend the human condition, that is, distinguish themselves from the profane masses. But a little perspicacity suffices to recognize the difference in spiritual content that separates the two "initiatory schemas", however close together they may seem to be on the plane of typology. Unfortunately, if it is easy to distinguish the demonic tortures of a Christian saint from those of a shaman, the distinction is less apparent between the latter and a saint of a non-Christian religion. Now, it must always be borne in mind that an archaic schema is able constantly to renew its spiritual content. We have already encountered a considerable number of shamanistic ascents represent an ecstatic experience that is no-wise "aberrant" in itself; that on the contrary, this very ancient magic-religious schema, documented among all primitives, is perfectly consistent, "noble", "pure" and, in the last analysis, "beautiful." Hence, on the plane on which we have placed the shamanic ascent to the sky, there would be nothing pejorative in saying, for example, that Mohammed's ascension exhibits shamanic content. Nevertheless, despite all the typological similarities, it is impossible to assimilate the ecstatic ascension of Mohammed to the ascension of an Altaic or Buryat shaman. The content, the meaning, and the spiritual orientation of the prophet's ecstatic experience presuppose certain mutations in religious values that make it irreducible to the general type of ascension...

Source (http://www.galacticapublishing.com/archive/2003/solstice/pt_shamanic_ideologies.php)