Review: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade

shamanism eliadeShamanism [1951/1964] – ★★★★

Shamanism is by a Romanian historian and author Mircea Eliade [1907 – 1986], and is considered to be one of the first attempts to approach shamanism so systematically and scholarly. From costumes and drums to spirit animals and dreams, Eliade elucidates one of the most misunderstood practices/traditions in the world. The great thing about the book is that it talks about shamanism as it is applicable in different regions of the world, from Siberia and India, to South America and Oceania, attempting to draw parallels between them and talking about their general concepts, including similarities in initiation processes. The result is a quite fascinating account of shamanism, even if somewhat dated.

The book starts with the definition of shamanism, differentiating the shaman from the medicine man and the magician: “the shaman specialises in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld” [1951/1964: 5]; “the shaman is the great specialist in the human soul; he alone “sees” it; for he knows its “form” and its destiny” [1951/1964: 8]. The book then talks about how shamanic powers are usually bestowed, such as through initiation rituals. A person usually has to undergo a ritual “death” through some kind of (symbolic) suffering and reach “resurrection”: “Like other religious vocation, the shamanic vocation is manifested by a crisis, a temporary derangement of the future” [1951/1964: xii]; “the shaman begins his new, his true life by a “separation”…by a spiritual crisis” [1951/1964: 13]. The author focuses on symbolism, dreams and visions to explain how shamanic powers could be gained: “…pathological sickness, dreams, and ecstasies, [there] are….so many means of reaching the condition of shaman….[and they] in themselves constitute an initiation…they transform the profane, pre-“choice” individual into a technician of the sacred.” [1951/1964: 33]. In particular, shamans can seek their instructions in dreams where “the historical time is abolished and the mythical time is [restored]” – this allows the future shaman to witness the beginning of world [103].

Eliade then goes on to explain the beliefs, traditions and practices of shamanism thoroughly across different cultures and regions. For example, “the shaman’s costume itself constitutes a religious hierophany and cosmography”; “it discloses not only a sacred presence but also cosmic symbols” [90]. Eliade also points out that the shamanic drum helps the shaman to journey to “the centre of the world”, the seat of the cosmic tree, and, by drumming, the shaman flies away to the cosmic tree. The language of shamans derives from animal cries [1951/1964: 98] and is “equivalent to the ability to communicate with the beyond and the heavens”. Spirit animals of shamans can be their alter egos, and the author often notes that “the ecstasy is only the concrete experience of ritual death…of transcending the profane human condition” [1951/1964: 95]. The author talks about the link between shamanism and nervous disorders; compares shamanism to rituals of secret societies, and illuminates the primary role of shamans in a community.

“The shamans have played an essential role in the defence of the psychic integrity of the community….they combat not only demons and disease, but also the black magicians….shamanism defends life, health, fertility, the world of light, against death, diseases, sterility, disaster, and the world of “darkness” [1951/1964: 509].

Chapters 8 and 13 are probably the most fascinating in the book. In Chapter 8, Eliade talks about shamanism and cosmology, saying that “the pre-eminently shamanic technique is the passage from one cosmic region to another – from earth to the sky or from earth to the underworld” [1951/1964: 259]. The author is a strong believer in the mystical experience, and, naturally, thinks that the soul of the shaman in ecstasy can fly up or down in the course of his celestial or infernal journeys. Chapter 13 is all about parallel myths, symbols and rites, and Eliade talks about the “dog and horse” symbolism, for example “the horse” “enables the shaman to fly through the air, to reach the heavens, and it is also associated with the ecstatic dance” [1951/1964: 468], “psychopomp and funerary animal, the horse facilitated trance, the ecstatic flight of the soul to forbidden regions” [470]. The symbolism of a shamanic flight, as well as the relationship between shamans and smiths are also talked about.

“It is consoling and comforting to know that a member of the community is able to see what is hidden and invisible to the rest and to bring back direct and reliable information from the supernatural world”; …he can contribute to the knowledge of death…little by little, the world of dead becomes knowable, and death itself is evaluated primarily as a rite of passage to a spiritual mode of being” [1951/1964: 347].

Sometimes it is a little hard to take this book seriously – but, one of the great things about the book is that it always uses concrete examples from different cultures, such as from Siberian shamans and their practices. As a result, the book becomes a sufficiently objective, thorough and lucid account. One of its main theses is that shamanism represents the abolition of human condition and the recovery of the situation of the pre-fall of Adam and Eve – this includes friendship with animals and knowledge of their language – so that there is a re-establishment of the “paradisal” situation [1951/1964: 99].

Shamanism employs a little too dry and too scholarly of an approach and the translation could have been better. However, it is a good book in a way it provides an overview of shamanism around the world, trying to systematise the study of shamanism, making the point that it is a universal practice. The book tries to demystify many things associated with shamanism and explains its origins, beliefs, practices and misconceptions, thereby remaining an important treatise/historical study to this day. 

13 thoughts on “Review: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade

  1. Great review, Diana!
    I haven’t read this particular book by Eliade, but from what I know from reading his other books, he was never a believer in any of the practices he describes (though he was an avid observer of the human capacity for mystical experience) – but he describes them from an emphatic socio-psychological perspective, employing the Weberian ideal of Verstehen – and as such, he describes them as if they were real (for they are real to their believers in their consequences).
    Eliade remains one of my favorite social anthropologists and an incredibly influential thinker in the field of religious studies. I cannot recommend his “Cosmos and History. The Myth of Eternal Return” and “Myth and Reality” enough.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for this great comment. It is a little hard to believe by reading Shamanism alone that Eliade was never a believer in any practices he describes because there are some very glaring paragraphs in the book where unequivocal support of and promotion for them are given – especially for mystical experiences. If he does not believe in them, it is even better because his book is even more objective 🙂 I have to look up the other two books you mention, thanks very much for these recommendations!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. You’re very welcome! And I’ll need to read the book on shamanism 🙂
        Indeed, Eliade claimed that religious/mystical experience is not only natural but also functional in humans and human societies; it fulfills a role even today, though the forms of it changed – and this is one of the proofs that it is in fact necessary for socio-psychological health. He does write as if it was all true – because from his perspective as a social anthropologist it is true in its consequences for the believers. It’s his way of writing, I think: he writes equally convincingly about Yggdrasil and Golgotha, about Tiamat and Mitra – he sees them all as versions of a deeper mythical need.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. It is a beautiful book. I’ve always wondered how a Romanian could have captured India so well. (Maybe he lived there. I will have to check). Beautiful but sad if I recall. Enjoy the book.

        Liked by 1 person

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