Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men [1987/92] – ★★★★★
A comprehensive, endlessly perceptive, & inspiring book on shamanism.
“Shamanism…is not a somehow obscure or incomprehensible or mysterious magical path, but a simple heightening of the emotional experience of the world; “the goal of the shamanic path of initiation is to broaden and deepen the normal emotionality that we all know” [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 219].
This book, translated from the German, is by Holger Kalweit, a German ethnologist and psychologist who studied shamans and shamanism in different corners of the world, including Hawaii, the American Southwest, Mexico and Tibet. With concrete examples drawn from the Ainu, Siberian, Yahgan and other shamanic traditions, Kalweit delves into the very heart of shamanism and explains detailly the nature of being a shaman, “a possessor of profound knowledge that cannot be grasped in words”. From shamanic training, testing and rituals inducing trance to shamanic healing powers, and duels and competitions, Kalweit touches on many topics and hardly stops there, elucidating further on such concepts as consciousness, reality, dreaming and on a variety of parapsychological phenomena, including “magic”, visions and near-death experience.
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Shamanism [1951/64] – ★★★★
Mircea Eliade’s book is a fascinating, albeit dated, account of shamanism that focuses on the application of the tradition in different world regions.
Shamanism is by Romanian historian and author Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986), and is considered to be one of the first proper attempts to approach shamanism 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. Continue reading “Review: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade” →
The Denial of Death  – ★★★★
This non-fiction is both: a cry of a soul on the human condition, and a penetrating essay that demystifies the man and his actions.
“It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours” [Becker, 1973: 56].
Ernest Becker (1924 – 1974) was a cultural anthropologist whose book The Denial of Death won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. It deals with the topic that few people want to consider or talk about – their own mortality and death. The paradox is that, although this topic is considered to be a societal taboo, everyone on this earth will have to confront it sooner or later. In fact, Becker argues, everyone is confronting and dealing with it from the moment that they are born – they just do it subconsciously or unconsciously. The Denial of Death delves into the works of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard, as Becker puts his thesis forward that all humans have a natural fear (or terror) of death and their own mortality, and, thus, throughout their lives, employ certain mechanisms (including repression) and create illusions to deal with this fear and live. Though the book relies heavily on works by other authors, it is also a very deep and insightful read. Continue reading “Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker” →
The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art  – ★★★
A chaotic and repetitive account on cave art and its origin, which is also not as insightful as one would have hoped, focusing primarily on shamanism and altered states of consciousness.
The Mind in the Cave is by David Lewis-Williams, a South African archaeologist known for his research into South African rock art, and, in his book, he describes the most breath-taking cave art from the Upper Palaeolithic Period (examples found in the Cave of the Trois-Frères, France and in the Altamira Cave, Spain), tracing the way people thought about cave art through the ages and trying to theorise on the question why Upper Palaeolithic people made such art and what it represented for them. Although the book is engaging, with interesting case studies and beautiful illustrations, it is also problematic and only sporadically informative on the question of consciousness itself – its origin and how this relates to the first known cave art. Continue reading “Review: The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams” →
The Lost Steps [1953/1989] – ★★★★1/2
“…we let ourselves succumb to the world of wonder, eager for still greater portents. There arose beside the hearth, conjured up by Montsalvatje, the medicine men who healed the wounds with the magic incantation of Bogotá, the Amazon Queen, Cicanocohora, the amphibious men who slept at night in the bottoms of the lakes, and those whose sole nourishment was the scent of flowers” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1954/89: 144].
Los Pasos Perdidos or The Lost Steps was translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onis and represents what is believed to be one of the most important Latin American novels to come out in the twentieth century. In this story, our unnamed narrator (believed to be in New York) is sent on a mission to a jungle (believed to be in Venezuela) to discover and collect some ancient musical instruments for a museum. By accepting this request, the narrator has no idea that he is about to embark on one extraordinary journey of self-realisation and self-discovery, which will force him to rethink his previous inculcated beliefs. The Lost Steps is a complex literary work which sometimes slides into being rather metaphysical in nature, but without losing its conviction or power. Carpentier weaves his story in a beautiful, even though enigmatic, language, and the result is a book which puzzles, impresses and astonishes. Continue reading “Review: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier” →
The People in the Trees  – ★★★★1/2
Yanagihara fuses pseudo-factual scientific writings with some fantastical elements to rather impressive results, and it all would have been rather pleasing if the content were not also so devastatingly horrific.
The People in the Trees is a debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara, a writer now best known for her second book A Little Life, a 2015 Man Booker Prize nominee. The People in the Trees is partly an anthropological travelogue, partly a jungle adventure mystery, and party a covert character study, having enough disturbing elements to make its readers feel uncomfortable. However, these do not make the book any less masterful.
Beautifully-written, The People in the Trees reads for the most part like a memoir detailing Dr Norton Perina’s travel to an isolated Micronesian island country in the 1950s to find and study a “lost tribe”. He did so alongside a talented anthropologist Dr Tallent (who is himself a mystery) and Tallent’s colleague Esme Duff. The mysteries Perina uncovers on the island are shockingly significant, revolutionising what is known about science/medicine and having to do with immortality. The only thing that lets this ambitious book down is that Yanagihara cannot quite manage to strike a balance or make a smooth transition between the book passages that detail the implications of Perina’s island discovery and later elements which deal with Perina’s own character insights.
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The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut  by Nigel Barley – ★★★★
Barley’s “anthropological exploits” in Africa are honestly and humorously presented, even if the book’s more serious observations on the Dowayos should probably now be viewed with a grain of salt.
In the late 1970s, Nigel Barley went to North Cameroon to study the Dowayos, choosing most “ferocious” mountain tribe existing at that time. This is his debut non-fiction account of his travels and exploration in Africa as he embarks on his fieldwork. In this book, Barley is really an “innocent” anthropologist, an idealistic young man who is a bit ignorant about what to expect in the real world outside the academia. Barley tells us how he encountered the mind-boggling bureaucracy, got lost in “the vast range of loose kingship” in the country, overcame malaria, as well as survived a horror-trip to a local dentist, among his other stories. Barley’s style of writing is appealingly “laid-back”, and this concise book turns out to be quite engaging as a result. It may not be the book on the Dowayos, but part of its charm is that it is surprisingly honest and humorous. Continue reading “Travel Non-Fiction: “The Innocent Anthropologist”, & “Magic & Mystery in Tibet”” →