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The Nature of Shamanism
Substance and Function of a Religious Metaphor

Michael Ripinsky-Naxon

Pages: 290
Price: 22.95
Publisher: State University of New York Press
Pub Date: 1993
ISBN: 0791413861

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Table of Contents >

Chapter 1 Introduction: A Personal Dialectic
Chapter 2 Shamanism and Culture: Configurations of a Religious Metaphor
Chapter 3 Substance and Function of Shamanism
Chapter 4 The Psychotropic Universe: Cosmology of the Spirit World
Chapter 5 The Ritual Drug Complex: Ethnobiology of Heaven and Hell
Chapter 6 The Botanic Experience: Hallucinogens in Archaeology and Ethnohistory
Chapter 7 The Power of Metaphors: Phenomenology of Symbolic Forms 

Description >

[The author] explores the core and essence of shamanism by looking at its ritual, mythology, symbolism, and the dynamics of its cultural process. In dealing with the basic elements of shamanism, the author discusses the shamanistic experience and enlightenment, the inner personal crisis, and the many aspects entailed in the role of the shaman.

Drawing on examples from traditional and prehistoric cultures in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Egypt, presents an integrated discussion of shamanism as a functional aspect of religion. Looks at the ritual, mythology, symbolism, and the dynamics of its cultural process; and considers the shaman's experience of personal crisis, the effect on the rest of the community, cosmology, and the use of hallucinogens. -  Book News, Inc. Portland, Or. 

Reviews/Excerpts >

From Chapter 1: The basic elements of shamanism describe multiple functions reflected in the roles of its practitioners, the shamans. As individuals specializing in the performance and the enactment of rituals, they are also the tribal timekeepers, or custodians of the calendar. In hunting magic, the shamans foster and consolidate a vital relationship with Master of the Animals, or an equivalent figure, thus assuring consistent bounty for their people. As healers, they employ various methods prescribed by the cultural norms, including the ability to see the causes of disease and augur the future. Not less important is the shaman's function as a guide, or a psychopomp, for the soul of the dead, ascertaining that these do not become dispersed in the universal vastness, but are assured proper passages to their respective destinies in the spirit realms. Last, but definitely not least, is the underscored importance of the extensive and vital role played by hallucinogenic plants in shamanistic rituals and imagery, and as crucial factors in cultural dynamics. The experience acquired in drug-induced visions and integrated through socially-approved cognitive channels is a major key to culture change. This force of shamanistic phenomenology constitutes a pervasive note in this book.

Moreover, the shaman's intellectual abilities are of real social consequence, particularly as they apply to issues involving the culture-environment system. Equipped with an impressive corpus of empirical knowledge (ethnoscience) and profound grasp of human behavior, the shaman fulfills the vital role of a psychocultural adaptive mechanism, not merely as a healer of diseases, but as a harmonizer of social and natural dysfunctions and imbalance. In view of his ecological significance, the shaman's role as an agent in transcendental and existential realities tends to be underplayed by those who regard cultures as systems of more pragmatic and functional configurations. The importance of the latter two is undeniable in its own right; however, to de-emphasize symbolic (religious, spiritual, etc.) considerations is to fail in the understanding of the full integrative potential inherent to shamanism as a dynamic factor in the cultural process. Therefore, in a book, bearing the subtitle Substance and Function of a Religious Metaphor, the keynote should be, it seems to me, justifiably placed on the aspect of shamanism as a mythico-religious idiom rather than on its pragmatic ecological values.

The essence of sociocultural existence is centered around mythic imagery, which lends to human life an existential dimension. Pure, rational thought is no more an objective reality than the myths wherefrom such a concept is derived. Myths make up the fundamental responses to the basic human need for meaning. The need is an inescapable condition of human existence, pervading all areas of interactions: from techno-mechanical and sexual to highly symbolic and creative. In effect, myths often become cultural expressions for religious and ethical codes. At the same time, they are of paramount importance to the enactment of shamanistic rituals. Thus, many such rituals and the corresponding techniques, found all over the world, are validated by aetiological mythologies and cosmic paradigms. The significant place occupied by myths in the shaman's repertoire becomes apparent to anyone who has devoted some time to this subject.


The author challenges Mircea Eliade's position as the designer of the manual on shamanism, and introduces another grasp on the subject which goes beyond Eliade's historico-textual approach to the psychological and structural roots of the phenomenon complex...[Ripinsky-Naxon's] book is an important contribution to the shamanic literature at the same time as it will turn out to be, no doubt, controversial.... Here is a fascinating account of shamanism from points of view that we have little heard of. Dr. Ripinsky-Naxon has placed shamanism in focus of religion, demonstrated its close connections with different religious aspects and symbols, and outlined its functions as "a religious metaphor." It is an impressive work...He has given us an interesting theoretical manual for shamanic studies.  - Ake Hultkrantz, Journal of Prehistoric Religion, Vol. 8, 1994

This is not a book for the uninitiated who seek a popular account of "the nature of shamanism." Those familiar with the subject, however, will find much that is interesting in this scholarly study of "the meaning and configuration of shamanistic metaphors" which is the result of the author's "long-standing interest in the phenomenology and philosophy of cultural metaphors and symbolic forms." This book requires careful reading. For example, consider the author's statement of purpose [p. 2]. "I have attempted here an integrated examination of the substantive aspect of shamanism as a phenomenology of religious experience and of its cultural function as a metaphor in myth, religion, art, and language. These to me represent both the dynamic factors and products of the ongoing hominizing process. I have also endeavored, in part, to confront the transformational forms and processes involved in the development of the precognitive, unconscious, magico-religious responses and their gradual transformations into cognitive experiences, which, through a maze of verbal and nonverbal symbols, such as ritual behavior, result in the articulation of mystical states, as well as in the ultimate numinous essence."...The book has 20 black and white illustrations, 46 pages of notes, an extensive bibliography, and an excellent index. It will be a useful reference for students of shamanism.  - John Rashford, Economic Botany, Vol. 49, 1995

Michael Ripinsky-Naxon's The Nature of Shamanism is a masterful reexamination of the roots of shamanism that supplements - and, in some ways, rivals - Mircea Eliade's classic study Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. A comparison to Eliade's work is unavoidable, partly because both books are monumental scholastic treatises on the universal nature of shamanism, and partly because Ripinsky-Naxon's central premise - that psychotropic substances are at the root of shamanic metaphor - directly challenges one of Eliade's principal assumptions - that psychotropic shamanism was a relatively recent, degenerate development...I recommend The Nature of Shamanism both as a valuable counterbalance to Eliade's Shamanism and as one of the best-documented cross-cultural studies of shamanism available anywhere. At the very least, this volume should spark a revolution in the academic study of shamanism - challenging more scholars to open their minds to the world of psychotropic shamanism.  - Shaman's Drum


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