Do shamans have more sex? Why New Age spirituality is no more pure than old-time religion.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 29 2009 1:59 PM

Do Shamans Have More Sex?

New Age spirituality is no more pure than old-time religion.

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3) Shamans—some of them, at least—were in it for the sex. In his classic study  The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that, among some Eskimos, "A forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. … An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning)." Nice work if you can get it. Sometimes the magic-for-sex swap was subtler. Ojibwa shamans, one anthropologist reports, received "minimal remuneration," working for "prestige, not pay. One of the symbols of religious leadership prestige was polygyny. … Male leaders took more than one wife."

4) Shamans—some of them, at least—ran protection rackets. Here is anthropologist Edward Horace Man on shamans in the Andamanese Islands: "It is thought that they can bring trouble, sickness, and death upon those who fail to evince their belief in them in some substantial form; they thus generally manage to obtain the best of everything, for it is considered foolhardy to deny them, and they do not scruple to ask for any article to which they may take a fancy." Among the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, payment for service was rare, but, as one anthropologist observed, "One abstains from anything and everything" that might put the shaman "out of sorts or irritate him."

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As for the "philosophy" of shamanism—the vision that, in Rutherford's words, shows us "how the universe really works": Well, for the most part, the worldview of shamans was a lot like that of followers of early Abrahamic religion, except with more gods, more evil spirits, and more raw superstition (though there's more raw superstition in the Bible than most people realize).

Of course, some shamans did have the advantage, compared with biblical figures, of psychedelic drugs. An Amazonian drug, as described by one anthropologist, led the shaman to lie in his hammock, "growl and pant, strike the air with claw-like fingers," signifying that "his wandering soul has turned into a bloodthirsty feline."

So if shamanism is so crude, how did it get glamorized? In 1951, the esteemed scholar Mircia Eliade published a book called Shamanism. While he didn't whitewash shamanism, he did his best to see its more refined side. He wrote that Eskimo shamanism and Buddhist mysticism share as their goal "deliverance from the illusions of the flesh."And shamanism, he said, features "the will to transcend the profane, individual condition" in order to recover "the very source of spiritual existence, which is at once 'truth' and 'life.' "

It's certainly true that ordinary consciousness could use some transcending. Thanks to our designer, natural selection, we tend to be self-absorbed, with a wary sense of separation from most of humanity. And it's true that various shamanic techniques—fasting, for example—can improve things in this regard (though fasting can also, as in the Native American "vision quest," convince you that you've been adopted by some spirit that will, say, help you kill more people in battle). Anthropologist Melvin Konner once partook of the !Kung San curing dance, which can last 10 hours and send the dancer into a trance state that converts his or her healing energy into useful vaporous form and fosters discourse with gods. Konner didn't speak to any gods, but he did report getting "that 'oceanic' feeling of oneness with the world."

I'm for that! In fact, I once did a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat that gave me just that feeling. And there are traditions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are big on oneness. I recommend trying one of them—or trying neo-shamanism. But if you try neo-shamanism, don't be under the illusion that you're helping to recover a lost age of authentic spirituality. Religion has always been a product of human beings, for better and worse. 

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