Wouldn't it be great to be back in hunter-gatherer days? Back before the human spiritual quest had been corrupted by the "relentless onslaught of Western scientific materialism" and "dogmatic male-dominated religion"? Back when there were shamans—spiritual leaders—who could plug us into "the realm of the magical," show us "the reality behind apparent reality," and thus lead us to understand "how the universe really works"?
The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism, which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age spirituality. But the basic idea—that there was a golden age of spiritual purity which we fallen moderns need to recover—goes beyond New Age circles. You see traces of it even in such serious scholars as Karen Armstrong, who wrote in A History of God that early Abrahamic religion had created a gulf "between humanity and the divine, rupturing the holistic vision of paganism."
As the author of the just-published book The Evolution of God, about the history of religion, I'm primed to do some debunking. But before I start, I want to stress two points: 1) I think it's great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism; 2) I don't doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were earnest seekers of a "holistic vision" who selflessly sought to share that vision.
What I do doubt is that these earnest, selfless spiritual leaders were any more common in the heyday of shamanism than today, or that the spiritual quest was any less corrupted by manipulation and outright charlatanism than today, or that there was a coherent philosophy of shamanism that makes more sense than the average religion of today.
Of course, there's no way to resurrect long-dead cultures to find out, and there is by definition no such thing as a written record of prehistoric societies. But we have the next best thing: accounts from anthropologists who visited hunter-gatherer societies before they had been corrupted by much contact with modernity. These anthropologists observed shamans doing what shamans do: prophesying, curing people, improving the weather, casting spells, casting out evil spirits, etc. And the anthropological record suggests the following about the age of shamanism.
1) There was a lot of fakery. Eskimo shamans have been seen spewing blood upon contact with a ceremonial harpoon, wowing audiences unaware of the animal bladder full of blood beneath their clothing. The sleight of hand by which shamans "suck" a malignant object out of a sick patient and then dramatically display it works so well that anthropologists have observed this trick in Tasmania, North America, and lands in between. Other examples abound.
2) Shamans—lots of them—were in it partly for the money. In exchange for treating a patient, a shaman might receive yams (in Micronesia), sleds and harnesses (among the Eastern Eskimo), beads and coconuts (the Mentawai of Sumatra), tobacco (the Ojibwa of northeastern North America), or slaves (the Haida of western Canada). In California, if a Nomlaki shaman said, "These beads are pretty rough," it meant that he would need more beads if he was to cure anything that day.