Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Shamanism

The belief that the world is pervaded by good and evil spirits which must be ritualistically controlled or appeased. The shaman, combining the role of doctor, priest and sorcerer, controls access to the spirit world, supervises initiation into manhood, and maintains the myths and songs of his tribe. The word comes from the saman of the Tungus people of Siberia, but equivalent figures are found in many hunter-gatherer and pastoral cultures. In fantasy, the shaman may be good or evil, aiding the hero in his Night Journey, perhaps, or by contrast seeking to thwart or control him by magical means.

The way in which shamans gain access to the spiritual world is much debated. Mircea Eliade argued that it is achieved by meditation or fasting, or in trancelike states of ecstasy during ritualistic dancing or drumming. This view is more commonly reflected in fantasy than the findings of many cultural anthropologists that intoxicants, which Eliade regards as "mechanical and corrupt", often play an important role. However, there is persuasive evidence that human cultures have ritualistically used intoxicants since the Stone Age, and this use is still widespread: fly agaric toadstools by Siberian peoples, peyote by the Huichol Indians of Mexico, various snuffs by tribes of Amazonian Indians, etc. The messianic avocation by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and Dr Timothy Leary (1920-1996) of the use of psychoactive drugs to achieve enlightenment, particularly influential on the Beat Movement of writers – most notably seen in the nightmarish Satires of William S Burroughs, was in part based upon anthropological studies of shamanistic Rituals.

Notable appearances of shamans in fantasy include: in Scott Baker's Ashlu Cycle, which turns on Initiation; as the eponym of Terry Bisson's Talking Man (1986); in The Clan of the Cave Bear (1985); as an ambiguous female healer in Robertson Davies's The Cunning Man (1985); filling civil-service roles in the transformed USA of Rachel Pollack's Unquenchable Fire (1988); in Rosemary Sutcliff's Warrior Scarlet (1958); and working the protagonists' Transformation in John Updike's Brazil (1994). But in Fantasyland, perhaps through unconscious association with "sham", a shaman is very often a magicless fraud imposing upon a gullible tribe – an assumption too easily made by Gene Wolfe's Severian in The Sword of the Lictor (1982), who discovers almost too late that a group of jungle sorcerers wields not only trickery but dangerous Talents. [PJM/DRL]

see also: Childe; Odin; Shadowrun; World-Tree.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.