There is in the world today a great and mysterious force that shapes the fortunes of millions of people. It is called the stock market. There are people who claim to have special insights into this force. They are called stock analysts. Most of them have often been wrong about the market’s future behavior, and many of them have been wrong most of the time. In fact, it’s not clear that their advice is worth anything at all. Reputable economists have argued that you’re better off picking stocks randomly than seeking guidance from stock analysts; either way it’s the blind leading the blind, but in one case you don’t have to pay a commission.
Nonetheless, stock analysis is a profitable line of work, even for some manifestly inept practitioners. Why? Because whenever people sense the presence of a puzzling and momentous force, they want to believe there is a way to comprehend it. If you can convince them that you’re the key to comprehension, you can reach great stature.
This fact has deeply shaped the evolution of religion, and it seems to have done so since very near the beginning. Once there was belief in the supernatural, there was a demand for people who claimed to fathom it. And, judging by observed hunter-gatherer societies, there was a supply to meet the demand. Though most hunter-gatherer societies have almost no structure in the modern sense of the word—little if any clear-cut political leadership, little division of economic labor—they do have religious experts. So do societies that are a shade more technologically advanced: societies that, though not fully agricultural, supplement their hunting and gathering with gardening (“horticultural” societies) or herding.
The term most often applied to these religious experts is “shaman.” (The word comes from the language of the Tungus, a nomadic people of Siberia, and is sometimes translated as “one who knows.”) This label conceals some diversity. Shamans in Eurasia and northernmost North America often go into dramatic, trancelike states, as spirits possess them and speak through them before departing. Elsewhere, including much of the Americas, the shaman is less enthralled by spirits and more inclined to just commune with them via visions or dreams and then paraphrase them.
Similarly, the specific powers claimed by shamans show great variation. Some shamans in eastern North America could take a seed, pinch it between their thumb and finger, and project it with such force as to kill a person several miles away. In Australia, the preferred lethal weapon was a bone, pointed at the victim after appropriate incantations. Some Eskimo shamans could go to the moon, and some could turn into a bear. Some Amazonian shamans could become a jaguar with help from a drug that, as described by one anthropologist, leads the shaman to lie in his hammock, “growl and pant, strike the air with claw-like fingers,” convincing bystanders that “his wandering soul has turned into a bloodthirsty feline.” On the Andaman Islands a shaman would fight an epidemic by brandishing a burning log and instructing evil spirits to keep their distance. In southern Alaska a Tlingit shaman would fight illness by putting on a special apron and mask, running circles around the patient while shaking a rattle and singing to a series of spirits (changing his mask with each new spirit), perhaps collapsing in exhaustion from time to time. In Africa the !Kung San curer would dance for as long as ten hours, finally entering a trance state that converted his or her healing energy into useful vaporous form and allowed discourse with gods or spirits of the dead.
What unites shamans everywhere is seeking contact with an otherwise hidden world that shapes human destiny. And they tend to focus their powers on things that are important and erratic—illness, the weather, predators, prey. A Jesuit priest who encountered the Abipon of South America in the eighteenth century summarized the professed powers of their shamans: “to inflict disease and death, to cure all disorders, to make known distant and future events; to cause rain, hail, and tempest; to call up the shades [souls] of the dead and consult them concerning hidden matters; to put on the form of a tiger; to handle every kind of serpent without danger, etc.” The seminal scholar of shamanism Mircea Eliade wrote, “What is fundamental and universal is the shaman’s struggle against what we could call ‘the powers of evil.’ … It is consoling and comforting to know that a member of the community is able to see what is hidden and invisible to the rest and to bring back direct and reliable information from the supernatural worlds.”
The shaman represents a crucial step in the emergence of organized religion. He (or she, sometimes) is the link between earliest religion—a fluid amalgam of beliefs about a fluid amalgam of spirits—and what religion came to be: a distinct body of belief and practice, kept in shape by an authoritative institution. The shaman is the first step toward an archbishop or an ayatollah.
This claim won’t sit well with everyone. Today shamanism (sometimes cast as “neo-shamanism”) has a big niche in New Age spirituality, and part of its appeal is its perceived contrast with modern religion. Shamanism, in this view, harkens back to a time before industrialization had impeded communion with nature, before church hierarchies had discouraged direct experience of the divine by making themselves official conduits to the sacred. In this view, the primordial, shamanic phase of religion was a little like the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve ruined everything.
Certainly the annals of shamanism do include attractive themes. Some serious scholars see in the Stone Age shaman the origins of mysticism, which in modern form has brought peace of mind to many. Eliade wrote that Eskimo shamanism and Buddhist mysticism share as their goal “deliverance from the illusions of the flesh.” And shamanism in general, he said, is shot through with “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.’”
All to the good. Still, shamans inevitably share one unfortunate characteristic with religious leaders in modern societies: being human. In the shamanistic phase of religious evolution we can see not just the sunnier side of religion, but also some of the flaws that have dogged it ever since. Religion, having come from the brains of people, is bound to bear the marks of our species, for better and worse.…