The ethnological museum of the University of Göttingen, where I work as a physician, owns a collection dating back to Georg Thomas Asch (1729-1807), a Russian physician, collector and patron with German roots. One highlight of his collection is a Shaman`s costume (Tungus, Sibiria), displayed here.
According to Mircea Eliade (1951), Shamanism encompasses the belief that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human and the spirit worlds. Shamans are in the role of spiritual champions and guardians of the psychic equilibrium of their communities. They are both masters of “the archaic technique of ecstasy,” and “specialists in the sacred”. According to him:
- Shamanism was once a widespread and worldwide religion dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period
- Religious beliefs and magical practices of historical hunting-gathering cultures are derived from paleolithic Shamanism and preserved the message of this “archaic religion”
- Ancient cave art and petroglyphs have preserved images of shamanic trances and can be used as evidence for the antiquity of shamanism
Eliades master narrative became important for the reconstruction of paleolithic beliefs when Leroi-Gourhan’s structuralist approach, who dominated the field of interpretation for nearly 2 decades, became untenable. At this time, the “Shamanistic paradigm” in the interpretation of paleolithic art, promoted by authors like Kirchner, Narr, Clottes and Lewis-Williams became part of most Archaeological textbooks during the 1990ies.
Recently Homayun Sidky (Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22 (2010) 68-92) published an elucidating lection about the scientific foundations of this theory.
Eliade was adherent to the 19th century ideas of an Eurocentric, linear evolutionism and to the early twentieth century school of diffusionistic anthropology. He relied on written reports, recorded by untrained travelers in Siberia and elsewhere during the historic period (sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries) and looked for similar “shamanistic” elements in the literature to construct a romanticized portrayal of a primary and worldwide shamanistic religion.
Moreover Eliade simply ignored that the types of cultures in Siberia during the historical period differed significantly from the Paleolithic cultures in which shamanism purportedly played a role. Religious and ideological systems are dynamic and ever changing, especially when confronted with other beliefs and practices. The idea that belief systems may persist unchanged over many millennia is therefore unhistorical and highly questionable.
Homayun Sidky reminds us, that any direct evidence for a paleolithic shamanism is poor. Even the most prominent examples that could be interpreted as shamans or shamanistic scenes ( the so-called “sorcerers or shamans” at Lascaux and Trois Freres, the famous “Löwenmensch” from the Swabian Aurignacian or the Fumane “shaman”) or graves that could be burials of shamans (Hilazon Tachtit, Dolni Vestonice) are still open to various equally plausible or equally implausible Interpretations.