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Shamanism: lost in translation, part 1

A Tenggerese shaman sits in the temple at Probolinggo, East Java, Indonesia, during the month-long Yadnya Kasada Festival.
A Tenggerese shaman sits in the temple at Probolinggo, East Java, Indonesia, during the month-long Yadnya Kasada Festival.
Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

This four-week series discusses the ways the terms shaman and shamanism are misused in publishing, broadcasting, and conversation, and the problems that misuse causes for trying to understand what shamanism is and how to do it. The topics are as follows:

Part 1: Appropriation of a Technical Term for Popular Use
Part 2, Careless or Sloppy Translation
Part 3, How to Tell When the Terms Are Misused
Parr 4, How TV, Books, and Movies Often Misrepresent Shamans and Spiritual Practices

Until 1980, when anthropologist Michael Harner popularized the words shaman and shamanism with his best-selling book, The Way of the Shaman, most English speakers had never seen or heard those terms.

Until then, shaman and shamanism were technical terms used by anthropologists to describe a particular type of healer and spiritual practitioner in animist cultures.

The term shamanism was formed from a Siberian word, shaman, by the Russian anthropologists who first described the practices of certain spiritual practitioners in a particular Siberian tribe they were studying.

All the tribes had different words for shamans. So the fact that this particular word was chosen was just a matter of chance, of which tribe happened to be studied first.

That specific set of practices was so distinctive that, once their reports were published in professional journals, other anthropologists began to recognize similar sets of practices in other indigenous cultures.

It became a sort of professional shorthand to write something like “they practice a form of shamanism,” ;and then describe the way a particular cultural group’s practices differed from those of the classic description. That worked within the field of anthropology because cultural anthropologists were familiar with the original research.

The general audience success of The Way of the Shaman changed all that. The lay people who read the book had nothing else to compare it to.

The terms became popular among people who had not even read the book. Soon shaman replaced medicine man in the public mind as meaning an indigenous spiritual practitioner or healer.

All kinds of posers now claimed to be shamans, hoping to get money or notoriety. And all kinds of people decided that if it was a cool thing to be, then they must be one, too.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, lazy translators began translating indigenous terms for any and every kind of healer, sorcerer or spiritual practitioner as shaman. Is it any wonder that the public became confused?

With so much misuse of the term, and so many people (who didn’t even know what it meant) trying to cash in on the best-selling success of The Way of the Shaman, it became impossible to use the term with a general audience and have people understand what you were saying.

How can you carry on a reasonable conversation when most of the participants are using the same terms to mean totally different things----and don’t even know it?

For more about the problems of translation, read Part 2, Careless or Sloppy Translation, coming soon.

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