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Shamanism: lost in translation, part 4

A Tenggerese shaman prays for a worshipper at the foot of a volcano, Mt. Bromo, Indonesia, during the Yadnya Kasada Festival.
A Tenggerese shaman prays for a worshipper at the foot of a volcano, Mt. Bromo, Indonesia, during the Yadnya Kasada Festival.
Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Movies, TV shows, novels, and stories often misuse the term shaman and/or misrepresent the duties and abilities of shamans. Sometimes that is simple ignorance. Other times the dramatic needs of fiction---whether on film, via audio, or in print---don’t allow for adequate explanations.

In such fiction, the portrayal may not be completely inaccurate, but the surrounding characters, background and activities of the shaman are not separated from the actual shamanic activities. Other times, there are just large inaccuracies or unlikely events that create confusion and may even overshadow the parts of the fiction that are accurate.

“So what?” You may say. Everyone knows movies and novels are fiction.
The problem is that what we consciously know often does not change how these portrayals affect us. Fiction creates a world and characters that feel real to us even though we know they are not.

Vivid portrayals do influence us. Even though we know the story is not true, there is often the sense that the background, terms, and culture are accurate. Good drama works that way.

Considering the fact that most people don’t think all this through, and have no other information on shamans and what they do, you can see why so many people have false impressions, assumptions of knowledge when the “facts” they have are wrong, and so on.

People in the United States, in particular, seldom question the meanings of words. In fact they often ridicule discussions of meaning and context as “semantics”. Yet such understanding of what people mean by what they are saying is essential to understanding what they are trying to tell you.

So far we’ve discussed how people are accidentally misled by fictional portrayals of shamans. That may not seem important if you are not a student of shamanism. But consider how often that confusion is used by scammers to make money off people who trust them.

There are individuals who prey on the innocent for profit and for power. Sometimes what they promote is actually of some benefit for some people---but it is not what they say it is---and that can hurt people.

Besides the people who are scammed, paying money for books, workshops, goods and services that are fraudulent, there are other damages. Actual shamans and indigenous cultures are being ripped off or misrepresented. And that can hurt them.

There is a subtle (or not so subtle) component of racism to many of the scams. Hurt feelings are not the only consequences of spiritual and cultural misrepresentation.

Back in the mid-1990’s, for example, a novel was published as nonfiction that badly misrepresented Australian Aborigine beliefs and practices. The author sold over 10 million books and became famous.

The media ignored Aborigine spokesmen protesting the lies. It took a public confrontation by movie star Steven Segal to extract an apology from the author along with a promise to publish the upcoming sequel as fiction, not fact.

The sequel did not sell well as fiction, but the author had already made undeserved millions, and most of her ripped-off readers never knew they had been lied to and scammed, sold an expensive hardback book under false pretenses and told a lot of lies.

Furthermore, what few facts were mixed into the fiction were scrambled and distorted. Worse, many of them violated the privacy of the Aborigine people, causing pain and sorrow.

Fiction can be powerful, and it can cause harm as well as being deceptive. Yet it can influence people deeply in ways they don’t even realize.

Truth and spiritual power can be twisted, diluted or completely lost in translation.

If you are truly interested in what shamanism is and how it works, if you have been reading this series, I hope you now have some tools of discernment to help you learn the truths about shamanism and keep from getting list in translation.

Because, in fact, the truth about shamans and shamanism is much more interesting and valuable than fiction.

This article is Part 4 of a four-week series, “Shamanism: lost in translation,” that discusses some of the ways the terms shaman and shamanism are misused in publishing, broadcasting, and general conversation, and the problems that misuse causes for those who are trying to understand what shamanism is.

The topics of the four parts 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

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