Ioan M. Lewis
A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Shamanism became a popular subject to study in the USA in the later years of the twentieth century but British anthropologists were often reluctant to take it seriously. Ioan Lewis was a notable exception. He took shamanism seriously as regards its role in society and, like some others who have studied it, he refuses to commit himself about the 'reality' of the spirits shamans claim to encounter. 'I do not profess to contest the validity of their beliefs, or to imply, as some anthropologists do, that such beliefs are so patently absurd that those who hold them do not "really" believe in them.' In his concluding chapter Lewis considers, and dismisses, the view that psychopathology is a major factor in shamanism, although he finds that shamanism is an important coping mechanism in domestic stress, especially for women. It provides a socially accepted means by which people can behave in ways that otherwise would be ruled out by their society.
To some extent this is a book aimed at professional anthropologists rather than general readers, because it is intended to make a case for the author's approach to his subject which is different from that of most of his colleagues. But there are plenty of intriguing ideas and entertaining stories for those who are less familiar with the academic background. I particularly liked the account of spirit marriage in Haiti, which was considered more binding than ordinary marriage and was recognized by the State as late as the 1950s. There is also a fascinating account of the mediaeval dancing mania attributed (wrongly) to the bite of the tarantula; this, Lewis believes, may have its roots in the maenad revels of the classical world.
The book is well worth reading by anyone who is interested in shamanism, although it is not intended to serve as a descriptive introduction to the subject. For that, Ronald Hutton's book would be a better choice.
15 March 2009
%T Ecstatic Religion
%S A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession
%A Lewis, Ioan M.
%C London and New York
%G ISBN 0-415-00799-2
%K anthropology, ethnography
%O paperback (second) edition
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