Ambiguity

Ambiguity – Shamans in many cultures are perceived ambiguously. While they may be called upon to heal or protect their communities and clients, they may also be suspected of being able and willing to harm people. The difference between a shaman and a sorcerer or witch is not equivalent to being “one of us” or an enemy. Commonly, “our shaman” may be as suspect of being dangerous and predatory as the shamans of enemy groups. Such ambiguous positions may arise from the initiations that make shamans different from “ordinary” people. They might enhance the ability of shamans to mediate between humans and other-than-human persons, but they can result in shamans being marginal to the ordinary life of their communities. In many respects, shamans perform roles in indigenous cultures and stories similar to the tricksters whose ambiguous or negative acts transform the world. Discussion of “dark shamans” (e.g., by Neil Whitehead) involve some of the most interesting considerations and examples of ambiguity. Alan Campbell’s summary is eloquent: “All very well to be the village doctor; but it’s not much of a role or an office to be the village killer.”

SOURCE:

Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007

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