Animism – Arguably the proper label for the type of religion practiced among traditional indigenous people who employ shamans. Rather than being “shamanists” or adherents of “shamanism,” these people may be usefully named “animists.” While the term was coined by Edward Tylor (a founder of the discipline of anthropology) to define the essence of religion as “the belief in spirits” and has played a significant role in theories about the origins of religion, it is used here in a new way. The old theory of animism alleged that indigenous people and the earliest human ancestors had made a mistake in believing in spirits. The new theory, associated with Nurit Bird-David, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Signe Howell, and others, sees animism as a relational ontology—the recognition that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human. In Irving Hallowell’s terms, there are human persons and other-than-human persons, including rock persons, tree persons, cloud persons, and perhaps “spirit persons.” Animist worldviews and lifeways make it necessary for there to be shamans because (1) humans are relatively weak and need to seek help (in the form of knowledge, healing, or defense) from more powerful other-than-human persons and (2) humans often offend other than human persons and need mediators in order to restore respectful relationships. In this context, shamans may be defined as those persons trained and skilled at working for their community when it is necessary to seek help from or reconciliation with the wider community of life. In turn, as Graham Harvey has argued, animism makes shamans both possible and necessary because their roles are about dealing with the problems of a living world.

However, in concluding a discussion of blood, tobacco, jaguars, and shamans, Carlos Fausto describes Amazonian shamanism as “a predatory animism.” This sinister conclusion is based on the fact that the ability of some people (shamans) to interact relationally (e.g., by adoption or alliance) with powerful other-than-human persons (especially jaguars) depends on predation in warfare and hunting because these are preferred means of affirming one’s agency and intentionality rather than being used, preyed upon, by other persons. In short, shamans are necessary in animist communities as both curers and combatants.


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