Atkinson, Jane Monnig

Atkinson, Jane Monnig – In her ethnography The Art and Politics of Wana Shamanship (1989), Atkinson discusses the Wana of the interior region of east-central Sulawesi in Indonesia. As slash-andburn cultivators, the Wana rely for mediation between the worlds of human and other-than-human persons on tau kawalia, “people spirits” (i.e., shamans). Atkinson addresses the effectiveness of shamans and their rituals, focusing on and accounting for the popularity of the mabolong or drumming ceremony, arguing that ritual can be read anthropologically as symbolic, therapeutic, and a performance. Patients rely on shamans for healing, shamans rely upon their audiences for recognition, and the audience relies upon shamans to maintain community harmony. Shamans must perform well in order to maintain the attention of the audience, by which the community acknowledges the shamanic abilities. The symbolic component of the ritual involves fear of the everyday problems that threaten community life and can be healed only by shamans. Therapeutically, the audience’s focus of attention on the often humorous shaman rather than on the suffering patient promotes a catharsis in which emotional tensions are eased.

Atkinson asserts that symbolic and performance-based readings are overlooked if too much emphasis is placed on therapy as the only goal of shamanic rituals, however, and that the essential role of the community is neglected if the shaman–patient relationship is emphasized. On the other hand, if the ritual is interpreted in terms of its symbolic, therapeutic, and performance-based meanings, the community dynamics of shamanistic ritual become clear.

Atkinson has also written the indispensable article “Shamanisms Today” (1992), offering a critical engagement with discourse on shamans as well as suggestions for future research. Some 15 years later, the study of shamanism is in need of an updated edition.


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