Dismemberment – A common feature of many stories of initiations, especially of shamans. Powerful other-than-human persons, ancestors, or spirits take the prospective initiate (often against their will) and tear or cut them apart, often killing them and/or eating them. Sometimes this happens after the initiate has been taken away from their everyday surroundings, perhaps into an underworld or other world. It is usually followed by the insertion of sources of power, help, or ability into their bodies. For example, there are accounts of the initiation of Aboriginal Australian “clever people” that include the insertion of crystals either as empowering substances or as magical weapons. There are also accounts of illnesses being inserted into Siberian shamans to enable them to heal their community of these illnesses. Shamans initiated in this way speak not only of the pain of the process but also of their fearful uncertainty that they would survive it. However, survival entailed being reassembled or literally re-membered and sent home to learn how to use their new abilities properly.

Dismemberment and reassembly is not only about the acquisition of new powers and abilities. It indicates that shamans are made or remade differently from other people. For example, the Daur Mongols (discussed by Caroline Humphrey and Urgunge Onon) understand that people’s bones come from their fathers and their flesh and blood from their mothers; the word for the “bone joint,” uye, is the same as that for “patrilineal generation.” So when initiates are dismembered, they are torn out of their people’s kinship system and turned into a different kind of being, at least partially an other-than-human person or a spirit. At the same time, the new yadgans (Daur shamans), having already experienced death and doing so again each time they shamanize, are unlike elders, who are still approaching death and thus have a different relationship and ceremonial engagement with ancestors.


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