Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) – Historian of religions and fiction writer who was born in Romania but lived most of his life as an exile in France and the United States, where he became professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. Eliade authored the most widely read academic book on shamanism: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964 ). In it, he not only presents ethnographic data from many diverse cultures but also marshals them to support a theory about the nature and influence of shamanism. Eliade insists that shamans do not become possessed but rather exhibit mastery of spirits, with whom they engage while in an altered state of consciousness called ecstasy that is interpreted by shamans as journeying. That is, shamans go to meet and master other-thanhuman persons in various other worlds. They achieve such states and are supported in such journeys by the use of various standardized “techniques,” including drumming, chanting, and forms of deprivation and overstimulation. Eliade asserted the ubiquity of a mode of initiation in which neophyte shamans were dismembered and reassembled following illnesses induced by spirit beings whom shamans either defeated or contracted as helpers.
Shamanism is “archaic” not in the sense of being antiquated or obsolete, but as the primary or foundational religious experience that underlies all other religions. Further, its most ancient and original forms began and continued among hunter-gatherer peoples, especially those of Siberia. In fact, Eliade presented a version of Siberian and Central Asian data as the “pure form” of shamanism from which all other practices (e.g., those that use hallucinogens) degenerated. When read alongside Eliade’s works about ostensibly different religious and cultural phenomena, it becomes clear that a single project motivated him—namely, the encouragement of an allegedly exalted spiritual practice with which to confront the materialism of communism and, to a lesser degree, capitalism. The religious edifice he constructed is vast, but can be illustrated by his situating of “journeying to other worlds” in the context of claims about the cosmic axis mundi or omphalos that links upper, middle, and underworlds, while allowing a distinction between the ways in which shamans and priests mediate between the worlds. Eliade definitely (and definitively for many neo-shamans) privileged journeys to upper-world or celestial realms, again presenting other destinations as indicating degenerate forms of shamanism.
Eliade’s shamanism is a new myth, rooted in some verifiable observations and some misrepresentations of particular local cultures, which he applied universally. Jonathan Z. Smith details some of Eliade’s misrepresentations, such as that of an Aboriginal Australian “Dreaming” narrative as being concerned with celestial journeying and authority, whereas it is actually concerned with “terrestrial [earthly, this-worldly] transformation and continued presence.” In abstracting shamans from their local, political, cultural, social, temporal, and other contexts, he both misrepresents shamans (and their practices, cosmologies, and communities) and points the way toward Michael Harner’s “core shamanism” and similar neo-shamanic practices. Much of his project can also be paralleled in the works and thought of Carl Jung, who told Eliade at the Eranos Conference in 1952 that “the modern world is desacralized, that is why it is in a crisis. Modern man must rediscover a deeper source of his own spiritual life.” As Daniel Noel states, in considering the intimate link between Eliade’s fiction writing and his books about religion, especially shamanism, “The core of soul of the West’s idea of shamanism is not factual at all, but fantastic, fictive, a work of imagination.” Although criticizing Eliade’s willful (re)construction of the “-ism” of shamanism, Noel intends this to encourage a renewed celebration of the powerful “practice of mindful imagination.” In this sense, Noel presents Eliade and Jung as the West’s leading shamans.