Gender – In particular local cultures, the question of gender may be a significant determinant of shamanic ability, acceptability, and authority. However, it is rarely as simple a matter as saying “among this group, shamans are always male, while among that one, they are always female.” While it is true that most shamans in Korea are female and most Siberian shamans are male, there are counterexamples in both areas. Neither is it always the case that male shamans are more valued that female shamans. Piers Vitebsky notes, for example, that among the Sora, “male shamans work mostly in the ‘lesser’ tradition of divining and healing, while funerals are conducted by shamans of the ‘great’ tradition, who are mostly women.” He also notes that female shamans among the Sora “sometimes hold a sword or axe as they go into trance” in order to engage in combat with enemies and dangerous other-than-human persons. In contrast, some male shamans in Siberia wear female dress. In other cases, as Marie Czaplicka notes, shamans’ costumes may combine features peculiar to the dress of both sexes and indicate that they are some other gender entirely.

To further complicate the matter, shamans may marry spirits of the same gender as themselves and, for example, a male shaman may sometimes be “female” in relation to a spirit husband. On the other hand, a Sora shaman marries both a man of a different lineage to her own (so that her children increase her husband’s line) and the “spirit son of her predecessor, who is her own aunt” (so that the child of this spirit-kin incestuous marriage will stay within her lineage). With reference to similar data and possibilities, Bernard Saladin d’Anglure notes that a binary model (opposing male and female genders) cannot make sense of the role of shamans in Inuit and other cultures. His “ternary” model demonstrates that the mediating role played by shamans (both between other members of their societies and between human and other-than-human persons) requires a more fluid or dynamic perception of gender. Shamans’ ability to mediate arises from their “third gender” position and role.

Shamans may, then, be biologically male or female, costumed as either male or female or both, and married both to human and otherthanhuman spouses of the same or opposite gender. They may also be primarily employed by men or women to deal with situations that are largely concerned with men or women in particular cultures (often but not always coded as “public” versus “private,” or “community” versus “family” concerns). A further complication arises when we note that among the Inuit, at least, the third gender of shamans is part of a wider mutability of gender: children may be understood to have decided which gender to be before or at birth, their genitalia more or less rapidly adapting to their decision. Yet other children receive the name of a deceased relative of the opposite gender and then perform that gender role for as long as they carry the name. These widespread transformations are what makes it possible to understand shamans as not belonging entirely “either to the class of males or to that of females, but to a third class, that of shamans,” as Czaplicka says, and also as essential mediators between all the many constituent elements, beings, and situations of the cosmos, as Saladin d’Anglure demonstrates.

A similar point is also illustrated in relation to initiatory dismemberment and reassembly. As if all of this were not challenging enough to European-derived notions of gender, among the Ojibwe and speakers of cognate Algonquian language, a grammatical distinction is made not between male and female genders but between animate and inanimate genders. That is, in these animist cultures and languages, persons and personal actions are spoken of differently to objects and impersonal events.

For all these reasons, the addition of a feminine ending -ka to the Tungus masculine term shaman by a few neo-shamans wishing to speak of “female shamans” fails to engage in any interesting way with the possibilities raised by indigenous shamanic constructions and performance of gender. Barbara Tedlock’s The Woman in the Shaman’s Body (2005) offers a guide to reclaiming or reimagining shamanism for contemporary women, but despite its foundation in considerable research both among indigenous communities and in ethnographic literature, it presents a picture of shamanism almost entirely equivalent to that of core shamanism.


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