Performance – Shamans are people who perform particular roles in communities. They are recognized and valued by those communities precisely for their abilities to perform such roles. Often, they are also performers in the sense that they conduct or lead more or less public and dramatic events, ceremonies, or rituals. Discussions of shamanic performances usually refer to the art and artifacts (sometimes perceived as “object-persons”) with which they work, such as musical instruments, costumes, and mirrors. More theoretical attention to the concept has also been offered. Thomas Csordas (1996) argues that all too often what scholars mean by “performance” is a ritual as a whole, without attention to the details within it as performances, and he calls for “experiential specificity”—attention to those invisible details central to shamans’ experiences. It is here, however, that shamans are most open to charges of invention. Many travelers’ tales and early ethnographies focused on shamans’ tricks—ventriloquism or juggling, for example—and concluded that everything shamans did was similarly done only for show.

While Jonathan Horwitz and others have objected that the term performance appears to suggest pretence, sham, acting, or role-play, it is used in the scholarly sense to refer to definitive shamanic activities. Nonetheless, many shamans do make full use of acting abilities and even trickery or shamming. In his article on “Shamans and Sex,” Ioan Lewis refers to the “theatrical ‘play acting’” of Siberian shamans rutting with animal partners. Also, Siberians are not alone in noting the necessity of entertaining and/or tricking otherworld persons (“spirits”) in order to gain healing power or to survive while journeying in hostile environments.

Edward Schieffelin usefully complicates matters by asking who— spirit or shaman—is the performer: for the New Guinea Kaluli, it is the spirit whose performance is judged. In addition, he suggests that rather than being credulous and accepting, the community may form a critical, evaluative, and sophisticated audience of the shamanic performances. Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis suggest a phrase that is more cumbersome but avoids associating “performance” with “fake” or “role-play.” They argue that shamans negotiate within a cultural framework, interact with spirits, and in this way “actively accomplish meanings” through the construction of relations between human and other-than-human worlds.


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