Spirits – A term that commonly appears in ethnographic and religious discourse but remains of uncertain and/or misleading reference. Not only does it translate a wide range of terms for entirely different and distinct types of other-than-human persons, but it also clearly privileges the metaphysical, nonempirical, or “spiritual” nature of significant beings. While particular shamans may refer to invisible, nonphysical, otherworld beings in ways that encourage translators to use words like “spirit” or “soul,” in many cases this is not their intention. More often, words rendered as “bear spirit” or “tree spirit” might be better expressed simply as “bear” or “tree” or by collocations such as “bear person” or “tree person.” In either case, the point is that it is the particular, physical bear or tree who is addressed, asked for help, or offered a gift. Just as it is not usual to speak in similar circumstances of “human spirits,” it is often unhelpful to mask the personhood of a being by imputing the existence of spirits where the concept is unwarranted. When shamans do speak of beings that are invisible under normal circumstances, they usually claim the ability to see them. Napoléon Chagnon, for instance, writes in considerable detail of the size, beauty, preferences, habits, characters, hungers, and other far-from-nonempirical traits of the hekura invited to dwell within Yanomamo shamans.

An understanding of the animism of shamanic cultures and practitioners along the lines proposed by Irving Hallowell, Nurit BirdDavid, and David Abram promises to enrich the understanding of shamanism by making terms like spirit redundant in many contexts. Conversely, neurophysiology, psychobiology, and other forms of psychology may ask interesting questions about brain states, chemistries, capabilities, and behaviors, but they focus attention on one aspect of shamanic performance and knowledge.


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