NPJ Book Review: Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints by Brian Hayden

My take: Earth is on an evolutionary edge between technology and humanity, and the human capability to survive its advanced technologies.  Hayden begins his book published in 2003 by saying, “At some time during the mist shrouded past, human beings acquired an inherent tendency to believe in the supernatural.”  If you read Mircea Eliade’s and Joseph Campbell’s works among others you know from an anthropological, religious and mythological context that there’s a link to animism and nature in the development and formation  of beliefs in the supernatural, the evolution of ritual and the creation of language and how humans express their beliefs. 

The author notes how difficult it is to define a prehistoric religion such as shamanism. Context is essential. How universal was shamanism in the primitive world?  The word “shaman” comes from the Tungus term saman pronounced sha-man…” Most scholars agree that the “essence of shamanism entails going into a trance…in order to travel to spirit realms where the shaman generally attempts to perform some useful tasks such as healing a person by recovering their soul….” The author proceeds to delve into the mysteries of shamanism and its rhythms and strategies and tactics…from magic to male and female duality, religious symbolism, and so forth.

Hayden looks at history through the lens of archaeology.  He traces humans back hundreds of thousands of years when cannibalism was common and enemies as well as a friend’s brain were devoured …and he theorizes it was not for food but for supernatural benefit; benefits as if one were ingesting the soul of another to enhance one’s own spirit. The implication was a communion – body and blood…and as if by magic your soul would gain strength with a reward in an afterlife as one example. 

I will probably mention this a couple times but this is the work of a scholar. Readable, complex, thought provoking and requires looking at the footnotes and bibliography. It has both a textbook and seeker’s journal appeal. His research into the beginning of religion and ritual and influence on human life is solid and his questions opens doors to further questions.

Example of the author’s thinking: “It is curious that those people who strive the hardest to find natural explanations for the treatment of bear skulls, human skeletons, simple art motifs, grave offerings, and the movement of large rock slabs have little or no hesitation in attributing intentional artistic, or creative actions to almost identical manifestations when they occur in association with fully modern human physical types.” Ethnocentrism is a complicated business.

Hayden looks below the surface into cults thoroughly with the kind of scholarship one would expect and the downstream effects of cults on modern life is provocative. He discusses the ethos of modern urban culture and one can see a bit of influence of Joseph Campbell and others on his thought process and research. 

We are living on the edge in terms of climate change, our understanding of nature and the search for an understanding of our place in history, in wonder of the magical, the supernatural and the evolution of religion, and meaning of science and technology on our daily existence. What do we really know? We hopefully will continue to evolve…unless we destroy the planet and ourselves in the process. 

This is a work of intense scholarship, a significant reference tool and can be used as a compliment to other reference works…oriented towards college level studies and libraries as well as the informed layperson. In other words, it’s readable with effort….and the effort is worthwhile.