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Shattering shaman myths

Tedlock’s new book explores female roots of shamanism

Published: April 7, 2005

Contributing Editor

Shamanism, humankind's oldest spiritual and healing tradition, is in many cultures dominated by men, and Western skeptics often debunk its effectiveness.


Anthropologist Barbara Tedlock (second from left) has written a groundbraking new book on the female roots of shamanism.

In a groundbreaking new book published last month by Random House, however, Barbara Tedlock, professor of anthropology, challenges the historical hegemony of the male shamanic tradition, restores women to their essential place in the history of spirituality and celebrates their continuing role in the worldwide resurgence of shamanism.

Tedlock's book, "The Woman in a Shaman's Body," also presents empirical studies that find common shamanic practices to be very effective in medical terms and discusses why this is the case.

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Barbara Tedlock's personal experience in the shamanic tradition

As a child in Saskatchewan, anthropologist Barbara Tedlock first learned from her Ojibwa-Cree grandmother about storytelling, massage, dream prophesy and the fruits, flowers, twigs and roots used to make strange and mysterious healing concoctions. Her grandmother told her about native "shape shifters" who changed into deer, clouds, beavers and willow trees, and about witches called "bear-walkers" who traveled at night inside glowing balls of light that commonly are seen in shamanic rituals in many cultures.

She explained to her, Tedlock writes in her book, "That our thoughts and emotions overlap and intermingle, and that this mixing of head and heart connects us to future events hidden in the dark womb of time."

As a doctoral student in cultural anthropology conducting research in the Guatemalan highlands, Tedlock, along with her husband, anthropologist and SUNY Distinguished Professor Dennis Tedlock, was initiated into a Mayan shamanic tradition by Don Andrés and Dõna Talín, local Mayan healers.

"Gradually," she recalls, "we learned to enter and control our dreams in a kind of alert sleeping, and to share, interpret and complete those dreams together.

"We studied astronomy, hands-on healing and herbalism. We learned to recognize different kinds of shrines and to pray correctly; to gather flowers and incense; calculate the Mayan calendar, which was crucial for divination, and to embrace casual but meaningful coincidences of inner and outer events, thus transcending and improving our emotional and intuitive selves," she says.

"Don Andrés taught us about the vital energy that suffuses the material universe; he trained us in bodily awareness and emotional attunement—how to recognize the lightening in the body and the 'speaking of blood,' manifestations of our connection with the cosmos. In this way, we would be able to increase our energy and use it to heal others and ourselves.

"From my grandmother's care and the work of Don Andrés and Dõna Talín," she says, "I've seen firsthand the effectiveness of shamanic healing."

—Patricia Donovan, Contributing Editor

A shaman is one who has been initiated into the ancient tradition of walking "between" this and other worlds while in a state of ecstatic trance known as "shamanic ecstasy" or "shamanic flight." In this state, the shaman acts as a bridge between worlds and uses knowledge gained there to work with communities or individuals.

Skills attributed to shamans include various forms of divination; shape-changing; control over the elements; healing; soul retrieval or accompaniment; the ability to see, hear or send messages over great distances; and obtaining the cooperation of animal and nature spirits.

The granddaughter of an Ojibwe shaman and herself an initiate in Mayan shamanism, Tedlock brings to bear an abundance of evidence to support her contention that shamanism originally was the domain of women and that there still is a vital tradition of female shamanism in many parts of the world.

Tedlock writes that the active pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of shamanic practice. She describes her own experiences as a shamanic trainee among the Maya of Guatemala and her experience with dreams, prophecy and healing.

She also takes her readers from the wooded hills of the Czech Republic to the Kutenai people of Washington State; from the Amazon basin to northern Mongolia in search of the rich historical record of women warriors and hunters, spiritual guides and prophets from many cultures and times.

Tedlock describes shamans as sharing the belief that all entities, animate and inanimate, are imbued with a holistic life force and claim an ability to harness "extraordinary forces, entities or beings whose behavior in an alternative reality effects individuals and events in our ordinary world."

Although healing is only one aspect of the shaman's work, it is the one most often challenged by Western science. Tedlock says, however, "I have seen firsthand the effectiveness of shamanic healing, which relies on a deep knowledge of the operation of herbs and plants, and the power of the patient's faith in the healer and the healing process."

She describes how healers ritually enact their local system of myth and symbols to interpret the patient's condition within that system, and how they employ hope, suggestion, expectation and rituals that elicit a powerful placebo effect.

"This effect, which has been called 'the doctor who resides within,' arises from a direct connection between positive emotions and the biochemistry of the body," Tedlock says, "and by re-establishing emotional and spiritual equilibrium, a shaman strengthens the self-healing abilities of a patient."

Tedlock notes that shamans also use metaphors to help the patient manipulate sensory, emotional and cognitive information that alters his or her perception of illness and increases the endorphins and other endogenous chemicals generated in the human brain that control pain and anxiety.

She describes how shamanic patients are helped to release unconscious feelings and transfer negative emotions to the healer, and says confession and forgiveness also are central activities in shamanic healing, and frequently elicit conflict resolution.

Research on the emotional effects of songs, chants, prayers, spells and music, says the author, indicates they can influence the way the immune system responds to illness.

"In some traditions," Tedlock says, "the use of drums, gongs, bamboo tubes or rattles help to restore a physical sense of order that replaces the experience of chaos produced by the illness."

Probing the practices that distinguish female shamanism from the much-better-known male traditions, Tedlock reveals the key role of "body wisdom" and women's eroticism in shamanic trance and ecstasy. She explores female forms of "dream witnessing" and vision questing, and the use of hallucinogenic plants and drugs.

The book explains shamanic midwifery and the spiritual powers released in childbirth and female cycles, shamanic symbolism in weaving and other feminine arts, and "gender-shifting" and male-female partnership in shamanic practice.

Women shamans, she says, have often practiced in the fields of healing, birthing children, gathering and growing food, keeping communities in balance, presiding over ceremonies and rites of passage, maintaining relations with the dead, teaching, ministering to those in need, communing with nature to learn her secrets, preserving the wisdom traditions, divining the future and dancing with gods and goddesses.

"These are shamanic arts," she says, "and they are the arts of women."

The book had drawn praise from other anthropologists, including Michael F. Brown, chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Williams College, for its clarity of thought, explanation of complex ideas in ordinary language and the wealth of personal experience Tedlock brings to her task. "Tedlock turns a century of scholarship on its head by showing that women's mastery of shamanic arts is the norm rather than the exception," Brown says.

Tedlock is the author of "The Beautiful and the Dangerous: Zuni Indian Encounters" (Viking, 1992), "Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations, School of American Research Advanced Seminar Volume" (Cambridge University Press, 1987) and "Time and the Highland Maya" (University of New Mexico Press, 1982). With her husband, ethnopoeticist and SUNY Distinguished Professor Dennis Tedlock, she edited "Teachings from the Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy" (Liverright, 1975). Her work is widely published in major anthropological journals.

Tedlock's research is in the fields of psychological, symbolic and cognitive anthropology; cognitive modeling within cultural anthropology; cultural organization of time and space; cognitive structure of traditional healing systems; anthropology of art and aesthetics; ethnomedicine; and the American Southwest and Mesoamerica.