Modern shamans: Financial managers, political pundits and others who help tame life’s uncertainty

Aka Manai explains that there are two kinds of people in the world: simata and sikerei.

I am a simata. He is a sikerei. Sikerei have undergone transformative experiences and emerged with new abilities: They alone can see spirits.

I’ve experienced a lot since that night in Indonesia when Aka Manai told me this. I was there when an initiate first saw spirits, when he and the other sikerei wept as they saw their dead fathers swirling around them. I’ve attended seven healing ceremonies, witnessing the slaughter of dozens of pigs to accompany nights of dancing. But that chat with kind-faced Aka Manai, more than any other experience, grounded my understanding of sikerei in particular and shamanism more generally.

A sikerei treats an initiate’s eyes so he, too, can see spirits. Manvir Singh, CC BY-ND
I’m a cognitive anthropologist who studies why societies everywhere develop complex yet strikingly similar traditions, ranging from dance songs to justice to shamanism. And though trancing witch doctors may sound exotic to a Western reader, I argue that the same social and psychological pressures that give rise to healers like Aka Manai produce shaman-analogues in the contemporary, industrialized West.

What is a shaman?

Shamans, including the sikerei I’ve known in Indonesia, are service providers. They specialize in healing and divination, and their services can range from ending a drought to growing a business. Like all magical specialists, they rely on spells and occult gizmos, but what makes shamans special is that they use trance.

Trance is any foreign psychological state in which a practitioner is said to engage with the supernatural. Some trances involve complete immobilization; others appear as tongue-lolling convulsions. In some South American groups, shamans enter trance by snorting a hallucinogenic powder, transforming themselves into crawling, unintelligible spirit-beings.

Being a shaman often carries benefits, both because they get paid and because their special position grants them prestige and influence.

But these advantages are offset by the ordeals involved. In many societies, a wannabe initiate lacks credibility until he (and it’s usually a he) undergoes a near-death experience or a long bout of asceticism.

One aboriginal Australian shaman told ethnographers that, as a novice, he was killed by an older shaman who then replaced his organs with a new, magical set. When he woke up from the surgery and asked the old shaman if he was lost, the old man replied, “No, you are not lost; I killed you a long time ago.”

A long time ago, a short time ago, here, there – wherever you look, there are shamans. Manifesting as mediums, channelers, witch doctors and the prophets of religious movements, shamans have appeared in most human societies, including nearly all documented hunter-gatherers. They characterized the religious lives of ancestral humans and are often said to be the “first profession.”

Why are there shamans?

Why is it that when we lanky primates get together for long enough, our societies reliably give rise to trance-dancing healers?

According to anthropologist Michael Winkelman, the answer is wisdom. Drugs and drumming, he’s argued, link up brain regions that don’t normally communicate. This connection yields new insights, allowing shamans to do things like heal sickness and locate animals. By specializing in trance, shamans uncover solutions inaccessible to normal brains.

Based on my fieldwork, I’ve argued against Winkelman’s account. Rather than all integrating people’s psychologies, trance states are wildly diverse. Chanting, sipping psychoactive brews such as ayahuasca, dancing to the point of exhaustion, even smoking extreme quantities of tobacco – these methods produce profoundly different states. Some are arousing, others calming; some expand awareness, others induce repetitive thinking. In fact, the only element shared among these states is their exoticness – that once altered, the shaman’s experience stands apart from those of his onlookers.