Hi, Professor Eliade. I exist.

So did she.

I don’t know if I’m in an iconoclastic mood lately, or if stepping back onto this ground (which I’ll have more to say about in a separate entry soon) has made me want to be clear about how I see the terrain; but having taken on linguistic ignorance about the word shaman, I find I want to have a bit of a say about Mircea Eliade and why it’s time to look elsewhere for our source material on shamanism.

Eliade’s book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy remains, nearly 70 years after its publication, the go-to book about shamanism to most people both in and out of the practice. While it does continue to have merits — not the least Eliade’s work in defining what shamanism actually is — there are several serious problems with it that it’s long since time to address, or at least to be aware of when picking up the book or recommending it to others.

It is not a book about shamanism.
It is an overview of then-current research on shamanism. There is no evidence that Eliade himself ever met an actual shaman. There is nothing in itself wrong with this; overview of literature is an important tool in research. But the book is often presented as and understood to be Eliade’s direct research, and it isn’t.

It is old.
That’s hardly a death knell in historical research, of course, but it’s crossed the line at which it should be considered a historical document itself, rather than current research — especially in a field that’s advanced as much as cultural anthropology has. The book itself is at this writing 66 years old; some of the material it covers is over 100 years old. It should not be treated as the best and most current information available; it isn’t, and a considerable portion of it has been refuted in the intervening years. No edition has been updated to reflect this, or even had an introduction written that makes this adequately clear for a non-academic audience. Leading to…

It is an academic book.
That’s not an evil, of course, but the book wasn’t intended for a general audience; it’s an academic reference book. There are assumptions made in academic writing that the general public may not be familiar with, and may draw wrong conclusions from, i.e., narrow academic focus on one thing doesn’t preclude the existence of a thing not covered, but the general public may infer that.

Many people will not be able to read either the original, or its source materials.
The original is in French; the source materials are almost entirely in Russian, German, and French. It’s important to remember that when you pick up an English copy of the book, you are reading an English translation of a French book that included reference materials in Russian and German, written by a Romanian. The potential for linguistic landmines is obvious. Again, not a death knell — it is, after all, what translation is for — but it opens the door into the major issue surrounding the book, one that’s only recently been discussed as it should be.

Eliade’s biases show, big and loud.
It’s important to remember that Eliade was a historian. He did what was for his time a pretty good job of avoiding the racist “point and laugh at the ignorant savages” tone of most academic writing of the period, but he clearly thought shamanism was an interesting cultural phenomenon but otherwise complete bullshit, and that colors what he has to say about it. The idea that the difference between faith and superstition is no more than a cultural one in most cases was years from its arrival in academic thought, and he wrote accordingly.

We were about 30 years into the serious study of shamanism before it started being undeniable in the face of all the mounting evidence: There were and are women shamans. Thanks to Eliade’s gender bias, we spent all that time thinking there weren’t, or that a woman shaman was the sign of a degraded, weakened form of the former macho all-male shamanism of a culture, because that’s what Eliade said it was. The evidence now is massively against either assertion being true, but there’s no correction made to the information in the book, so it continues to be promulgated by people who read the book and by books that reference it (which is basically every book about shamanism written since).

Eliade may have falsified research to support his biases.
No one really knows why Eliade was so devoted to the idea of shamanism as a men-only club; it may have had a good bit to do with his politics. Regardless of why, there is considerable evidence as writers return to his original sources (c.f. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine by Barbara Tedlock) that Eliade translated sources in ways that supported his views, but were not always supported by good translation. Tedlock cites several examples, including of his translating the same word used for both genders as “shaman” when it refers to a man and as “assistant” when it refers to a woman; and of his translating a quote from a male shaman bluntly stating that his wife is also a shaman as, “She is my assistant.” He discounts divination as important to shamanism, which has long since been proven untrue across multiple cultures, including the Siberian ones he focused on; this may be because divination in many cultures is the territory of women shamans. He also asserts several times that where there are women shamans, it is a symptom of the degradation and decay of the practice, which was once all male; in no case does he present any evidence that this view is true. He assumes it, and that assumption has stood for 70 years because it was taken unquestioned. It’s time and beyond time to question it.

Eliade was still exploring his definition of shamanism.
What were preliminary conclusions drawn from research, meant to be further researched, were taken as gospel truth by general readers — another danger of academic writing moving into the general public. In academia, that stance is assumed and unspoken, which doesn’t translate well to a general readership. That incomplete exploration means that a good bit of what Eliade says about shamanism outside Siberia isn’t correct. He defined Native American practices as shamanism that aren’t; he didn’t recognize European shamanic practices for what they were. Both errors are carried into how people define shamanism — and even its very existence in a given culture — to this day.

A lot of people don’t know the difference between a reprint and an updated edition.
There are lots of recent editions of the book; they are, save their covers and typographic corrections, identical to the original. Picking up a 2014 edition of the book doesn’t ensure the information is 50 years more up to date than it is in the original English translation (1964). I would have assumed people knew this, but arguments I’ve faced to my questions about the book often begin with, “But I have an edition from five years ago, so the information is only five years old.” It’s usually a steep climb from there, and one that helps ensure that incorrect and outdated information will continue to be spread as accurate and current.

Eliade’s name has become a charm against all critique.
I get a lot of how-dare-you on this subject, just like on the word shamanism. Famous doesn’t equal always correct, but it’s hard to tell people that. Having worked as shaman for 30 years and having read hundreds of books and articles on the subject — academic and general, good and bad — I dare. None of this is to say that Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy is a useless book. It’s far from that. The first section, in which he discusses shamanism as a concept, remains valuable if we hold Eliade’s biases in mind as we read it. The second section is now best considered out-of-date and faulty research at best, and dishonest research at worst. It’s time we stand before the colossus and realize that his feet are planted in the sand of being a flawed human being, and that he wrote a flawed book that is now very out of date, not an unimpeachable sacred document.


6 thoughts on “Hi, Professor Eliade. I exist.

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