Charles Stépanoff at Parc Galea: “The shamans show us the richness of human cultures”

The ethnologist has studied the shamanic practices of the Siberian peoples. It was Sunday at Galea Park to tell us about these men in connection with the invisible

Animals, trees, spirits… For the shamans studied by the ethnologist Charles Stépanoff in Siberia, the whole world is endowed with an emotion and the rituals make it possible to enter into connection with what one cannot perceive only through emotions and feelings. Faced with shamanic practices that may seem archaic or quasi-religious, Charles Stépanoff adopts an ethnological point of view that places the shaman in his community and his culture, giving us to see all the faculties of imagination of these women and men in power. so particular. The ethnologist was this Sunday at Galea Park to share with us his encounters with shamans and discuss his next book, animal and death (ed. La Découverte), to be published in September.

You describe shamans as “experts in the invisible”, why?

In the populations of Siberia with whom I have worked and lived, the shaman is defined as a man or a woman capable of seeing what ordinary people do not see, that is to say a whole subjective dimension of reality. : the souls of animals and plants, but also emotions that can be felt by elements of the landscape. This corresponds to a vision of the world where humans are not the only ones to have subjectivity, hence the obligation of exchange and reciprocity with these entities. Shamans are thus defined by their ability to see beyond the visible, for example through dreams.

Are you born a shaman or do you become one?

The shamans themselves told me that one does not become a shaman, it is something innate and inscribed in the body. In Siberia, shamanism has a hereditary and incorporated character, it is even said that shamans have a skeleton with an extra bone. This is linked to the idea of ​​an extraordinary sensory power, there is no longer any distinction between the spiritual and the material, everything is embodied. Moreover, the shamanic ritual involves the body through massages or exorcisms during which the demons are expelled by spitting.

They are quite curious scenes from a western point of view, which are based on the idea that there is no separation between body and spirit. For the shaman, this innate talent requires a progressive mastery that often goes through suffering and moments of deep crisis. There is something violent in the shamanic call, often a break with those around you by running away in the forest.

What is the role of the shaman in these societies?

He has two main roles. First of all a therapeutic role with individual rituals intended for a sick person or victim of all kinds of disorders, whether family conflicts, questions related to work, studies, finding a job or a spouse. .. And then a more collective role through great clan or territorial rituals where the shamans are invited as masters of ceremonies to maintain good relations with the ancestors or the entities of the territory.

We meet in a sacred place, supposedly inhabited by spirits, and we organize horse races, games, wrestling or archery competitions, but also a moment of ritual where the shaman invokes the protective spirits. and brings them the offerings of the community. He has a role of intermediary between the human community and the spiritual entities.

Can shamanism be likened to a form of religion?

We cannot model shamanism on the model of institutionalized religions. Of course, the shaman fulfills roles which are those of the church for us, funeral rituals for example, but this takes different forms because there is no ecclesial institution, no hierarchy. The shamans are independent and each acts according to his method. There is no shared liturgy and everyone has their own style, their own spirits that they invoke, their healing methods… Many official religions such as Buddhism or Orthodox Christianity coexist with shamanic practices.

How do we explain the special power of shamans?

To understand this, we must turn to what psychology and neurophysiology teach us about the role of the imagination. The role of the imagination has long been neglected, even considered a deviance by Freudianism, yet it is absolutely essential in the development of children, the exploration of the world, intersubjectivity… It is the imagination that we mobilize to try to understand others, it is therefore essential to cooperation. It’s a way of exploring the invisible and that goes for non-human beings as well. We are able to share emotions with our dog or our cat, but also with wild animals: coming face to face with a deer, for example, is something powerful. Societies that practice shamanism promote and cultivate these dispositions whereas in our Western societies, we have an institutional and hierarchical mode of transmission of knowledge which is the school and which tends to curb the imagination.

Are there similarities between the shamanic practices of different regions of the world?

Certain rituals spread from Siberia to North America at the time of the great prehistoric migrations 5,000 years ago, such as the ritual of the dark tent: locked in a tent in the dark, the shaman makes animal sounds. This ritual is practiced almost in the same way from the Urals to Alaska, Greenland and the plains of North America. There are also commonalities with Oceania and the practices of Australian Aborigines. There are even possible comparisons with rural traditions in Europe and with Mazzerism in Corsica. What is also common is that in many regions of the world, shamanic practices are contradicted or even persecuted: Buddhism fought against shamanism in Mongolia, Islam in Central Asia… The idea that each individual can have direct contact with the divine, in an uncontrolled and personalized way, is often badly perceived by States which have a political will for unification. The relationship of a people with the divine must then go through a sovereign and a clerical elite to share a faith, a religion and build a strong state.

Are shamanic practices disappearing in the world?

Not really. The fall of the communist regime allowed the resurgence of these practices in the 1990s in the Siberian world. Shamanism has reappeared in renewed forms, urban, sometimes nationalist and backed by an identity project to reconnect with the roots of a people who want to shake off the yoke of a Western way of thinking. In North America or the Amazon, this is even done thanks to a growing Western interest in these practices via a form of shamanic tourism linked to the consumption of psychotropic drugs. This represents an interesting resource for the local populations who respond to Western demand, but it can also cause misunderstandings between what the tourist expects and what the shaman agrees to do: in the film A bigger worldwhere a journalist goes to Mongolia to meet the shamans, we see a shaman practicing an alleged ritual for Western tourists but instead of disturbing the spirits, she recites cooking recipes in Mongolian and everyone is happy…

Is there a risk of folklorization or even distortion of shamanic rituals because of the interest shown in them by Westerners?

This can create a hodgepodge of elements taken from all over the local peoples, but these practices are linked to a way of life and a particular environment. Western interest in shamanism is often oriented by the quest for the self, by something in the order of personal development which is geared towards individual well-being and is therefore in rather profound contradiction with the shamanic traditions which are linked to crises and constraints for the shamans themselves. Westerners are turned inwards, towards themselves, while in indigenous populations, it is necessary to go out of oneself to better communicate and understand the local environment for the good of the community.

So what can we learn from shamanism?

Without trying to imitate them or take over their heritage, which would be spiritual neocolonialism, shamans show us the extraordinary richness of human cultures, the imagination that we have lost, the link with dreams, so they open the field of possibilities. This shows us that other forms of relationship to the environment and other uses of the imagination are possible.

We would love to say thanks to the author of this write-up for this outstanding material

Charles Stépanoff at Parc Galea: “The shamans show us the richness of human cultures”


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