The Spirits of Shamanism: Simon Matzinger

The Evolutionary Basis of Shamanism

On the far northwest coast of Alaska, in the cold white emptiness of Point Hope, bowhead whale bones stick up from the snow, encircling an estuary of wooden crosses. Here, in this long night of winter, in 1953, Masiin, a shaman, floats above the cemetery. Masiin is one of the last Tikigaq shaman of northern Alaska and a representative of a tradition that has lasted thousands of years. He has just returned from a spirit journey over Russia.

The story, as it will be later told goes like this:

“My wife invited Masiin to supper. And after we had eaten, the old man told several stories. Then he called me by name and told us he’d been traveling last night. He’d been to Russia. And when he’d flown round for a while, he saw the Russian boss. ‘That’s a bad man,’ said Masiin, ‘so I killed him.’ Next day, at three o’clock–we had a battery radio–I listened at my coffee break. The news announcer said Stalin was dead.”


People are likely to be confused by Masiin’s story. Did Masiin really kill Stalin? Can shaman even do that? But to ask these questions would be missing a subtle point. Shaman generally don’t work directly on this world. They work in an entirely different arena. Brought about by trance, dream-states, or other visionary experiences.

The factory floor of shamanism is the landscape of the spirit-journey, the land of good and evil spirits and the waiting room for the souls of the deceased and yet to be born. It is a place where shamans take the form of huge wolves and death flies overhead on the wings of a crow.

Shamanic practices are ubiquitous among people. To a first approximation, every tribal culture — alive or dead — has some broker of spiritual capital. There are the Indonesian Mentawai who live among the palms and surf off the western coast of Sumatra. They have their sikerei. Halfway around the world, the Inuit, living among the snow and ice of Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska, have their angakok. The Columbian Desana have their paye. The Mongolian Buryat have their böö. The American Sioux have their hayoka. This list goes on. When modern ethnologists look over the indigenous world and sift through its archaeological remains, the artefacts of spiritual life are literally written on cave walls.


Modern scientists explain shamanism as a myriad of tomfoolery and primitive added-value in a pre-Western spiritual economics. These are two categories of explanation. In one, shamanism is seen as a form of social parasitism, taking advantage of human psychological biases to avoid risks. By claiming the existence of spiritual forces that only they can deal with, shaman and other religious leaders run a spiritual protectionism racket. People pay for this because, most of the time, things turn out in the end. When they don’t, the client (either an individual or the village) is dead.

The second kind of explanation is that shamanism adds value. Shamans are beta-versions of healthcare professionals treating everything from tiger bites to depression. They are repositories of folk knowledge about the local environment, acting as interactive libraries of cultural information. Shamans enforce rules of social etiquette and battle the tragedy of the commons by keeping everybody from killing the last gazelle. Shamans help unite the tribe around arbitrary decisions by making them sacred, eliminating conflict over where to hunt and plant crops, or whether or not to fight or flee from a neighboring tribe. Shamans also organize groups around social commitment ceremonies, like Christmas, which can scale nicely from villages to nations, and bring people together so that later on, when they need each other, they can leverage the power of the in-group to overcome common enemies.

If shamans have knowledge of medicine, food, and cultural memory that can forestall death and increase resources — and the evidence often suggests they do both — then there should be little question of their adaptive value.

If we believe that organized religions have any value to those who practice them, then it is worth acknowledging that all the major spiritual movements in the world have as their antecedent someone’s vision. That vision often took place in a desert, cave, or forest. Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the Judean desert. Muhammad saw the angel Gabriel in a cave near Mecca. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, had a vision of the Angel Moroni in the woods near his home.

Much of what we believe are the products of visions propagated by religious leaders, political showmen, and marketing strategists. Edward Bernay’s, the real-life character behind Mad Men’s Don Draper, opened the cigarette market to women in the 1920’s, at a time when few women smoked cigarettes. He did it by appealing to a vision of gender equality, and selling cigarettes as “torches of freedom.”

The visions of scientists have been no less powerful. Einstein didn’t discover relativity by getting together with a committee and working it through. He had a vision about flying on a beam of light. Kekule dreamt of the structure of the benzene ring as a snake biting its own tail after years of trying to work the problem out on paper. And Descartes had a dream about the unification of science, which fueled today’s scientific method. He did this even as he spent most of his time applying his rational mind to decoding the Bible.

Whether these are examples of true shamanism is a minor point. They are examples of taking visions seriously and using the aspiration they create to change the world.

Much of what we understand makes no sense without a vision to explain it. Many philosophers and scientists have claimed that all science is laden with the narrative vision of theory. Some philosophers, like Kitaro Nishida, have claimed that as soon as anything makes it through the doors of perception, it is bound in a fictional narrative.

Some may argue that the theory of relativity and the structure of the benzene ring can be verified against external reality. But if that is the basis of believing things, then subjective feelings and consciousness are off the table. This seems an odd and even myopic constraint to put on the human endeavor to understand reality.

Hume argued we should do away with these “airy sciences.” I think many of us are inclined to agree. But what exactly makes something airy? Hume wrote, we should “reject every system … however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation”. So where do observations about one’s internal states lie? The observation of those states is certainly a kind of fact. There is the fact of pain. There is the fact that I recollect having a few good moments. There is the fact that today, I have a memory of those moments. Buddhism and many other reflective sciences, even Descartes cogito ergo sum, are nothing if they are not considered attempts to understand the facts of one’s own mind.


Shamanic cultures are commonly animistic. This is the belief that all things — oak trees, animals, the river that runs by the village, a strong wind, and my grandpa’s old hickory hammer — have a spirit that we can communicate with directly.

Ovid, the Roman poet, called this belief in a proliferation of spirits superstitio. He considered it an unreasonable fear of the spiritual world. He contrasted this with religio, the rational awe of gods.

Ovid’s superstition is now wielded in popular language against anything we don’t ourselves believe in. But is a peculiar habit. Everyone is an atheist with respect to most of the gods that have ever existed. For many, belief in any spirit or God is superstition.

Somewhat predictably, scientists are not particularly good at recognizing gods, especially their own. Perhaps if put their habits into language a shaman would understand, the charade becomes clearer. For many scientists, evidence provided outside their own discipline is seen as paying attention to the wrong things (listening to the wrong gods), using the wrong methods (shaking the wrong bone rattles), and worshipping the wrong ancestor spirits (like Darwin, Hegel, Feynman, and Piaget). And we all laugh under our breath at our elder scientists’ pseudo-shamanic beliefs, such as the “bad air” theory of disease and the fire-stuff phlogiston.

Like a bunch of wolves pissing at the boundaries of their territory, the world’s various cosmologies are engaged in a territory war for the right to make sense of reality. The question would seem to be what is the right level of disbelief? Where is Ovid’s divide between the unreasonable and the rational?

It is extremely difficult to say. We all experience consciousness as a personal fact. But as Noah Yuval Harari points out in Homo Deus, modern science has barely an iota of an explanation of consciousness — what it’s good for, where it comes from, and how we know whether something has it or not. The best we’ve managed is brain imaging that captures when someone becomes consciously aware of something they can then self-report. That is a far cry from identifying consciousness in the brain. The notion that consciousness is created by our brain is merely a modern conceit. Scientists have no idea how that happens.

Leibniz argued quite effectively that we never will have such an explanation. If you blow up the machinery of the brain so that you can walk around in it, as if it were an old windmill with its cogs and pulleys exposed, you will never find anything by which to explain consciousness. If that is the case, then a scientific hard-liner can logically make the claim that the belief that an old hammer has some latent spirit stuff is really no different from claiming that you or I have consciousness.

It is extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly where Hume’s bad air leaks into our understanding of reality. Ovid’s claim makes obvious the central oversight — the line between unreasonable and rational beliefs in the god (or gods) created by the mind is simply a blur. As Charles Sanders Peirce, the father of pragmatism, put it, “The whole fabric of our knowledge is a matted felt of pure hypothesis.”


So what then is the power of the shaman?

I have argued elsewhere that it is a form of exploratory divination that taps into something extremely deep in the human mind. Whether we call that ‘deep’ force biological or cultural evolution, spiritual transcendence, or something else is largely a matter of taste. I’m with Leibniz on this one. Trying to disassociate these explanations is a fool’s gambit. But we can nonetheless appreciate the signs for what they are, the mind putting together pieces of a very large puzzle in the search for an explanation. Good shaman might simply be identified as the people with a knack for doing it. They help us tell the right story to make sense of it all.

Robert Oppenheimer spent years of his adult life building the atomic bomb. When he witnessed the first detonation over the desert in New Mexico, he quoted “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Those are the words of Krishna who, just as he speaks them in the Bhagavad-Gita, has become the boundary shattering shamanic dream. He becomes the embodiment of what we all recognize as true: through the sacred pass all points of the cosmic compass: birth, complexity, and dissolution.

Oppenheimer made sense of himself in this Hindu vision.

To remake the sense of oneself is the true shaman’s true power.

The solution to climate change, gun violence in America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the perpetual growing pains of the European Union will not come via logical application of rational assessments. If that was the case, we’d have the answer already. Psychologists continue to show that logic leads in a variety of directions depending on what you consider as real and important.

In the same way, the reduction in torture, murder, violent punishment, and violence against women and children, so well-documented over the last several centuries didn’t come about via rational application of some objective criteria. The rationalists have it wrong. These changes came about because we told ourselves different stories about who we were.

Change always comes via new visions that shatter the boundaries of realism.

Realism is just the vision you already know. The shaman is the mushroom that sprouts from the human need for a better story.

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