BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner

The Way of the ShamanThe Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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From tripping on ayuhuasca in Peru to sucking the evil spirits out of patients, Harner offers an overview of shamanic methods and practices. While it would seem like such an undertaking would be a thick tome given the wide variety of cultures in which Shaman are a fixture, Harner suggest that there is a remarkable similarity of methods used by these “medicine men” be they in the Americas, Central Asia, or the South Pacific. Of course, at a tight level of granularity there are differences, and Harner gives examples of such differences here and there – usually using examples of the Shamanic practices he has studied in South and Central America. However, this book is more the high altitude over pass of the landscape.

There are seven chapters. The first couple of chapters both set up the book and hook the reader with a detailed discussion of Harner’s ayuhuasca — and other mind / mood altering substance – experience. It should be pointed out that not all Shaman use psychedelics and Harner describes in detail alternative approaches to achieve altered states of conscious that involve a combination of drumming and meditative practices.

Chapter three discusses altered states of consciousness, and what Harner calls the “Shamanic State of Consciousness” (SSC) which is the altered state that is pursued by medicine men in their practice. Chapter four describes the concept of power animals and the role that they have in health and illness. (i.e. from the Shaman’s view, an illness might be seen as the result of lacking such a “spirit animal.”) The final three chapters discuss practices such as how the Shaman can acquire a power animal for the patient or how he / she might extract a malevolent influence.

I found an interesting corner being turned in this book. In the opening chapters it reads much like an anthropologist’s scholarly account. Even talking about tripping on psychedelic substances, it’s all with the grounded feel of a scientific mind. However, in the latter half of the book, it reads as though Harner truly believes that the altered state of consciousness is actually a sort of parallel dimension with an intrinsic reality unto itself. I don’t know whether this is a tactic to feather it in for skeptical readers or if it reflects Harner’s own internal journey. (It’s definitely a hard line to walk when writing a book that one hopes to be read by both scientific rational skeptics and religious true believers.) At any rate, the book gets a bit wilder as it goes along. In the beginning, the reader might think the book a discussion of how a powerful placebo effect is achieved, but by the latter chapters it seems one is considering how malevolent spirits can be trapped or extracted from a patient.

As for ancillary material, there are line-drawn illustrations, annotations, a bibliography, and two appendices. The first appendix is about drumming and gives details about what kind of drums and rattles the would-be Shaman should seek. (Drumming plays a major role in achieving the proper state of mind.) The second is a detailed description of a game played by the Flathead Indians. I should note that I read the 3rd edition of this book. The original was published in 1980.

I found the book intriguing as one interested in how people of various cultures achieve altered states of consciousness, how they experience such states, and why they pursue them in the first place. I’d recommend it for a reader who is curious about Shamanic practices – even one who, like me, is a complete neophyte to the subject.

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