Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green. The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005. Hardcover, 240 pages.
From the Stone Age to the seventh century A.D., shamanism was an integral part of ancient Europe. This richly illustrated volume, created by a scholarly husband-and-wife team, explores the world of shamanism based not merely on cave paintings, as has become customary. It also makes good use of other available evidence, such as artifacts (e.g., figurines, jewelry, musical instruments), trance-inducing music, dance, and ritual practice within an anthropological context, and the innate capacity of the human brain for trance states, which are fundamental to shamanism.
The authors are well qualified for such an innovative approach. Miranda Aldhouse-Green is a professor of archaeology at the University of Wales, Newport, and the author of several works, including Dying for the Gods (a study of human sacrifice). Stephen Aldhouse-Green is a professor of human origins at the same university and also has authored several works on prehistory.
Writing in an engaging style, the authors take the reader on something of a “shamanic quest” into the distant past. The journey starts with Stone Age burials that clearly show the existence of rituals some 25,000 years ago. Often the skeletons or particular parts of them were stained with red-ochre color, suggesting that they had first been defleshed. There is good evidence for an unappetizing custom among both the Neanderthals and the early humans: cannibalism.
The Aldhouse-Greens see the ever-popular Paleolithic caves as places for shamanic journeys to the other world and of sensory deprivation. They plausibly suggest that for the shamans, the cave walls were thin veils concealing the underworld.
After visiting the Paleolithic, the reader is taken on a tour through the Mesolithic and the Neolithic following upon the last ice age. The evidence for shamanic activity is more ample and, as we approach historical times, also becomes more comprehensible. The authors speak of the use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol, and the role of familial or public feasts during the Neolithic era.
One of the more spectacular aspects of shamanism is the belief that the shaman can transform into another being, usually an animal. Evidence for this belief in shape-shifting exists already for the Paleolithic but becomes more explicit in Neolithic art. It goes hand in hand with the belief that the world is animated. Animals are spirits and rocks talk. The shaman is an individual with special gifts, which permit him (or her) to access deeper levels of the world and retrieve from the hidden realms knowledge and power for the benefit of his people. Among other things, the shaman is a healer of body and mind. Above all, he (or she) is a master of trance.
As this volume makes clear, the shamanic tradition has enjoyed a truly remarkable continuity, extending right down into the Iron Age (the end of the book’s journey) and beyond into modern times, where tribal peoples still have recourse to the shaman’s wisdom.
This work is a veritable tour-de-force in comprehending the mind and culture of bygone ages and, indirectly, modern shamanism. The authors are not afraid to use their intuition and speculate with appropriate caution, which makes this book far more exciting and rewarding reading than many others of this genre.
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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