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Shamanism less ‘counter-cultural’ than followers think

01 June 2011

Tens of thousands of Dutch people are followers of something they call shamanism. The term ‘shamanism’ originates from Siberia, where it was first encountered by Europeans towards the end of the seventeenth century. Contemporary western shamanism is presented as a form of counter-culture, but this is not entirely correct, according to research carried out by University of Groningen PhD candidate, Jeroen Boekhoven. ‘Unbeknownst to them, the ideas of shamanists correspond quite closely with the principles of neoliberal capitalism.’ Boekhoven will be awarded a PhD on 9 June by the University of Groningen.  

In his thesis, Boekhoven unravels the history of the shamanist concept and analyzes modern shamanism. Much of his thesis is based on information obtained from shamanist circles. He demonstrates that the term shamanism has always had several meanings. ‘Westerners first encountered shamans in Siberia towards the end of the seventeenth century, but very soon all kinds of traditions from across the world (from Buddhism in Tibet to Indian customs in North America) were being referred to as shamanism.’ 

From demonic to therapeutic

Ideas about shamanism reveal a wealth of information about the time and context in which they evolved. Christian theologians regarded shamans as sorcerers, while enlightenment figures considered them to be retarded. During the romanticism of the eighteenth century, shamans were seen as artistic, gifted, mystic figures, and in nineteenth-century folklore, shamans are described as the founding fathers of folk culture. Twentieth-century psychologists dubbed them archetypal therapists, and even the shamanists themselves have differing views of shamanism.  

Careless usage

In Boekhoven’s opinion, too little attention has been paid to the plethora of meanings given to the term. ‘The term is very widely used, both within and outside the academic world, but no-one has taken the trouble to make a critical analysis.’ Anyone claiming that the term shamanism is unusable is dodging the issue, says the researcher. But he also warns against accepting the meaning given to the term by its followers. They are incorrect in their claims that shamanism is a form of anti-modern, anti-capitalist counter-culture, explains Boekhoven. 

Shamanism as a market

In his research, Boekhoven paints a picture of the world of shamanism as an international market with shamanist ‘products’: from courses and books to magazines, schools, tours, training programmes, therapy, etc. As part of his fieldwork Boekhoven attended shamanist courses and workshops, and was struck by the open attitude and tolerance of those taking part. A wide range of views of shamanism seem able to exist side by side.  

Highly individualist

Modern shamanism is democratic and highly individualist, making it different from past views of shamanism. In the 1960s, members of a cultural elite identified with shamans, thereby securing a special, charismatic position for themselves. Jim Morrison of The Doors, for example, saw himself as a shaman because he had shamanist ‘powers’. But since the 1980s, shamanism has been open to the masses. During practical sessions, participants are urged to take control of their lives. The belief that people are responsible for their own path and development is typical of this era, says Boekhoven. ‘Although shamanists claim to reject a society that is so far-removed from nature, in fact they are guided by the principles of neoliberal capitalism.’ 

Curriculum vitae

Jeroen Boekhoven (Waddinxveen, 1963) studied theology at the University of Groningen. He taught at the Academy for Social Studies at Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen. Boekhoven will be awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. His supervisors were Prof. Y.B. Kuiper and Prof. J.N. Bremmer and his thesis is entitled: Genealogies of shamanism. Struggles for power, charisma and authority.  

More information

Jeroen Boekhoven, j.w.boekhoven  

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.52 a.m.
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