In her excellent book, The Woman in the Shaman’s Body*, Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D., shares this about the origin and meaning of the word shaman:
“The term shaman itself comes from the Evenki language in Siberia, and means “the one who knows.” Other general words for shaman, such as Finnish tietäjä, Japanese munusu, Bella Coola kusiut, Nahuatl tlamatiquetl, and Quichua yachaj, all have the same meaning.”
The same is true for other cultures around the world in the words for those who knew — seers, wise women, shaman: Veleda, Filidh, Cailleach Feasa, Haegtessa, Wicce (which referred to those who were ‘wise’) … the list goes on.
Thankfully, due to more recent integrity-centered scholarship, we’re learning more and more about the long-running and respected roles women played as shaman, wise women, healers, and spiritual leaders, by many names and titles, in a variety of cultures throughout the world.
Many of these shaman were women, and indeed in some traditions, the original shaman, seers, etc. were women, period, though we wouldn’t have known this were it not for the more recent and/or courageous scholarship — women and men who dared to deviate from the prevailing academic or scientific biases and the gatekeepers thereof.
Unfortunately, the more recent scholarship makes all too evident that there was an intentional erasure, minimizing, not-seeing, overlooking, or mocking diminishment of women’s roles and contributions among historians, archeologists, anthropologists and others — what Ms. Tedlock, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Buffalo (NY) describes as a “willful misreading of the evidence.”
Tedlock writes of a glaring example of this, in her description of the oft-quoted, oft-cited “expert” on shamanism, Mircea Eliade. She notes:
“One of the most influential writers about shamanism was Mircea Eliade, a historian of religion. His book Shamanism: Archaic Technique of Ecstasy (1964) had a worldwide perspective and was consequently widely read; its sweeping synthesis made it the major resource for studying shamanism.”
“However, there are serious limitations to Eliade’s work, among them, that he never met a living shaman and thus had to depend on published sources for his information. Even so, given the written record of women shamans in Siberia, it is surprising that nearly all of the shamans he described were men.”
“In fact, he (Eliade) went out of his way to deny shamanic status to women. He glibly referred to the Mapuche women shamans of Chile as “sorceresses,” saying they were evil persons who viciously attacked others by projecting injurious objects into their bodies.”
“The predominance of female shamans in Korea he considered as “a deterioration in traditional shamanism.””
“And he said that ancient Chinese women shamans were “possessed persons of a rudimentary type.” One of the authors he cited was Jan Jacob Marie de Groot. But de Groot, perhaps the most authoritative source on ancient Chinese religion at the time, had actually noted that women shamans predominated in early Chinese shamanism and that they were considered great healers.”
“Eliade’s dismissal of women shamans extended to Japan where he described the rituals practiced by women as merely “techniques of possession by ghosts,” making the shamans sound like spiritualists. Yet again, the primary sources he used, together with more recent information, reveal that the earliest and most powerful shamans in Japan were women.”
“Eliade’s work on shamanism was so pervasive, even though it was not accurate, because of the times in which he lived and wrote. The book was originally published in French in 1951, when the psychoanalytic movement, with its strong anti-female bias, was at its high-water mark.”
“His erasure of women from important roles was not even remarked upon for forty years.” (Barbara Tedlock, The Woman in the Shaman’s Body*)
For forty years “academics” and “scientists” (etc) just rotely cited Eliade’s work without making the rather important observations Tedlock makes (in well-researched detail) in her book.
That’s pretty unscientific, for sure, but it’s also a great example of how ingrained, internalized bias, misogyny, and privilege can make us assume rather than question.
But then, Eliade and his fellow Victorian-minded peeps were simply carrying on a willfully anti-female, anti-Feminine tradition that reached back long before they picked up the baton to carry it forward.
It’s often said that when it comes to “history,” the conquering victors write the version of it that best serves their agendas, and that includes eliminating or wiping out pre-existing traditions or “the other side” of the story that may contradict or threaten their version of history.
But as Emile Zola said, you can bury truth underground for only so long before it comes bursting back to the surface with quite a force (see the full quote in the Sophia’s Children Wisdom’s Rising – And It’s Coming Out of the Ground post below).
It also lives in our ancestral, cellular, or body memory, and calls to us all the more loudly when it’s needed most and when the prevailing “truth” is so far from the mark — is so disrespecting of and even threatening to Life — that reclaimed wisdom is a necessity for the restoration of health, wellbeing, and even survival of Life in all of its amazing expressions.
We’re at that point now.
You’ll find quite a bit on reclaiming the Feminine and ancestral wisdom topics here at Sophia’s Children and in the Sophia’s Children archives — after all, that’s been the founding and a primary purpose of the blog since its inception in 2005!
There are also some excellent posts shared by some of my fellow bloggers. Here’s one of each to start with:
Wisdom’s Rising – It’s Coming Out of the Ground (from the Sophia’s Children archives)
And my fellow blogger, Laura Bruno, shares this excellent post, Max Dashu – Restoring Women to Cultural Memory.
We are un-erasing and remembering now.
Find more about Barbara Tedlock and The Woman in the Shaman’s Body here.