Ancient Techniques of Ecstasy, New York: Penguin Arkana, 1989, First published by Pantheon Books, 1964.
Shamanism by Mircea Eliade is considered to be the classic on shamanism, and it remains a reference book. However, the book is not an easy read.
Especially when compared with Terence McKenna’s books, and those by Richard Schultes, Michael Harner or Ralph Metzner, Eliade’s book takes the appearance of a rather dry scholarly work, reference manual, or standard academia. But this is its value!
The book contains so many details that one single lecture will generally not leave very deep traces, except you dispose of a photographic memory.
The eminent advantage of the book or generally of Eliade’s approach to shamanism is that his research did not take its origin in the Amazon, but in Siberia. True shamanism, the most original and untouched ritual of shamanism originates from Siberia, not from the Amazon, while today’s media suggest the very contrary. It is important at the very start of studying shamanism to learn that it is not a religion. As Eliade observes:
For all that shamanism dominates the religious life of Central and North Asia, it is nevertheless not the religion of that vast region. Only convenience or confusion has made it possible for some investigators to consider the religion of the Arctic or Turko-Tatar peoples to be shamanism./7
This is probably why Eliade sub-titled the book Ancient Techniques of Ecstasy, for it’s that, a technique, a ritual, something esoteric and not what the religion normally does; shamanism could in fact be called the higher octave of religion, like the Mystery Schools in Antiquity added something essential to Greek religion, without representing that religion. As a result, the shaman, while highly respected, and even venerated and encountered with awe, is an outcast!
On the other hand, while a certain mental alienation may precede the initiation of the shaman, Eliade’s early stance on shamanism helped to repel the standard misnomer, for the most part brought up by ignorant missionaries, that shamans were mentally ill, schizophrenic or hysterical people. The contrary is true. The shaman typically is in his set and setting the only person of a really sane mind. But for developing that sanity of mind, mental alienation is often brought about by the inner self, as a temporary condition, for the sole purpose of deconditioning the candidate and purifying his inner world, and his perception of reality. Eliade observes:
Psychopaths or not, the future shamans are expected to pass through certain initiatory ordeals and to receive an education that is sometimes highly complex. It is only this twofold initiation—ecstatic and didactic—that transforms the candidate from a possible neurotic into a shaman recognized by his particular society./14
Like the sick man, the religious man is projected onto a vital plane that shows him the fundamental data of human existence, that is, solitude, danger, hostility of the surrounding world. But the primitive magician, the medicine man, or the shaman is not only a sick man; he is, above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself. /27
Disease often has to worsen before it can be cured—that’s known since times immemorial. By the same token, those who rank high in society often go through a difficult childhood or had their trials in their first years of professional engagement. Eliade observes that many a shaman had a predisposition to shamanism since their childhood, which typically manifests in ‘being different’, having visions and precognitive dreams, but also suffering from strange fears, or even epileptic seizures:
But the future shaman exhibits exceptional traits from adolescence; he very early becomes nervous and is sometimes even subject to epileptic seizures, which are interpreted as meetings with the gods./15
Thus, shamanic power often is the result of overcoming a difficult condition, be it a mental illness or a physical trauma; this overcoming is the result of a major effort from the side of the individual, something like a personal victory, but one that was in some way aided by spiritual forces, not by ego-driven action:
There is always a cure, a control, an equilibrium brought about by the actual practice of shamanism. It is not to the fact that he is subject to epileptic attacks that the Eskimo or Indonesian shaman, for example, owes his power and prestige; it is to the fact that he can control his epilepsy./29
When we consider the extraordinary power of a shaman, for healing himself and others, and for communicating with spirits so as to alter fate, for example prevent a tribal war between neighbor tribes, we might wonder what personal qualities or characteristics such a person must develop? Are they innate, or can they be acquired? Opinions here vary from culture to culture, and it seems that communication abilities are primed in this process:
As for the Sudanese tribes studied by Nadel: ‘No shaman is, in everyday life, an abnormal individual, a neurotic, or a paranoiac; if he were, he would be classed as a lunatic, not respected as a priest.’ Nor finally can shamanism be correlated with incipient or latent abnormality; I recorded no case of a shaman whose professional hysteria deteriorated into serious mental disorders. In Australia matters are even clearer: medicine men are expected to be, and usually are, perfectly healthy and normal./31
For the Yakut, the perfect shaman ‘must be serious, possess tact, be able to convince his neighbors; above all, he must not be presumptuous, proud, ill-tempered.’ One must feel an inner force in him that does not offend yet is conscious of its power.’/29
Finally there seems to be some agreement that the shaman, while he may appear an unusual figure, is a person not of ordinary, but of superior intelligence:
According to the testimony of Belyavsky and others, collected by Karjalainen, the Vogul shaman displays keen intelligence, a perfectly supple body, and an energy that appears unbounded. His very preparation of his future work leads the neophyte to strengthen his body and perfect his intellectual qualities./29
In general, the Siberian and North Asian shaman shows no sign of mental disintegration. His memory and his power of self-control are distinctly above the average./30
Shamanism is distinct from religion also by its redefinition or alternative definition of what is sacred. Contrary to the common definition of sacredness primarily being defined by religious tradition, in shamanism sacredness has an immediate quality about it, and is often related to mystic appearances, or a direct perception of the divine. Eliade observes:
It is important to bring out this notion of peculiarity conferred by an unusual or abnormal experience. For, properly considered, singularization as such depends upon the very dialectic of the sacred. The most elementary hierophanies, that is, are nothing but a radical ontological separation of some object from the surrounding cosmic zone; some tree, some stone, some place, by the mere fact that it reveals that it is sacred, that it has been, as it were, chosen as a receptacle for a manifestation of the sacred, is thereby ontologically separated from the other stones, trees, places, and occupies a different, a supernatural plane./32
In this sense, for the truly religious mind, the detail becomes the major thing in life, and nothing will be really insignificant.
Such an attitude, that in major religions only is seen as awe in front of the divine, greatly enhances our faculties of perception. As the attitude it not projected onto a divine figure but is general, nature as such is embraced and integrated into a greater spiritual whole, and that makes that shamanism is so successful in healing the human body. For it brings along alignment, an alignment that most tribal peoples indeed possess, which makes for their peaceful and non-harmful living, and their silent dialogue with nature.
The other fundamental question that Eliade asked and tried to answer in his book was what is the intrinsic quality of the shamanic cure, and how does it come about? Eliade writes:
The shaman’s ecstatic journey is generally indispensable, even if the illness is not due to the theft of the soul by demons or ghosts. The shamanic trance forms part of the cure; whatever interpretation the shaman puts on it, it is always by his ecstasy that he finds the exact cause of the illness and learns the best treatment./328
In fact, the astonishing difference between the way shamans cure is that the shaman takes the medicine, while in our culture it’s the patient. The shaman, through the trance, enters the vibrational field of the patient, and can thus detect the real problem of their illness, by screening their luminous body. This is all the secret, or the most part of it. No medicine is needed when you can alter vibrations within the aura, an insight that today has been made useful for medicine again, and that is at the basis of what we call vibrational medicine. Eliade observes further:
The morphology of shamanic cure is the same almost throughout South America. It includes fumigations with tobacco, songs, massage of the affected area of the body, identification of the cause of the illness by the aid of the helping spirits (at this point comes the shaman’s trance, during which the audience sometimes ask him questions not directly connected with the illness), and, finally, extraction of the pathogenic object by suction./329
A particularity that can be found in many tribal nations is that illness is attributed to the interference of the spirit world. Modern medicine hardly ever asks how the patient may have contributed to bringing about their disease; the spiritogenic etiology, used by shamanic cultures, would by most doctors probably be qualified as schizophrenic.
Not so in tribal cultures. Rule and exception can be seen as reversed in the sense that in most native cultures, illness is primarily seen as a form of superimposition of malignant spirit power, and only in second instance as a possible result of an individual’s condition, weakness, or fragility, or corruption to have let it happen. Eliade describes a healing ritual:
Throughout Melanesia treatment of a disorder begins with sacrifices and prayers addressed to the dead person responsible, so that he will remove the sickness. But if this approach, which is made my members of the family, fails, a mane kisu, ‘doctor’, is summoned. By magical means the latter discovers the particular dead man responsible for the sickness and begs him to remove the cause of the trouble. /364
The most important for understanding shamanism is the shaman’s frequent use of entheogens, plants that contain psychoactive compounds, which, when taken at appropriate doses, produce a consciousness-altering effect upon our psyche and perception. There are various names for such plants, and the name that is given reflects the state of mind of the researcher.
Eliade says in his book that a shamanic culture was at its decline or caught in decadence when their people take hallucinogenic compounds for effecting the shamanic trance. Today, this opinion is clearly contradicted by the large majority of modern researchers, such as, for example, Metzner, Harner, Schultes, or McKenna who consider Eliade’s bias as a myopic view and a basic misconception about shamanism.
For example, contrasting with this view, Terence McKenna writes in his book The Archaic Revival (1992), p. 15:
While Eliade asserts that the use of narcotic substances as an aid to ecstasy invariably indicates a decadence or vulgarization of the shamanic tradition, there is reason to doubt this.
I will come to an end of my book review at this point, because this book contains so many details, and there are so many differences in ritual from tribe to tribe, and so many different forms of shamanism, that to advance more details here out of context would be rather confusing.
As a serious shamanism researcher, you simply can’t do without this reference work written by one of the finest scholars on the subject.
But on the other hand, it’s equally true that you can’t just limit yourself to this study because the author has many a peculiar perspective or point of view that other, more recent, researchers openly contradict or even invalidate. So care is needed here, and discretion, because after all, it’s not easy to form rational views and thorough understanding of something that is so remote, exotic and outlandish as shamanism, when you see it from the perspective of our own culture and tradition.