The Evolution of God by Robert Wright


Do shamans have more sex?

Excerpt from Chapter 2: The Shaman

Shamans have often been good at converting their powers into material gain. And they’ve done so whether the powers were benign or malicious. Here is [the anthropologist Edward Horace] Man on Andamanese shamans: “It is thought that they can bring trouble, sickness, and death upon those who fail to evince their belief in them in some substantial form; they thus generally manage to obtain the best of everything, for it is considered foolhardy to deny them, and they do not scruple to ask for any article to which they may take a fancy.”

In some societies, the shaman’s remuneration, like that of modern doctors, came on a per-service basis. In exchange for treating a patient, a shaman might receive yams (in Micronesia), sleds and harnesses (among the Eastern Eskimo), beads and coconuts (the Mentawai of Sumatra), tobacco (the Ojibwa), buckskin (the Washo of central Nevada), slaves (the Haida), or even, among some Eskimo, a sex partner—a satisfied customer’s wife or daughter, on loan.

Among the Nomlaki of California, if a shaman said, “These beads are pretty rough,” he meant it would take more beads to send him into curing mode. In other cultures the shaman could be saved from this unseemly haggling by a spirit that set the fee, leaving it to the shaman to accurately report the supernaturally regulated price. Here is an anthropologist’s account of a Nootka shaman attending a seriously ill patient:

He gave a few tentative shakes of his rattle and began to hum a spirit song, deep in his throat. It took a while to get in good voice. His humming became bolder, the clicking of his rattle sharper. By this means he called his spirit to his aid. Now the time had arrived for the immediate relative of the sick person to stand up and call his offer of payment: blankets, furs, canoes.… According to conventional belief, the shaman himself had nothing to do with accepting or refusing the offer. His spirit attended to that.… Should it be insufficient, the supernatural being would draw away, removing his aura of power. The shaman’s throat weakened, his song died away to a low hum again. The patient’s relative then had to increase his offer. When at length it satisfied the spirit he drew near once more, and the shaman’s song welled forth.

In refreshing contrast with modern medical practitioners, some shamans guaranteed their work. In western Canada, a Gitskan shaman, given blankets for his services, would return them if the patient died. Among the Shasta, to the Gitskan’s south, one half the fee was refundable.

The Crow (who, perhaps not coincidentally, had extended contact with white culture) developed one of the more thoroughgoing spiritual marketplaces, complete with intellectual property. Those whose vision quests had been successful could sell some of their shamanic power to the less fortunate, often in the form of potent rituals and accoutrements, such as songs and styles of dress. One Crow bought a ceremonial face-painting pattern from his own mother.

Even shamans who got no fees or gifts might benefit from their work. Among the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, payment for service was rare, but, as one anthropologist observed, “one abstains from anything and everything” that might put the shaman “out of sorts or irritate him.” Moreover, in pre-agricultural societies, as in modern societies, high social status, however intangible, can ultimately bring tangible benefits. Ojibwa shamans, one anthropologist reports, received “minimal remuneration,” working for “prestige, not pay. One of the symbols of religious leadership prestige was polygyny.… Male leaders took more than one wife.” In his classic study The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that, among some Eskimo, “a forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance.… An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning).”

So here is the pattern: in pre-agricultural societies around the world, people have profited, in one sense or another, by cultivating a reputation for special access to the supernatural. It’s enough to make you wonder: Might they, in the course of establishing their bona fides, sometimes resort to deceit? Was the average shaman a fraud—or, as one anthropologist put it, a “pious fraud”? …







“One World, Under God”
(The Atlantic article)