The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and Western Imagination

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For the past forty years shamanism has drawn increasing attention among the general public and academics. There is an enormous literature on shamanism, but no one has tried to understand why and how Western intellectual and popular culture became so fascinated with the topic. Behind fictional and non-fictional works on shamanism, Andrei A. Znamenski uncovers an exciting story that mirrors changing Western attitudes toward the primitive. The Beauty of the Primitive explores how shamanism, an obscure word introduced by the eighteenth-century German explorers of Siberia, entered Western humanities and social sciences, and has now become a powerful idiom used by nature and pagan communities to situate their spiritual quests and anti-modernity sentiments. The major characters of The Beauty of the Primitive are past and present Western scholars, writers, explorers, and spiritual seekers with a variety of views on shamanism. Moving from Enlightenment and Romantic writers and Russian exile ethnographers to the anthropology of Franz Boas to Mircea Eliade and Carlos Castaneda, Znamenski details how the shamanism idiom was gradually transplanted from Siberia to the Native American scene and beyond. He also looks into the circumstances that prompted scholars and writers at first to marginalize shamanism as a mental disorder and then to recast it as high spiritual wisdom in the 1960s and the 1970s. Linking the growing interest in shamanism to the rise of anti-modernism in Western culture and intellectual life, Znamenski examines the role that anthropology, psychology, environmentalism, and Native Americana have played in the emergence of neo-shamanism. He discusses the sources that inspire Western neo-shamans and seeks to explain why lately many of these spiritual seekers have increasingly moved away from non-Western tradition to European folklore. A work of intellectual discovery, The Beauty of the Primitive shows how scholars, writers, and spiritual seekers shape their writings and experiences to suit contemporary cultural, ideological, and spiritual needs. With its interdisciplinary approach and engaging style, it promises to be the definitive account of this neglected strand of intellectual history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is simply the best book on modern shamanisms ever written, largely because its author understands pre-modern shamanisms so well." Ronald Hutton, Author of Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination

"The Beauty of the Primitive is an admirable piece of scholarship. Erudite and shrewdly observed, it tells the fascinating tale of the interaction between scholarly anthropology and popular culture, as optimistic Westerners created their idealized stereotypes of shamans and shamanic practice. The book confirms yet again the observation that "we see things not as they are, we see things as we are." It is also a treasure trove of memorable stories."—Philip Jenkins, Author of Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality

"Andrei Znamenski, well known as a critical scholar of shamanism in various contexts, has written an extremely readable, erudite, and nuanced analysis of contemporary forms of shamanism. Znamenski bases his analysis on an impressive acquaintance with ethnographic and anthropological literature from the eighteenth century onward, an intensive reading of contemporary western shamanic literature, and his own research-including not only fieldwork in traditional shamanic contexts but also interviews with western shamanic practitioners. The Beauty of the Primitive will rank among the most important publications in shamanism research for years to come."—Kocku von Stuckrad, Assistant Professor, University of Amsterdam

"Travelling through time and space, The Beauty of the Primitive traces the growing appreciation of shamanism in the West as part of a growing anti-modernism. Andrei Znamenski digs deep into Russian, German, Finnish, and American sources to reveal the Western imagination of ancient and modern medicine-men, sorcerers, conjurers, magicians and spiritualists. Freud, Jung, Bogoras, Eliade, Castaneda, and Harner are but a few of the many scholars, writers, explorers, and spiritual seekers awaiting the reader in this brilliant exposé of the intellectual history of shamanic and neo-shamanic practices." —Christer Lindberg, Professor of Social Anthropology, Lund University

"Znamenski...illuminates how scientists, governments, spiritual seekers, and the general public have interacted with, interpreted, and appropriated indigenous belief systems. ...This is a valuable book that can stand beside such works as Ronald Hutton's Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. ...Highly recommended." —Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195172317
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 7/16/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrei A. Znamenski is Associate Professor of History, Alabama State University

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