The Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine

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"A distinguished anthropologist - who is also an initiated shaman - reveals the long-hidden female roots of the world's oldest form of religion and medicine. Here is an expedition into this ancient tradition, from its prehistoric beginnings to the work of women shamans across the globe today." Tedlock combines firsthand accounts of her own training among the Maya of Guatemala with the rich record of women warriors and hunters, spiritual guides, and prophets from many cultures and times.
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"A distinguished anthropologist - who is also an initiated shaman - reveals the long-hidden female roots of the world's oldest form of religion and medicine. Here is an expedition into this ancient tradition, from its prehistoric beginnings to the work of women shamans across the globe today." Tedlock combines firsthand accounts of her own training among the Maya of Guatemala with the rich record of women warriors and hunters, spiritual guides, and prophets from many cultures and times.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Woman in the Shaman’s Body:

“Healing, birthing children, gathering and growing food, keeping communities in balance, presiding over ceremonies and rites passage, maintaining relations with the dead, teaching, ministering to those in need, communing with nature to learn her secrets, preserving the wisdom traditions, divining the future, and dancing with gods and goddesses–these are shamanic arts. And these are the arts of women. In a thoughtful way, Barbara Tedlock traces the true history of shamanism, a history in which women have always been an integral and creative part. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body illuminates the oftentimes hidden, and sometimes openly suppressed, feminine spirit that is shamanism, that is healing, that is life.” —Bonnie Horrigan
Executive Director, Society for Shamanic Practitioners  

“This book is a highly readable yet comprehensive and definitive study of the role of women in shamanism. It is without doubt the best book ever written about the female role in shamanism and perhaps the best book ever done on shamanism itself.”—Timothy J. Knab, Ph.D.,
Author of A Scattering of Jades and A War of Witches

"Barbara Tedlock did a brilliant job of weaving together her own story of shamanic initiation along with an incredible depth of research. She shatters current myths about shamanism and shows how women were the originators and key practitioners of shamanic healing and divination. In a time where we see so many women engaging in shamanic practice Tedlock offers valuable insight into the long-standing role of women in this ancient path. I truly loved reading this book!"—Sandra Ingerman, author of Soul Retrieval and Medicine for the Earth

“Scholars and lay readers alike are indebted to Barbara Tedlock for combining her personal and professional experience in this insightful, cross-cultural interpretation of shamanism.”—Douglas Sharon, director, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley

“Barbara Tedlock is part of the present big struggle to drag anthropology out of the rationalist and anti-humanist black hole in which it has found itself. Barbara Tedlock started her career in anthropology with the “distant coolness of a scientific observer.” But the K’iche’ Maya among whom she worked responded by healing her in her illness. They thenceforth taught her to practice as a healer herself. This is the pattern in advanced anthropology today. Now Barbara Tedlock has written the definitive book on women’s shamanism–its history, the way it is activated, and its particular roots in the woman’s body and in her powers of creation and procreation. The book is simply written, full of real stories, real dreams, and real shaman journeys. It will be a treasure for all adventurous women.”—Edith Turner, Editor-in-chief of Anthropology and Humanism , published by University of Virginia; author of Experiencing Ritual and The Hands Feel It

“This is a wonderful, insightful, and compelling introduction to Shamanism as "a healing practice and religious sensibility" performed by women from time immemorial to the present day. Barbara Tedlock is a working Shaman and proud descendant of Shamans native to North America. She is also an accomplished social scientist who understands the rules of empirical analysis that apply to the scholarly study of religion and ritual. With the clear, engaging prose of an expert observer and the personal experience of a spiritual practitioner, she weaves a story that is both autobiography and persuasive argument for the importance of women as Shaman world-wide and throughout history.” —David A. Freidel, Ph.D., University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University

Barbara Tedlock’s study of female shamans offers rare gifts: luminous insight, exhaustive scholarly knowledge, and accessible language that pulses with quiet intensity. After Tedlock, no one will ever again be able to portray shamanism as a male enterprise.”
 —Michael F. Brown, Ph.D. Chair, Dept. of Anthropology & Sociology Williams College and/or as the author of The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age and, more recently, Who Owns Native Culture?

“If Joseph Campbell or Mircea Eliade had been feminists, this is a book they could wish they had written. This canon-busting romp across history and around the globe, from Paleolithic Europe to contemporary North America, insists on the centrality of women to the shamanic traditions that have until now been considered the province of men. Drawing on her training in the healing arts as a young child by her Ojibwa grandmother, her later professional training with Mayan shamans in Guatemala, and her more recent observations of shamanic rituals in Mongolia, Tedlock has created a formidable work: a meticulously researched yet delightfully absorbing compendium of women’s shamanic skills across time and space.”—Alma Gottlieb, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology at University of Illinois; co-editor of Blood Magic, and A World of Babies; President, Society for Humanistic Anthropology

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553108538
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/29/2005
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 8.18 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D., is the granddaughter of an Ojibwe midwife and herbalist and was trained and initiated as a shaman by the K’iche’ Maya of highland Guatemala. She is currently Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at SUNY Buffalo and Research Associate at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For many years she co-edited The American Anthropologist with her husband, Dennis Tedlock. The author of four previous books and numerous essays, she divides her time between Buffalo, New York, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Read an Excerpt

The Woman in the Shaman's Body

By Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D.

Random House

Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0553108530

Chapter One



Half a century ago, as archaeologists worked in the wooded Pavlov Hills of the Czech Republic, they made a remarkable discovery. During the excavation of the Upper Paleolithic site known as Dolní V?estonice, they found a pair of shoulder blades from a mammoth. The bones had been placed so as to form the two sides of a pitched roof, one of them leaning against the other. Beneath them was a human skeleton, and in the earth that covered it and on the bones themselves were traces of red ocher. The body had been painted red before it was laid to rest.

If nothing more had been found in this grave, it would have added little to what was already known about Ice Age peoples and their customs. During the Upper Paleolithic, corresponding to the final years of the Ice Age, about sixty thousand years ago, people already had the same anatomy as modern human beings. In Eurasia, most of them lived not in caves but in the dark coniferous forests and wide-open steppes that lay beyond the reach of the glaciers.

This particular burial was of no ordinary person, though. A flint spearhead had been placed near the head of the deceased, and the body of a fox had been placed in one hand. For the archaeological team, led by Bohuslav Klíma, the fox was a clear indication that theperson in the grave had been a shaman; the fox had a long history as a shamanic spirit guide, in Europe and all the way across Asia and into the Americas. It came as something of a shock, however, when skeletal analysis revealed that the shaman in question was a woman.

Why is this find so important? Before the discovery of this woman--and, though it's hard to believe, for a long time afterward--Ice Age shamans were imagined as members of an all-male religious community of mammoth hunters, a sort of Flintstones private club in which manhood was celebrated and the transcendental achieved by worshiping, then negating, the feminine. This excavation--which remains the oldest known of its kind--and further work at Dolní V?estonice prove that wasn't so.

A few years later, near the shaman's grave, Klíma discovered an earthen lodge containing a number of bone flutes and a large oven filled with nearly three thousand small pieces of baked clay. Some pieces had been molded in the shape of human feet, hands, and heads, while others were fragments of animal figurines. According to the archaeologist, "this bake-oven is the predecessor of the potter's kiln, serving for the hardening and firing of the oldest known ceramic productions."1

In other words, not only do the oldest known skeletal remains of a shaman belong to a woman, but she is also the earliest known artisan who worked in clay and then hardened it with fire. She wasn't making early household utensils; no, she seems to have been making talismans or figurines of some sort, perhaps for use in her rituals and spiritual healing.

How has it happened that we've lost sight of this ancient woman shaman and what she represents? For despite the proof of language and artifacts, despite pictorial representations, ethnographic narratives, and eyewitness accounts, the importance--no, the primacy--of women in shamanic traditions has been obscured and denied. That women's bodies and minds are particularly suited to tap into the power of the transcendental has been ignored. The roles that women have played in healing and prophecy throughout human history have been denigrated. All too often women who enter medicine or the ministry still believe they're stepping into a strictly men's field; in fact, these are historically women's fields that men have since entered. Women have been characterized as mere artisans or craftspeople--weavers and potters--instead of recognized for the creative, life- giving, cosmos-shaping powers these arts represent. Why? The reasons undoubtedly range from misreading of research to sexism pure and simple. But it's time to take another look at the evidence of millennia and of cultures around the globe. It's time to reclaim the woman in the shaman's body.


My interest in women as healers and mystics goes back to my childhood. I well remember the late fall mornings I spent at my grandmother's place on the prairie of Saskatchewan. She was an Ojibwe, and her two-room home was built from hewn jack pine logs chinked with mud. The roof consisted of round poles covered with moss and mud. Outside there were tall grasses and wild berries everywhere, and I would accompany her into the woods to gather the special fruits, flowers, twigs, and roots she needed to make her strange and mysterious healing concoctions.

As we followed the narrow trails that only my grandmother knew, she pointed out each edible plant: chokecherries, cranberries, gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, violets, mints, chickweed, and all kinds of mushrooms. As we sat on boulders by the side of a stream, she told me stories handed down by her people--tales about Old Lady Nokomis, the owner of herbs, and her grandson Nanabush the shape-shifter, who changed at will from a tree trunk to an entire willow tree, then into a beaver, a deer, or a fluffy white cloud; stories about witches called "bear-walkers" who traveled about at night inside glowing balls of light.

My grandmother--whose name was also Nokomis--was raised and practiced as an herbalist and a midwife among Anglo-Canadians as well as with Ojibwe and Cree peoples. Her first husband, like herself, was a member of the group of healing shamans known in English as the Great Medicine Lodge, or in Ojibwe as the Midewiwin, meaning "mystic drum doings." She bore him five children before he died; then to support herself she traveled around the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba visiting schools, churches, and community centers and teaching herbal healing, storytelling, and massage to anyone who was interested.

For "selling" her traditional knowledge, and for healing whites as well as natives, her relatives disapproved of her. My cousins called her a witch and ran whenever they caught sight of her long braid dangling over her basket, which overflowed with peculiar roots and leaves.

Even though she often dressed in black--she wore a long-sleeved blouse, ankle-length skirt, and black shawl with purple fringe--I knew she was neither a witch nor a sorcerer. Her medicine was good, not evil.

But now I've come to think perhaps she was a witch--in beaded moccasins. After all, women healers long ago were known as "witches," a word that came from Old English witan, which meant "to know" or "to be wise." Like my grandmother, witches were the wise women who had a special knack for revealing life's mysterious truths. I still remember her explaining that our thoughts and emotions overlap and intermingle, and that this mixing of head and heart connects us to future events hidden in the dark womb of time.

My grandmother was a nonconformist, and as her second husband she chose a Scots-Irish traveling salesman whose life she had saved after a moose-hunting accident. By treating his wound she earned not only his gratitude but also his deep affection, and together they had six children.

My mother was the youngest of them, and she had no interest in learning traditional ways. She left for college and afterward married my Irish-American father. A short time later I was born.

Despite my mother's attempt to distance herself from her heritage, I loved to spend summers with my grandmother. She greeted my curiosity about the spirit world with respect and encouraged my questions. And she asked me about my dreams.


One day when I was four I told her a dream in which a tiny spotted turtle swam across the pond toward me, slithered out of the water, and plopped down beside me on a log. My dream was lucky, she explained, for Turtle was a spiritual being, a healing manito. He had picked me out and brought me a message: One day I would follow him as a healer.

That winter my parents moved to Washington, DC, where I was stricken with poliomyelitis. When my mother called her, my grandmother already knew that I was seriously ill and was preparing to come to my bedside. As I lay paralyzed inside the iron lung, she sat with me, singing songs and knitting socks and mittens for her other grandchildren.

She brought me a beautiful black and gold turtle amulet she had beaded, and hung it on the corner of the mirror suspended above my head. "Now, when you look into the mirror you will see your face with Turtle. And then you will know who you really are," she whispered (figure 1).

Eventually she convinced my parents that warm water, herbs, and gentle massage were a better treatment for my nonfunctioning muscles than immobilization in an iron lung. They finally agreed, demanded my release from my iron carapace, and brought me home to a regimen of daily swims, sweat baths, and my grandmother's herbal compresses and therapeutic massage, which sent bolts of electricity through my paralyzed limbs. In a few months I had recovered enough strength and flexibility to go to school, albeit with metal leg braces.

By the time I was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, my leg muscles had recovered so thoroughly that I had only the tiniest limp. I studied and enjoyed myself like any other college student, and tried not to think about my grandmother's lessons--until one night she appeared to me in a dream.

I was in a misty wood where long silken tendrils hung from the branches and hid my grandmother's figure. Suddenly she said, "Step where I step." And, although I could not see her clearly, I followed her purple-fringed shawl up and up into the chilly night sky. At dawn we arrived at a large, messy nest filled with serpent bones and bits of broken eggshell. She stirred the debris with a cedar stick till she found what she was looking for--an unbroken light blue speckled egg--and handed it to me, saying, "Here, take this egg; it will be your medicine power when I am gone."

The shimmering egg stunned me. My grandmother's image slowly faded into a fog lined with flickering green and purple lightning. As the mist lifted and the sun streaked across the morning sky, I awoke knowing that she had died. But she had passed on to me some of her energy, her medicine power.

That morning I stayed home from classes, waiting for the phone to ring. When the call came, announcing her death, I cried uncontrollably for hours. As a remembrance, I folded and cut out a paper loon, her clan totem and one of her most powerful guardian spirits, and placed it next to her picture on my desk. In the lonely months that followed, my grandmother often visited me in nighttime dreams and daytime visions. Sometimes she appeared as herself; at other times she appeared as a loon diving into a lake. Once she was a purple coneflower beckoning me to taste her.

A year later, she came to me in a dream as herself. Her long white hair was unbound. She was wrapped in a plaid Pendleton blanket over the shabby housedress she often had worn at the cabin when she wasn't expecting visitors. Smiling, she reached out and almost touched my hand. Then she looked at me and said, "You, my child, must always be minobimaa tisiiwin [seeking the good life] and never allow the wisdom of old Indian women to die out. Now, you are free to walk the medicine path."

Yet it would be many more years before I set foot in that direction again.


Ten years after my grandmother's death I found myself in the Guatemalan highlands, a doctoral student in anthropology, married to another anthropologist. It was there that I once again entered the world of healers and shamans. I arrived with academic intentions. Like the good scientist I was trying hard to become, I spent my days studying the exterior layers of the K'iche' Maya, photographing and tape-recording as people burned incense at outdoor shrines and danced to the music of flutes and marimbas. In an attempt to understand a group of spirit seekers, I attended a midnight séance, warning the medium in advance that I intended to watch and not participate. That night during the unexpectedly impressive ceremony I smelled a mysterious rancid odor and saw translucent blue-green balls of lightning circle the room. I felt something like electricity enter my stomach and even heard what sounded like the voice of my own dead father. But I was determined to record the event with the distant coolness of a scientific observer.

Not long afterward, however, I came down with the flu. A long way from conventional Western medical help, and giving in to a documentary urge, I hired a local Mayan healer. Don Andrés arrived wearing a wrinkled blue serge suit that hung loosely on his slender frame. His delicate aquiline nose and rose-brown face gave him an air of gentle strength, and I knew he'd recently served as mayor of his town. He set about work at once, dispensing advice about herbs and grasses, and touching my cheeks and neck with his hot hands in order to break my fever. Then he used divining crystals to uncover the source of my illness, taking on another persona as he did so. Giggling strangely and speaking in two voices--one feminine and compassionate and another masculine and stern--he said it was my rude behavior at the shrines that had brought down the wrath of the Holy World. For that transgression I would die and so would my husband, Dennis.

Stunned and scared at this pronouncement, we fled to the capital the next day. After a couple of days of intense coughing I slowly improved, and we decided to return to the village. Perhaps there was something Don Andrés could do to counteract our apparent fate. Indeed, he and his wife, Doña Talín, who was also a shaman, agreed to help us. We would spend the next nine months meeting with them every day, coming to understand the way they saw their world. They started by having us recount a dream; then, heeding their own dreams and intuitions, they went on to suggest that Dennis and I might learn to practice as healers. Don Andrés and Doña Talín had to ask permission of their ancestors, and Dennis and I had to wrestle with our doubts, but in the days and weeks that followed we did indeed cross the invisible line between scholars learning about a culture and apprentices learning how to perform within it. We were no longer ethnographers interviewing subjects; they made us the students. We stopped asking questions and put aside our translating, and they began to pass along little teaching lessons.


Excerpted from The Woman in the Shaman's Body by Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Old wisdom 3
2 Healing and the seekers of knowledge : what shamans do 14
3 Handprints on a cave wall : women shamans in prehistory 28
4 Summoning whales, serpents, and bears : women shamans in history 40
5 The disappearing act : how female shamanism was eclipsed 60
6 The mystical union : eroticism, ecstasy, and trance 79
7 Riding the wind horse : a shamanic performance 92
8 Crossroads between worlds : the power of dreaming 103
9 The dolphin wore diamonds : following the path of dreams 119
10 Song of the coneflower : herbalism and plant power 129
11 The flowery dream : the shamanic use of psychedelics 142
12 Butterflies in the moonlight : blood magic 173
13 The sacred, the dangerous, and the forbidden : menstrual taboos as feminine power 191
14 Calling forth the spirits : birth, ritual, and the midwife's art 205
15 Tied to the fabric of the sky : weavers and celestial goddesses 223
16 Lighting in the shadows : a midnight healing seance 237
17 Uniting separate realms : gender shifting in shamanism 247
18 Brave acts and visions : women warriors and prophets 255
19 Rekindling the flame : shamanic revitalization and reconstruction 270
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2013


    Well written and thought provoking. This is one of my favorite books that keeps its place of honor on my bookshelf. I originally read this book as a cultural anthropology student of the author at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Since then, it's been a yearly read of mine. A must for anyone interested women and indigenous religous traditions.

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