Isabel Santana de Rose, Ph.D
women in the history of psychedelic plant medicines

Shamanism as a Cosmological System

During a period in which studies about shamanism were mostly dominated by male anthropologists, Esther Jean Langdon stands as a pioneer in the revival of anthropological research about this topic. In the 1970s, she was part of a generation of anthropologists who conducted their fieldwork in the South American lowlands and has contributed to a significant increase in our knowledge about the Indigenous peoples of this region. 

Until the first half of the 20th century, most anthropological analyses about shamanism tried to fit this phenomenon into preconceived Western categories, resulting in only a few studies and somewhat fragmented discussions that did not contemplate the diversity of native shamanic systems. The revival of investigations about shamanism that began in the 1960s was stimulated by factors happening both inside and outside academia. By the 1980s, scientific publications and seminars dedicated to discussing this topic began multiplying. At the same time, several Indigenous groups throughout South America began revitalizing their shamanic systems. 

In this context, authors such as Langdon and Jean-Pierre Chaumeil (1983) questioned the inclusion of shamanism in classical anthropological debates about magic, religion, and science. According to them, shamanism is a core institution in the organization of the social and cosmological life of the Indigenous peoples from South America. They proposed that it should be seen as a cosmological system, associated simultaneously with several dimensions: politics, health, aesthetics, war, predation, social organization, and so on. They also proposed the idea of shamanisms in movement, which challenges classical anthropological analyses that consider shamanism as a static phenomenon, and instead highlights its constant transformations and reinventions.

Langdon was born in the United States and spent several years in the 1970s conducting fieldwork among the Siona peoples in Colombia. She moved to Brazil in the 1980s, where she contributed to studies in medical anthropology, Indigenous health policies, shamanism, oral literature, and performance. In spite of being North American, she describes her perspective as part of an “anthropology from the periphery,” because it emerged from an approach to anthropology situated in the Global South, and was influenced by her role and place as a woman scientist (Langdon, 2013b: 2017). In the 1990s, Langdon edited Shamanism in Brazil: New Perspectives (Xamanismo no Brasil: novas perspectivas) the first such compilation published in Brazil (Langdon, 1996). The book emphasizes the relevance of shamanism as an anthropological subject and calls attention to the emergence of Brazilian research on the topic. It also highlights the importance of producing more appropriate theoretical models to understand shamanism as a system, especially regarding its dynamic character and its presence in the contemporary world. 

“In her writings, Langdon proposes to approach shamanism as a cosmological system.”

In her writings, Langdon proposes to approach shamanism as a cosmological system. She highlights the connections between shamanic systems and the human necessity of expression (fulfilled by rituals, myths, symbols, and narratives), along with the search to ascribe meaning to human experience, and aesthetic issues associated with this necessity. Langdon emphasizes that although there are common elements among the diverse Amerindian shamanisms, these systems are heterogeneous, constantly changing, and should be understood within their specific cultural contexts. Another important characteristic of Langdon’s works are the analysis of Siona narratives regarding issues such as shamanic battles, shamanic flights in dreams or those induced by the consumption of yajé (ayahuasca), and illness and death caused by sorcery. She argued that in the 1970s, when the Siona were unable to conduct collective rituals with yajé, their narratives played a role analogous to that of the yajé rituals, contributing to knowledge production and to the reproduction of experiences with the invisible domains of reality. Therefore, the verbal performance of shamanic narratives expressed a cosmology and practices that reflected a shamanic vision of the world and the Siona ethnic identity (Langdon, 2020, p. 23). 

These concerns about the human necessity of expression and aesthetics are central in Langdon’s 2014 study Cosmopolitics Among the Siona: Shamanism, Medicine and Family on the Putumayo River, which was an updated version of her PhD dissertation from the University of Louisiana in 1974. It is based on four years of fieldwork conducted in the Indigenous Reserve of Buena Vista, located near the city Puerto Assis, in the region of the Putumayo at Colombia. It also includes the material from four visits to the Putumayo between 1980 and 1992. In all of these visits Langdon dedicated herself to recording Siona narratives, having collected more than 100 reports in the native language about issues related to shamanism. This ethnography centered on the Siona medical system, establishing connections between this system, the shamanic system, and the consumption of yajé. Langdon highlights what she calls praxis, that is, the interaction between symbolic meanings and concrete action in daily life, revealing the dynamic emergence of culture and the constant transformations of the shamanic systems.

Contemporary Shamanic Networks

Reflections about shamanism have permeated the Western imagination for more than 500 years. The first records of these practices were made by travelers and missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. At the end of the 19th century anthropologists started to study this topic. At this time, shamanism was perceived as restricted to specific groups that shared a common culture, history, and geographic region. Since the 1950s other social actors have started to discuss shamanism, including Western people searching for alternative spiritual experiences. More recently, Indigenous peoples themselves have become central actors in the multiplication of voices, perspectives, ritual performances, and shamanic practices conducted in very diverse settings (Langdon, 2013a, p. 20). While the concept of “shaman” was originally employed mainly in academic contexts, currently this concept is widely used by these different contemporary social actors. Therefore, in many cases, the terms “shaman” and “shamanism” have replaced the native words that traditionally refer to the diverse practices and the multiple Indigenous specialists and ritual practitioners. 

In Brazil, over the last 20 years, there has been a multiplication of contemporary shamanic networks connecting Indigenous groups and representatives to diverse non-Indigenous actors, including spiritual groups, NGOs, anthropologists, and many others. Ayahuasca plays a central role in these networks and is the most popular psychoactive substance among Western spiritual groups, often explicitly associated with Indigenous shamanisms (Langdon, 2013). Contemporary shamanic networks are characterized by the circulation of a more or less standardized set of ritual performances, aesthetic expressions, and objects associated with generic images of shamanism and Indigenous identity. Moreover, in these settings it is common to find a series of images and concepts, such as the “ecological” or “spiritual native,” “primordial knowledge,” and “traditional medicine” (see Langdon, 2013a; Langdon & Rose, 2012, 2014). It is important to point out that these concepts give way to many ambiguous translations, and are heterogeneously interpreted and used by the diverse social actors that take part in these circles. Indigenous leaders that participate in these networks often employ these images and representations in creative ways, in order to attend to their own claims and needs. 

The recent growth of contemporary shamanic networks reflects itself in the increase of Indigenous rituals directed to an urban middle-class audience, conducted in cities all over the world. In Brazil, Indigenous cultural festivals are multiplying. These are held in Indigenous villages, especially in the Amazonian region but also in other parts of the country, and include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants. The rise of these gatherings reflects the expansion of Indigenous social and political agency in these networks, and Indigenous representatives are increasingly participating and gaining visibility in Brazilian public discussions regarding ayahuasca and other issues that impact their communities. 

As suggested by Langdon (2013a), the expansion of shamanisms to non-Indigenous settings requires a reassessment of classical analytical models of shamanism. She pointed out that the emergence of contemporary shamanic networks has contributed to a renewal of the Siona shamanic practices that were apparently declining in the 1970s. Langdon suggested that her fieldwork in the Putumayo in the 1970s could be described as a situation of “shamanism without shamans.” She notes that when she left the village of Buenavista in 1974 she had predicted the disappearance of the Siona shamanic system. Influenced by prevailing anthropological theories, she never could have imagined the revitalization of this shamanic system, or that ayahuasca would become a popular and globally known substance, or even the rise of an interest among middle-class urban populations in this beverage. Langdon highlights that at that time her own ideas about Indigenous cultures had stopped her from understanding the depth of Indigenous identity and the strength of Siona shamanism (Langdon, 2020, p. 31). 

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By the 1980s some Siona had started to resume their yajé rituals, conducting sessions directed to their mixed-blood neighbors and to non-Indigenous visitors. They also began to participate in the regional healing (curandeirismo) networks that are part of the Colombian popular medical system (Langdon, 2013a). Further, at the end of this same decade, some Siona became visible and valued in transnational contemporary shamanic networks. In these settings, the new taitas performed tomas de yajé for an audience composed of anthropologists, journalists, and other urban professionals (Langdon, 2016). 

Most of the research about these contemporary shamanisms indicates that these rituals are directed especially to individual, psychological, and therapeutic issues. In this sense, they are very different from Indigenous rituals that tend to prioritize public and collective aspects. Moreover, these ritual performances tend to reflect a “much more loving shamanism” (Langdon, 2020, p. 41), displaying aesthetic expressions that represent a generic Amazonian shaman and not the particular Indigenous shamanisms. Thus, in these performances and discourses oriented to a mostly urban and non-Indigenous audience, ambiguity and aspects connected to cannibalism, sorcery, and predation are usually absent. 

There are several recent ethnographic reports from Brazil about dialogues and alliances between Indigenous groups and non-Indigenous spiritual groups. The current investigations about this subject highlight the creativity and the dynamic nature of these contemporary movements. Shamanisms today are characterized by dialogues, controversies, and equivocations between several Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. It is also important to emphasize the increasing Indigenous leadership in these networks, as well as creative Indigenous agency more broadly. According to author Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, in many cases these Indigenous reactions and the new versions of shamanism resulting from these processes are surprising and even contrary to anthropological images and expectations. 

“The concept of contemporary shamanic networks moves past these dichotomies, emphasizing the extremely dynamic and creative features of these current movements. Contemporary shamanic networks are phenomena characterized by the constant construction and multiplication of ritual practices and symbolic systems.”

The concept of contemporary shamanic networks (Langdon, 2013a) moves past these dichotomies, emphasizing the extremely dynamic and creative features of these current movements. Contemporary shamanic networks are phenomena characterized by the constant construction and multiplication of ritual practices and symbolic systems. These practices cross several boundaries—geographical, symbolic, political, and conceptual—inviting us to question Western rigid dichotomies such as “forest/city,” “Indigenous/non-Indigenous,” and “traditional/modern.”

Langdon (2014) has argued that the anthropological studies about shamanism reveal a history of anthropology itself. The anthropological concerns, concepts, and questions in the 1970s and today are completely different. Jean Langdon’s works about shamanism for over half a century reflect these transformations and also trace the changes that have happened to Indigenous shamanisms and their connections with the so-called “non-Indigenous world.” However, in spite of these changes, some topics remain constant in her writings about shamanism and ayahuasca, such as the emphasis on the associations between shamanic systems and the human necessity of expression; the analysis of aesthetic issues associated with this necessity of expression; the focus on the creativity and constant reinvention; the dynamic character and heterogeneity that characterize Amerindian shamanisms; and the concept of praxis, that calls attention to the relationship between symbolic meanings and concrete action in daily life. 

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Chaumeil, J. P. (1983). Voir, savoir, pouvoir: le chamanisme chez les Yagua du nord-est péruvien.  [Vision, knowledge, power: shamanism among the Yagua of northeastern Peru] (Paris: École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales). 

Langdon, E. J. (ed.) (1996). Xamanismo no Brasil: novas perspectivas [Shamanism in Brazil: new perspectives]. (Florianópolis: Editora da UFSC). 

Langdon, E. J. (2013a). New perspectives of shamanism in Brazil: shamanisms and neo-shamanisms as dialogical categories. Civilizations: Revue internationale d’anthropologie et de sciences humaines, 61(2), 19-35.

Langdon, E. J. (2013b). Medio siglo de investigaciones de campo: reflexión autobiográfica sobre las contribuciones de la perspectiva de género [Half a century of fieldwork: an autobiographical reflector about the contributions of a gender perspective]. Maguaré, 27(1), 215-240.

Langdon, E. J. (2014). La negociaçión de lo oculto: chamanismo, medicina y família entre los Siona del Bajo Putumayo [The negotiation of the unseen: shamanism, medicine and family among the Siona on the Lower Putumayo]. (Popayán: Editorial Universidad del Cauca).

Langdon, E. J. (2016). The revitalization of yajé shamanism among the Siona: strategies of survival in historical context. Anthropology of consciousness, 27(2), 180-203. 

Langdon, E. J. (2017). Cosmopolitics among the Siona: shamanism, medicine and family on the Putumayo River. (Popayán: Editorial Universidad del Cauca). 

Langdon, E. J (2020). Configuraciones del chamanismo siona: modos de performance en los siglos XX y XXI [Configurations of the Siona shamanism: modes of performance in the 20 and 21st centuries]. Maguaré, 34(1), 17-47.

Langdon, E. J. & Rose, I. S. (2012). Contemporary Guarani shamanisms: “traditional medicine” and discourses of native identity in Brazil. Health, Culture and Society, 3(1), 29-48.

Langdon, E. J. & Rose, I. S (2014). Medicine Alliance: contemporary shamanic networks in Brazil. In Labate, B. C. & Cavnar, C. (eds.), Ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazon and beyond (pp. 81-104). Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Art by Trey Brasher.

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