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Tracking the Shaman Across Ancient Europe Volume 58 Number 5, September/October 2005
by Beebe Bahrami
The Quest for the Shaman

What do Merlin, red ocher, Venus figurines, bog bodies, and Dionysus have in common? In The Quest for the Shaman (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005; $34.95), they are evidence of shamanism's long existence in Europe, from Paleolithic through early Celtic times. Authors Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green--she is a specialist of the European Iron Age and Roman Europe, and he is an expert in European prehistory and human origins--present a broad array of archaeological and anthropological evidence to map this presence.

It's an undertaking that provokes reasonable questions. What defines shamanism? How can you accurately interpret the symbolic content of prehistoric remains such as rock carvings or cave paintings? And what is the evidence that they are shamanic or sacred? To find out, the Aldhouse-Greens first tap into the vast body of anthropological literature on shamanism, a phenomenon found on every continent. Often set apart from the rest of society, a shaman typically alters consciousness through chanting, drumming, or drugs to access the spirit world on behalf of the community. Spirits and animals often help. This picture of shamanism may offer insight into certain archaeological evidence--for example, late Paleolithic "Venus" figurines from Balzi Rossi, Italy, or a half-bison, half-human painting in Chauvet Cave, France, which may depict shamanic shape shifting--becoming or fusing with an animal.

[image] An 8th-7th-century B.C. bronze chariot from Strettweg, Austria, shows a sacrificial procession: The stag will be sacrificed to a goddess by the ax-wielding man. (© Erich Lessing/Art Resource) [LARGER IMAGE]

The authors also bring in a diversity of sources to support viable interpretations for ancient European ritual and sacred behavior, from cave paintings to Iron Age graves, Greek dramas to Welsh tales, oral histories to living shamans. In both ancient and modern northern Eurasian images, for instance, the elk is a symbol found in rock art, burials, and oral histories. It represents prosperity, life's regenerative powers, and an intermediary between human and spirit worlds.

Given the potential pitfalls of reading the archaeological record for sacred content and of engaging shamanism over so broad a time, the authors offer a range of plausible interpretations without adhering to any one theory. The prevalence of red ocher in prehistoric rock art and burials might suggest a sacred use, perhaps by a shaman, or it might be a very practical agent to mask the smell of a decaying corpse. Bog bodies from northwestern Europe may have been special individuals in their societies; their deaths have elements of sacrifice, including traces of hallucinogenic ergot in the belly and a careful postmortem positioning of the body. But do these really indicate shamanic status?

Writer and anthropologist Beebe Bahrami is a specialist on shamanism.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America