Commentary: Modern shamans - financial managers, economic forecasters and others who help tame life's uncertainties
Shamanism hasn't disappeared in the industrialised West. It still exist in a different form, says Harvard University Manvir Singh.
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: Aka Manai explains that there are two kinds of people in the world: Simata and sikerei.
I am a simata. He is a sikerei. Sikerei have undergone transformative experiences and emerged with new abilities: They alone can see spirits.
I’ve experienced a lot since that night in Indonesia when Aka Manai told me this. I was there when an initiate first saw spirits, when he and the other sikerei wept as they saw their dead fathers swirling around them.
Societies everywhere develop complex yet strikingly similar traditions, ranging from dance songs to justice to shamanism. Though trancing witch doctors may sound exotic, the same social and psychological pressures that give rise to healers like Aka Manai produce shaman-analogues in the contemporary, industrialised West.
WHAT IS A SHAMAN?
Shamans, including the sikerei I’ve known in Indonesia, are service providers. They specialise in healing and divination, and their services can range from ending a drought to growing a business. What makes shamans special is that they use trance.
Trance is any foreign psychological state in which a practitioner is said to engage with the supernatural.
Shamans use trance and initiations to transcend humanness, assuring their clients that they can commune with the invisible beings who oversee uncertain events.
And once people trust a specialist, they go to them when they need to influence uncertainty. A sick child’s parent or a farmer desperate for rain prefers to nudge the forces responsible for their hardship – and a shaman provides a compelling conduit for doing so. This, I suggest, is why shamans recur around the world and across time.
As specialists compete in markets for magic, they fuel the evolution of practices that hack people’s intuitions about magic and special abilities, convincing the rest of us that they can control uncertainty.
Being a shaman often carries benefits, both because they get paid and because their special position grants them prestige and influence.
They characterised the religious lives of ancestral humans and are often said to be the “first profession”.
SHAMANS OF THE INDUSTRIALISED WEST
Most people assume that shamanism has disappeared in the industrialised West – that it’s an ancient tradition of long-lost tribes, at most resurrected and corrupted by New Age xenophiles and overeager mystics.
To some extent, these people are right. Far fewer Westerners visit trance-practitioners to heal illness or call rain than people have elsewhere in the world or throughout history. But they’re also wrong.
Like people everywhere, contemporary Westerners look to experts to achieve the impossible – to heal incurable illnesses, to forecast unknowable futures – and the experts, in turn, compete among themselves, performing to convince people of their special abilities.
So who are these modern shamans?
According to the cognitive scientist Samuel Johnson, financial managers are likely candidates. Financial managers fail to outperform the market – in fact, they even fail to systematically outperform each other – yet customers continue to pay them to divine future stock prices.
This faith might come from a belief of their fundamental otherness.
Johnson points out that money managers emphasise their differences from clients, exhibiting extreme charisma and enduring superhuman work schedules.
Managers also adorn themselves with advanced mathematical degrees and use complicated statistical models to predict the market. Although money managers don’t enter trance, their degrees and models assure clients that the specialists can peer into otherwise opaque forces.
Of course, money managers aren’t the only experts to specialise in the impossible. Psychics, sports analysts, political pundits, economic forecasters, esoteric healers and even an octopus similarly sate people’s desires to tame the uncertain.
Like shamans and money managers, they decorate themselves with badges of credibility – an association with the White House, for example, or a familiarity with ancient Tibetan medicine – that persuade customers of their special abilities.
As long as hidden forces shape our fates, people will try to control them. And as long as it’s profitable, pseudo-experts will compete for desperate clients, dressing in the most credible and compelling costumes.
Shamanism is not some arcane tradition restricted to an ancient past or New Age circles. It’s a near-inevitable consequence of our human intuitions about special abilities and our desire to control the uncertain, and elements of it appear everywhere.
Manvir Singh is a PhD Candidate in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University who complex cultural traditions in human societies.
This commentary first appeared on The Conversation. Read it here.