Shamansim and Priesthood-By Gerald Weiss, Ph.D

We have come to recognize two main types of religious practitioners, the shaman and the priest. The shaman is found typically in tribal cultures, the priest in state formations and so, presumably, later in appearance, although some overlap between the two may occur. The picture we derive from the literature on this subject presents a sharp contrast between shaman and priest: we conceive of them as qualitatively different.

We think of a shaman as obtaining his powers primarily from direct contact with spirits, of a priest as one who earns his credentials primarily through special training (Lowie, 1954, 179). We think of a shaman as an independent practitioner operating on a part-time basis, of a priest as a member of an organization consisting of full-time specialists (Beals and Hoijer, 1965, 585-86; Hoebel, 1966, 482; Jacobs, 1964, 381). We see a shaman as one who focuses his professional skills on individuals, particularly for purposes of curing, a priest as one who leads group activities of a ceremonial nature (Beals and Holier, 1965, 586; Norbeck, 1961, 103). We see the activity of a shaman as characterized by possession, trance, and frenzy, while we see a priest conducting routine propitiatory acts of adoration, prayer, and offerings (Casanowicz, 1925; Lowie, 1940, 310-11; Norbeck, 1961, 103-5; Shirokogoroff, 1923; Wissler, 1938, 201-6).

Broadly speaking, it is in such terms that the distinction between shaman and priest is made. One difficulty which has been overlooked, however, is that in these terms there is no point of contact between the two: they are simply two different kinds of religious practitioner, as different from and unrelated to one another as carpenters and potters among artisans. As a consequence, we are faced with the following question: where did the priest, as the later form, come from? Did he spring up out of nowhere as an independent development to challenge the shaman, or is there not some point of contact, some area of overlap that would allow us to entertain the possibility that priests developed historically out of shamans!

The notion that priests are the offspring of shamans has been argued by some writers. Sternberg (1925, 502) suggests a development from shaman to priest with a concomitant shift from possession to solicitation, from spirit to god, and from hut to temple. Chapple and Coon (1942, 407-12), while using “shaman” and “priest” interchangeably in referring to religious practitioners, nevertheless postulate that an original generalized practitioner came in time to be specialized along a number of different lines, one of these being that of a specialist in ritual.

If we entertain this possibility, however, as I propose to do here, there remains the question of how the shift might have come about, especially since the archetypal shaman and priest are commonly presented as qualitatively different in their manner of conducting professional activities. In keeping with Chapple and Coon’s developmental scheme, let us take “shaman” to mean a generalized or undifferentiated religious practitioner, one who combines general contact with the supernatural realm and application of this contact, particularly in curing. Such a practitioner is generally associated with those characteristics that have been mentioned as setting him apart qualitatively from the priest.

Let us take “priest” to mean a religious practitioner specializing in ritual. and further typified by those distinctive characteristics already mentioned for him. In these terms, a priest may be distinguished from a generalized practitioner or shaman, and from other specialized practitioners, such as the diviner, the prophet, and the specialized curer. It is also important to establish that, where he makes his appearance, the shaman engages not only in individual curing, but also in a particular form of group ceremony or ritual which we recognize as a shamanistic performance or seance. This shamanistic ritual typically (or archetypically) incorporates such elements as spirit-possession, soul-flight, ventriloquism, and movement of objects, all effected by the shaman, whose behavior combines frenzy and trance, while the assembled laymen remain passive observers. A shamanistic performance in these particulars differs from a typical priestly ritual, which might be described as formal worship since it involves a reverent formalism that excludes frenzy, and acts of propitiation or adoration that exclude virtuosity. In these terms, it is difficult to see in a priest a specialized shaman, for a priest’s professional activities appear to fall entirely outside the range of shamanistic behavior.

With these considerations in mind, let us inspect the form of the shamanistic performance I observed among the Campa of eastern Perú. This ceremony, utilizing the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis), would appear to be unusual in certain respects, and may exemplify the kind of transitional situation that would permit the transformation of shaman into priest.

The leader of this ceremony among the Campa is a religious practitioner identifiable without question as a shaman. He is a man who has passed through a period of apprenticeship but who, during that period and ever after, obtains, maintains, and increases his recognized special powers solely by the continual and heroic consumption of drugs: primarily tobacco, particularly in the form of a concentrated syrup, and ayahuasca. The importance of these substances is indicated by the word for shaman in the Campa language: sheripiari, which contains the Campa term for tobacco (sheri). Tobacco is not an hallucinogen, but in massive doses it is a powerful intoxicant; As such, it is credited as the general source of a Campa shaman’s powers to see and communicate with the spirits and to cure or (rather) to diagnose illness.

Ayahuasca is an hallucinogen which puts him directly into communication with the spirit world, as spirits visit him, or as his soul leaves his body to visit the abodes of the spirits and other distant places. Campa shamans take ayahuasca frequently, often keeping a supply on hand for this purpose. But in addition, from time to time, by decision or request, they conduct a group ceremony involving ayahuasca, which we can refer to as the Campa ayahuasca ceremony. This ceremony is essentially a shamanistic seance, but of a somewhat distinctive kind.

The Campa ayahuasca ceremony begins at nightfall since the drug requires darkness to produce its visual effects. A quantity of the drug, in the form of a thick liquid, is prepared in advance and set aside for use in the ceremony. The drug itself is called kama’rampi in the Campa language, from the verb root -kamarank-, which means “to vomit,” reflecting its extremely bitter and sometimes emetic qualities. It is prepared by boiling fragments of ayahuasca vine (also called kama’rampi) which the Campa find growing wild and transplant to the vicinity of their settlements, combined with leaves from an uncultivated tree bearing the Campa name of horóva (Psychotria viridis).

At nightfall, those who are present convene, arranging themselves sitting or lying on mats out in the open of the settlement clearing, or else under a house roof, the women separated from the men in the Campa fashion. The shaman is the center of attention, with the vessel containing the kama’rampi by him. Using a small gourd bowl, he drinks a quantity of the liquid, then gives each of the other participants a drink – a procedure that will be repeated at intervals until the supply is consumed. About half an hour later, the drug begins to take effect, and the shaman begins to sing. He sings one song after another as long as he is under the influence of the drug, and the seance may last until dawn. There is a distinctive quality to the singing of a Campa shaman under the influence of kamarampi, an eerie, distant quality of voice. His jaw may quiver, he may cause his clothing to vibrate. ‘What is understood to be happening is that the good spirits have come to visit the group that has called them: they come in human form, festively attired; they sing and dance before the assembled mortals, but only the shaman perceives them clearly. It is further understood that when the shaman sings he is only repeating what he hears the spirits sing, he is merely singing along with them. At no time is he possessed by a spirit, since Campa culture does not include a belief in spirit-possession. Even while the shaman is singing, his soul may go on a flight to some distant place, returning later. Some shamans move from the sight of the rest of the group during the ceremony and then pretend to disappear bodily on such a flight, only to return later. The soul-flight of the shaman is an optional concomitant in any case, and in its usual form is a personal experience that does not intrude upon the actual performance of the ceremony.

The songs mainly extol the excellence and bounty of the good spirits. One song marks the appearance of the hawk Koa’kiti in human form:

Tobacco, tobacco, pure tobacco
It comes from River’s Beginning
Koa’kiti, the hawk, brings it to you
Its flowers are flying, tobacco
It comes to your [or our] aid, tobacco
Tobacco, tobacco, pure tobacco
Koakiti, the hawk, is its owner
The following lines are from a song marking the appearance of hummingbird spirits:
Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, they come running
Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, dark appearance
Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, all our brothers
Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, they all hover
Hummingbirds, hummingbirds, group without blemish

The entire atmosphere of the ceremony is one of decorum without frenzy, even though the shaman is in a drugged trance. The ceremony, following a definite if simple format, presents the appearance of a group of people reverently making contact with the good spirits under the leadership of a religious practitioner, even though it is true that they remain passively appreciative spectators of the shaman’s virtuosity. Thus, the Campa kama’rampi ceremony is definitely a shamanistic performance. The spirits communicate through the shaman to the spectators, and the shaman puts on a show. Nevertheless, the particular way in which these objectives are accomplished embodies a certain ambiguity or ambivalence, because the very same acts are acts of worship as well, as the shaman, leader of the group, reverently makes contact with the good spirits and praises them in song. To this extent the ceremony takes on certain of the distinctive qualities of priestly ritual.

The effect is that of an optical illusion (Necker illusion) to an observer preconditioned to recognize the difference between the two: the same behavior looks like a seance one moment and like worship the next. That we have here a true and not merely an apparent ambivalence is suggested by a special local variation of the kamarampi ceremony in which the element of worship or adoration is more strongly pronounced.

In one part of Campa territory that I visited. the ceremony proceeds as described, except that the men take turns singing so that the shaman remains the director of the ceremony but is no longer the only virtuoso. In addition, the men and the women separately and together dance and sing in praise of the good spirits. Here the arrow of communication is unambiguously from mortals to immortals rather than the reverse, and it is in the form of adoration. Some recent missionary influence may be suspected in this case, but we are definitely still operating within the framework of the basic Campa kama’rampi ceremony, the main difference being that the element of worship has come to be accentuated and stripped of much of its ambiguity.

These, then, are the facts relevant to our problem. With respect to their interpretation, a number of alternative possibilities exist, none of which can be entirely ruled out. First, it remains possible that the points of similarity between the Campa shamanistic performance and true priestly ritual are only apparent and not real, or are not significant. Second, whatever their status, there is no certainty that from this kind of shamanistic performance true priestly ritual emerged as a matter of historical fact. Third, it is possible that Andean or missionary influence has infused the Campa shamanistic performance with the flavor of priestly ritual, given the proximity of Campa territory to the former Incan empire with its full-blown priesthood, and more than three centuries of European missionary activity among the Campa.

But there remains another possibility suggested by the Campa data, one which deserves some attention in thinking about the circumstances leading to the emergence of the priest. It is possible that the total range of variation of shamanistic phenomena unaffected by any already existing priesthood includes a rather special variant of the usual shamanistic ritual. This variant is not necessarily common, but its features are ambivalent in such a way that a slight shift in how the participants interpret what they are doing could transform an essentially shamanistic seance into a priestly ritual. If this is indeed the case, then we may have discovered the behavioral link between generalized shamans and specialized priests that could have permitted the transition from one to the other.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gerald Weiss, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida. He conducted field research between 1960 and 1964 among the Campa of the eastern Peruvian rain forest. An earlier version of this paper was read in the Hallucinogens and Shamanism symposium at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Seattle in 1968.

Reprinted with permission from Amazon SpiritQuest