Re: virus: Sham(an) again

Eva-Lise Carlstrom (
Fri, 12 Sep 1997 13:46:31 -0700 (PDT)

On Fri, 12 Sep 1997, David McFadzean wrote:

> After catching up on the Shamen thread I regret I wasn't here
> to support Wade who seemed to be attacked, not so because he
> was wrong, but because he was politically incorrect to suggest
> another culture might be mistaken about something. Well we
> don't have to leave our own culture to find a shaman, ours are
> called psychics and you can talk to them on the phone for
> only $4.50/minute. Does anyone here doubt that psychics are
> shams?

David, you do have a point, and it's a good one. I, for one, am willing to
stick my neck out and say that Psychic Friends Network and similar
services are selling, labeled as supernatural insight, a combination of
guesses, feedback, and simulated friendship. I think such services are a
total waste of money, but obviously some people don't, or they wouldn't be
in business (in some cases, it's possible that consulting the service may
even result in a net improvement to someone's life, for whatever natural
reasons). But I don't think the existence of such con games is sufficient
evidence to establish that all people labelled as shamans are selling
similar hot air. Which seemed to be the claim in question. Those of us
arguing against this blanket dismissal were saying such things as:

"People we call shamans may be doing valuable practical things that are
simply not understood (such as using functional medicines)",

"People we call shamans may be doing things that are valuable for memetic
reasons (such as changing someone's attitudes and perceptions to help them
reach a goal)",


"People who would be called shamans in one culture may be called something
else in another culture, depending on how what they do is understood".

The existence of shams neither proves nor disproves the existence of
useful shamanism, although it certainly disproves any claim that *all*
shamanism is useful.

To change approaches on this question--
While I was in college, I volunteered with the local school district,
leading a Junior Great Books discussion group of about eight bright,
self-selected seven-year-olds. Our reading materials consisted of
booklets of carefully-chosen folk stories, with suggested questions for me
to introduce for discussion. This was not an arrangement where there were
right and wrong answers, nor one in which I was to serve as final arbiter,
but rather one in which I would mediate discussion and argument among the
kids about their interpretations of the stories.
One of the stories concerned a man who, for some reason I can't
now recall, had to undergo an ordeal in which he was to spend all night
alone on top of a mountain without cover or fire, and was generally
expected to freeze to death. He feared for his life, but an old man took
him aside and told him he would help him live. The old man would climb a
nearby mountain and keep a bonfire burning all night in the first man's
line of sight, and if the the man being tested would watch this fire
unfailingly all night, it would keep him warm and he would survive the
night. He did as the old man said, watching the distant fire intently all
night, and he survived and attained his goal (being acquitted of a crime,
or marrying a princess, or something).

Before I continue, relating my own and the grade-schoolers'
interpretations of this story, I ask the reader, and particularly David:

Did the fire help the man survive the night? If so, how?

"there is no such word as 'shamen'"