Recommended Reading on Shamanism 101

I’m writing this post partly for my own benefit. Since I am a bibliophile and read voraciously, I sometimes find myself referring books to others. Every so often I’ll be asked for a list of recommended reading for those just getting into shamanism. Rather than continuing to type the same titles out over and over again, I can now just link to this post and say “Here, check this out”. (I also find this is incredibly convenient with other blog posts and articles online where it’s easier to point people to something I’ve already written.)

Keep in mind, of course, that I’ve only been actively pursuing a (neo)shamanic path since September 2007. However, I have spent over a decade as a solitary, self-taught pagan, and so discerning useful books from not so useful ones has become an acquired skill. These books can all be found in my bibliography; however, I’ve extracted a few particularly good for beginners (and yes, I fully admit to having cut and pasted the information from my biblio). Additionally, I strongly recommend checking the shamanism-related links in my blogroll. I’ve listed the books in the order I think would be most useful to read them in (separated into two different categories, neoshamanism and traditional shamanism–you don’t have to read the neo before the trad).

Books on Neoshamanism:

Webb, Hillary S.: Exploring Shamanism

This is pure neoshamanism–and the author gets points for admitting it up front. It’s a great guide to making shamanism relevant to mainstream postindustrial societies, and is a nice, down to Earth exploration of the concept. It’s got a good mix of theory and practice, too. 101, but it gave me some good ideas for integrating my practice into everyday life.

Harner, Michael: The Way of the Shaman

It’d be kinda tough to study neoshamanism without reading this book. Harner isn’t teaching “genuine Native American shamanism”; rather, he did to shamanism what Carroll did to magic in general–boil it down to its bare-bones components, sans cultural context, and present it as a working system for modern practitioners. Unfortunately, he only presents a partial perspective on what shamanism is, and leaves a number of cultural elements in there that can lead people to believe they’re doing it “just like the Indians”. I think the misunderstanding people have is that this book–or the weekend seminars that have ultimately derived from core shamanism–will automatically make you a shaman. I think it’s more accurate to say it can make you a practitioner of shamanic techniques, but one book a shaman does not make. Still, this is a useful handbook for said techniques, and as long as it’s taken in the proper context it’s an okay resource.

Endredy, James: Ecoshamanism

This is a very important book to me. Essentially it takes shamanism and plants it firmly in ecological awareness and environmentally friendly practices. While traditional shamanism isn’t all about environmentalism, therioshamanism is very much an environmentally active practice. It’s quite obvious that Endredy knows his stuff, both with wildcraft and shamanism, and it’s one of my favorite texts for reminding me of my focus on the Earth.

Books on Traditional Shamanism:

Vitebsky, Piers: The Shaman

I like this book because it’s a good anthropological introduction to shamanism–primarily traditional, but with a brief mention near the end of neoshamanism. It’s a nice blend of text and illustrations, and the author covers a lot of ground. He seems particularly interested in altered states of consciousness, and the involvement of the shaman in both the community overall, and politics (including conflict with large governments–shamanism as subversive!).

Eliade, Mircea: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

Yes, I finally got around to reading this classic. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though chewing through hundreds of pages of pure vintage academia took two weeks. It’s going to be one of those books that I go back to every so often to re-read, and will probably get more out of with each time. It’s apparently withstood the years pretty well, too–while there’s obviously newer material out there, it hasn’t become obsolete. I can appreciate the comparative aspects of the book, though it’s also good to see how cultures have different cosmologies and traditions. A nice thorough resource.

Walsh, M.D., Ph.D, Roger N: The Spirit of Shamanism

This is a superior academic text on the psychology of shamanism. Unlike earlier academic works, though, the author is careful to not allow Western bias to color a negative picture of the topic. Rather, he explains in great detail (and with in-text citations, even!) about how shamanism differs from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, the psychology behind shamanic healing (such as the placebo effect), and the psychological states involved in initiation and journeying. I took away a much better understanding of the internal mechanics of shamanism from this book, as well as some good arguments against “shamans are crazy”. One of the most recommended books on this list.

Harvey, Graham (ed): Shamanism: A Reader

This is an awesome anthology with a great collection of primarily academic perspectives on both traditional and neo shamanism. While I didn’t like every essay, I did learn quite a bit from it, particularly on some of the more interesting niches, such as Siberian shamanic gender roles, the aesthetics of Korean shamanism, and Russian documentaries on shamanism. I wasn’t as impressed by most of the essays on neoshamanism, but it was nice to see them included instead of ignored. The writing on some of the essays is somewhat tough to chew through if you’re not used to academic writing, but this didn’t hinder me too much.

These aren’t the only books on shamanism I’ve read; you can see more at Pagan Book reviews. But this is a brief booklist I’d recommend for beginners and the curious. I’ll probably add to it at a later date, but it’s here for posterity (and my easy linking needs).

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5 thoughts on “Recommended Reading on Shamanism 101

  1. Hiya Lupa,
    I was wondering if you’ve read Caitlin Matthews’ Singing the Soul Back Home?
    It was the first book I bought on shamanism (neo-), and I found it very practical and enlightening.

    Sravana

  2. I’d read your review of J. Matthews’ book, and it doesn’t sound anything like Caitlin’s to me. Great explanations of the 3 worlds, lots of exercises toward journeying – IIRC (it’s been a while since I’ve read it) it’s more core shamanism than anything specifically “Celtic” (I appear to have an allergy to most so-called “Celtic” books. lol

    As I look at it, it was first published in 1995, my edition is ISBN: 1-85906-103-6 : a revised version.

    I noticed that there was one copy on amazon.com for $81. If you can’t find it anywhere, I’d be willing to loan it to you for a bit (but I must have it back!)

    🙂

  3. More on Caitlin Matthews’ book, from her website:
    “Singing the Soul Back Home, has unfortunately gone out of stock and we have no copies until the last few have been discovered in USA and flown home. We are trying to negotiate a limited reprint for shamanic students who use it to support their journeying practice.”

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