Shamans and Spirits

Written and First published at, July 2008

Shaman treating a patient, Edward De Groff

Shaman treating a patient, Edward De Groff

In a remote outpost of the New World, Sitka, Alaska in 1892 the photographer Edward de Groff took a series of posed pictures showing a Shaman treating an ill patient and torturing a witch. (Fig 1, 2) Two of these made it into the local paper. The shaman has been identified as Dr Pete of the Wolf 6 clan of the Sitka Tlingit. By the time the photograph was made he had given up the practice of a Shaman. 

To come across a photograph of a Native American Shaman practicing his rites of healing in a modern day coffee table book is to encounter a cross section of contradictions and traditions concerning photography’s historical role in the colonial, anthropological, religious, philosophical and material legacy. 

In many cultures there are those who display an ability to undergo experiences that bring them to the edge of what would be considered rational.  These experiences are described by Gloria Flaherty as including “weightlessness, ascensionism, bi-location, depersonalisation and fragmentation”; experiences that are related upon re-entry into everyday reality in ways that touch the members of their tribe and bring about well-being for the tribe. Using visions, communication with the spirit world and ecstatic rites, frenetic dancing, speaking in tongues, using music dance and costume in theatrical performance Shamans offer to become a bridge between the worlds of the visible and invisible. 

“Shamanism is frequently described as the world’s oldest religion. Some scholars, however do not believe that it cannot be classed as a religion, pointing out that shamans are not priests, that they do not supervise the moral order of their communities and that they do not assume formally designated responsibilities. Furthermore, it is claimed that shamans neither worship specific deities nor follow a carefully prescribed set of liturgies and laws”

It is precisely this lack of authority, the absence of doctrine and the relationship to the irrational that has aroused the curiosity of intellectuals for centuries (Flaherty, 5).Shamanism has been described in numerous ways numbering almost as many cultures and languages; wizard, soothsayer, faith healer, magician are some examples of alternatives in English. 

The purpose of this essay is to examine the context of photographs of Shamans from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, looking at the relationships between photography, science, imagination and the occult. Whilst Anthropological photographs of Shamans are largely associated with scientific objectivity, I will look at Spirit Photography from the same era to examine the contradictions between the scientific uses of and its role as a tool for visualising the irrational.

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