First Seoul International Consultation:
Christianity and Shamanism


S.A. Mousalimas

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  1. Significance of the Consultation.
  2. A Problem of Terminology.
    1. What does the term shamanism mean?
      1. Two meanings.
    2. Where does the term shamanism come from?
    3. Large-scale International Conferences for the Study of Shamanism.
    4. A Clash of Categories.
  3. Resolutions adopted by the Consultation.


The Significance of the Consultation

This is the first international consultation or conference that has ever been convened to explore the relationships between Christianity and shamanism formally and thematically.

It took place in Seoul, Korea, 25 - 30 June 2000, under the auspices of the Orthodox Church in Korea with the Theological Committee of the Korean National Council of Churches.

The proceedings are organized intrinsically into two sections for publication. The first part concentrates on Korea. The second part concentrates on the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) . Each part begins with chapters contributed by authors with in-depth personal and professional experience in the region; then, each part finishes with a chapter written from an outside theoretical perspective as well. It is interesting to see how the latter perceptions coincide with the former.

Korea is well known. It is the Republic of Korea, referred to sometimes as South Korea. It probably requires no introduction geographically or demographically for international readers.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia) is a massive region of northeast Asia in the Russian Federation. This is the largest internal, autonomous republic of the whole of the Russian Federation today. One may imagine the location of its capital city, Yakutsk, by a projecting a line of longitude northward from Seoul through northeast Asia. Yakutsk would be found near this line to the far north towards the Arctic Circle. This city is located at 62 degrees, 13 minutes, north latitude, by 129 degrees, 49 minutes, east longitude; while Seoul is situated at 37 degrees, 33 minutes, north by 126 degrees, 58 minutes, east. The Arctic Circle is found at approximately 66 degrees, 30 minutes, north latitude.

The predominant national group (ethnic group) of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) are the Sakha people, also referred to as the Yakut people. References in this volume are to the Sakha (Yakut). Indigenous minority groups in the region include the Evenk (Tungus) and Even (Tungus), as well as the Yukaghir, the Dolgan, and some branches of the Chukchi, among others. The population also consists of Russian old-settlers, whose culture can be referred to as one of the ethnic cultures of the Arctic; as well as numerous immigrants from throughout the former Soviet Union.

The consultation provided the first opportunity for an international convocation to focus formally on the dynamic relationships in these regions of northeast Asia, specifically Korea and Yakutia: dynamic relationships between Christianity and shamanism.

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A Problem of Terminology

What is shamanism? The term itself is a recent construct, a newly coined word, a neologism. Some of the ways in which it is interpreted have imposed some challenging problems. Indeed, this is a reason why the consultation was organized and convened: to identify and address such problems.

Let us begin, therefore, by considering the term shamanism itself. What does it mean? Where does this term come from?

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What does the term shamanism mean?

The reader will discover explicit definitions of the term in some of the chapters of these proceedings, as well as implicit definitions in other chapters.

These definitions, implicit and explicit alike, are typical of the widespread use of the term shamanism in academic literature and popular discourse today. If we begin by briefly noticing some aspects of these definitions from the chapters now at the outset, then we may be able to articulate a useful generality in this Introduction.

Among the Korean material, in Chapter 1, Bishop Soterios of Zelon approaches shamanism as a particular orientation towards a world of spirits; he indicates the depth of this shamanism from pre-historical evidence in the Korean peninsula; and he describes various customs and attitudes that are associated with it in Korea today. In Chapter 2, Dr Cha glosses the Korean term (mu) as shamanism, and she concentrates on the typical kuts (rituals) of the mudang (shaman). In Chapter 3, Dr Mousalimas refers to cosmology, or worldview, as he refers to various dimensions of traditional folk culture, including the mudang (or paksu) as an aspect.

Here, just from these three examples, we may already see that the term shamanism is used sometimes specifically with reference to mu and to the kut of the mudang; it is also used with regard to an orientation to a spirit-world that affects numerous customs; while other times, at its widest extent, it is even used with regard to folk culture in general.

Among the Yakutian material, in Chapter 5, Dr Fedorova, a philologist, poses the question explicitly: What does shamanism mean for the Sakha (Yakut) people? She identifies an inherited orientation towards spirits, and she describes this orientation as a part of the indigenous culture of the people in Yakutia. She explains and promotes the use of the Sakha (Yakut) phrase ayi yorehe for studies of this orientation, and indicates its currency. It is, as she says, a more accurate term than the word shamanism; and she explains that it involves the Sakha people's worldview, and the moral principles of the elders about how we should live in harmony with the surrounding world, how we may survive in the harsh conditions of the Arctic

In Chapter 6, A.N. Shishigina explains the analyzed findings from a survey of five-hundred-and-twenty (520) people. The survey has been designed to ascertain the understanding of the term shamanism among the sample populace in Yakutia, and to ascertain whether this term holds a positive or negative meaning for them. In addition to the analysis of the survey (which one may read in the chapter), she provides her own perception that shamanism is a wide concept and that it plays an important part in the making of cultures and the Weltanschauung (worldview) of the people, which is not limited to the boundaries of religious definitions.

Here, again, now from these two examples from Yakutia, we may see that the term sometimes carries a meaning of a spiritual orientation that is part of the culture; while other times, at its widest extent, it tends to signify something that affects the entire Weltanschauung (worldview) of a people.

Furthermore among the Yakutian material, Dr Shishigin in Chapter 4 uses the term shamanism virtually as a synonym for paganism in Siberia and eastern Russia. (Significantly, he indicates a connection between the traditional shamanistic worldview in Yakutia on the one hand and Manichaeism on the other hand, which had much influenced the cultural development of the peoples inhabiting Siberia and Central Asia. We may anticipate that the possibility will become significant for further comparative studies.)

Similarly, in Chapter 7, Dr Arzhanukhin uses the term shamanism as a subset in his references to paganism, usually combining the two into a single phrase when he uses them as paganism and shamanism. He does this as he refers to the history of Russia and as he refers to contemporary events in Russia.

Each of these definitions, whether explicit or implicit in the chapters, reflects a use of the term of shamanism that is found in academic studies and in popular discourse. A useful generality can be gleaned from them, about two meanings of the term today.

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Two meanings

We may recognize two meanings of the term shamanism: a narrower meaning and a wider meaning.

The narrower meaning applies to the activities of shamans specifically. This meaning becomes more specific when the term shaman is a direct rendition of a word that is specific to a particular type of functionary, such as the mudang (or paksu) in Korea.

However, individual differences exist even within types. This insight was expressed during the consultation. The need for accuracy and understanding was emphasized. Hasty generalizations were avoided even with regard to the narrower meaning of the term.

The wider meaning of the term shamanism encompasses whole cultures of northeast Asia and the Arctic, pre-Christian or non-Christian. Generalized worldviews along with various forms of folk healing, dances, songs, and other customs are referred to as shamanistic.

Specialists and scholars in this field will be aware that the term shamanism is applied in its wider sense to whole cultures in other regions also, including for example Native American cultures; and this usage will be indicated further in the next section of this Introduction.

As narrower and wider meanings of the term shamanism both exist in academic as well as popular discourse today, both meanings need to be addressed in a consideration of shamanism in relation to Christianity; and both have been addressed in these proceedings.

Both meanings, the narrower and the wider, will be found as we review the origins of the term shamanism, in the next part of the Introduction.

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Where does the term shamanism come from?

The perception is generally held that the term shaman derived from words of similar pronunciation in the Tungus languages (or perhaps more widely in the Manchu-Tungus sub-language family of the Altaic language family).

The Tungus people and languages have a vast geographic dispersion historically throughout Siberia and Yakutia into the Far East, ranging from the Ob River Basin in northwestern Siberia at their northwestern-most extent to Manchuria and the easternmost Amur River Basin at their southeastern-most extent.

The Tungus words evidently denoted a sort of ecstatic, a sort of person who experienced ecstasies in union with spirits more often than other people and who fulfilled various social roles among the tribes. Assimilated into the Russian language through early contact, the word shaman came to be applied in Russian literature to similar sorts of persons, those with similar propensities or capacities and with similar social functions, among other Siberian and Arctic nations (or ethnic groups) also.

Correlate with the noun shaman, the verbal form shamanstvo developed in the Russian language to signify the typical activities of these shamans who entered into ecstatic states of mind and experience. It signifies a sort of activities, the ecstasies of the shamans.

As used in Russian literature during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these words ~ the concrete noun shaman and the active verb shamanstvo ~ were relatively specific. They designated a sort of functionary and activities in a circumscribed geographical region.

The abstract term shamanism was coined during the twentieth century, if perhaps not somewhat earlier. This probably occurred in conjunction with academic hypotheses about the evolution of religions, as notions of linear social evolution were then in vogue in academic circles.

The term shamanism was written in some literature to indicate a level somewhat above animism and below polytheism in the process of human social evolution. It was ranked low. The only category lower than animism was mana-ism, if that term was used at all. At the top of the progressive scale was either absolute-monotheism or atheism depending on the proclivity of the theorist (and it was often the latter).

Independent from those hypotheses of social evolution however, independent also from their intrinsic attitudes, we find the term shamanism fully developed in usage in the important studies conducted by S.M. Shirokogoroff (Shirokogorov). Two journal articles (not the only ones, but the ones that remain most readily accessible) contain this term in their titles as written by him. They were published in 1923 and 1924.

The first of these two articles by Shirokogoroff was a succinct General Theory of Shamanism among the Tungus, published in the Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (volume 54, pages 246-249) in 1923. The second, also succinct, posed the question in its title What is Shamanism?. It was published in The China Journal of Sciences and Arts (volume 2, numbers 3-4, pages 275-279 and 328-371) in 1924.

These succinct articles preceded the appearance of his thorough and monumental study titled Psychomental Complex of the Tungus, published as a book in London in 1935. It is an important study as the author applied his expertise in the field of psychiatry to understand the workings of the Tungus shamans. (To my knowledge, this was the first-ever scientific analytical study; and in my experience, it remains unsurpassed in the depth of its insights from a scientific analytical viewpoint.)

The distinctions that he makes between individual shamans among the Tungus are vital and very useful for studies. Here we may recall the insights expressed by our consultation participants who emphasized, from their own knowledge, the fact that shamans differ individually and that hasty generalizations should therefore be avoided.

In this book, Shirokogoroff uses the term shamanism with specific reference. It refers to the ecstatic activities of the Tungus shamans, among whom the very term shaman originally derived.

By the mid-twentieth century, the term shamanism had been diffused to nearly global application. We find this in the comprehensive study by Mircea Eliade titled Chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l'extase, published as a book in Paris in 1951. The English translation is Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, published in 1964.

While he extended the term to create a nearly universal category that subsumed almost all phenomena of similar appearance, which he had observed: these phenomena were specific. For Eliade, shamanism meant archaic techniques of ecstasy.

Eliade's own use of the abstract noun shamanism seems to have been, therefore, not too different from the Russian active verb shamanstvo, despite his nearly universal application of the term. Shirokogoroff's use of the abstract noun remained very much like the active verb, and it remained geographically specific.

Shirokogoroff's and Eliade's usages of the term shamanism correlate with the narrower meaning of the term that I have identified already in my Introduction.

The wider meaning of the term developed, evidently, during the subsequent course of the twentieth century, with some antecedents.

Shamanism came to signify or to imply more than the ecstatic practices of functionaries referred to as shamans. It came to include the cosmologies, or worldviews, of the nations (ethnic groups) among whom (the so-called) shamans functioned traditionally, and furthermore the various customs comprising the cultures of these societies.

I suppose that is possible to link this wider meaning of the term in the literature of the later twentieth century (on the one hand) with the coinage of the term itself in the hypotheses of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (on the other hand) ~ inasmuch as the earlier set a foundation for classifications of whole societies or cultures. However, a profound difference exists between the earlier and the later usages, which sets the two distinctly apart from each other. The usage in the later twentieth century did not necessarily involve the rankings of inferiority and superior social evolution. It tended to involve a radical cultural-relativism, instead.

Further yet, the term shamanism came to be used as a reference to a type of religion. We find this, for example, in the writings of Åke Hultkrantz from Sweden. In 1973, shamanism is described as a religion in his article titled Definition of Shamanism, published by the Finnish Society for the Study of Comparative Religions, Helsinki, in Temenos: Studies in Comparative Religions (volume 9, pages 25-37). He subsequently used the term shamanism to refer particularly to the religion of American Indians. His work has been influential.

Going yet further, particularly in the 1990s, some academics have actually been promoting shamanism as a religion, as we shall see next (when we reach the conclusion of a summary chronology of the large-scale international conferences that were convened at the end of the twentieth century for the study of shamanism).

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Large-scale International Conferences for the Study of Shamanism

These are large-scale international events to which I shall be referring. Smaller-scale antecedents exist, such as that which produced material for a book titled Shamanism in Siberia, edited by V. Diózegi and Mihàly Hoppàl, published in Budapest in 1978 as volume one of the Bibliotheca Uralica series.

The first large-scale international gathering focusing on the study of shamanism was convened as a symposium as part of the 12th International Congress of Anthropologists and Ethnologists (ICAE) in July 1988. The proceedings of this significant and successful event were published in two volumes under the title Shamanism: Past and Present, published jointly by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest and by ISTOR, Los Angeles, in 1989. The work was edited by Mihàly Hoppàl, who had organized the symposium as its moderator, and by Otto von Sadovszky (a respected colleague) who was the initiator and general editor of ISTOR.

Reading through its chapters, one will find that the wider meaning and the narrower meaning of the term shamanism both occur; just as they both occur in the published selected papers of all of the conferences that followed.

In May 1990, a number of key participants from the July 1988 ICAE symposium joined many other academics and scholars for a regional conference convened in Helsinki by the International Association of the History of Religion (IAHR) to study Northern Religions and Shamanism. Selected papers were published in two volumes titled Northern Religions and Shamanism, published jointly by the Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, and the Finnish Literary Society, Helsinki, in 1992. The editors were Mihàly Hoppàl and Juha Pentikäinen, the latter having organized the successful, large-scale event.

During the Helsinki conference, adjunct to the conference, the final phase took place in the organization of the International Society for Shamanistic Research (ISSR). Its formation had been planned through the two years between the ICAE Congress symposium of July 1988 and the IAHR regional conference of May 1990.

The International Society for Shamanistic Research (ISSR) held its first international conference in Seoul, Korea, the next year: 27-28 July 1991. Kim Tae-gon (of honorable memory, who is now deceased) was instrumental in the success of this conference, as he had assumed the role of the Asian Region president of the ISSR.

Eighty (80) papers were presented by participants from more than twenty countries. Thirty of these papers were selected for publication in a volume titled Shamans and Cultures, published jointly by the Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, and ISTOR, Los Angeles, 1993. The editors were Mihàly Hoppàl and Keith Howard, with the assistance of Otto von Sadovszky and Taegon Kim.

Seven of the selected papers, nearly a fourth of the selection, focused on the host country, Korea, while the remaining sections concentrated on Japan, Southeast Asia, North America, and Eurasia.

I repeat for emphasis: Here again, now in the published proceedings of the ISSR conference, the narrower meaning and the wider meanings of the term shamanism are both found.

Some influential participants in the ISSR sought to define shamanism as a religion, however; and a few principals sought to use the society to promote shamanism as a religion. (A few did this; not all: and a reader should not presume anything from the names that have been cited, just above.) This was unfortunate, in my view, because it alienated a number of substantial participants as well as potential sponsors. The ISSR lost momentum, despite the success of the conference and the international interest in this field of study.

The ISSR conference in Seoul, 1991, coincided with perestroika. From 1992, easier visits to and interchange with Russia become possible. A number of academics from outside Russia went to locations in Siberia, Yakutia and the Russian Far East to collaborate with ex-Soviet colleagues with an interest in shamanism. This occurred during a time when a phenomenal re-awakening of spirituality was taking place in Russia at the abrupt ending of the atheistic regime after three generations of the suppression of religion.

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A Clash of Categories

A categorical opposition between shamanism and Christianity has been imposed by some proponents of shamanism. It has also been imposed by some proponents of Christianity.

The latter sort is criticized explicitly in Chapters 2, 5 and 7, and implicitly in Chapters 3 and 4, of these proceedings and is addressed pointedly in the Resolutions Adopted by the Consultation. (The resolutions are reproduced in the final section of this Introduction.)

Christianity and shamanism are not set in categorical opposition by any of the authors of these chapters. Their own perceptions and attitudes are remarkably affirmative. These perceptions and attitudes are not relativistic, however. The reality of this fact should be evident in points 3, 4(c) and 5 of the resolutions.

How does the categorical opposition occur? If these chapters do not project it, then why does it occur elsewhere?

While the question remains an open one, I hope that I shall be permitted to offer some personal reflections. I recognize two sources: a sort of academics and a sort of churchmen.

The categorical dichotomy is being imposed, in my experience, by some academics who are predisposed with antipathy (prejudiced) against Christianity and by some other academics who are simply promoting shamanism as the native religion. They have shown little knowledge about the depth of the history, theology or cultural dynamics of Christianity, particularly Eastern Christianity. The dichotomy is also being imposed, in my experience, by some churchmen who react against shamanism while having little knowledge about the ancestral cultures of northeast Asia and the Arctic.

The challenge, therefore, is to provide some leadership, or at least to stimulate some thought, to bring the categorical opposition to light, to expose it as a hasty construct, and to provide a clear way through that clash.

In these proceedings, affinities are perceived and expressed. We should also explore some specific areas of incompatibility, with regard to some practices of some shamans, and to explain the reasons insightfully. This has yet to be done adequately with precision, constructively. Perhaps it is most important to express the real affinities now, in the first instance.

No other international consultation or conference has ever yet met the challenge, addressing the questions about the relationships between Christianity and shamanism from qualified academic viewpoints and proficient pastoral viewpoints. The Seoul International Consultation on Christianity and Shamanism has been the first.

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Resolutions Adopted by the Consultation

Having considered and discussed the reports of the presenters, the Seoul International Consultation on Christianity and Shamanism, 25-30 June 2000, Seoul, Korea, drafted and endorsed the following seven resolutions:

The subject of the consultation, Christianity and Shamanism, is of paramount importance for a number of reasons, particularly because the relationships between Orthodoxy and the pre-Christian religious configurations in some countries are misinterpreted. Thus in Korea, as many as twenty million people are possibly affected negatively by misinterpretations of the term shamanism; while in Yakutia, where Orthodoxy was disseminated as early as the 17th-19th centuries, attempts have been undertaken to revive shamanism as a system of religious beliefs.

We must seek clarity of thought by striving to separate the concept of indigenous cultures from the concept of shamanism, and by striving to indicate what Christianity is and what shamanism is.

A special study of shamanism should be undertaken in order to analyze its constituent elements, to distinguish between cultural aspects and religious aspects, and to indicate which elements in specific might contradict Christian doctrine and canon law.

The relationships between Christianity and shamanism must be made clear to Church leaders:

so that Church leaders should not be reactive against, or afraid of, all things referred to as shamanism;

so that traditions and customs of indigenous cultures that do not contradict the doctrinal teachings of Christianity will be accepted into the Christian Church;

so that, at the same time, inappropriate conceptions and beliefs should not be accepted into Christianity: a clarity of Christian standards should be preserved.

so that Christians should be open to have a direct dialogue with proponents of shamanism as religion, as they do with proponents of any religion.

The term syncretism should be avoided in these studies and discussions with regard to religious phenomena, inasmuch as the term syncretism implies a mixture of contradictory religious concepts with Christian doctrines, which cannot be accepted as normal in Christianity. Instead of the term syncretism, we endorse and recommend the term contextualization as more appropriate for our purpose of clarity in these studies.

Points for affirmative comparison and dialogue exist, and they should be expressed; for example, Christians and shamanists recognize the continuity of life after death although in different ways, while many secular people today hold no belief in life after death.

The subject of the consultation is important enough to be continued for further consideration. The next meeting should be arranged in the year 2001 if this is possible or otherwise there soon after.

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