Substances, Powers, Cosmos,
and History
Andrew Strathern & Pamela J. Stewart
The fascinating and energetic set of writings presented in this vol-
ume, charting the essential ambiguity and fluidity inherent in the shamanic
complexes of South America, raises comparative questions that go beyond
the region while contributing powerfully to the regional theme of analy-
sis itself. In reading these chapters we received an impression of overlap-
information. At the same time we could discern parallels with analyses
from New Guinea, whose volatile and dynamic societies, filled with inter-
personal conflicts and loyalties, show close resemblances in general to the
ethos of many societies in Amazonian South America. Much has been writ-
ten about shamanic practices in South America: it is the classic case for
such accounts. The chapters herein greatly deepen our understanding of
these practices, in terms of the training and knowledge required for them,
what stimulates and maintains them, and how they have mutated in con-
and the Shining Path guerrilla movement. Above all, many (but not all,
see Robin Wright on the Baniwa) of the chapters reveal the ambivalence
of the world of the shaman, and the overlap between shamans and sor-
cerers expressed in the vision of light and dark shamans as discussed, for
example, by Johannes Wilbert. These studies are historically grounded,
showing how formations of ideas are profoundly shaped by historical ex-
periences. Wilbert, although stressing the ideology of balance in the Warao
vision of the cosmos, recognizes that the uneasy duality of Warao ideas has
emerged from a history of disease, depredation, and internal gerontocratic
exploitation by shamanic elders.
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