Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism

James Cox

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most scholars agree that shamans can be defined as religious specialists in traditional societies who are believed to enter a trance, leave their bodies and travel to upper or lower worlds in order to heal, predict the future, influence weather and enlist the help of spirits on behalf of the community. Yet, a fundamental disagreement centres on the distinction between those who are possessed by spirits and practitioners who seemingly incarnate spirits at will. In the former case, the medium appears to be controlled by the possessing spirit while in the latter case the specialist masters the spirits. Many scholars, such as Raymond Firth, Merete Jakobsen and the Russian ethnologist of the early twentieth century S.M. Shirokogoroff make controlling spirits, which is the dominant method of shamanic activity in Siberia and other northern regions, the distinctive feature of a genuine shaman, thereby excluding a vast number of societies, particularly in Africa, which feature possession as the primary mode of communication with the spirit world. By examining field material from Zimbabwe and by drawing on arguments by I.M. Lewis, this article interprets the process of becoming a shaman as beginning with spontaneous or involuntary possession and culminating with the shaman becoming expert at entering a trance. The Zimbabwean material confirms that this process occurs also in the development of spirit mediums in Africa, who, after a period of initiation, eventually control the spirits, albeit in cooperation with the community whose inducements and participation in the possession ritual ensure that the spirit ‘speaks’ through the medium. Seen in this light, shamanism can be interpreted as a universal phenomenon, applicable equally in Africa as in Siberia and other northern regions.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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