On Michael Harner (1929–2018)

Michael Harner (FSS).

The news of Michael Harner’s passing has been going around, and of course some magical practitioners have to react by disrespecting him.

You might well have heard the usual string of insults: he is an academic poser, he’s a fake . . . a cultural imperialist . . . from the “wrong” background . . . caters to the  “wrong” people . . . a wannabe.  Et cetera.

This is what you call “virtue-signaling,” in which the speaker tries to demonstrate that his or her virtues, practices, cultural connections, and so on are superior to those of the person being denigrated.

And perhaps if all the people doing it were themselves shamans of lengthy lineages, it might have worked. But usually they were not. They were merely jealous that an academic anthropologist could reinvent himself as a shaman, form the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, train other teachers, and try to re-inject shamanism into Western culture.((In a way, shamanism still existed in the Spiritualist churches, complete with pious fakery, but that is another story.))

Not just Western culture either — this is something that his facile detractors do not know about or chose to ignore.

Although shamanism is a cross-cultural practice, the word itself comes from peoples living in Siberia and Central Asia. And after the end of the Soviet Union, Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS) had a presence in some of those former Soviet republics starting in the 1990s — teaching shamanism!

Irgit Kalzan-ham’s arrest photo.

Why was that necessary? Because the enlightened Marxists of the USSR approached shamanism this way:

The photograph had been taken by the NKVD [Soviet secret police] when they arrested [the Tuvan shaman] in 1938. Two years later he died in prison.((Anna Reid, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia (London: Phoenix Books, 2003 [2002]), 108.))

All shamans were criminals for ideological purposes!

Setting out on her research, Anna Reid, author of The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia encounters two elderly Soviet-era anthropologists who disparage the new post-Soviet native shamans as being just “performers.” And she hears Michael Harner speak at a conference in Moscow but mentions only the fact that the FSS charges for workshops in the USA and sells drums.

But you have to start with where you are. With so many shamans executed in the 1930s — although some underground practice survived, the two anthropologists said)— who is left to remember “the right way”?

I give the FSS credit for supporting some of the surviving shamans with recognition and with money as detailed on this FSS website page. 

(You can also see some revived Mongolian shamanism in the 2009 documentary The Horse Boy.)

What about those hotel workshops? I went to two of them. One, indeed, was in a hotel, in Colorado Springs in the mid-1990s, the introductory workshop, taught by Sandra Ingerman, and another on “Shamanism and the Spirits of Nature,” taught at some lodge on the Utah side of Bear Lake by an FSS teacher from Salt Lake City.

I will admit that the first workshop seemed a little awkward — a group of strangers with all the teaching pitched for absolute beginners — and how else could it be?

The “Spirits of Nature” workshop, however, lingers with me still. It was almost non-stop journeying, indoors and out, in a group and alone, and by the end of it, my consciousness was definitely altered. When it was time to go, I drove all afternoon on quiet two-lane roads in Wyoming and Utah, avoiding the interstate highway, the way people feel after immersion in a festival — wanting to postpone the return to mundane world.

But back to Harner. While I dispute some of his ideas on European shamanism (and that will come out in the current writing project), he took a big important step. You can whimper that ours is not a shamanic culture, or you can claim that you learned shamanism from your grandmother, but for a lot of people, step one to learning about shamanism — whether you call yourself a shaman or not — was Michael Harner. And that’s a Good Thing.

UPDATE: A thoughtful and appreciative essay on Harner’s contributions — and the controversies — from Kocku von Stuckrad, University of Groningen (Netherlands).

8 thoughts on “On Michael Harner (1929–2018)

  1. Robert Mitchell

    Harner’s book was one of the stones that cracked my spiritual egg and started my journey years ago. May he rest in peace beyond the reach of all things petty and shallow.

  2. I’ve debated whether I should say anything here, but I think there were valid grounds for people to be concerned about Michael Harner.

    For whatever it’s worth, I saw (but did not meet) Harner at a panel at the AAA meetings, and I have attended multiple Core Shamanism sessions.

    I acknowledge that the CS techniques can be compelling and meaningful to many people. Nonetheless, I find the labeling of them as “core” to be somewhat misleading, given the panoply of spiritual beliefs and techniques found in shamanism worldwide. Especially, I think that shamanism loses much when seen as a technique for individual spiritual growth rather than a service provided for the good of a local community.

    When I was training to become an anthropologist in the late Nineties, I was told that Harner had inspired a backlash among indigenous practitioners. At least part of it came from what you said above: people of European descent teaching a Western interpretation of spiritual techniques in a country in which some non-European practitioners still survived. After all, that’s not entirely uncontroversial in our own country.

    As presented to me (albeit second-hand), this was seen as problematic enough that a major East Asia conference of shamananic practitioners and scholars was invitation-only, with very few North Americans being invited, so as to weed out CS attendees.

    Nonetheless, it’s a sad day when anyone leaves the world. I might have disagreed with Harner in some respects, but he was a brilliant, knowledgeable, and creative man who will be missed.

    1. Part of the “backlash” against Harner an artifact of a larger pendulum swing in academia, I think. When The Way of the Shaman Came Out, he would have been about fifty, so he came of age as a scholar in the heyday of structuralism. But by the 1980s, structuralism was under attack for multiple reasons.

      Consider Mircea Eliade’s structuralist thinking about religion (my field). When I was a grad student in the 1980s, some of my professors were still teaching Eliade, while others were ready to consign him to the Museum of Obsolete Theories. Consequently, some scholars were ready to condemn all structuralist thinking, including Harner’s.

      I suspect that there is a loop of mutual influence between, for instance, the FSS shamanic practitioners and the (surviving) indigenous shamans or would-be shamans in a place like the Tuvan Republic. The Tuvans offer their cachet as being one of the longest-lasting shamanic cultures, while the FSS offers a quicker (?) way into the practice and international recognition and validation. It’s a win-win. 😉

  3. Pitch313

    Before Harner developed and shared his notion of core shamanism during the 0970s and 1980s, I don’t think that many European or North American practitioners would have considered themselves shamanic.

    Shamanic endeavors as described in pre-core-shamanism literature (small groups drinking the urine of reindeer that had eaten Amnita mushrooms, for instance) were just too cumbersome of access. A European or North American might find the mushrooms, but reindeer? Certainly, during the Cold War, Siberia was not a place American ethnologists could go to study indigenous peoples. Same with Ayehuascha, before psychedelic tourism. Visiting the indigenous peoples of the Amazon was risky.

    Later, after the spread of the concept of common shamanic elements present in many cultures, I think it became much easier for many European and North American practitioners to identify with/as shamans. Understanding changed and extended. Local experimentation with shamanic inflections maybe paid off and some practitioners gained some insights they could share with their colleagues.

    Russia treated its indigenous peoples harshly, brutally. Ethnology has a positive role to play in the revitalization of indigenous cultures emerging from such harsh and debilitating contact. It may record what has otherwise been forgotten or lost or suppressed.

    Hail and Fare Well, Michael Harner! Pagan practice is richer for your work!

    1. As Anna Reid makes clear, not only did the Soviet Union treat indigenous peoples badly, the ethnographers and anthropologists who knew them were often themselves sent to prisons and labor camps. The Commies were nothing of not thorough, especially under Stalin.

  4. Pitch313

    In my anthropology graduate school days I took a class on the peoples and cultures of Central Asia offered by one of the few American anthropologists who got near to if not in and out of the Soviet Union’s territories. I quickly saw the Russian expansion Eastwards as just like the American expansion Westwards. Only worse for the indigenous peoples and cultures. If that can be imagined. I marvel that any survived at all.

    And, yes, the Communist regime played Hell on its own ethnographers and anthropologists, too. I also marvel that any of them survived.

  5. Medeina Ragana

    The whole Soviet/Russian attitude towards others (including Poles, Lithuanians, Fins, etc.) was that the Russian Orthodox church was the only true church and if you didn’t convert or submit, they’d simply wipe you out. I remember my mother telling me stories her mother told her about when they were still in Lithuania and had to say their Catholic prayers under the bed so that no one would hear them or they would be arrested.

    Glad I live in the US where we can pray or not pray, to our heart’s content.

    1. Medeina Ragana

      Oh I forgot to add that even though the Commies suppressed religion during that era, the Russian Orthodox church still was alive and well, although muted, which is why, when Communism allegedly “died” in Russia, the Russian Orthodox church came out into the open, like a bear awakening from hibernation and now pretty much calls all the shots. Even Putin has been known to attend Russian Orthodox services.

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