The Role of Shamanism

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  • The Role of Shamanism in Mesoamerican Art: A ReassessmentAuthor(s): CeceliaF.Klein, EulogioGuzmn, ElisaC.Mandell, and MayaStanfieldMazziSource: Current Anthropology, Vol. 43, No. 3 (June 2002), pp. 383-419Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation forAnthropological ResearchStable URL: .Accessed: 11/05/2015 17:49

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  • 383

    C u r r e n t A n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 43, Number 3, June 2002 2002 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2002/4303-0002$3.00

    The Role ofShamanism inMesoamerican Art

    A Reassessment1

    Cecelia F. Klein, Eulogio Guzman,Elisa C. Mandell, andMaya Stanfield-Mazzi

    Increasing numbers of scholars are relying on the concept of sha-manism to interpret pre-Columbian artworks without examiningits origins and questioning its viability. This essay explores thehistorical roots of this fields romance with the shaman and of-fers an explanation of its appeal. We argue that by avoiding suchterms as priest, doctor, and political leader, the wordsshaman and shamanism have helped scholars to otherpre-Columbian peoples by portraying them as steeped in magicand the spiritual. We begin with a look at when, where, and whythis reductive representation emerged in pre-Columbian art stud-ies, suggesting that it originated as an idealist aversion to materi-alist explanations of human behavior. We then examine thesources and validity of the principal criteria used by Pre-Colum-bianists to identify shamanism in works of art and look at somepossible reasons for shamanisms popularity among them. Weconclude that there is a pressing need to create a more refined,more nuanced terminology that would distinguish, cross-cultur-ally, among the many different kinds of roles currently lumpedtogether under the vague and homogenizing rubric of shaman.

    c e c e l i a f . k l e i n is Professor of Pre-Columbian Art Historyat the University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, Calif.90095-1417, U.S.A. []). Her coauthors are doctoralstudents working under her direction.

    e u l o g i o g u z m a n specializes in the art of Central Mexicoand is writing his dissertation on the sociopolitical function of agroup of stone figures found at the Aztec Templo Mayor.

    e l i s a c . m a n d e l l , trained as a Pre-Hispanicist, is writingher dissertation on Mexican depictions of deceased infants andchildren dressed as angelitos, tracing the tradition in paintingand photography from the pre-Columbian era to the present.

    m a y a s t a n f i e l d - m a z z i is an Andeanist whose dissertationresearch focuses on the role and use of church and popular repli-cas or copies of religious images in colonial Peru.

    The present paper was submitted 30 v 00 and accepted 5 x 01.

    1. This article comes out of a graduate seminar on art, medicine,and power in conquest-period Latin America offered by the seniorauthor at UCLA in the fall of 1998. Her coauthors were studentsin that seminar. We thank Josephine Volpe, another student in thatseminar, for her contribution to the research on Aztec nagualism.

    The past decade has seen an increasing number of Meso-americanists relying on the concept of shamanism fortheir interpretations of artworks created prior to theSpanish conquest. Whether these scholars are anthro-pologists, archaeologists, art historians, or trained inLatin American studies or the history of religions, allhave drawn heavily on social scientific literature in theform of ethnohistories and ethnographic reports. It is ourposition that many of these writers, regardless of theirdisciplinary base, are using shamanism to provide pre-dictable, easy, and ultimately inadequate answers towhat are often very complex questions about the rela-tionship of art to religion, medicine, and politics in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica.

    Without wishing to diminish the important contri-butions of some of the work on shamanism and art, wecontend that many of those who have related the conceptof shamanism to preconquest Mesoamerican artworkshave avoided the demands of scholarly rigor. Althoughthe evidence that shamanism is reflected in these artobjects is at times surprisingly scanty, it is sometimesused to support broad claims for shamanisms role in theunderstanding of Mesoamerican art. Moreover, many ofthese studies proceed in an uncritical manner. In partic-ular, scholars writing about Mesoamerican art in relationto the concept of shamanism invariably fail to examinethe historical origins and viability of the vocabulary andmodels they have chosen to use. They neither provideadequate etic criteria for identifying a person as a sha-mancriteria that have cross-cultural (including trans-atlantic and transpacific) validitynor fully disclosewhat is currently known about those specific individu-als roles. In particular, the internal rankings and factionswithin and among specific groups of religious-medicalpractitioners, like the economic and political aspects oftheir performance, are typically played down in studiesof Mesoamerican art if they are mentioned at all. Theresult is a seductive but also reductive and lopsided por-trayal of Mesoamerican art as an essentially spiritualaffair.

    For us the spiritual, as something largely separatefrom the mundane political and economic spheres, is,like shamanism, a vague Western category whose util-ity in analyses of Mesoamerican art is seldom defined,justified via cross-cultural comparison, or compared withindigenous, emic notions of religiosity. When it takescenter stage it is usually at the expense of a historicalperspective. The resulting highly romantic image ofMesoamerican religion and the art it supposedly inspiredplays directly not only to uncritical lay readers but also,as others have pointed out, to self-serving nationalist and

    We are also grateful to Alice Kehoe, Lothar von Falkenhausen, Da-vid Keightley, Elizabeth Boone, Carolyn Tate, Marilyn Masson, andan anonymous reviewer of the first draft of this manuscript for theirvery helpful comments. Special thanks go to Mary Weismantel forher careful reading of two drafts of this paper. Her thoughtful sug-gestions helped us to strengthen the argument. [Supplementary ma-terial appears in the electronic edition of this issue on the journalsweb page (]

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  • 384 F current anthropology Volume 43, Number 3, June 2002

    commercial interests both within and outside of LatinAmerica (Joralemon 1990; Kehoe 1994, 1996, 1999; Fikes1996).

    We suggest that the representation of Mesoamericanartworks as products or reflections of a mastery of thespiritual has been so appealing because it reinforces thenotion of the ahistorical, apolitical, irrational Otherthat was initially constructed during the conquest andcolonization of the Americas. While the function of thisothering process in colonial times is relatively wellunderstood, its appeal for scholars working today has notreceived much attention. We argue that the problem orig-inated in an idealist aversion to materialist and politicalexplanations of human behavior and to the complexitiesand dynamics of human history. This aversion has longcharacterized both the field of humanistic anthropol-ogy and the humanities and has been particularly en-demic in the disciplines of art history and the history ofreligions. Many scholars are attracted to the study of art,as to the study of religion, precisely because its making,use, and meaning have traditionally been characterizedin the West as matters of ideation rather than of thematerial world.

    In what follows we will provide evidence that thisavoidance of secular, material explanations of art hasbeen a reaction to several controversial theoreticalschools and methodologies that gained academic prom-inence at various times in the course of the 20th century,among them diffusionism, cultural evolutionism, cul-tural materialism, the New Archaeology, and social andMarxist art history. Each of these approaches has, in itstime, provoked serious intellectual debate and even di-vision among scholars regarding the relative importanceof idealist versus materialist explanations of human be-havior, including the making of art. Whereas materialistshave been inclined to acknowledge social change andcultural difference in Mesoamerican art history, idealistshave tended to see ideas, especially religious beliefs, asdeterminants of artistic choice and to emphasize broad,even universal, and long-lasting human behavioral andcognitive similarities. Although the sharp dichotomy be-tween materialism and idealism has in recent daysyielded in some quarters to more complex and less to-talizing theoretical models, we find that most scholarswho interpret Mesoamerican art in terms of shamanismstill appear to come to the subject from an essentially