The Foundations of Shamanism and Witchcraft
CitationSingh, Manvir. 2020. The Foundations of Shamanism and Witchcraft. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractHuman societies everywhere reliably develop complex traditions with striking similarities. Here, I examine two such near-ubiquitous practices – shamanism and beliefs in mystical harm – documenting cross-cultural patterns, then developing and testing theories to explain them.
Chapter 1 is a mixed-methods ethnographic study of the Mentawai crocodile spirit Sikaoinan. It introduces my fieldwork among the Mentawai people of Indonesia, showcases how shamanism intersects with domains such as medicine and morality, and uses the ethnography to answer key questions about religion in small-scale societies.
Chapter 2 steps back to consider shamanism from a more comparative light. Here, I develop a cultural evolutionary theory of shamanism, proposing that as service-providers compete to provide clients with most plausible means of influencing uncertain outcomes, they assemble packages of beliefs that conform to our cognitive architecture to convince us that can control important outcomes. I evaluate this theory against the ethnographic record and lay out predictions for how shamanism should vary with shifting social conditions.
Chapter 3 returns to Mentawai to test whether aspects of this theory can explain why shamans and other religious leaders so often observe costly prohibitions.
Finally, Chapter 4 shifts from shamanism to beliefs in mystical harm. Using a new cross-cultural database, I document global patterns in beliefs about witches, sorcerers, the evil eye, and other harmful agents. On the basis of these similarities, and using a cultural evolutionary framework, I argue that these beliefs develop from three processes: a selection for intuitive magic, a selection for plausible explanations of misfortune, and selection for demonizing myths that justify violence. Alone, these processes produce traditions as diverse as superstitions, conspiracy theories, and propaganda – but around the world, they interact to produce the image of the odious witch.
Anthropologists have offered a catalogue of functional hypotheses to explain the pervasiveness of shamanism and witchcraft beliefs, but none satisfactorily account for the forms of these traditions or their patterns of variation. My research provides evidence that these traditions do not recur because they serve essential societal functions but because of the capacity of cultural evolution to produce practices adapted to our psychological biases.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365897
- FAS Theses and Dissertations