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Andrei Znamenski

The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination

Oxford University Press, 2007dot_trans

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Andrei A. Znamenski


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About this book

For past forty years shamans, tribal technicians of altered states, have drawn increasing attention among the general public and academics. In this book, Andrei Znamenski sets out to explore how shamanism, an obscure word introduced by the eighteenth-century German explorers of Siberia, entered Western humanities and social sciences, and has now become a powerful idiom used by nature and pagan communities to situate their spiritual quests and anti-modernity sentiments

The major characters of The Beauty of the Primitive are past and present Western scholars, writers, explorers, and spiritual seekers with a variety of views on shamanism. Moving from Enlightenment and Romantic writers and Russian “exile” ethnographers to the anthropology of Franz Boas and then to Mircea Eliade and Carlos Castaneda, Znamenski details how the shamanism idiom was gradually transplanted from Siberia to the Native American scene and beyond. He also looks into the circumstances that prompted scholars and writers at first to marginalize shamanism as a culturally sanctioned mental disorder and then to recast it into high spiritual wisdom in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Linking the growing interest in shamanism to the rise of anti-modernism in Western culture and intellectual life, Znamenski explores the role that anthropology, psychology, environmentalism, and Native Americana have played in the emergence of neo-shamanism. He discusses the sources that inspire Western neo-shamans and seeks to explain why many of these spiritual seekers have increasingly moved away from non-Western tradition to European folklore.

A work of an intellectual discovery, The Beauty of the Primitive shows how scholars, writers, and spiritual seekers shape their writings and experiences to suit contemporary cultural, ideological, and spiritual needs.

With its interdisciplinary approach and clear language, the book is designated for anthropologists, historians of religions, historians, psychologists and all readers who are interested in shamanism, Native Americana, modern Western spirituality and esotericism as well as cultural and intellectual history.


“This is simply the best book on modern shamanisms ever written, largely because its author understands pre-modern shamanisms so well.”

Ronald Hutton, Author of Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination


“Andrei Znamenski, well known as a critical scholar of shamanism in various contexts, has written an extremely readable, erudite, and nuanced analysis of contemporary forms of shamanism. Znamenski bases his analysis on an impressive acquaintance with ethnographic and anthropological literature from the eighteenth century onward, an intensive reading of contemporary western shamanic literature, and his own research—including not only fieldwork in traditional shamanic contexts but also interviews with western shamanic practitioners. The Beauty of the Primitive will rank among the most important publications in shamanism research for years to come.”

Kocku von Stuckrad, University of Amsterdam


“Travelling through time and space, The Beauty of the Primitive traces the growing appreciation of shamanism in the West as part of a growing anti-modernism. Andrei Znamenski digs deep into Russian, German, Finnish, and American sources to reveal the Western imagination of ancient and modern medicine-men, sorcerers, conjurers, magicians and spiritualists. Freud, Jung, Bogoras, Eliade, Castaneda, and Harner are but a few of the many scholars, writers, explorers, and spiritual seekers awaiting the reader in this brilliant exposé of the intellectual history of shamanic and neo-shamanic practices.”

Christer Lindberg, Lund University


The Beauty of the Primitive is an admirable piece of scholarship. Erudite and clearly written, it tells the fascinating tale of the interaction between scholarly anthropology and popular culture, as optimistic Westerners created their idealized stereotypes of shamans and shamanic practice. The book confirms yet again the observation that "we see things not as they are, we see things as we are." It is also a treasure trove of memorable stories.”

Philip Jenkins, Author of Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality