The Priests were Women



The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine

By Barbara Tedlock

New York: Bantam Books, 2006, 350 pages, $16.00, paperback.


Reviewed by Serinity Young


 Barbara Tedlock has written an important, readable book that combines the argumentative intellectual reasoning of the scholar with the intuitive emotional reasoning of the shaman. Tedlock is uniquely positioned to undertake this task. She has outstanding credentials as an anthropologist, and in the course of her fieldwork she was initiated as a shaman among the K’iche’ Maya of Guatemala. She is the granddaughter of an Ojibwe healing shaman, and she writes about the summers she spent with her grandmother and what she learned from her. By being open about her history, Tedlock removes the mask of anonymity and scientific objectivity that scholars don to pretend that their history, point of view, social class, gender, and ethnicity are not relevant to what catches their attention and ends up on the page. Her impeccable scholarly apparatus is in the footnotes, which almost form another book and should not be skipped. Tedlock has not just read a lot; she had read a lot for years, traveling the world participating in shamanic rituals and initiating the international scholarly discussion of shamanism. In short, she commands her material; she knows the history of the scholarship, where it went wrong, where it was rethought, and why. She has the confidence, perspective, and literary skill to make the main part of her book completely accessible to nonspecialists.

 Shamans are religious experts with uncommon knowledge: they understand the healing properties of plants, the behavior of animals, the seasonal cycle, human psychology, and the world of spirits. Some inherit their offices, while others are called through dreams, visions, illness, or personal tragedies. Either way, most must undergo a period of training under an experienced shaman. Shamanism appears to be a worldwide religious phenomenon that has existed from the earliest human times to the present day. What Tedlock contributes to the discussion is the argument that “the primacy of women in shamanic traditions has been obscured and denied.” With great skill, she describes the prehistoric origins of shamanism, what shamans do, the importance of gender-shifting in shamanic practice, and women’s particular physiological and biochemical suitability for the shamanic role.

Tedlock begins by correcting the view that shamans, especially prehistoric ones, were male, documenting the androcentric bias in scientific analyses of human skeletal remains. Roughly put, the thinking was that if there were grave goods that could be attributed to a shaman, then the skeleton was male. Recent studies utilizing new technologies have shown just the reverse: DNA tests of the few skeletal remains of the earliest shamans reveal that they were female.

Similarly, the historical evidence is tainted by the biases of early travelers and scholars, whose upbringing in religious traditions defined by male-only priesthoods prevented them from recognizing women’s participation in religious activities. For instance, when they observed women at shamanic rituals, they frequently described them as the shamans’ wives or mothers—which in fact they were, since shamanism is often hereditary and a family affair. However, they misunderstood the women’s roles as actual shamans.

Reinforcing the idea that only men could be shamans was the pervasive view that shamanism was primarily associated with hunting, and that hunting was also an exclusively male activity. Tedlock richly documents the absurdity of both ideas by drawing on a broad range of shamanic practices from around the world and from different historical periods. She reveals the importance of healing in shamanic practice and demonstrates women’s participation in hunting. For Tedlock, healing is of central importance in shamanic practice. She distinguishes between male-oriented shamans, who fight unseen enemies believed to have caused illness, and female-oriented shamans, who focus on internal emotional and physical imbalances. Significantly, women may be trained by male-oriented shamans and men by female-oriented ones, so there are no hard and fast rules based on the shaman’s gender. In an entire chapter on gender-shifting, Tedlock introduces the concepts of a third and even fourth gender: the woman-man and the man-woman. Additionally, shamans often work in female and male teams, as have Tedlock and her husband. So, while Tedlock’s goal is to reclaim women’s primary position in shamanic practices, she quite reasonably does not discount the widespread presence of male practitioners.

Tedlock believes that the primacy of women in shamanism is grounded in female physiology. For instance, she says, menstruating women are more receptive to trance. She quotes the views of female shamans on menstruation and discusses women’s opinions about menstrual taboos and isolation as sacred time, thus unpacking the complex history of menstruation in the West. Additionally, she provides evidence of the belief that pregnancy and midwifery increase shamanic abilities: “The act of helping souls to transform themselves in order to cross from the other world into this world turns out to be at the heart of feminine shamanic traditions worldwide.” She again points out that because the early ethnographers were men who did not have access to women’s experience, they therefore misunderstood a great deal, going so far as to inaccurately distinguish midwifery from shamanic practice.

Tedlock fully understands that shamanism is not all touchy-feely healing and psychic integration. She presents stories of women shamans who were heroic in the face of political persecution and of those who were also warriors and political leaders. For instance, she quotes a description of the Crow shaman-warrior Strikes-Two, during an attack on her village:

I saw Strikes-Two, a woman sixty years old, riding around camp on a gray horse. She carried only her root-digger, and she was singing her medicine song as though Lakota bullets and arrows were not flying around her.

Then I heard her say “Now all of you sing: ‘They are whipped. They are running away.’ Keep singing these words until I come back.”

When the men, and even the women, began to sing as Strikes-Two told them, she rode straight out at the Lakota waving her root-digger, and singing that song. I saw her, I heard her, and my heart swelled, because she was a woman.

The Lakota, afraid of her medicine, turned and ran away. The fight was won, and by a woman.


Shamans protect their communities from physical as well as spiritual dangers.

 In her concluding chapter, Tedlock discusses some of the places where shamanism is undergoing a revival, mostly by women, such as among Native Americans and in the former Soviet Union, China, and Mongolia. Among people of Celtic heritage, shamanism is being reconstructed from archaeological, anthropological, and historical records. Tedlock also includes Wicca and goddess spirituality in her overview. I would have liked to see a more critical approach in this chapter. Being one-quarter Native American herself, Tedlock is in a good position to critique the widespread cooptation of Native American practices by non-Native people. Furthermore, any reconstruction is problematic that depends on the reports of missionaries, converts, or early ethnographers who had difficulty getting past their own religious sensibilities and pre-existing ideas about what constitutes religion. Native Siberians face such problems, since they, like Native Americans, were brought to the brink of extinction in the nineteenth century, as white Russians imported aggressive missionary activities, devastating illnesses, and the game-depleting fur trade. In the 1920s, Stalin purged whatever remained of shamanism (and all other religions), imprisoning shamans and destroying their sacred implements.

Tedlock is well aware of these issues, but I fear this otherwise excellent work is marred by her desire to reach the new age and women’s spirituality markets and to avoid offending such readers with any criticism. Going further, I have to question the all-inclusiveness of her view of shamanic religion. A defining feature of shamanism is that shamans serve their communities—the people with whom they live and work. I do not doubt the strong feelings of community among Wiccans and goddess worshippers, but they are not usually coworkers, nor do they live in the same neighborhoods or even states. Traditionally, shamanism has occurred among small, highly integrated groups. It was broken by overwhelming outside forces. The shamans of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries may be joyous, and doing useful things in relation to ecology and holistic medicine, and even keeping people sane, but theirs is a marginal community that is as vulnerable as the rest of us to overwhelming forces with very different values and objectives. To Tedlock’s credit, I think she succeeds in her goal of making shamanism, which she has experienced so powerfully both personally and as a scholar, available to a wide general audience.

The Woman in the Shaman’s Body includes 64 black-and-white illustrations that usefully highlight points made in the text, but the paperback is very poorly made—the pages began to fall out of the binding before I was even halfway through reading it. Also, it does not have a bibliography (usually the publisher’s decision)—so when an unknown source catches your eye, if it is not the first citation, it is difficult or impossible to locate. You cannot check to see whether Tedlock has read a particular author, or even get an overview of what she has read or who has influenced her. This is a great disservice to the reader and to Tedlock, who has assembled a large, outstanding, and wide-ranging set of sources.




Serinity Young is a research associate in the Department of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History. Most recently she is the author of Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Buddhist Sexualities in Narrative, Iconography, and Ritual.


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