Spiritualist mediums and other traditional shamans: towards an apprenticeship model of shamanic practice
Wilson, David Gordon MacKintosh
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Spiritualism has its origins in 1840s America, and continues to occupy a niche in the Anglo-American cultural world in which the craft of mediumship is taught and practised. Spiritualist mediums seek to demonstrate personal survival beyond death and thus belong to a movement that posits the existence of a spirit world, peopled with those who were once incarnate upon the earth and with whom communication is possible. Spiritualists often maintain that mediumship is a universal activity found across cultures and time, and some scholars have speculated in passing that Spiritualist mediumship might be a form of shamanism. This thesis uses both existing literary sources and ethnographic study to support the hypothesis that mediumship is indeed an example of traditional shamanism, and demonstrates that a comparison of Spiritualist mediumship and shamanism gives valuable insights into both. In particular, an apprenticeship model is proposed as offering a clearer understanding of the nature of mediumship and its central role in maintaining Spiritualism as a distinct religious tradition, helping to clarify problematic boundaries such as that between Spiritualism and New Age. Existing models of shamanism have tended to focus upon particular skills or states of consciousness exhibited by shamans and are therefore framed with reference to outcomes, rather than by attending to the processes of development leading to them. The apprenticeship model of mediumship is proposed as the basis first, of understanding the structure of Spiritualism, and second and comparatively, of a new definition of shamanism, by offering a distinctive, clearly-structured approach to understanding the acquisition and nature of shamanic skills, without being unduly prescriptive as to which particular shamanic skills should be anticipated in any given cultural setting.