Eric D. Mortensen and the Lecture on Circumpolar Shamanism

Okay, so, the last time I attended an Eric Mortensen lecture, I compared him to Indiana Jones – with his sophisticated-yet-humorous approach and his Harrison Ford-meets-Jeff Goldblum speech pattern, I couldn’t help it. Please don’t get me wrong, I mean it as the highest of compliments – contagious enthusiasm and showmanship are two parts of what makes for a fantastic teacher…and, apparently, a fantasmagorical shaman.

Mortensen’s talk, “Circumpolar Shamanism,” began with a moment of appreciation for the Art Gallery and those who contribute to it, visit it, and keep it running smoothly. “We’ve integrated the gallery into our academics intelligently,” he said, and there are even two classes this semester, one on Shamanism and one on Animals in Religion, that are directly tied to the current Inuit Exhibition.

According to Mortensen, a shaman is someone who, on behalf of the community, enters into a state of ecstasy – brought about by drumming, chanting, and/or ingesting hallucinogenic substances – in order to heal a person or fix a spiritual problem. Being a shaman is involuntary – “You don’t want to be a shaman!” Most shamans were people suffering from a sickness – most often a mental illness – who “cured” themselves. They’re not just your run-of-the-mill, Disneyfied representation of a drumming trancey-dance. In the words of Eric Mortensen, “The Shaman lives in the house at which you would NOT go trick-or-treating.”

Today, shamanism is merging into more of a performance art, especially in the circumpolar region where the art from the Inuit show comes from – The Inuit have been converting to Christianity, so why are they still producing shamanistic artwork?

Quite simply, the tourist trade calls for it.

In the talk, we discussed the fact that tourists wish to reconnect with their roots and the roots of the people they are visiting. This ‘salvage anthropology’ is the main reason behind why tourists come back from a place like Nunavut with fabulous sculptures and wall-hangings depicting shamans, while the indigenous people no longer consult them as much as they would have 50, 100, or more years ago.

The lecture closed with audience questions and Mortensen urging us to find out more about shamans and the circumpolar peoples for ourselves. We were also left with a burning question that I will pose to you now: What would fill the gap if Shamans went away completely, and what is already beginning to replace them?

We entertained the idea that shamans are being replaced by hero worship and celebrities: “Is Kanye West a shaman?” … “Is Jesus a shaman?” …

…Is Eric Mortensen a shaman?

(Click on images for larger view.)


Continue the discussion below in the comments:

The demand for shamanistic art is very high, yet the value of having real shamans in society is decreasing – what are your thoughts? What do you do when you feel the need to reconnect with your roots or spiritual side?

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