Nordic Neoshamanism

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S. Kraft, T. Fonneland, J. Lewis
Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , February
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A recurring tendency within contemporary religion and spirituality is the desire to emulate the distant past, to return to what is perceived as a purer, wiser, or altogether better way of doing things. One of the many ways in which this tendency has been manifested is through neoshamanism. Although too broad to easily be categorised as a “religion” in and of itself, neoshamanism reflects a diverse range of techniques and practices through which modern people have sought to engage in “shamanism”—itself a problematic and highly contested concept. Attempts at reviving “shamanism” have occurred on every continent (barring perhaps Antarctica) and have taken place in a varied array of socio-cultural contexts, both within societies that have had observable “shamanic” traditions in recent times and those which have not. The Nordic nations of Northern Europe are just one part of the world where this has occurred.

Although Kraft, Fonneland, and Lewis’s introductory chapter does not attempt to develop a specific working definition of “neoshamanism,” several contributions to the volume refer to this phenomenon as the “neoshamanic milieu.” This is probably the most effective way of understanding neoshamanism. As a result of its diffuse, eclectic nature, neoshamanism can intersect and blend with various other religious, spiritual, and esoteric milieus. For instance, as the work of Robert J. Wallis and Jenny Blain has demonstrated, neoshamanic ideas have been incorporated into the modern Pagan religion of Heathenry. Or as David Chidester has shown, in southern Africa neo-shamans have emerged among the Zulu as globalizing trends—including beliefs in extra-terrestrials—have impacted traditional practices. Although the aforementioned scholars have been among a handful working on the neoshamanic phenomenon, never before has a whole scholarly edited volume been devoted to the subject, making Nordic Neoshamanisms something of a milestone in the study of this new religious phenomenon.

Following the editors’ introduction, Olav Hammer kicks off with a chapter which, although not specifically discussing neoshamanisms in the Nordic context, lays important groundwork by arguing that Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton University Press, 1964) and Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman (Harper & Row, 1980) serve as “the canonical texts of Western neoshamanism” (14). Although the two works are different in intent—Eliade’s was specifically framed as an academic study, Harner’s as a practical guide—Hammer argues that both have significantly shaped how neoshamans and others conceptualize shamanism to begin with.

Fonneland’s chapter provides a rough overview of the neoshamanic milieu in Norway. She examines how, since the 1990s, neoshamanic ideas have moved away from the US-based “core shamanism” of Michael Harner and have adapted into specifically Norse and Sami cultural variants. Much of this work is explored in greater depth in Fonneland’s recent monograph, Contemporary Shamanisms in Norway: Religion, Entrepreneurship, and Politics. Merete Demant Jakobsen follows with a discussion of those who teach neoshamanic techniques to others, looking at how their approach to the subject has changed over the years. Like Fonneland, she observes a move away from Harner’s “core shamanism.” Anne Kalvig’s chapter discusses the intersection of neoshamanism with both Spiritualism and Native American “shamanic” imagery in Nordic nations, before Torunn Selberg uses Norwegian examples to describe neoshamanic utilizations of “tradition.”

Henno Erikson Parks focuses on neoshamanism in Estonia, summarizing how ideas about shamanism filtered into the Baltic country during the Soviet period, and proposing “metroshamanism” as a more appropriate term than the established “neoshamanism.” Lewis’s chapter deals with the contrasting approaches to neoshamanism adopted by two “indigenous” communities—the Native Americans and the Sami—noting how the former have often dismissed it as the appropriation of their culture by European-descended people, while the latter have more typically embarked on it themselves as a reassertion of their own cultural identity. Remaining with the Sami, Bente Gullveig Alver recounts the life of Ellen Marit Gaup Dunfjeld (1944–1991), a Norwegian Sami healer from a reindeer-herding family, examining how her ideas regarding spirits changed over the course of her life in response both to external influences and to her (sometimes traumatic) experiences with Sami activism and bereavement.

The last four chapters move towards Nordic interpretations of shamanism in more secular contexts. Cato Christensen’s chapter discusses the depiction of noaidevuohta (pre-Christian Sami “shamanism”) in Nils Gaup’s 1987 movie Pathfinder, often described as the first Sami feature film. Himself a Sami, Gaup had delved into ethnographic and historical accounts to produce a largely accurate depiction of noaidi practices. Stein R. Mathisen’s contribution investigates the depiction of historical noaidevuohta in Arctic Scandinavian museums and how these have been affected by different interest groups within the framework of colonial encounter and postcolonial reclamations. Fonneland returns with a chapter on the neoshamanic Isogaisa festival which has been held in Norway since 2010, and finally Kraft rounds off the volume with a piece on the Sami singer Mari Boine (b. 1956), discussing how her work has helped to soften attitudes toward shamanism among the (often) conservative Lutheran Sami community.

As this brief summary indicates, much material is explored within Nordic Neoshamanisms, although there are some areas that it covers better than others. Norway receives greater attention than any other Nordic country (possibly because the volume’s editors are based at the University of Tromsø); certain other parts of the region, such as Iceland or the Faroe Islands, are barely if ever touched upon. As with most edited volumes however, the editors were no doubt restricted by the research interests and locations of their contributors, rendering such emphases inevitable.

As part of the broader overarching framework of the book, it would have been interesting to see more discussion of the terminologies employed, including the “New Age” and especially the titular “neoshamanism.” Most of the groups described in this book call themselves “shamans” rather than “neoshamans,” which makes me wonder if scholars would be better advised to describe this movement as “contemporary shamanism” or “modern shamanism” to bring their terminologies in line with those of the practitioners whom they study, much as scholars of modern Paganism have largely jettisoned “neopaganism”. These fairly minor issues notwithstanding, this is an important contribution to a much-neglected area of research and for that reason is recommended for scholars with a specialty in alternative religions or religion in Northern Europe.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is a doctoral student in Early Medieval Religion at the University College London.

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2018

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