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  • Shamanism, Witchcraft, and MagicForeword

The ritualized activities, trance states, preternatural abilities, and supposed interaction with spiritual entities (demons, ghosts, etc.) that characterize shamanism constitute a remarkably pervasive aspect of magic in many cultures from earliest antiquity even to the present. Whether they are called shamans, seers, medicine men, witch doctors, or occasionally witches, people engaged in some type of shamanistic practice have been revered and celebrated, feared, or condemned in many societies. In addition, scholars have argued that remnants or residues of shamanistic practices underlie numerous magical rites in many other societies. Perhaps most famously, Carlo Ginzburg identified shamanistic elements in the rites of the so-called benandanti (well-farers) of early modern Friuli. Although the benandanti claimed that they battled witches in a trance state to ensure the fertility of crops, investigating inquisitors eventually became convinced that the benandanti were themselves witches.

I Benandanti was published in Italian in 1966, and was largely brought to the attention of Anglophone scholars by William Monter in 1969.1 The case of the benandanti and the idea of shamanism underlying witchcraft was then addressed in the mid-1970s by the leading authority on shamanism Mircea Eliade,2 and Ginzburg’s original book was finally translated as The Night Battles in 1983.3 Since then, shamanism has become an important explanatory paradigm for witchcraft both in Europe and beyond, accepted by many [End Page 207] scholars and contested by many others.4 Perhaps to an even greater degree than the category “witchcraft,” the term “shamanism” conveys multiple meanings and implications, many of them vague, some of them contrasting or conflicting. Despite these problems, because the potential influence of shamanism is so wide, encompassing many areas of witchcraft, magic, and ritual more generally, it seemed an appropriate topic to address in a special forum in this journal. To that end, the editors asked several scholars for their thoughts regarding the use and utility of shamanism, in whatever form or meaning, in the study of magic and witchcraft.

Ronald Hutton begins the forum by examining the problematic meanings assigned to the originally Siberian term shaman as it was appropriated and used by Europeans, how shamanism may and may not relate to the category of witchcraft, and how each of these shifting categories may map onto various cultures. Gábor Klaniczay, one of the first scholars of European witchcraft to consider how shamanism and witchcraft might interconnect, traces the complex historiography of this topic and evaluates some of the perspectives it has generated. William Monter returns to Ginzburg’s benandanti, suggesting that they might best be considered as neither shamans nor witches, but instead should be placed in the broad tradition of magical healing, and that the role of gender as it relates to all these categories needs more direct attention. Rune Blix Hagen then considers the case of arctic Sami shamanism, noting both its relation to witchcraft accusations and its gendered features, and suggesting that shamanism itself needs to be redefined if it is to continue to be applied as broadly as it has been. Fumiaki Nakanishi continues this point by comparing shamanism to European cases of demonic possession, and by introducing non-European perspectives on the functioning of trance and ecstatic states.

The purpose of this forum section is to raise broad questions and frame major issues, which each of our contributors has valuably done. We would welcome further contributions on this subject, and hope that this is an area (one of many) in which Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft can facilitate scholarly communication across disciplines and across wide areas of geographic and chronological concern. [End Page 208]


1. E. William Monter, ed., European Witchcraft (New York: John Wiley, 1969), 158–64.

2. Mircea Eliade, “Some Observations on European Witchcraft,” in Eliade, Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 69–92; originally published in History of Religions 14 (1975): 149–72, and based on a lecture at the University of Chicago in 1974.

3. Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

4. Ginzburg has remained very much...