Saturday, 11 June 2022

The word "shaman"

Today I updated two of my games on itch and DTRPG, removing the word "shaman" and replacing it with alternatives. Henceforth, materials published on this blog and by Atelier Hwei are not going to use the words shaman or shamanic and — it is my intention to update the rest of published material so those words are no longer used. References within previous blog posts will remain.

For clarity: I have taken this decision for a number of reasons, all which pertain to real-world cultural sensitivity rather than aesthetic or game-related reasons. Apologies if you clicked on this hoping for a post about a "word-shaman" character class, but I think this is important.

Context is Everything

  1. Shaman arrived in the English language via Russian, having previously been borrowed from indigenous Siberian cultures during the eastward expansion of the old Russian Empire. 

  2. European ethnographers began to apply the term shaman to spiritual practitioners in indigenous communities across Asia, Australasia, Africa and the Americas. The derived terms shamanic and shamanism have been adopted within anthropology to denote a) spiritual leaders within contemporary animist (including indigenous) cultures and b) the religious/quasi-religious practices of prehistoric cultures analysed principally through the archaeological record.

  3. Neoshamanism is a New Age religious practice that utilises similar methods to those in indigenous animism, though usually divorced of cultural context. Adherents might self-identify as a shaman.

  4. In fantasy RPGs—especially but not exclusively EVERY edition of D&D—shaman denotes a spellcaster from a "tribal" i.e. foraging or pastoralist culture. They may be a "reskin" of the cleric or druid class, or they may possess abilities more reminiscent of real-world shaman.  
The sequence of these contexts is chronological from the standpoint of western popular culture: we witness the journey of a word from the sparsely populated wilderness of central Eurasia, through Victorian gentlemen's clubs and (later) Californian  campuses, until we get to... Gazetteer 14 (and maybe 10, and 13)? The final destination in and of itself is not problematic (it is one facet of the broader pop-cultural use of the term) but its route to this point does warrant greater scrutiny.

Between 1999-2000 I was enrolled on an undergraduate degree in Human Sciences, a combined physical and social anthropology programme. While that was more than 20 years ago it is noteworthy that we were very aware of controversy surrounding the usage of shaman outside of Siberian indigenous contexts. This controversy can be broken down as follows (here informed by the work of US anthropologist Alice Beck Kehoe):

  1. The appropriation of one culture's term for their spiritual leaders and practices and applying it as an exonym to the spiritual practices of another unrelated (or at best distantly related group) is a form of cultural imperialism/colonialism.

  2. Application of the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" to the spiritual practices of unrelated contemporary cultures implies an homogeneity that is itself a form of erasure.

  3. Awareness of the term outside of anthropology and its "shape" within broader pop culture is partially the consequence of bestselling writers such as Michael Harner and Carlos Castaneda, also directly responsible for the emergence of Neoshamanism. While the anthropologist Harner's work is not without its critics, Castaneda's oeuvre has been entirely debunked.  
This last point, incidentally, was utterly heart-breaking to me as a young student with a fondness for psychedelics and animism Castaneda was bullshitting? This would be bearable, of course, were it not for the fact that Castaneda was acting as self-appointed spokesperson for an indigenous group (the Yaqui), and once again we're back, staring at the asymmetric relationship between ethnography and colonialism.

The debate does not appear to have progressed much since I was first at university, and it appears that shaman continues to be used by anthropologists in broader discussions about related spiritual practices, though when specific cultures are discussed, endonyms are preferred. 

Likewise, "shaman" is used by non-Siberian indigenous groups (e.g. the Yanomami of Brazil) when describing members of their community to outsiders. Like usage of the word "Indian", its acceptability varies greatly from group to group.

Crucially, however, it remains unacceptable to some, at least in relation to their own spiritual practices.


The word shaman is used 29 times in PARIAH: Volume 1, but not fully defined until its appearance on page 32:
Pariahs may begin the game knowing rituals. For convenience, the ritual’s leader is referred to as a shaman—a term with no special significance in PARIAH

This qualifier is a game-note rather than a political note: its purpose was to state that in-game rituals could be learned by any character (there is no specific shaman "class"). Within the text, the chapter on these fictional rituals gives way to one concerning fictional entheogens, and the shorthand continues to be used. While there is no explicit statement about how the cultures of PARIAH are structured, the reader begins to build an impression of what social function someone called a "shaman" might perform.

Fundamentally—and I cannot emphasise this enough—the animism of PARIAH is not based upon any specific set of spiritual practices. It is a work of fiction. PARIAH was not made to specifically emulate a region or culture, and it is not set on a "parallel earth": it is a fantasy game in an imaginary world. However:

  1. The game draws from the real-world "proto-Neolithic" of prehistory, principally thought experiments regarding a dramatic shift in subsistence strategy and lifestyle (nomadic->settled; foraging->agriculture).

  2. In contrasting nomadic or semi-nomadic foragers with settled agriculturalists, real world examples provide interesting models for the types of conflicts that emerge. More simply put, when thinking about what hunter-gatherer societies might look like in a fantasy setting, real-life foraging societies—namely, indigenous peoples—are a good place to start.

  3. It is impossible to create anything void of any reference to real-life, no matter how fantastic
...all of which are to emphasise that while PARAH is in no way meant to represent indigenous people from any part of the world, it is unavoidable that some inferences can be made about the nature of its design antecedents. With this in mind, I would rather drop a politically volatile term, especially one that doesn't really have any specific meaning within the game.

Here's a few synonyms I'll be using:

- elder (for any senior member of society and thus repository of wisdom)
- death-speaker
- ghost-talker, ghost-watcher
- healer 
- herbalist 
- participant (in ritual context)
- priest (I associate this with religious structure and hierarchy, but might be germane in some contexts)
- sorcerer (in the context of spirit-summoning)
- spirit-talker (evocative) 
- supplicant (in the context of a ritual)
- teller (a keeper of oral traditions within a non-literate society)
- wanderer (especially for a hermit... wandering the wilderness as well as other worlds)
- wise-one (or wiseman, wisewoman etc.)
- witch (malevolent)

Terminology in D&D

I hope that the reasons for this decision are clear, and that this will have zero impact on your campaign. You might wish to continue using this word, especially if your setting is inspired by the Tungusic people of Siberia.

But before you disappear into another corner of the internet, take a look at how non-human spellcasters were handled in Menzer's Master set and Aaron Allston's later revision:

Top: D&D Master Rules (Menzer, 1984); Bottom: D&D Rules Cyclopedia (Aaron Allston, 1991)

Set the shaman aside in this instance to focus on the "humanoid" equivalent of magic-user: originally described as wicca, this was replaced by wokan. My initial understanding was that pressure from neopagan groups led to this being dropped, but this seems highly unlikely given the cultural climate of the 80s. What's more, if practitioners of a contemporary pagan religion were offended it's surprising they didn't offer to help their celtic-inspired cousins... yet druid survived into the later editions where wicca did not. Far more likely that satanic panic were to blame (certainly the reason demons were re-cast as fiends). I leave it here as a final thought and invite your (polite) comments below.


  1. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the term Shaman is a sort of generalization mutated from a specific cultural context, but I had not considered that, this is good to know, thanks for doing this research and writing this post.

    1. It's something that I've been considering for a while and realised I wasn't doing out of laziness more than anything else, so I bit the bullet. Editing the pariah doc isn't much fun though!