It’s a strange kind of vindication when you see someone argue your ideas independently. Even if they understand those ideas in a different way. I suppose it’s necessary to say that in academia those who have university posts are assumed to be more authoritative than those of us who don’t. That’s not sour grapes, it’s simply a fact. Some years ago, after having first seen Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I wrote a post on this blog suggesting that the Joker functioned as a shaman in that movie. Being a blog by a non-university academic, the post had a few readers, but it is not peer-reviewed and therefore, officially just a matter of opinion. I have studied religion professionally for decades now, however, and I would still stand by my assessment.
Recently I came across an article that argued Batman was a shamanic figure in that same movie. It was affirming that another academic had come to a similar conclusion, however, we differ in our interpretation of who bears shamanistic characteristics. It doesn’t help, I suspect, that shamanism isn’t well understood, and even the name is a bit of a misnomer. We don’t really have a word for non-major religious practitioners of indigenous populations who may have little in common, so we call them shamans. Their religious systems are too specific—“granular” is the favored business word these days—to categorize them easily. And the reason for this is that we think of religions in the light of the large, organized conglomerations that arose in western Asia a couple millennia ago. It’s difficult to make room for smaller exemplars.
Something larger religions have done is distorted the idea of religion as a local phenomenon. Communities used to reflect the religious experience those who lived in them knew. Catholicism divided the world into parishes and even tolerated some differences between them. Protestantism gave Europeans (and their New World descendants) a set of choices, and towns in America often sport many steeples not because religion draws a community together but rather because it generally tears it apart. Hierarchical religions are about as opposite of shamanism as Batman is different from the Joker. They may have similar ends in mind, but their methods are quite different. The shaman is a figure that leads to spiritual wholeness for the community. Their methods seem questionable to larger, highly structured religions. And the unaffiliated trickster may accomplish more than an establishment figure in a local setting.