Pious Fraud

I was determined to not like or even read Robert Wright’s Evolution of God but Kindle makes it much too easy to buy books.

Fortunately it is excellent.

Even shamans who got no fees or gifts might benefit from their work. Among the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, payment for service was rare, but, as one anthropologist observed, “one abstains from anything and everything” that might put the shaman out of sorts or irritate him. Moreover, in pre-agricultural societies, as in modern societies, high social status, however intangible, can ultimately bring tangible benefits. Ojibwa shamans, one anthropologist reports, received minimal remuneration, working for prestige, not pay. One of the symbols of religious leadership prestige was polygyny. Male leaders took more than one wife. In his classic study The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that, among some Eskimo, a forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning).
So here is the pattern: in pre-agricultural societies around the world, people have profited, in one sense or another, by cultivating a reputation for special access to the supernatural. It’s enough to make you wonder: Might they, in the course of establishing their bona fides, sometimes resort to deceit? Was the average shaman a fraud” or, as one anthropologist put it, a “pious fraud”?

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Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

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