The best shaman books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about shamans and why they recommend each book.

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The Shaman

By Piers Vitebsky,

Book cover of The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul - Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia to the Amazon

Because of its beautiful presentation of this complex topic, the stunning illustrations and the superb, world-class knowledge the author brings to an enigmatic subject, in which the ability of certain individuals to access the spirit world is discussed. The theatre in which the author performs is worldwide, and, although shamanism differs hugely from the Americas to Siberia, from India to southern Africa, and way beyond, he brilliantly presents a cohesive and totally enthralling picture of the essential ingredients of shamanism: shape-shifting, ‘soul-flight’, healing through contact with the spirits, are just some of the themes covered in this short volume. The book engages academics as a sound starting-point for the understanding of what a shaman is but its concise style and gorgeous colour images will engage anyone remotely interested in world religions.

Who am I?

I am an Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University. I have been writing books on later prehistoric and Romano-British and Roman provincial cults and customs since the 1980s, and my fascination with this subject remains undimmed. I have travelled all over the world as a visiting lecturer and in 2015 my book Bog Bodies Uncovered won two US Books of the Year awards. I have always been of the view that research is pointless unless it is shared and easily communicated, and so I try to avoid academic jargon and to present my publications both as accessible to general readers and as relevant to people at the cutting edge of their own research.

I wrote...

Sacred Britannia: The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain

By Miranda Aldhouse-Green,

Book cover of Sacred Britannia: The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain

What is my book about?

Two thousand years ago, the Romans sought to absorb into their empire what they regarded as a remote, almost mythical island on the very edge of the known world--Britain. The expeditions of Julius Caesar and the Claudian invasion of 43 AD, up to the traditional end of Roman Britain in the fifth century AD, brought fundamental and lasting changes to the island. Not least among these was a pantheon of new classical deities and religious systems, along with a clutch of exotic eastern cults, including Christianity. But what homegrown deities, cults, and cosmologies did the Romans encounter in Britain, and how did the British react to the changes? Under Roman rule, the old gods and their adherents were challenged, adopted, adapted, absorbed, and reconfigured.

People of the Longhouse

By W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear,

Book cover of People of the Longhouse: A Novel of North America's Forgotten Past

No list of historical fiction depicting the Indians’ way of life would be complete without the inclusion of a book by the Gears, who’ve written many novels of Native life years before the arrival of European explorers.

I like this book because it’s a bit of a retelling of Hansel and Gretel set in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture. Two young children are among many captured by a witch and bound for an uncertain fate. The book delves into the widespread fear of witches in many Indian cultures and also offers a glimpse of life among the Haudenosaunee, who famously lived in large agricultural communities, dwelling in longhouses surrounded by palisades.

Who am I?

I’ve written seven books, all along the theme of adventure in one way or another, but my best-known work is that of my novels of the Ojibwe Indians. As a child, I grew up on a farm where my dad discovered scores of arrowheads and artifacts while plowing the fields. This was a deep revelation for me as to the extent of Indian culture and how little we know of its people. In my books, Windigo Moon and The Wolf and The Willow, I try to bring the world of the 1500s and its Native peoples to life.

I wrote...

The Wolf and The Willow

By Robert Downes,

Book cover of The Wolf and The Willow

What is my book about?

The Wolf and The Willow is a novel of first contact between Native peoples and European explorers. Willow, a house slave of a Moroccan lord, is swept up in the 1528 expedition of conquistador Panfilo Narvaez to the New World. There, she meets Animi-Ma’lingan (He Who Outruns the Wolves), a young trader and storyteller who is on a mission to find a mysterious animal for the shamans of the Ojibwe people. Together, Willow and Wolf must outwit their captors on a journey up the Mississippi River through the heart of many thriving Indian civilizations.

The novel delves into the culture of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Mandan, Dakota Sioux, Caddo, and other tribes, culminating in a showdown at the great pyramid of Cahokia near present-day St. Louis.

The Falling Sky

By Davi Kopenawa, Bruce Albert, Nicholas Elliott (illustrator), Alison Dundy (illustrator)

Book cover of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman

Imagine a Martian landing on planet Earth, meeting with people in Europe and the USA, and writing about it. Part of this book is filled with such freshness of vision and its cuts through the problems and vices of our civilization; the other part is no less of an extraordinary tale of a religious leader brought up in the Amazon who seems to move effortlessly between the natural and supernatural realms.

Who am I?

From about the age of 14, I have been exploring how unusual ideas and experiences might change a person’s life. This led me to become an author and experimental psychologist studying the effects of religious beliefs, rituals, and meditation exercises on our minds and bodies. I have spent a good part of the last 4 years putting together a book which tries to answer many of my questions on the varieties of meditation practices around the world.   

I wrote...

The Oxford Handbook of Meditation

By Miguel Farias, David Brazier, Mansur Lalljee

Book cover of The Oxford Handbook of Meditation

What is my book about?

This is the most comprehensive volume published on meditation, written in accessible language by world-leading experts on the science and history of these techniques. It covers the development of meditation across the world and the varieties of its practices and experiences. These are some of the questions it addresses: what were meditation practices developed for and by whom? How similar or different are they, how effective can they be in changing our minds and biology, and what are their social and ethical implications?

The Poppy War

By R. F. Kuang,

Book cover of The Poppy War

The first book in a celebrated trilogy by R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War more than earns its fame with innovative worldbuilding, an absorbing and sometimes shocking plot, and beautifully concise writing. But the reason it’s on this list is the way it deals with an almost unimaginable horror, taken from our real world into the realm of fantasy in a way that neither sensationalizes nor diminishes history. I am a descendant of genocide survivors twice over, which makes Kuang’s ability to tell this kind of story especially resonant for me. 

Who am I?

A lot of people feel intimidated by fantasy. Admittedly, the classics of the genre can be hard to get into, with their epic worldbuilding and thousand-page counts. But what made me fall in love with fantasy was the way it made me feel. Growing up queer, Jewish, fat, and chronically ill in the American South made it impossible for me to relate to the people around me. But fantasy, with its stories of outcasts becoming saviors, resonated with me. That’s why I started writing Queen of All when I was only twelve years old—I wanted to make people feel seen and understood. That’s what these books have done for me. 

I wrote...

Queen of All

By Anya Leigh Josephs,

Book cover of Queen of All

What is my book about?

In a Kingdom once filled with the magic of the Goddess Gaia, fourteen-year-old Jena has never left her family’s tiny, failing farm. With an absent mother and an inattentive father, Jena’s only solace is her cousin Sisi, a girl renowned throughout the Four Corners of the Earth for her indescribable beauty. But when a letter arrives for Sisi from Prince Ricard, the man Sisi suspects is responsible for the recent devastation across the lands, the two girls find themselves thrust into a world far more extravagant, and dangerous, than ever before.

With her cousin caught under the watchful eye of the Prince, it is up to Jena to uncover the history of the Kingdom and its forgotten magic. 

Earth Beings

By Marisol de la Cadena,

Book cover of Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds

This book is about an unexpected meeting of minds. De la Cadena intended to write an account of a peasant campaign for land led by indigenous peasant leader Mariano Turpo during the 1950-60s.  But early on it became clear that she and Mariano were talking past each other, for Mariano understood his successful activism in terms of his relationship with animate places in the landscape (“earth beings”). The book contains a moving account of how the urban intellectual and traditional Andean leader learned to appreciate and communicate with each other. De la Cadena argues that attention to cultural difference—far from perpetuating false consciousnessmight open the way to radically new politics. Some readers may wish to pass over some dense theoretical passages, but the book is organized so one can do this without losing the larger picture.

Who am I?

My connection with the Andean highlands of southern Peru stretches back to 1975 when I spent about a year in a small community of Quechua-speaking potato farmers and llama herders. I have returned there many times over the years, most recently in 2019. Its people, their way of life, and vision of the world are dear to my heart and are the subject of The Hold Life Has as well as a play, creative nonfiction, and, more recently, poetry. I love the way anthropology forces me to think outside the box and experience the world with different eyes, something I aim to convey in my work.

I wrote...

The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community

By Catherine J. Allen,

Book cover of The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community

What is my book about?

The Hold Life Has is about ways in which people in a small Andean community connect with their land and, in the process, define and express their cultural identity. The land, which bears their crops, feeds their animals, and supplies adobes for their houses, is also a landscape of sacred places, a parallel society of animate and powerful personalities. The ritual use of coca connects people with this living landscape. Maintenance of this bond is a constant process, carried on in the daily routine as well as in the more intensified context of religious ritual. Because coca signifies the presence of social and spiritual bonds and appears in virtually every aspect of life, it serves as a kind of leitmotif for the book.

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