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Christianity and shamanism

31 January 2008

Nic Paton has written a very interesting series of posts on Christianity and shamanism, which I am only beginning to catch up with now, since we were offline while most of it was being posted.

I’m not responding to it directly here, but I’m tossing together a few reflections on the topic, and some quotes. There are interesting connections between shamanism and Orthodox mission in Alaska.

On 12 April 1828 Fr John Veniaminov visited Akun Island near Unalaska, and found people waiting for him, and they told him that their shaman, John Smirennikov, had told them to expect him. Smirennikov did not like to be referred to as a shaman, but that was how the people saw him. John Pankov, the translator, did not like Smirennikov, so he had been cut off from catechetical instruction, but when Fr John questioned him, Smirennikov told him that his two companions taught him. They were white men who lived in the mountains.

Fr John Veniaminov was a Russian missionary in Alaska, and is now better known as St Innocent of Alaska, or St Innocent of Moscow, one of the great missionary saints of the Orthodox Church. After his wife died he became a monk, and returned to Alaska and Eastern Siberia as a bishop, and later became Metropolitan of Moscow, where he founded the Orthodox Missionary Society.

Fr John Veniaminov was born and grew up near Lake Baikal, among the Evenk people, who gave the word “shaman” to the English language. “Shaman” was the word used by the Tungus-speaking Evenk people for their equivalent of a sangoma, and the word was borrowed by anthropologists to refer to a part-time magico-religious specialist adept at trance, divination and curing, who derives magical power directly from a supernatural source.

Shaman, religious specialist, originally found in hunter-gatherer cultures, which are loosely structured, technologically simple, and homogeneous. The word shaman is derived from a word in the Tungus language of Siberia, one of the areas in which the classical form of shamanism is found. Several forms of shamanism have been observed in widely distributed non-literate societies located in Central Asia, North America, and Oceania. Shamanistic phenomena are also sometimes observed in the religions of more highly organized cultures, such as Chinese religion or Japanese Shintoism, though it is uncertain whether these can be properly classed as shamanistic
(Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved).

Father John Veniaminov would have understood shamans more in the original Tungus sense than in the later generalised anthropological one. The culture in Alaska was very similar to that of eastern Siberia, and so views on shamans would have been similar too.

In reporting to his bishop about his meeting with John Smirennikov, Fr John Veniaminov wrote:

Therefore, in order that his faith and hope in the one Almighty and Omniscient God might not in some manner grow weak, I ventured, even before receiving permission from Your Grace, to give him the following exhortation: “I see that the spirits which appear to you are not devils; therefore heed their doctrine and exhortatons whenever these contradict nothing I have taught you in the general assembly. To those who question you concerning the future or who seek your help, say that they should ask God, the Father of all. I do not forbid you to heal people: just be sure to tell anyone whom you decide to heal that it is the power of God that performs it and not your own. Recommend that they pray diligently to the one God and thank him. Neither do I forbid you to teach others, but do no more than exhort those of tender age. Tell no one — not even me — about the future.” Then I told and commanded the other Aleuts who were there that none of them was to call him a shaman, or to ask about or for anything from him, but from God alone. [1]

When the first Orthodox missionaries arrived in Alaska in 1794, they had, within a few months of their arrival, baptised more than 6000 of the Alutiiq people. The acceptance of the Christian faith was so rapid that it must have related to events that took place before the missionaries’ arrival, and that proved to be the case. The people were acting on the advice of their shamans, who had prepared them for this beforehand. [2]


[1] Garrett, Paul. St Innocent, Apostle to America. (Crestwood, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979).

[2] Mousalimas, S.A. The account from Old Harbour: regarding the baptism of the Kodiak Alutiiq (1794-1795). Greek Orthodox Theological Review. Vol. 36 No 2. 1991. Pages 155-168.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 January 2008 8:47 am

    Steve, that is a fascinating story.

    I’d like to re-quote Walter Brueggemann here:

    “The new future in which no one believed was born in staggering amazement, for it was correctly perceived as underived and unextrapolated and therefore beyond human understanding (Phil 4:7) and human control. It is the task of every would-be prophet to present such underived and unextrapolated newness”. (The Prophetic Imagination)

    I yearn for this “underived and unextrapolated newness”, and I believe that is evident in the transformation of the Alutiiq in 1794.

    It sounds like Veniaminov was a generous spirit, unthreatened by the primal (unlike most missionaries of recent times).

    It is fascinating that while he allowed “spirits” to teach his people, he was wary of any divination of the future. Quite a contrast to our culture where we are highly suspicious of spirits but quite prepared to hear about the future.

    Your narrative is an encouraging alternative to regular missionary tales, and a confirmation of how G-d transcends culture, and works within all traditions.

  2. 1 February 2008 7:36 pm


    It was St Maximus the Confessor’s opposition to the monothelitism of his times, and to the Platonic theology of Origen, that laid the foundations for the positive view which Orthodox missions have generally had of traditional societies in central and eastern Europe in the 9th & 10th centuries, and across central Asia and into eastern Siberia and Alaska over the next 800 years.

    As Fr Michael Oleksa says, “Orthodox evangelists felt no obligation to attack all the pre-contact religious beliefs of shamanistic tribes, for they could perceive in them some of the positive appreciation of the cosmos that is central to St Maximus’ theology. They could affirm that the spiritual realities these societies worshipped were indeed ‘logoi’ related to the Divine Logos, whose personal existence these societies had simply never imagined”

  3. 2 February 2008 11:03 pm


    That’s a fascinating story. It’s interesting that the shaman’s pointed toward the missionary, which led to his acceptance. Often Christianity is at odds with the spiritual leaders of other people’s and this recount puts them at peace with one another. Do you know of other similar stories?

  4. 3 February 2008 2:37 pm

    What would be a good Maximus starting point?

    Thanks for the John V Taylor referral (The Primal Vision) – I have started reading it, and there are some stunning observations right from the outset.

  5. ricky permalink
    27 August 2011 11:55 am

    so what one culture would call a shaman, maybe we christians would call a prophet in some sense?


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