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The European (Re)discovery of the ShamansCarlo Ginzburg
Vol. 15 No. 2 · 28 January 1993

The European (Re)discovery of the Shamans

Carlo Ginzburg

5281 words

In a book which appeared in Venice in 1565, later reprinted and translated many times, La Historia del mondo nuovo, the Milanese Girolamo Benzoni described what he had seen in the course of his 14 years of travelling in the ‘newly discovered islands and seas’ beyond the Ocean. About the island of Hispaniola, he related the following:

In this island, as also in other provinces of these new countries, there are some bushes, not very large, like reeds, that produce a leaf in shape like that of the walnut, though rather larger, which (where it is used) is held in great esteem by the natives, and very much prized by the slaves whom the Spaniards have brought from Ethiopia.

    When these leaves are in season, they pick them, tie them up in bundles, and suspend them near their fire-place till they are very dry; and when they wish to use them, they take a leaf of their grain [maize] and putting one of the others into it, they roll them round tight together; then they set fire to one end, and putting the other end into the mouth, they draw their breath up through it, wherefore the smoke goes into the mouth, the throat, the head, and they retain it as long as they can, for they find a pleasure in it, and so much do they fill themselves with this cruel smoke, that they lose their reason. And there are some who take so much of it, that they fall down as if they were dead, and remain me greater part of the day or night stupefied ... See what a pestiferous and wicked poison from the devil this must be. It has happened to me several times that, going through the provinces of Guatemala and Nicaragua, I have entered the house of an Indian who had taken this herb, which in the Mexican language is called tabacco.

Following in the footsteps of the Russian Formalists, Shklovsky above all, we have learned to look for estrangement in the gaze of a savage, of a child or perhaps even an animal: beings cut-off from the conventions of civil life, which they record with a bewildered or indifferent eye, thus indirectly pointing to their lack of meaning. Here we find ourselves confronted with a situation which is paradoxically reversed: the foreigner is the Milanese Girolamo Benzoni; those who perform the meaningless gesture of lighting a cigarette and smoking it are the savage Indians. In the flight of Girolamo Benzoni (‘and immediately perceiving the sharp fetid smell of this truly diabolical and stinking smoke, I was obliged to go away in haste, and seek some other place’) one is tempted to see a symbolic anticipation of the withdrawal of the non-smokers before the advance – which has perhaps already reached its outer limit – of the army of tobacco smokers.

The Milanese traveller’s is one of innumerable first-hand accounts of the encounter between Europeans and the disconcerting novelties of the Ocean beyond: animals, plants, customs. Today it’s fashionable to place these documents in a very general category, that of an encounter with the Other: an expression with a somewhat metaphysical flavour, though it does emphasise the intersection within these relationships of natural and cultural otherness. A few pages after Girolamo Benzoni’s invective against the effects of tobacco (‘See what a pestiferous and wicked poison from the devil this must be’) there follows a description of the way the plant was used by indigenous doctors. ‘Intoxicated’ by the smoke, the invalid, ‘on returning to his senses, told a thousand stories of his having been at the council of the gods and other high visions’. The doctors then ‘turn the invalid round three or four times, rubbing his back and loins well with their hands, making many grimaces at him, and holding a pebble or bone in then mouth all the time. These things the women keep as holy, believing that they aid childbirth.’ In the eyes of the Milanese traveller indigenous doctors were clearly witches – and the effects of the tobacco which they administered diabolical hallucinations.

A similar ambivalence is found in a book of a few years later, by Monardes, a doctor from Seville: Primera y segunda y tercera partes de la Historia Medicinal. On the one hand, exaltations of the ‘great powers of tobacco’, recently introduced to the gardens and orchards of Spain, to care for every sort of illness: asthma, consumption, stomach and uterine pains. On the other hand, scandalised descriptions of the use which the Indians, in their religious ceremonies, made of that miraculous herb. Monardes writes that the priests, before divining the future, became dazed by the tobacco smoke until they fell to the ground like dead men: then, returned to their senses, they responded to the queries which were put to them, interpreting ‘in their own way, or following the inspiration of the Devil’, the apparitions and illusions they had perceived in their cataleptic state. But the priests were not the only ones ‘to get drunk’ (emborracharse) with the tobacco smoke: the Indians would do the same thing, for pleasure or in order to see the future in the images which presented themselves to their minds. ‘The Devil, who is a deceiver and knows the power of the herbs,’ Monardes comments, ‘has taught the Indians the virtue of tobacco: and leads them into deceit through visions and apparitions which the tobacco procures.’

For Monardes, then, one of the characteristics of tobacco is the ability to procure the ‘visions and apparitions’ which the ancient doctors had attributed to deadly nightshade, anise or horseradish, but one can make a more detailed comparison by considering two other substances endowed with hallucinatory powers and largely consumed in the East Indies: bangue and anphion – marijuana and opium. On the subject of bangue (or Cannabis indica, as it was classified by European botanists) Monardes cites and relies on the Portuguese doctor Garcia da Orta, the author of Coloquios dos simples e drogas da India, a work in the form of a dialogue on the herbs and aromas of the East Indies: but he adds details and specifications based on direct observation. Garcia da Orta spoke generically about the diffusion of bangue and opium; Monardes claims that the latter is preferred by the poor whereas the rich prefer bangue, which is tastier and more aromatic. A few years before, the doctor of Burgos, Christoval Acosta, in his Tractado de las Drogas, y medicinas de las Indias Orientales, had traced a typology of the consumers of bangue: some take it in order to forget fatigue and to sleep peacefully; others in order to amuse themselves in sleep with dreams and multi-coloured illusions; others in order to get drunk; others for its aphrodisiac effects (something Monardes omits altogether); the great lords and captains to forget their worries. All of the testimonies emphasise the way the inhabitants of the East Indies have become accustomed to these narcotic substances. Five seeds of opium would kill one of us, Monardes recounts in amazement: sixty seeds give them health and rest.

Rest, descanso: the barbarians of the West Indies (it is still Monardes who is writing) resort to tobacco in order to overcome exhaustion; those of the East Indies resort to opium – in those parts a very common substance, which is sold in the shops. In Peru, Girolamo Benzoni reports, the natives ‘hold a herb in their mouth called coca, which must yield some nourishment, for they can walk a whole day without eating or drinking; this herb is their principal merchandise.’ The meaning of these accounts, examined in a broad, multi-secular perspective, is very clear. The transoceanic voyages of exploration primed a circulation of intoxicating and narcotic substances so vast and intensive that it could be compared to the microbic unification of the globe illustrated by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in his famous essay in Le territoire de l’ historien. In fact, it took a few centuries for tobacco, opium, marijuana and derivatives of coca to enter the culture of the colonising peoples; wine and spirits penetrated the cultures of the colonised at a much faster rate.

Many, perhaps the majority of human societies have used and continue to use, in very dissimilar forms and circumstances, substances which allow their users temporary access to a realm of experience which is distinct from the ordinary. Temporary escape (partial or total) from history is an indispensable ingredient of human history. But the degree of social control that each culture – quite apart from the individuals within it – exercises with regard to these substances is extremely varied, and only partly attributable to a pharmaceutical analysis of their effects. In each instance a filter, a cultural component whose function for the most part escapes us, intervenes. How otherwise do we account for the fact that alcoholic beverages, which, for better or worse, European societies had been living with for several millennia (as in the case of wine) or several centuries (as in the case of spirits), had such a profoundly destructive effect upon the indigenous cultures of North America in the span of a few decades?

This is a well-known example. I mention it here because it allows me to introduce an extraordinary page taken from the report that the French Jesuit Paul de Brebeuf sent in 1636 to the provincial priest of the Company on the events that took place in the Québec mission during that year. One of the priests had explained to the natives (naturally the account refers to them as sauvages) that the high mortality rate they were suffering was due to wine and spirits which they didn’t know how to use in moderation. ‘Why don’t you write to your great King,’ one of the natives said, ‘that he prohibit these beverages from being brought in, since they kill us?’ The Jesuit replied that the French needed these drinks in order to face the oceanic voyages and incredible cold of these regions. ‘Then make it such,’ the other replied ‘that only they drink it.’ At this point, another native stood up: ‘No, it’s not these beverages which take life away from us, it is your writings: since you first described our country, our rivers, our lands, our forests, all of us began to die, as did not occur before your arrival.’

Paul de Brebeuf and his brethren responded to these words with loud laughter: nous-nous mismes à rire entendans ces causes nouvelles de leur maladies. Today, three and a half centuries later, we can admire the lucidity of the unknown native and finally concede that he was right. The Jesuits’ cartography led the way in the European colonial conquest; arrogant European assumptions about the alcoholic beverages which they brought with them was only one aspect of the cultural decay of the natives that colonisation produced.

The use of intoxicating, narcotic substances on the part of the colonisers was similarly conditioned by filters which are cultural in character. But the way these filters acted is anything but obvious. Given the reactions of travellers, missionaries and botanist-doctors, an imaginary 16th-century person, had he tried to predict which of the intoxicating, narcotic substances would have arrived first for consumption in the Old Continent, would presumably have betted on bangue, opium or coca. In the testimonies which I have examined, these substances are described in a neutral, detached tone, devoid of any moral or religious rebuke. On the other hand, tobacco – even in the pages of those, like Monardes, who insist on its extraordinary medicinal powers – insistently calls to mind vice, sin or even the Devil. But these condemnations notwithstanding – or perhaps because of them – it was precisely the ‘pestiferous and wicked’ tobacco which prevailed in Europe.

Why did these intoxicating substances provoke such different reactions among 16th-century European travellers? It’s a question that can only be answered cautiously and provisionally. We don’t, for example, have anything comparable to the five-volume historical, rational and systematic bibliography that Jerome Brooks started publishing in 1937 under the title Tobacco, to guide us on the use of marijuana, opium and coca. The hypotheses which I am about to formulate are therefore very much subject to correction on the basis of broader and more careful study.

I will begin with a few pages of a famous work, the Historia general y natural de las Indias by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1535). The second chapter of the fifth book is concerned with tobacco use on the island of Hispaniola. From the beginning, Oviedo’s voice resonates with moral reprobation: ‘The Indians of this island, besides their other vices, possessed one of the very worst (muy malo): that of inhaling smoke, which they call tabacco, for the purpose of losing their senses.’ A description follows which concurs in many ways with that of Girolamo Benzoni (who, presumably, relied on Oviedo’s account in preparing his own work). Oviedo observed that the Indians cultivated the plant, believing that its use was something ‘not only healthy but holy’ (no tan solamente les era cosa sana, pero muy sancta cosa); that they sometimes relied on it to alleviate their physical ailments; that some Christians followed this practice as well; and that the black slaves availed themselves of it to wipe out the exhaustion accumulated at the end of a day’s work. In the concluding paragraph, the description again gives way to condemnation: ‘Here it seems appropriate to recall a vicious and evil custom which the people of Thrace practised among their other criminal vices, according to what Abulensis writes about Eusebius’s De observatione temporum [III, 168], where he says that everyone, men and women, follows the custom of eating around a fire, attempting to be or appear drunk; and since they have no wine, they drink the seeds of certain herbs which grow in these parts and they throw them among the embers. They give off a smell which intoxicates all present even in the absence of wine. In my opinion, this is the same as the tabacco which the Indians use.’

Abulensis is the Spanish theologian Alonso de Madrigal, better known as Alonso Tostado, Bishop of Avila. In his commentary on the Ecclesiastical History, printed in Salamanca in 1506, he speaks about the Thracian custom of gathering around a fire in order to get intoxicated with the smoke of certain baked seeds. The reference to the Thracians derives from the account provided by Solinus, the Latin cosmographer. But Tostado’s comment on the absence of wine among the Thracians comes from Solinus’s source, the geographer Pomponius Mela. In the first century AD, Mela prepared a work, De orbis situ, which, in the chapter dealing with Thrace, describes the ceremony with which we are now familiar: Vini usus quibusdam ignotum est: epulantibus tamen ubi super ignes, quos circunsident, quaedam semina ingesta sunt, similis ebrietati hilaritas ex nidore contingit. The story does not end here, however. Pomponius Mela had, in turn, transferred onto the Thracians the description of a Scythian custom furnished by Herodotus (IV, 73-75).

The point of this digression is to allow us to reconstruct the cultural filter which permitted Oviedo (and not only him, as we shall see) to tame the natural and cultural otherness of the North American continent. Thanks to Pomponius Mela and Solinus, the intoxicating herb smoked by the Indians came to be identified with that used by the Thracians, whose nature is uncertain but which had equally intoxicating effects. This assimilation was facilitated by familiarity with the inebriation brought on by alcoholic beverages, and above all by wine, which constituted, as much for a Latin cosmographer of the first century AD as for a French or Italian traveller fourteen or fifteen centuries later, the implicit model according to which one could describe and evaluate the activity provoked by any intoxicating substance. Pomponius Mela observed that the Thracians, although unfamiliar with wine, entered a state of gaiety similar to drunkenness when inhaling the smoke which is emitted from the baked seeds of an unspecified herb. In his history of Canada, the Jesuit François du Creux wrote in 1664 that the inhabitants of those lands always travelled fortified with petun – that is, tobacco – and with a ‘fairly long tube’ (a kind of pipe) so that they were able to enter a state of inebriation ‘analogous to that procured by wine’. It could very well be that this learned Jesuit, who was ready to compare the nomadism of the native Canadians with that of the Scythians, was familiar with the passage in Pomponius Mela. But the perception of tobacco as an alternative to wine goes far beyond an occasional erudite echo: it permeates the vocabulary of travellers and missionaries. Girolamo Benzoni wrote in passing about the natives of the island of Hispaniola that ‘there are some who are happy to drink of this smoke.’ We read in an account prepared half a century later by the Jesuit Pierre Biard that the Canadian savages ‘also used petun and they drank the smoke.’

That tobacco was used by the native North Americans on occasions of a ritual nature did not escape many European observers. It is again Pierre Biard who underlines the fact that among the savages of New France, any ceremony – from decisions to treatises, to public welcomes – called for the use of petun, or tobacco: ‘They place themselves in a circle around a fire, passing the pipe from hand to hand, and in this way they spend many pleasurable hours together.’ The recognition of a ritual, if not exactly religious, dimension of the use of tobacco is also noted in Oviedo’s words recalled earlier: for the natives of Hispaniola it is something ‘not only healthy but holy’. The work which the priests performed on the same island has already been discussed. All of which suggests that, in the eyes of European observers, tobacco, insofar as it was an instrument of private pleasure and public ritual, seemed like a wine which had lost its positive charge: a sort of sacred drink employed by the natives in ceremonies which were considered idolatrous. Hence the difference between the detached response to opium, bangue and coca – intoxicating substances which the European observers associated (correctly or not) with a form of purely private consumption – and the manifest hostility to tobacco. It was a hostility which was destined to yield before the threatening onslaught of producers of tobacco, cigars and pipes.

At the beginning of the 16th century Oviedo had interpreted the Indians as tobacco smokers through remarks about the Thracians made by Pomponius Mela and Solinus. In the middle of the 17th century the situation reversed itself and the great erudite Isaac Vossius read an allusion to tobacco in Pomponius Mela. Ivy, arbutus (strawberry tree) and cyclamen can produce intoxication: but, he asked, what other herb, except tobacco (praeter Nicotianam), is capable of placing someone in a stupor with its own smoke?

This rhetorical question took it for granted that tobacco was already known in Antiquity: a theory that had often been advanced since the 16th century. (The oldest representation of tobacco by a European botanist, the Dutchman Rembert Dodoens, in 1554 identifies the plant with the Hyoscyamus luteus described by Dioscorides.) In 1724, the learned Jesuit Joseph-François Lafitau returned to the discussion – inevitably, in a work entitled Moeurs des sauvages amériquains, comparés aux moeurs des premiers temps (1724). As far as the Greeks and Romans were concerned, Lafitau came, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, to a negative conclusion. But Maxim of Tyre’s passage on the Scythians, like those by Pomponius Mela and Solinus, seemed to him to constitute substantial, though perhaps not definitive, proof of the use of tobacco by those barbarian populations. It was a factor to add to innumerable others which, according to Lafitau (Mémoire présenté au Duc d’ Orléans concernant la précieuse plante de Gin Seng de Tartaric découverte au Canada, 1718), attested to the European origin of the first inhabitants of the American continent. But the demonstration of the antiquity of the use of tobacco turned into a heated exaltation of its powers which was significant above all because it had been prepared in resolutely non-Eurocentric terms, overturning the earlier negative connotations. What in Europe had been a straightforward, unnecessary object of consumption, in America was (Lafitau emphasised) a holy herb ‘with multiple religious uses (à plusieurs usages de religion). Besides the power which was attributed to it of ‘weakening the fire of concupiscence and the rebellion of the flesh’, tobacco, he wrote in Moeurs des sauvages amériquains, serves ‘to illuminate the spirit, to purify it, to predispose it to ecstatic dreams and visions; it serves to evoke the spirits forcing them to communicate with men and to come in contact with the needs of the people who give them homage, it serves to cure all infirmities of the soul and of the body.’

In the years during which the Jesuit Lafitau was printing the fruit of his grandiose and bold meditations on the customs of the American continent, the Russian expansion of Central Asia and the Far East was in full progress and descriptions of those remote lands and the nomadic populations which inhabited them began to arrive in the West. In 1704, the Dutch merchant E. Isbrants Ides, the Ambassador of the Muscovite Tsar, recorded for the first time the Tungusian term schaman, as a synonym for ‘sorcerer’. Shortly afterwards, the captain of the dragoons Johann Bernhard Müller, then in the service of the King of Sweden and later a Russian prisoner of war, included in a description of the Ostiaks and their customs an analytic account of a shamanistic seance (probably not based on direct evidence), accompanied by catalepsies and divinations. Around the middle of the 18th century, the often massive works of scholars who had participated in scientific expeditions in Siberia began to appear. Johann Georg Gmelin, a professor of chemistry and botany in Tübingen, took three volumes to describe the ten-year expedition in which he had taken part with the doctor Messerschmidt, the philologist Müller and the botanist Amman. In so doing he also described his encounters with the Tungus and Buriat shamans, who in some instances revealed their tricks to him. It is clear that Gmelin considered these individuals coarse swindlers, but he scrupulously transcribed their chants nevertheless. Their ecstasies piqued his curiosity; and in his great Latin work on Siberian flora he noted that the Buriats made use of juniper as a way to awaken their praestigiatores (that is, shamans) from the spell, and that in their idolatrous cults the inhabitants of the Kamchatka peninsula used nettle which was believed to be most suitable for procuring visions.

Over the course of a few decades this convergence of research assured the Siberian shamans a prominent place in the panorama traced by the science of comparative religion, at that time in the process of defining itself. A meaningful example is provided by the short work by Meiners, a professor at Göttingen: Grundriss der Geschichte aller Religionen (1785). The title is deceptive: this is an early example of phenomenology, not of the history of religion. The choice of an exposition ‘based on the natural succession of the most important constitutive elements’ (nach der natürlichen Folge ihrer wichtigsten Bestandteile), instead of a chronological-geographical succession, took all religions, revealed and otherwise, into consideration en masse, with obvious deistic implications. In the chapter significantly focusing on jongleurs (literally, ‘jugglers’) and priests, the shamans were assigned a separate niche, but subdivision according to themes made the shamans reappear in the most unthinkable places: for example, at the end of the bibliographical notes to the chapter on sacrifice (including human sacrifice), which begin with the Pentateuch, continue with Greek and Roman authors, and end with a contemporary traveller, J.G. Georgi, the author of a descriptive account of Siberia.

Ten years before, Meiners had published a vast essay ‘On the Mysteries of the Ancients, and in particular on the Eleusinian Secrets’ in the introduction to which he distinguished between the mysteries performed by priests and mysteries attached to oral or written doctrine: neither phenomenon, he remarked, could be considered universal. Of the Samoyeds, the inhabitants of the Kamchatka peninsula, the Tartar hordes (about which Meiners deferred to Gmelin), the Californians, the Eskimos, the Laplanders and the Greenlanders, Meiners observed that one could not speak of their having a common religion or national gods, or even priests in a strict sense, but only ‘charlatans and soothsayers’ (Quacksalber und Wahrsager). In this way shamans, even if they were merely evoked rather than named directly, steadily entered the religious history of humanity in order to mark its poorest, most elementary stage.

Thus Europeans discovered shamans thanks to the Russian Empire’s expansion towards the east. Or rediscovered them. This clarification seems to me appropriate for two reasons. First, between the 16th and 17th centuries scholars like Peucer and Scheffer had collected information about Laplander enchanters, closely related (as Meiners well understood) to the Siberian shamans. Secondly, as I tried to demonstrate in Storia notturna (Ecstasies), an extremely ancient shamanistic nucleus was contained in the well-known stereotype of the witches’ sabbath.

Cognition (or recognition) are complicated operations. Perceptions and attitudes intersect, conditioning one another in turn. For Monardes, the doctor from Seville, the Indian priests who began to foretell the future after leaving the cataleptic state brought on by tobacco smoke were inspired by the Devil. A great erudite like Vossius recognised tobacco smokers in Pomponius Mela’s Thracians. Clearly, Vossius was mistaken. He was, however, absolutely correct in recalling the description of a Scythian rite taken from the fourth book of Herodotus.

After the burial the Scythians cleanse themselves as I will show: they anoint and wash their heads; as for their bodies, they set up three poles leaning together to a point and cover these over with woollen mats; then, in the place so enclosed to the best of their power, they make a pit in the centre beneath the poles and the mats and throw red-hot stones into it.

    They have hemp growing in their country, very like flax, save that the hemp is much thicker and taller. This grows both of itself and also by their sowing, and of it the Thracians even make garments which are very like linen ...

    The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and, creeping under the mats, they throw it on the red-hot stones; and, being so thrown, it smoulders and sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour-bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour-bath. This serves them instead of bathing, for they never wash their bodies in water.

The more or less analogous passages in Maxim of Tyre, Pomponius Mela and Solinus, which refer, respectively, to the Scythians (the first) and the Thracians (the last two), are taken from this page of Herodotus. It is a historical document of enormous importance. As far as I know, the first step towards the correct interpretation of it was made by an antiquarian-naturalist, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716). The illustrations which accompany Kaempfer’s collection of observations accumulated over the course of years and years of travel – Amoenitatum Exoticarum politico-physico-madicarum fasciculi V – give an idea of his boundless curiosity: one moves from an inscription in cuneiform characters rubbed from the ruins of Persepolis to a highly accurate description of the pressure points Japanese acupuncturists used to cure colic. One observation discusses the properties and effects of tobacco, opium and cannabis, or bangue: in the latter, Kaempfer identified the intoxicating plant with the Scythian and Thracian smoke.

These lines apparently passed unnoticed. At the end of the 18th century, another no less extraordinary character, Count Jan Potocki – the author of Manuscript found at Saragossa, the novel which an abridged version edited by Roger Caillois made famous the world over – arrived independently at similar conclusions. In a splendid book which appeared in St Petersburg in 1802, the Histoire primitive des peuples de la Russie, Potocki closely examined the customs of the nomadic populations of Central Asia described in the fourth book of Herodotus. He unhesitatingly recognised les Schamanes de la Sibérie in the Scythian soothsayers. Among the Tartar populations, he had not located the custom of entering a trance from the smoke of baked hemp seed: but he noticed that haschisch, widely used in Cairo where he had spent some time in 1790, yielded a state of drunkenness which differed from that of opium and fermented liquors, because it tient davantage de la folie.

These intuitions also passed unnoticed. In an essay read in 1811 and revised for publication in 1828, Niebuhr, the great German historian, skilfully traced the ancient historical lineages of the Scythians, Getae and Sarmatians, arriving at very similar conclusions to those of Potocki but without mentioning him, because he clearly had no knowledge of his work. In the funeral ceremony described by Herodotus (IV, 73-75) Niebuhr saw a shamanistic ritual, thereby upholding the hypothesis, in which he believed and which is still discussed today, of a Mongolian origin of part of the Scythian population.

The convergence between Potocki and Niebuhr on this specific point is not a coincidence. In a course on Slavic literature held at the Collège de France in 1842-1843, Adam Mickiewicz said that Potocki had been ‘the first among historians of modern Europe to recognise the importance of the oral tradition. Niebuhr asked the peasants and old women in the Roman markets for explanations of the story of Romulus and Remus. Many years before him, Potocki had meditated on the history of Scythians in the Tartar tents.’ Potocki, he concluded, had travelled, observed the places, spoken with the people – things no antiquarian had done before him.

Mickiewicz, understandably, exaggerated: one has only to think of the travels undertaken, towards the end of the 17th century, by the antiquarian and naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer. But he was correct in emphasising the richness of an approach rediscovered by ethno-historians in recent decades. The classicist and folklorist Karl Meuli has explored this avenue, and in an essay which appeared in 1935, ‘Scythica’, rediscovered, perhaps for the last time, the shamanistic connotations of the Scythian funeral rite described by Herodotus. I say ‘rediscovered’ because, if I am not mistaken, in the extensive notes which accompany Meuli’s article, the names of scholars who had anticipated his basic thesis are missing: Kaempfer, Potocki and (curiously enough) Niebuhr. And if he did not know their work this would not diminish the originality of Meuli’s splendid essay, which for the first time analysed in depth both the shamanistic elements present in the Scythian culture and their absorption by the Greek colonists settled along the banks of the Black Sea.

Unbeknownst to Meuli, the results of an archaeological excavation completed a few years earlier in the eastern Altai Mountains had provided unexpected evidence which anticipated the essay’s conclusions. In a place called Pazyryk some tombs had been found, dating from the second or third century BC, in which the following remains were found: a horse disguised as a reindeer (now on display at the Hermitage); a drum similar to those used by shamans; a few seeds of cannabis sativa, some preserved in a leather pouch and some baked among the stones contained in a small bronze wash-basin.

I believe that the accumulation of knowledge always happens in this way: across broken rather than continuous lines; through false beginnings, corrections, oversights, and rediscoveries; thanks to filters and schemata which blind and, at the same time, illuminate. In this sense the case which I have reconstructed in perhaps excessive detail can be considered almost banal: not the exception but the rule.

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