NCSR 2008 - Urban Diversity and Religious Traditions
13-15 August 2008, Åbo Akademi University

Big game as urban symbol carriers? The function of the power animals in Neo-shamanism

Sten Skånby

Neo-shamanism, or urban shamanism as it is sometimes called, is a modern alternative spiritual movement, often labelled as part of the broad new age-movement. The so called power animals are the single most important supernatural object in neo-shamanism; the person’s soul meets these beings during visionary drum-journeys. They are almost always imagined in the shape of big game, like bears, wolves, eagles or other beasts, and are considered to follow the person, to be helpful and protective against threats, and with their aid one is allowed to travel to the different worlds. The power animals originate from the Native American notion of theriomorphic guardian spirits, of which they are at least partially copies. On the one hand, the neo-shaman visionary experiences of power spirits is of course evidence for an interest in animals, nature and indigenous peoples around the world, combined with a flavour of environmental engagement. They seem to reflect modern western notions of animals as symbol carriers for “the wild”, “the original”, with its ambiguous connotations to both external surrounding as well as to the inner part of the human experience. But on the other hand, they might as well implicate a dissociation from the natural world, not least considering the mostly urban setting and clientele of the neo-shaman ceremonies. They are also mirroring the playful and entertaining part of human existence. In a condensed and compressed way they say something important of modern society as a whole.