Shamanism, theatre and dramatherapy

Authored by: John Casson

Routledge International Handbook of Dramatherapy

Print publication date:  May  2016
Online publication date:  May  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138829725
eBook ISBN: 9781315728537
Adobe ISBN: 9781317543213


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Shamanism is the ancient, worldwide culture of dramatic ceremonies for healing individuals and communities. In these trance rituals, ‘there is usually a change of role for either the shaman and/or the patient and a symbolic enactment of the malady and its roots’ (Jennings, in Cox 1992, p. 235). Shamanism is still practised in North and South America, Tibet, Russia and South East Asia. In many cultures, there are traces of shamanism in folklore and theatre. We can date these activities back to the Palaeolithic era, as cave paintings more than 30,000 years old in France show several animal-masked figures in dance rituals. We can thus see the origins of theatre in shamanism. Many of the tricks of theatre were developed by the shamans: ventriloquism, for example, enabled the shamans to simulate the presence of spirits in dramatic séances; masks and puppets enabled them to present the spirits who spoke to the people about the spiritual dimension. A puppet, made from mammoth ivory and dated to about 29,000 years old, found in a shaman’s grave near Brno, was displayed in the 2013 Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum (Cook 2013). This was created more than 20,000 years before the rise of civilization. Such ancient and continuous cultural practices must have been necessary and effective for their survival over millennia, and they may thus inform modern dramatherapy.

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