Alice C. Linsley
A fundamental principle of cultural anthropology states that the study of existent primitive societies helps us to understand archaic societies and vice versa. This is especially the case when we compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. What do I mean?
There is no benefit in comparing practices of peoples belonging to totally different regions and language groups, yet this is done fairly often in politically correct textbooks to prove a point. This is intellectual dishonesty.
The other explanation for this sloppy approach is that those who apply it don’t know enough to realize the fallacy of the comparison. If this is the case, they should neither claim to be experts nor should they be recognized as experts.
To illustrate the comparison of apple and oranges, I’ll refer to a textbook that I’m presently using to teach World Religions. In the section on shamanism, the author generalizes that shamans are the priests of the ancient world and that since there are Japanese and Korean female shamans, there must have been female priests. This is of course the politically correct thing to say, but it is based on a false premise and employs an incorrect anthropological method. Here is the author’s reasoning in syllogistic form:
Premise: All shamans are priests.
Females are shamans.
Therefore female shamans are priests.
The problem here is that the premise is false. While there are ways in which shamans and priests are similar, the distinction between them is clear. Two of the oldest institutions known to man are the offices of priest and shaman. The first pertains to the Afro-Asiatic peoples and the second to the Altaic and Uralic peoples. While priests and shamans serve similar functions in their societies, their worldviews are very different.
Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits. This may or may not involve animal sacrifice. Underlying the priesthood is belief in a single supreme Spirit to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one Great Spirit (God) holds the world in balance and it is human actions that cause disharmony. The vast assortment of ancient laws governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarifies the role of the priest as one who offers animal sacrifice according to sacred law.
Another way in which the author misleads the reader is by comparing a trait (female shamans) in cultures in the Eastern Altaic language family with a trait (male priesthood) in cultures in the Afro-Asiatic language family. This is comparing apples to oranges and violates a fundamental principle of cultural anthropology.
Here is the oft-cited support for female shamans and goddesses: In Japan the Shinto goddess, Amaterasu, is said to protect the imperial family. She is associated with the sun. The author writes, “In contrast to many other religious systems, the goddess is associated with the sun....” He also notes that Japan and Korea have female shamans. What the author cites as an exception actually illustrates the norm. Let us investigate this case further.
Females nurture and are often taken as patronesses. Consider how the Church regards Mary, whose care for others is illustrated by her advising the servants at the wedding to “do as he tells you.” So it is not surprising that the imperial family should have a goddess as patron. Nor is it surprising that this goddess is associated with the sun since the sun is the emblem of Japan’s Imperial House (as is her moon brother's sword).
Where there are goddesses there are always female devotees, thus the female shamans in Japan and Korea. Such a phenomena has been observed surrounding the goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome as well. But these represent a worldview quite apart from the biblical worldview in which male and female are binary opposites and the male is regarded as superior to the female in strength and size, just as the Sun is larger than the Moon and the Moon's light is merely the reflection of the Sun. In God, the male condescends in love to His inferior so that she may share some of His glory.
Related reading: God as Male Priest; Ideologies Opposed to Holy Tradition; The Importance of Binary Distinctions; Binary Distinctions and Kenosis; Traditional Healers of Central Australia