Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 5–38 | Cite as

Shamanism, Psychosis and Autonomous Imagination

  • Michele Stephen
  • Luh Ketut Suryani


This paper focuses on traditional healers (balian)in Bali, Indonesia, to raise new argumentsconcerning the nature of the initiatory sufferingsreportedly experienced by shamans in many cultures.Our evidence suggests that a) contrary to ourexpectations, an initiatory madness or illness isexperienced by a minority rather than the majority ofbalian, and b) whether or not a balian undergoesinitiatory sufferings seems to be linked to gender andto the methods of healing employed – thus womenhealers who employ trance possession are those mostlikely to report an initiatory madness or illness.This leads to the central argument of the paper: c)the nature of the initiatory sufferings, where they dooccur, can be clearly distinguished on several groundsfrom the onset of mental illness among Balinese, bothemically in terms of cultural understandings, andetically in terms of objective criteria. Finally wediscuss the concept of ``autonomous imagination,''suggesting that the key to becoming a balian is notovercoming an initiatory madness but gaining controlover this special mode of imagery thought. We furthersuggest that Western ideas concerning the self andself healing, the superficial resemblance of theinitiatory sufferings to schizophrenia, and thedramatic nature of the initiatory sufferings when theyoccur, have combined to give a misleading prominenceto the role of an initiatory madness in shamanism.


Schizophrenia Special Mode Western Idea Superficial Resemblance Imagery Thought 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michele Stephen
    • 1
  • Luh Ketut Suryani
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Politics, and AnthropologyLa Trobe UniversityVictoriaAustralia

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