Mana, Shamans, and the Cultural Misappropriation behind Fantasy Terms

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MGibster

Legend
Weren't tribes and shamans also directly associated with European Picts in Howard's Conan stories?

There's also the Germanic tribes as described in antiquity by people like Tacitus. But that does fit the idea of primitive and uncivilized as the Romans were wont to describe norther Europeans.
 

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Doug McCrae

Legend
Weren't tribes and shamans also directly associated with European Picts in Howard's Conan stories?
The most notable shaman in Howard’s Conan stories is the Pict, Zogar Sag, in Beyond the Black River. Picts also feature prominently in The Black Stranger. They are described as white, but are not regarded as such by their Hyborian neighbours. They have the trappings of Native Americans – warriors are called braves, wear feathers on their heads, "naked except for scanty loin-clouts", use dugout canoes, store their bows in "buckskin cases", wield axes, and take scalps.

Beyond the Black River (1935)
"The Picts were a white race, though swarthy, but the border men never spoke of them as such."
"No white man has ever plunged deep into that fastness [Pictish wilderness] and returned alive to tell us what he found."
"Balthus saw a lean figure [Zogar Sag] of middle height, almost hidden in ostrich plumes set on a harness of leather and copper. From amidst the plumes peered a hideous and malevolent face."
"He felt the eyes of the Picts upon him – hundreds of hungry, cruel eyes that reflected the lust of souls utterly without humanity as he knew it. They no longer seemed men; they were devils of this black jungle, as inhuman as the creatures to which the fiend in the nodding plumes screamed through the darkness."

The Hyborian Age (1938)
"[T]he Pict remained the eternal barbarian, ferocious, elemental, interested only in the naked primal principles of life, unchanging, unerring in his instincts which were all for war and plunder, and in which arts and the cultured progress of humanity had no place."

The Black Stranger (1953)
"They were dark-skinned men of short stature, with thickly-muscled chests and arms. They wore beaded buckskin loin-cloths, and an eagle’s feather was thrust into each black mane. They were painted in hideous designs, and heavily armed."
"The first to reach the crag was a brawny brave whose eagle feather was stained scarlet as a token of chieftainship."
"Blood-smeared braves dived howling into huts and the shrieks that rose from the interiors where women and children died beneath the red axes rose above the din of the battle."
"A feathered chief wheeled from the door, lifting a war-ax, and behind the racing Cimmerian lines of fleet-footed braves were converging upon him."
"I might as well leave you for the Picts to scalp"

Another shaman makes a brief appearance in Queen of the Black Coast (1934) as one of Bêlit’s crew, who all seem to be black people. "Bêlit... is a Shemite woman, who leads black raiders."

EDIT:
There are a few other shamans in Howard's Conan. Two are mentioned in passing in The Hour of the Dragon (1950). "[A] feathered shaman of the barbarians", probably a Pict, and a "Pictish shaman". The fragment Wolves Beyond the Border (1967) has two shamans. One is "the Wizard of the Swamp... a pre-Pictish shaman". The other is a Pict, "old Teyanoga of the South Hawks". "A feathered shaman was dancing between the fire and the altar, a slow, shuffling dance indescribably grotesque, which caused his plumes to swing and sway about him: his features were hidden by a grinning scarlet mask that looked like a forest-devil’s face."
 
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Doug McCrae

Legend
As an aside, the last paragraph of Beyond the Black River is the most Conan-y thing ever:

"'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'"
 

Aldarc

Legend
And let's face it, if you want to appropriate from Europe you're pretty safe from criticism.
Counter-example that readily comes to mind: the Romani.

We know remarkably little about the druids aside from what the Romans wrote about them and they're not exactly an unbiased source. So what's the answer here? Should we just drop shaman entirely from D&D and make them all druids? I admit I don't have very strong feelings about this. I did just use a lizardman shaman just last week but that's the first time I can remember using one in many years. So it's not like I'm going to miss the shaman.
I'm not against using shaman in our games, but I think we should reflect about how we use them. Are we doing so in a way that implies that they are "lesser" than clerics or cultic spiritual leaders? Are they typically ascribed to antagonist factions and peoples? Do the civilized peoples of the setting also have shamans or only clerics? Is 'shaman' just a word we use synonymously with "primitive priest/cleric" in our game?

Again, I do think that RuneQuest did a better job of presenting shamanism, but that was because it's syncretic with theist religions. Spirits exist, and every day people call on them just as readily as they would the gods. Arcana Evolved did something similar actually, albeit with rune manifests, where people would call upon living rune manifestations representing concepts for day-to-day living. I believe the book where this was described was incidentally written by Mike Mearls.

Though 4e had some problems in framing shamans as "primal," to the credit of 4e, the primal source pertained to spirits. And the spirits of the Material World were the primary agents responsible for ending the Dawn War between the Gods and the Primordials. So the spirits are arguably the most mortal-aligned powers in the World Axis.

You have a valid point, but the prohibition against appropriation even applies to groups higher on the socio-economic ladder. Asians in the US have a higher median income and are more educated than any other group in the country. I realize income and education are but two metrics, but they're pretty important metrics.
The reasons why ironically involve 20th century US anti-Asian immigration laws.
 

MGibster

Legend
Counter-example that readily comes to mind: the Romani.

I thought about them, and if I wanted to be pedantic I'd point out that the Romani originate from India even if their diaspora places them in Europe. But until fairly recently, most Americans knew nothing about the Roma, wouldn't have any idea if they met someone with Romani ancestry, and are completely puzzled by their poor treatment in many European nations.

I'm not against using shaman in our games, but I think we should reflect about how we use them. Are we doing so in a way that implies that they are "lesser" than clerics or cultic spiritual leaders? Are they typically ascribed to antagonist factions and peoples? Do the civilized peoples of the setting also have shamans or only clerics? Is 'shaman' just a word we use synonymously with "primitive priest/cleric" in our game?

And if we reflect upon it and decide we're fine with how the word is currently used?

The reasons why ironically involve 20th century US anti-Asian immigration laws.

This is true.
 

Aldarc

Legend
And if we reflect upon it and decide we're fine with how the word is currently used?
Then your games go about as usual, while those who reflect on it and change their usage do so in their games/products. Hence why I find the opposition to this mild call for critical self-reflection a bit much.
 


I'm a Finn. In the Finnish mythology 'Mana' or 'Manala' is the underworld where the spirits of the dead and various gods and other entities related to death dwell. 'Mana' as a word root is related to spirits in shamanistic sense. 'Manata' is to curse or to summon spirits or to banish them. 'Manaaja' is a summoner or an exorcists. There are other related words and sayings.

So to me it was always natural to link word 'mana' to mystical energies and magic. At some point I actually though that the use of the word in the popular media was related to Finnish usage and I was a bit bummed when I learned that this was not the case.

My oldest dog is named Mana. Despite this his magical abilities remain decidedly mediocre, though otherwise he is a good boy.
 

Sorry, but, we don't have to worry about cultural appropriation from dead people. The copyright on culture expires when the culture does. So, using druid is pretty much perfectly fine, since, well, there aren't any druids anymore. Yes, there are modern people who are trying to recreate druidic beliefs, I'm sure. But, again, they have no more right to the culture than anyone else.
I can't say I like how this sounds. Who decides when a culture is 'dead?' The descendants of ancient Celts still live. Sure, over time the cultural practices have changed and vanished, many intentionally destroyed by conquerors. But would you say the same callous thing about the South American native cultures? They were almost completely destroyed, their artefacts and traditions lost. Perhaps you should reconsider your words?
 
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Hussar

Legend
And if we reflect upon it and decide we're fine with how the word is currently used?

We, as a hobby? Fair enough. Obviously not every issue that gets brought up needs action. "We" as in, "Me" decides that "we" are fine with it and ignores all the negative elements? Well, what you do in your own games is your business, but, I wouldn't expect "our" preferences to be the deciding factor.
 

Hussar

Legend
I can't say I like how this sounds. Who decides when a culture is 'dead?' The descendants of ancient Celts still live. Sure, over time the cultural practices have changed and vanished, many intentionally destroyed by conquerors. But would you say the same callous thing about the South American native cultures? They were almost completely destroyed, their artefacts and traditions lost. Perhaps you should reconsider your words?

Well, perhaps a better way would be, "When a culture has been dead for so long that no one actually knows what that culture consisted of, no living people can actually directly trace their current culture to that culture, no one speaks that language, no one holds the faith of that culture, no one eats the food of that culture and the music of that culture is lost. That some of those things might survive to today is one thing, but, to claim to be part of that culture? That's a bit trickier.

But, there is another element here that's getting ignored. Samurai were brought up as an example of cultural appropriation of a dead element. Well, number one, while the samurai as a social caste ended in the late 19th century with the Meiji Restoration, the cultural elements of samurai - the code of Bushido, religion, language, art - all exist and are practiced today. It's not a dead culture.

And, there is another element that gets lost here. Borrowing from other cultures, when done respectfully, isn't a problem. Samurai in D&D are not limited to barbarian, primitive, warlike, evil groups. The Samurai as a PC class is detailed as highly cultured, the epitome of a warrior, strongly ethical and a paragon of society. Hardly a negative depiction is it?

There is more to cultural appropriation than simply coming from another culture. That's fine. We borrow stuff all the time and I, for one, am very thankful that I don't have to just eat English food. I love souvlaki. Double loves me some blues music. That's perfectly fine and no problem.

The problem is when the borrowed element is then indelibly linked to negative stereotypes. Imagine a D&D where paladins are described as rapacious murderers whose greatest duty is to exterminate any non-believer in service to their cleric lords who dine on the blood of the children of their enemies and ritualistically sacrifice captives before engaging in rape to spread the seed of the faithful as far as possible.

Incredibly negative view of faith right? Would never get off the ground. Yet, that's how shaman are described. Lizardfolk shaman do exactly this - although they lack paladins. EVIL clerics might do this, but, that's counter balanced by the fact that you have GOOD clerics too. But, where are the good shaman? Where are the shaman of peaceful, caring cultures? Oh, right, in D&D, shaman can only be part of rapacious, murderous races that torture, kill and destroy where ever they go.

But, apparently, that's a perfectly acceptable depiction of shaman because it's just a game right? These things don't really exist, so, it's perfectly fine. Don't do it to OUR cultural heritage, because that would be bad, but, other people's cultural heritages? Oh, that's perfectly fine because everyone knows that other people's cultures and heritages aren't really important. :erm:
 

Well, perhaps a better way would be, "When a culture has been dead for so long that no one actually knows what that culture consisted of, no living people can actually directly trace their current culture to that culture, no one speaks that language, no one holds the faith of that culture, no one eats the food of that culture and the music of that culture is lost. That some of those things might survive to today is one thing, but, to claim to be part of that culture? That's a bit trickier.
That Finnish Mythology I mentioned, it is barely remembered folklore, about as relevant to modern Finns than ancient druids to the modern Irish. And if someone would mine that mythology for a fantasy game, I obviously wouldn't mind, I might be pleased. (And D&D has done this. Mielikki is an ancient Finnish forest goddess.) But if the stated rationale why it was OK to do so was that the the culture was a cadaver ripe for plundering then I might be somewhat less thrilled. I fully get that temporal distance in these things matters, someone's living traditions are more important than ancient history, but the difference also isn't that clear cut. And considering that Celtic culture and language has historically been targeted by systematic attempts to eliminate it, your proclamation came across as a tad insensitive.


But, there is another element here that's getting ignored. Samurai were brought up as an example of cultural appropriation of a dead element. Well, number one, while the samurai as a social caste ended in the late 19th century with the Meiji Restoration, the cultural elements of samurai - the code of Bushido, religion, language, art - all exist and are practiced today. It's not a dead culture.

And, there is another element that gets lost here. Borrowing from other cultures, when done respectfully, isn't a problem. Samurai in D&D are not limited to barbarian, primitive, warlike, evil groups. The Samurai as a PC class is detailed as highly cultured, the epitome of a warrior, strongly ethical and a paragon of society. Hardly a negative depiction is it?

There is more to cultural appropriation than simply coming from another culture. That's fine. We borrow stuff all the time and I, for one, am very thankful that I don't have to just eat English food. I love souvlaki. Double loves me some blues music. That's perfectly fine and no problem.
Sure.

The problem is when the borrowed element is then indelibly linked to negative stereotypes. Imagine a D&D where paladins are described as rapacious murderers whose greatest duty is to exterminate any non-believer in service to their cleric lords who dine on the blood of the children of their enemies and ritualistically sacrifice captives before engaging in rape to spread the seed of the faithful as far as possible.
Hey, with crusaders you can either get 'historically accurate' or 'respectful!' Because 'both' is not an option!

Incredibly negative view of faith right? Would never get off the ground. Yet, that's how shaman are described. Lizardfolk shaman do exactly this - although they lack paladins. EVIL clerics might do this, but, that's counter balanced by the fact that you have GOOD clerics too. But, where are the good shaman? Where are the shaman of peaceful, caring cultures? Oh, right, in D&D, shaman can only be part of rapacious, murderous races that torture, kill and destroy where ever they go.

But, apparently, that's a perfectly acceptable depiction of shaman because it's just a game right? These things don't really exist, so, it's perfectly fine. Don't do it to OUR cultural heritage, because that would be bad, but, other people's cultural heritages? Oh, that's perfectly fine because everyone knows that other people's cultures and heritages aren't really important. :erm:
Yeah, I fully agree. Having shamans in the game is not an issue, that only 'savage monsters' have shamans most definitely is!
 

SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
Just for the record, and consideration...

My elves have always had shaman, and the lizardman paladin that joined the group is one of their favorite NPCs.

(Oh side note, Dragonbait was a paladin....)

So there have been examples of "good" flavored uses of these terms for a long time.

So I don't feel (IMO) that shaman is as much of a problem as some of the other racial, cultural, societal, terms we have been debating are.

But never hurts to reflect upon such things....
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
We are influenced by the media we partake in, usually in small subtle ways. Games are art and like all other art forms they can move us. Fiction is not real, but it says stuff about real stuff even when it is not trying to.
I can guarantee you that not one time has anything in D&D(or any other RPG) influenced how I view or treat a real world group Not even a little bit.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
In the US, there's a very strong correlation between race and ethnicity and socio-economic status. Appropriating in general may not be great. Doing so from folks who are generally lower on the socio-economic ladder than you is an abuse of your higher status.
How is it an abuse? If I appropriate the Japanese Tea Ceremony for my game and nobody outside of my group ever hears about it, who is hurt by it? How are people who have no idea what was done abused? For that matter, a lot of times something is appropriated, because the person doing the appropriation admires that aspect of the other culture and wants to incorporate it into his life. How is such respect an abuse?
 



Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I generally agree, but sometimes even if done with respect, if it's still offensive, it's on the person doing the offensive act for being ignorant.
If it's done with respect, and with knowledge of the culture it's coming from, then ignorance isnt a charge that can be leveled, is it?
 

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