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Shamanism is a range of traditional beliefs and practices that involve the ability to diagnose, cure, and sometimes cause human suffering because of a special relationship with, or control over, spirits. This tradition has existed all over the world since prehistoric times.


Foundation and History

Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. In contrast to animism and animatism, which any and usually all members of a society practice, shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities. Shamans are not, however, organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests.

The word shaman originated among the Siberian Tungus (Evenks) and literally means he (or she) who knows; the belief that it may be derived from Sanskrit may be due to a confusion of shamanism and shramanism, from sanskrit shramana, Pali and Prakrit samana; but the samanas were ascetics, not shamans. There is a strong shamanistic influence Bon on central Asian and Tibetan Buddhism which also uses Sanskrit, so perhaps there is an overlap from popular etymology, if not a direct linguistic influence. Buddhism became popular with shamanic peoples such as the Tibetans, Mongols and Manchu after the fourteenth century. Forms of shamanistic ritual combined with Tibetan Buddhism became institutionalized as state religion under the Chinese Yuan dynasty and Qing dynasty. Shamanistic practices are thought to predate all organized religions, and certainly was practiced in the neolithic. Aspects of it are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by it, reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, Calypso and many others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries (and other mysteries). The transsubstantiation of bread and wine in the Catholic religion can be seen as a shamanic relic, suggestive of the use of entheogenic (psychedelic) substances to attain spiritual realization.

Aspects of the Practice

In some societies shamanic powers are inherited. In others, shamans are "called": Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which they interpret as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shamans are called in their dreams. In yet other societies shamans choose their career: Indians of the Plains would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest"; South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans.

Shamans can communicate with these spirits to diagnose and cure victims of witchcraft. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also witches. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community but may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared. Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may be shamans (in Old Norse culture, as mentioned above, only women; for men to practice shamanism was shameful). In some societies male shamans exhibit a "two-spirit" identity, assuming the dress and attributes of a woman from a young age, including taking on the role of a wife in an otherwise ordinary marriage; this practice is common, and found among the Chukchee, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Aruacanians , Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navaho, Lakota, and Ute, as well as other Native American tribes. Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful. They are highly respected and sought out by men in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their husbands.

Not all traditional peoples approve of the use of shaman as a generic term, given that the word comes from a specific place and people. It has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a highly descriptive term which unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and other lore; and the ability to cure a person and mend a situation.

Shamanic practice continues not only in wild areas but in cities, towns, suburbs and shantytowns all over the world, not only in the tundras or the jungles or deserts.

Different forms of shamanism are found around the world, and practitioners are also known as medicine men or women, and witch doctors. It has been especially common among circumpolar peoples; in Old Norse Religion, however, shamanism was seen as un-manly and practiced mainly by women, see Volvas and Wiccas (although in Old Norse mythology, the supreme god Odin was also seen as the foremost shaman). These shamans were seen as a threat by organized religion, and condemned as "witches."

Shamanic Technologies

In order for a shaman to do his work he must effect firstly a change of consciousness in himself. The shaman enters into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens, during which time they are said to be in contact with the spirit world or enter a separate reality. Some of the methods for effecting this consciousness shift are:

Shamans often observe special fasts and taboos particular to their vocation. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiars, usually spirits in animal form, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans.

In engaging this work the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, both from the spirits as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can kill, and the out-of-body journey itself can lead to non-returning and physical death.

Medicine in Shamanism

In shamanistic religions a medicine is some magical object or ceremony, such as a medicine bag, that is used to control and direct supernatural forces. The term medicine also refers to the magical potential of the object or ceremony which is used for these purposes. Among the North American Indians, a medicine man or medicine woman is someone who professes to have skills at manipulating supernatural forces and uses these skills to cure sickness, drive away evil spirits , and regulate the weather.

Core Shamanism

See Core Shamanism.

Michael Harner synthesized shamanic beliefs and practices from all over the world into a system now known as core shamanism or neoshamanism. It does not hold a fixed belief system, but focuses on the practice of trance travel and may on an individual basis integrate indigenous shamanism, the teachings of Carlos Castaneda and other spiritualities. It is popular within the New Age movement and Neopagan communities.

Specific practices include the use of rapid drumming to attain the SSC or Shamanic State of Consciousness, communication with power animals , and ritual dance. Those who practice core shamanism do not usually refer to themselves as shamans, preferring "shamanic practitioner" out of respect for indigenous peoples. Core shamanic practitioners are usually very careful to avoid ethnocentrism or cultural imperialism.

Shamanism and New Age

The New Age movement imported some ideas from shamanism in general and core shamanism in particular. As in other such imports, original users of said ideas frequently condemn New Age use as ill-understood and superficial.

At the same time, there is an endeavor in occult and esoteric circles to re-invent shamanism in a modern form drawing from core shamanism, various indigenous forms of shamanism, and chaos magic. This is mostly focused upon in Europe, where the ancient shamanic tradition was exterminated by the Christian church (see Inquisition) and where people compelled to be shamans often find it improper to use shamanic systems rooted in other parts of the earth. Various traditional shamans express respect for this endeavor and in this, separate it sharply from "light" New Age shamanism.

Many Westerners also claim to be shamans. If a self-described shaman isn't speaking of a Tungusic-speaking ethnic group, he or she is probably a huckster preying on New Age followers. Most commonly they will claim Cherokee or Sioux ancestry, the former because Cherokee ancestors are a common story in one's genealogy, and the latter because of all the Westerns, especially Dances with Wolves. The risk for studying under such people varies from simply losing money to rape and even death in an ill-fated sweat lodge. For Indians, the danger is that their voices will be drowned out by self-styled "shamans"; in fact, Lynn Andrews has sold more books than all Indian authors put together.

See also: Jan Fries, Serge Kahili King .

External links

  • Buryat-Mongol Shamanism
  • DMOZ's Religion and Spirituality : Shamanism
  • General shamanism page with American traditions dominant
  • Flight of the Condor - Contemporary Shamanism Large collection of essays and teachings from a contemporary shaman
  • The story of Tantalus a shamanic story from Greek mythology.
  • The Two-Spirit Tradition Two-Spirit Shamanism in North America.
  • Places of Power - Lection about using special geographical zones in spiritual development.


  • Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology: the masks of God,: part III

Last updated: 02-04-2005 00:18:34
Last updated: 02-27-2005 04:51:16