WHAT IS SHAMANISM?
Shamanism is an ancient spiritual belief system which is practiced by indigenous people around the world. Elements of it still exist on every continent that humans live on. Anthropologists believe this practice to be at least 40,000 years old, and some artifacts indicate that it may be over 100,000 years old. It is most likely humankind’s original spiritual practice. If we traced our ancestral lineage far enough we would find that our ancestors likely came from origins that had an animistic or shamanic spiritual world view.
Shamanism is not a religion, but rather a spiritual practice whose worldview is based on animism: the belief that all things have Spirit. In the shamanic perspective the animals, plants, stones and elements all embody the essence of the Creator, or Great Spirit. …we are all connected and related to one another:
— Chief Luther Standing Bear, of the SIOUX nation said:
“From Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things: the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals, and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus all things were kindred, and were brought together by the same Great Mystery.”
Hank Wesselman, PhD,–a Paleo Anthropologist, wrote in his book, Awakening to the Spirit World, “There are certain commonalities in a shaman’s worldview and practice across the world that allow us to make certain broad generalizations about shamanism. In the majority of indigenous cultures, the universe is viewed as being made up of two distinct realms: A world of things seen and a world of things hidden.”
This refers to a perception of a physical world and a Spiritual world. Shamanic peoples recognize that this ”seen world” is part of our everyday reality, but in addition there is a spiritual overlay, simultaneously happening, that is the “hidden world”. This hidden world is the world of spirits, guides, ancestors and the Great Mystery.
The word, “shaman” comes from the language of the Evenki peoples, a Tungistic tribe in Siberia. It means, “the one who sees in the dark” or “the one who knows”, referring to an individual who has the extraordinary ability to communicate with the Spirits or travel to Unseen Worlds to acquire knowledge for guidance, healing and service to the community.
The word, shaman, became more commonly used after the publishing of: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, in 1951 by Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian of religion. While “shaman” is specifically the name the Evenki people use in their culture for men, Mircea Eliade chose to use this word for the ease of reference in his book, as a generalization, for all tribes that practiced these spiritual belief systems. On publication, Eliade’s book was recognized as a seminal and authoritative study on the subject of shamanism. The term shaman and shamanism, although culturally specific to one tribe, became the de facto term to reference all spiritual practices that followed this pattern.
The modern revival of shamanism was accelerated by anthropologist, the late Michael Harner, who in 1979 founded the Center for Shamanic Studies then later in 1985, created the non-profit organization, The Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS) as a teaching institution for the instruction of Core Shamanic practices (https://www.shamanism.org/workshops/coreshamanism.html ).
Another medical anthropologist, Alberto Villoldo, created another teaching institution, The Four Winds Society (www.thefourwinds.com ) to disseminate the ancient wisdom of Peruvian and Inkan shamanic traditions. These two organizations have brought to the forefront a cultural awareness about shamanism, by having reached thousands of students across the world, thus making the word “shaman” more mainstream in our western culture.
WHAT IS A SHAMAN?
Hundreds of indigenous tribes around the world have their own word for who they call the “shaman” of their tribe. Other terms that are sometimes used may be Spiritual Healer or Medicine Man/Woman. However, not all people by these names would qualify as a “Shaman”.
Nicholas Breeze Wood, Creator/Editor of SACRED HOOP MAGAZINE: http://sacredhoop.org/
“Here is a brief definition of shamanism… A shaman is someone chosen by the spirits; and who can go into a controlled and repeatable, deliberate trance state, during which they:
A) experience ‘spirit flight’, where they go to the spirit worlds and meet spirits, who they either fight with, negotiate with, or trick, in order to create change in this physical world.
B) are often taken over by the spirits (normally ancestral shaman spirits, or local land spirits) while in this physical world – the spirits using the shaman’s voice and body to heal, or give advice to members of the shaman’s community.
Without the spirits, and their blessing, a shaman cannot exist or function. Without the trance state it is not shamanism.”
The following are qualities that would define a Shaman:
- An indigenous person, chosen by the spirits, who through initiation by elders or a mentor has the ability to communicate with spirits in a trance state. They do healings, divinations, mediation, ceremonies, offerings and other services for individuals and the community. They are a person who works in service to help others. They are called and recognized as a ”shaman” by the members of their community from the success of their work.
- They carry the wisdom, teachings and stories of their tribe.
- The shaman’s healing work may include traditional forms of healing like Soul Retrieval, Extraction, Depossession
- This person has mastery over the ability to go into trance, enter into non-ordinary reality, and exit with ease. They know the difference between both worlds–they are NOT CRAZY. They are grounded, balanced and wise.
- They work in service to their community and display humility, wisdom, and compassion to those they work with.
- Shamans are animistic, meaning they believe all things have Spirit: Trees, plants, stones, animals, birds, fish reptiles, insects, etc. Also Elements: Earth, Fire, Water, Air. They also believe places have spirits: Mountains, Forests, Caves, Rivers, Lakes etc. Because of this the shaman is deeply connected to nature and has an unusual ability to communicate with nature and nature beings.
Were the original shamans women?
Nicholas Breeze Wood –What is a Shaman? (Posted on Facebook 6-21-18)
A little background about shamanism……
The world ‘shaman’ comes from the Siberian Evenk and Manchu word šaman (or samman), and means either ‘to know,’ or ‘to become heated’ (excited).It does not have any relationship to any Sanskrit word. There is a persistent, erroneous myth – created by ill-informed linguists in the C19th – that the word comes from ṣamāne, a Sanskrit word for a Buddhist monk. This theory has long been discredited, although it gets repeated on Facebook, and in other places very often.
The word šaman was introduced to the Russian language by scholars in the C17th and C18th century, and from there was passed into French, and changed to chaman. From France chaman spread to England and America, and the word morphed to shaman – the word we use widely today.
The word šaman itself is a male word. Women are not called shamans, the proper word for a woman ‘shaman’ is udigan. If the C18th Russian scholars had not been so typically patriarchal, and had spoken to the women, we would perhaps be discussing ‘udiganism’ rather than shamanism.
The word šaman is not used by neighboring tribal groups in Siberia, they have their own names instead, such as Boo, Kam, Kaman, khamma, ayun, gam, baksy and tadibey – which all mean ‘shaman’ as we know it. These are all male words. In all these tribes the word udigan is used for a woman ‘shamans’. This shows that the word for women shamans is older than all the words for male shamans, and implies that the first shamans were women. Further evidence of this can be seen in the fact that the ritual clothes of many male shamans are ritualized forms of female dress.
WHAT IS A "SHAMANIC JOURNEY"?
“All true shamans… possess the ability to go into trance very easily, which allows them to make contact with the Hidden World. Trance in this sense is not an unconscious state, but rather a state of expanded consciousness in which the individual intentionally ‘shifts’ his or her focused attention away from the everyday world and enters into the alternate realm of the Spirits” …Hank Wesselman, PhD.
The Shamanic Journey is the spiritual state, a trance-like state, which enables the shaman to communicate with helping spirits and receive spiritual information. A few cultures use hallucinogenic plants to go into these states, but the majority of them find this unnecessary. The shaman is specially trained to perceive and access this world through a form of trance, visioning, or ‘soul flight’. Michael Harner, founder of the FSS, named this the “Shamanic Journey”. As a result of Harner’s influence in teaching Core Shamanism globally, the terms: Journey, Journeying, Shamanic Journeying etc. have become standard language in western culture to describe this trance state.
WHAT DO SHAMANS DO?
Traditionally, shamans over saw a broad range of services for the community. They often prepared offerings to the spirits to ensure good crops or a successful hunt. They performed many types of healings for people, their animals and the land. They did divinations to help find animals for the hunt, find lost objects or children, or foresee the advance of a warring tribe. They oversaw blessing ceremonies for birth, and crossing-over ceremonies for the dying. They cast out bad spirits or unraveled curses. Large tribes often had more than one shaman, and different shamans had different gifts regarding what types of healings or divinatory abilities they had. Often seen as wise and thoughtful, they were the psychologists and mediators of the village, helping resolve conflicts between couples or neighbors in order to keep peace in the community.
Because modern shamanic practitioners are not bound to a village or tribe like the past, they tend to primarily focus on healing work with clients and some group ceremonies or teaching. Many modern practitioners are trained in other healing modalities that are not specifically shamanic, but meld well with shamanic work, such as Reiki, regression work, massage, or chakra balancing to name a few.
HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME A SHAMAN?
While romanticized in western culture, in many indigenous cultures people have great resistance and dread of being called to become shamans. We have popularized and elevated to noble status the concept of what a shaman is. What we don’t see or understand is the enormous sacrifice that comes with this position–indigenous people know it well–westerners don’t. If someone has been truly chosen by the Spirits to serve as a shaman for their people, village or tribe– that person is indentured to the Spirits. The Shaman’s job is service above all else. Above family, or a spouse, or a career, or any dream they personally want to follow that is not serving the people. If there is any crisis in the village, the shaman must attend to it. This means that being married, having children, following your bliss, or having personal time is very difficult. I have noticed that many indigenous woman shamans don’t have husbands–unless their husband is also a shaman and they do their work together. Men who are shamans have very little time to spend with their spouses or children because service to the village takes precedence over family time. This is one of the reasons there are few shamans in most tribes–nobody wants that job or sacrifice! So then, how does someone become a shaman?
The Spirits choose you– This means you have exceptionally well developed abilities to go into trance and communicate with the Spirits, and that the information you receive from them–be it for healing, divination, offerings etc. is highly accurate. In truth, all the examples I list below come back to the premise that the Spirits want to work through you. Whether it is in your lineage, you’ve had a near-death experience, or a Shaman has selected you for training–the Spirits chose you…However, you have free will to accept this calling–or not. For some individuals, the Spirits do not let them say, “No.” and if they do, bad luck follows them until they accept the responsibility.
Some cultures inherit this– There is a belief among some cultures that certain families have lineages of shamans; meaning that within a particular family line there are often children born with the gift of visioning and soul flight. A child with such gifts often displays them early on in life. This gets the attention of the elders, who upon examination and divination from a village shaman confirms the child’s gift. This will lead to the child being placed in some type of mentorship with a shaman (or family member shaman) to commence training and initiation. Thus the preparation for the next generation of village shamans.
Others receive the calling through a near-death experience or severe illness— If an individual survives an accident or severe illness that surely would have killed the average person, the elders would see this “miracle” as a sign that the survivor has strong, protective Spirit Allies watching over them and helping them. This may prompt elders to take this individual under their guidance to cultivate their gifts and help them become a shaman.
In another instance, a person may experience a Vision, a Spirit Message, or a Medicine Dream during the delirium of a severe illness, crisis or sickness. As they recover and share the story with an elder, the quality of the information received, confirmed with divination, may be diagnosed by the elder as a sign that the Spirits have chosen this person to become a shaman or healer. So training and initiation may be part of the healing process in order for the individual to return to full health. The term “shaman Illness” is often connected to these types of initiations, since the illness itself is seen as the “Sign” that the Spirits wish to work through that surviving individual. It also means that if the individual refuses the calling”, they become more ill or struggle to recover until they have accepted the commitment to the work.
Some are picked by the shaman of the tribe– Being a person in service to their people, the shaman of the tribe has the responsibility to ensure that the village will always have a shaman or healer for help. This responsibility requires the shaman to pass this knowledge on to another. The ability to communicate with Spirits, receive Divine information (with accuracy), and a natural ability for ‘soul flight’, are traits that the shaman looks for which may identify a person as one who should be trained to become a shaman. Sometimes these abilities may be identified in small children. Other times the gifts become apparent after a teen has returned from their first Vision Quest and are sharing their vision with the elders. Whatever the situation or events that bring this to his/her awareness, Shamans see these traits as signs of being chosen by the Spirits, and thus a need for an individual to receive training–if they accept the responsibility.
You Choose the Calling— This is the most typical version in our western culture. We don’t have tribes. We don’t have elders or mentors to teach us, we are separated from a culture that has animistic beliefs–So we find our way through “shamanic” workshops and trainings that we get “inspired” to attend. If we have the “gift” these trainings come easy and natural for us…It feels like coming home. We become hungry for more knowledge, it sparks our passion and we follow our passion.
Michael Harner showed us that many people have the ability to journey to, and communicate with, helping spirits–even in western culture. And now with so many people disenfranchised from traditional religions, many hunger to have a meaningful spiritual experiences and have found it in Shamanism. So nowadays, many people have chosen this as a spiritual path–but among our modern ways–who becomes a shaman/healer in a western culture?
Interestingly, what I have observed from studying with both indigenous and modern, ‘western shamans’, is that the best practitioners generally survived extreme childhood trauma and/or experienced classic near-death or severe illness events– whether as an indigenous person, or in a modern culture setting. This type of life experience appears to heighten the individual’s ability for soul flight, and communication with the Spirits –regardless of whether they live within a shamanic culture. These painful experiences also tend to cultivate, compassion, empathy and humility in an individual–traits commonly associated with shamans. So it is not uncommon for modern, non-tribal people to take a simple shamanic journeying workshop, and then be drawn to follow this path. In a sense, here, the Spirits chose them as well.
SHAMAN OR SHAMANIC PRACTITIONER?
This can be a touchy subject among many people, so I am going to express this from my own perspective of personal experience.
I call myself a “shamanic practitioner”. Why? Because I am not an indigenous person who was trained in a traditional way. As most modern practitioners in western culture, the majority of my training came from attending workshops that taught shamanic principles. These workshops were a springboard for training me in how to communicate with Spirits in a way that traditional shamans do…and once I had this knowledge, the Spirits took over in much of my teaching and put me through my own painful and humbling initiations…But I am still a white woman who practices shamanic ways of healing and certain traditional practices. A client or student may wish to call me a Shaman…however, that is their choice since I certainly do shaman-like things.
I believe it is more respectful to indigenous people to avoid the term, shaman. It smells of cultural appropriation and it is deeply offensive to native people. If you are called to this path and are gifted to study these ways, I encourage you to practice humility and discernment. I have seen too many naïve, white people call themselves a shaman in front of indigenous people. I’ll tell you, if you want to get shunned, or have your ass handed to you, or insult the hell out of an Elder…go ahead…call yourself a shaman. There is no faster way to get shut out from a gathering of native people than to call yourself this. Essentially, you are deeply insulting the people who have had their spirituality appropriated in egregious ways by Western Culture. Many of those shamans go through initiations so grueling that most people would never survive. Many have endured losses beyond our imaginations. Many have been very impoverished or are constantly helping their impoverished communities. Many are losing their lands and cultures. When I stand before an indigenous shaman, I know I have to earn their respect. I am humbled and grateful if he or she is willing to share any of their culture with me. I won’t even call myself a shamanic practitioner in front of them, just a student.
Interestingly, even in indigenous cultures, it is considered very bad medicine to call yourself a Shaman–your community can call you this, you just don’t say it about yourself. Tribal people know that a true healer is humble and of service. They say that if you brag about your work, or show ego or arrogance, the Spirits will take away your gifts…they will take away your power.
So there is a long standing and respected tradition of not calling yourself a shaman, only your community can. For those of us westerners, who have followed this calling and trained in non-traditional ways, the more demure way to say what we do is to say we are students of shamanic practices…or Shamanic Practitioners. And that is how I choose to call myself.