Since there are many indigenous traditions that involve the practice of shamanism it is not easy to find a common definition of the term. One element however, that seems to lie at the core of all shamanistic traditions, is a practitioner reaching an altered state of consciousness in order interact with the realm of spirit.
While this state of trance is often reached through the ritualistic use of psychedelic plants, their ingestion is not a necessary condition for it. In some traditions the desired state of mind is reached via rhythmic drumming, dancing, fasting, hyperventilation and even self injury.
History of Shamanism
The word „shaman“ stems from the Evenk language of North Asia and literally means „one who knows“. Archeologists suspect that the origins of shamanism have come about during the Paleolithic period and my thus predate all organized religions. This theory is supported by cave drawings, such as the depiction of a half man half animal type creature, which supposedly shows a shaman entering into spirit world.
It is theorized that hunter-gatherer type societies have developed the practice of shamanism as a magic practice to ensure a steady supply of game to the tribe. Some historians have argued that shamanism played a part in many of the pre-Christian religions of Europe as well. According to their theories shamanic elements may have survived in popular culture right through to the Early Modern period.
Whether this was the case or not, the concept of shamanism became more widely known in Western cultures when Russian forces conquered the Shamanistic Khanate of Kazan in 1552. When Western scholars learned more about the religious traditions in other parts of the world, similar magico-religious practices as exercised by indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas were also described as shamanism.
The Shamanistic Belief System
Even though there have been many forms of shamanism throughout the world, Eliade (1972) identified some shared beliefs that are common to all of them:
- Spirits exist and strongly influence individual lives as well human society at large
- Spirits can be benevolent or malevolent
- While in trance, the shaman’s spirit can leave his body to enter the supernatural world
- Within spirit world, the shaman can interact and communicate with the spirits therein
- Answers to earthly problems can be found in spirit world
- The shaman can treat sickness caused by malevolent spirits
- The shaman can perform acts of divination
- The shaman can evoke animal images as spirit guides and message-bearers
All of these basic beliefs paint a picture that is radically different from the worldview of Western science. In the view of shamanistic cultures the physical world is much more complex than we think. According to the shamans, there is an otherworld interpenetrating physical existence that is inhabited by intelligent spirits. Even though these spirits are normally intangible as well as invisible to us, the shamans say that all humans constantly interact with them; be it actively or passively.
Initiation into Shamanism – The Wounded Healer
In the shamanistic tradition, there is no other way of becoming a shaman than being called to do so. Typically shamans are called by dreams or signs. Another phenomenon, which has been described by Turner et al., is the so called „rite of passage“. This may involve psychological crisis as well as physical sickness. In fact, the archetype of the wounded healer, which some archeologists believe to be depicted in ancient cave art, is a common symbol of the shamanic journey and its pitfalls.
During his rite of passage the soon-to-be shaman is driven to the brink of death. There he is able cross over into the underworld and bring back information that is not just important to his patients, but to the tribe as a whole. In order to become a capable healer, a shaman must fully understand sickness. Therefore he himself must become sick and thus turn into the wounded healer. After the calling has been received, the apprentice shaman enters into a lengthy training period where he learns everything he needs to become a legitimate shaman.
Role of the Shaman within his Community
Since most humans are unaware of spirit world, the shaman has the special role to mediate between the physical and the spirit world. By accessing these realms, the shaman attains knowledge and healing power, which he can then bring back to the physical world. Since the insights that are attained in spirit world can be applied in many ways, a shaman can assume a number of roles within his society.
Probably the most well-known role of the shaman is the one as healer of the tribe. Since shamans usually have supreme knowledge of the pharmacological properties of plants and the ability to heal physical as well as psychological ailments, they are often described as “medicine-men”. This however is not the only role a shaman can fulfill. Fortune-telling, influencing weather patterns, influencing the movements of animals, managing the movement of souls from and to the underworld, fighting with spiritual enemies and finding the whereabouts of lost friends are all functions that a shaman can perform.
Would you like to know more about the techniques that shamans use to enter spirit world? Then go ahead and download my free E-Book “Shamanic Healing for You“.