The Real Story of Shamanism

Over the centuries, many of the world’s natural mystics have succumbed to pogroms of elimination or the steady erosion of traditional practices – witches burnt at the stake, indigenous peoples forced into Western schools, healers accused of perpetuating diseases. More recently, a growing sense of modernity’s shortcomings has led to a renaissance of traditional or “pagan” practices. One of the most popular resurgent belief systems is known as shamanism. Interestingly, shamanism is also humanity’s oldest means of connecting with ‘Creation’ as well as one of the most globally prevalent. Fortunately for seekers, you do not need to wear a headdress or take peyote to live a shamanistic life.

What is Shamanism?

Today, many people closely associate shamanism with Native American peoples; however, anthropologists have studied evidence of shaman practices on all six habitable continents, some of which date to the Paleolithic era. Put simply, shamanism is a means by which humans have tried to understand the universe and our place in it. It does not force adherence to any particular deity or dogma. Rather, a shaman concerns him or herself with nature and uses insight to heal (physically, mentally, or spiritually) and to promote communal prosperity. What this means in practice runs the gambit from herbal knowledge to contact with supernatural forces, from cool-headed logic to prophecy.

A North American Indian shaman or medicine man healing a patient.

A North American Indian shaman or medicine man healing a patient. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

The word shaman derives from the Tunguso-Manchurian word saman. The Tungus people were reindeer herders in the Lake Baikal region of southern Russia. The word stems from their verb sa, which means ‘to know’ (Rutherford, 1996, 2). Shaman came into popular usage thanks to the Russian anthropologist Sergei Mikhailovich Shirokogorov, an early explorer of eastern Siberia and northeast China. In Psychomental Complex of the Tungus (1935), Shirokogorov wrote:

“In all Tungus languages, this term (saman) refers to persons of both sexes who have mastered spirits, who at their will can introduce these spirits into themselves and use their power over the spirits in their own interests, particularly helping other people who suffer from the spirits.” (Shirokogorov quoted in Rutherford, 1996, 2).

Tungus shaman. Drawing 17th century.

Tungus shaman. Drawing 17th century. ( Public Domain )

The term shaman caught on and was applied to a wide spectrum of traditional figures, including: witches, medicine men and women, spiritualists, and fortune tellers. By now, “the term shaman has been broadly & sloppily, [applied] to a vast spectrum of ‘religious’ practitioners. Unfortunately, there is little consensus among researchers, scholars, or laypersons as to exactly what a shaman is &/or does, and some definitions are somewhat culturally biased” (Smith, 2013). Nonetheless, certain traits shine through the confusion, most notably the connection with nature and the desire for personal and communal betterment.

Ceremonies Associated with Shamanism

These qualities have led to a renewed interest in traditional healing practices. The most important part of shamanism is the feeling of connection, both to other members of the community and to the universe at large. Oftentimes, this connection is established through ritualized ceremonies that include chanting, drumming, rhythmic dancing, sensory overload, and occasionally, the consumption of mind-altering substances. Together, these quiet the chattering mind and allow for mental relaxation, rejuvenation, and possibly revelation.

A man of high rank modelled in lotus position. His headdress with great horns and the snake-shaped necklace are typical of a shaman from the Bahia (500 BC-500 AD) culture of Ecuador. Artifact at Casa del Alabado: Museo de Arte Precolombino, Quito, Ecuador. (Credit: Alicia McDermott)

A man of high rank modelled in lotus position. His headdress with great horns and the snake-shaped necklace are typical of a shaman from the Bahia (500 BC-500 AD) culture of Ecuador. Artifact at Casa del Alabado: Museo de Arte Precolombino, Quito, Ecuador. (Credit: Alicia McDermott)

A ceremony can also be invented. For example, “you may make up an ‘I want a job I can really enjoy’ ceremony. You could meditate for five minutes, write a wish-list of all the things you want from a new job on a piece of paper and then burn it, symbolically sending your message to the spirit world. Performing this ceremony won’t guarantee you a new job next Monday, but it will signal to the spirit world and to yourself that you are ready for something new” (Almond, 2000). The idea of smoke carrying a message or intention to the heavens is held by many religions – consider the incense burned during Catholic and Orthodox Christian ceremonies.

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