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1. the religion of certain peoples of northern Asia, based on the belief that the world is pervaded by good and evil spirits who can be influenced or controlled only by the shamans
2. any similar religion involving forms of spiritualism
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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An Huichol Indian shaman performs a ritual in the desert of Wirikuta, Mexico; photographed in 1998. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Ashaman is a priest/magician/healer especially as found in such areas as Siberia, Indonesia, Oceania, North and South America, Tibet, China, and Japan. Tools of the shaman usually include a specific costume and a drum. The shaman holds a type of séance, usually going into trance. The Altaic shaman ritually climbs a birch tree, into the trunk of which have been cut a number of steps. The birch symbolizes the World Tree and the steps are the various “heavens” through which the shaman must pass on his ecstatic journey to the highest heaven. There is an interesting parallel here with the various “spheres" or “levels” depicted in Spiritualism and detailed by Emanuel Swedenborg.

According to Mircea Eliade, “Shamanism in the strict sense is preeminently a religious phenomenon of Siberia and Central Asia. The word comes to us, through the Russian, from the Tungusic saman … the magico-religious life of society centers on the shaman.” Nandor Fodor suggests that the name also comes from the Sanskrit sramana, meaning an ascetic. Fodor clarified, “As distinct from priests, shamans have no ritualistic knowledge but operate rather like Spiritualist mediums.”

There are three ways to become a shaman. The first is by spontaneous vocation; by realizing that one has been “called” to it. The second is by hereditary transmission of the profession. The third is by personal “quest.” But as Eliade points out “By whatever method he may have been designated, a shaman is recognized as such only after having received two kinds of instruction. The first is ecstatic (for example, dreams, visions, trances); the second is traditional (shamanic techniques, names and functions of the spirits, mythology and genealogy of the clan, secret language).”


Eliade, Mircea: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press/Bollingen Series LXXVI, 1974
Fodor, Nandor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthurs Press, 1933
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an early form of religion among most peoples.

Originating in the period of the primitive communal system, shamanism was based on faith in the shaman’s communication with spirits, which occurred when the shaman was in a state of kamlanie (ritual ecstasy). The forms of kamlanie, the concept of the spirits, and the shaman’s degree of specialization differed among different peoples. Some peoples retained vestiges of shamanism even under the conditions of class society.

Shamanism acquired complex forms among such Siberian peoples as the Tuvinians, Evenki, and Yakuts. The Siberian shamans dressed in special costumes, and their kamlanie, which involved the playing of tambourines, included frenzied dances and the use of hypnosis, ventriloquy, and various tricks. In kamlanie the shaman enacted a trip to the world of the spirits (sometimes on a “horse” or “deer,” represented by the tambourine) and a struggle against the spirits. Professional shamans were nervous, easily excited people who were able to put themselves into a state of ecstasy or hallucination that became a self-regulated hysterical fit.

Among some peoples of Asia, Africa, Central America, and Polynesia, shamanism coexisted with other forms of religion. Vestiges of shamanism are retained in many later religious systems; examples include the radenie (prayer accompanied by dance) of the Khlysty and the dhikr ritual of the dervishes in Islam. Among the peoples of the USSR, shamanism has almost completely disappeared.


Mikhailovskii, V. M. Shamanstvo, fasc. 1. Moscow, 1892.
Popov, A. A. Materialy dlia bibliografii russkoi literatury po izucheniiu shamanstvo severoaziatskikh narodov. Leningrad, 1932.
Shternberg, L. Ia. Pervobytnaia religiia v svete etnografii. Leningrad, 1936.
Anisimov, A. F. Religiia evenkov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1958.
Tokarev, S. A. Rannie formy religii i ikh razvitie. Moscow, 1964.
Vainshtein, S. I. Tuvinskoe shamanstvo. Moscow, 1964.
Paulson, I., A. Hultkrantz, and K. Jettmar. Die Religionen Nordeurasiens und der amerikanischen Arktis. Stuttgart, 1962.
Eliade, M. Schamanismus und archaische Ekstasetechnik. Zürich-Stuttgart, 1957.
Popular Beliefs and Folklore Tradition in Siberia. Bloomington, Ind., 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.