Shaman and Shamanism

Shaman and Shamanism


Shamanism has sometimes been defined as a “technique of ecstasy,” a definition alluding to the shaman’s ability to enter non-ordinary states of consciousness—including certain dream states—at will. Although the terms shaman and shamanism have come to be used quite loosely, in the disciplines of anthropology and comparative religion shamanism refers to a fairly specific set of ideas and practices that can be found in many world cultures. Characteristically, the shaman is a healer, a psychopomp (someone who guides the souls of the dead to their home in the afterlife), and more generally a mediator between his or her community and the world of spirits (most often animal spirits and the spirits of the forces of nature).

For smaller-scale societies, especially for hunting and gathering groups, shamans perform all of the functions that doctors, priests, and therapists (and sometimes mystics and artists as well) perform in contemporary Western societies. The religious specialists of traditional American Indian societies that people sometimes refer to as “medicine men” are examples of shamans. True shamans are more characteristic of hunting societies than pastoral or farming societies, although one can often find segments of the shamanic pattern in non-hunting cultures. Shamanism in the strict sense is not found in certain culture areas, such as Africa, although there are religious specialists that fill the same “slot” in traditional African societies.

As a system, shamanism frequently emphasizes contact and communication with spirits in the otherworld, healing practices in which the shamans search for lost souls of the living, and rituals in which shamans guide the spirits of the deceased to the realm of the dead. The word shaman comes from the Tungusic term for this religious specialist, saman. The term was originally coined by an earlier generation of scholars who were studying societies in Siberia and central Asia and was later extended to similar religious complexes found elsewhere in the world. Depending on how one interprets the archaeological evidence, shamanism is many thousands of years old.

There are a number of different traditional ways in which one can become a shaman. Often the role is simply inherited. At other times, the person to become a shaman is chosen by spiritual forces. This supernatural election frequently involves a serious illness in which the chosen person comes close to death, making this part of the process a kind of initiatory death in which the old person “dies” to his or her former self. The death theme is emphasized in certain traditions (especially in Siberia), in which the chosen individual has a dream of being slain, dismembered, reconstructed, and revived. Sometimes it is during the course of the initiatory sickness that the shaman-to-be learns how to enter non-ordinary realms during dreams and meets the spirits with whom he or she will work as a shamanic. After they heal, shaman novitiates usually complete their training under the guidance of an experienced shaman.

When performing their roles shamans enter an altered state of consciousness in order to contact non-ordinary reality. The ability to enter non-ordinary states is so important to the shamanic vocation that scholars of religion have identified it as the defining characteristic of shamanism. These altered states can be brought on by diverse techniques, from drumming and chanting to fasting and sweat baths. Shamans sometimes make use of mind-altering drugs when they are available. Once in an altered frame of mind, shamans can see or sense normally invisible realms and can also serve as mediums. In this non-ordinary state, they can travel to the realm of the gods—usually believed to be in the heavens—and serve as intermediary between their community and divine beings. They can also descend to the underworld.

As masters of altered states of consciousness, shamans can also be masters of the dream state. Thus, in some societies, many of the shamanic tasks are accomplished in dreams. Shamans are also often sought out as interpreters of dreams for the community.