Shamanism, a widely misunderstood and misused word, has been used to describe everything from tribal magicians, spiritual healers, medicine men, and sometimes any nature based form of spirituality, magic, or religion. This broad and vague usage brings with it a lot of miscommunication and confusion.
What is Shamanism?
Shamanism comes from an Evensk word from the Tungus region of Siberia. Michael Harner's translation of 'shaman' is either "one who sees in the dark" or "one who sees with eyes closed." The word 'shaman' is not gender specific. It has no linguistic connection to 'man' or 'woman' and the pluralized 'shamen' or feminist 'shawoman' and 'shamaness' are misinformed at best and political or ignorant at worst. The word shaman describes a very specific role and methodology within Siberian tribal society. The methodology includes the use of the drum beat to instigate an ecstatic altered state of consciousness that allows the shaman to send his or her soul flying into the various spirit realms. Unlike other priests or magicians, instead of calling the spirits to our world, the shaman usually goes to the spirits.
Western xenophobia created a situation in that many indigenous religions or Earth based spiritualities were labeled shamanic. Mircea Eliade in his study "Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy", originally published in 1956, was the first person to truly take a cross-cultural look at shamanism. He came to a few conclusions, the main one states that it was really the 'ecstatic journey' that defined a shaman. The journey takes place in an altered state where the soul travels to the various worlds (usually either an underworld, middle world, or sky world) with the mission of bringing back information (such as the location of the caribou, or the enemy), souls or power. But even after Eliade's work most people, unless they were anthropologists, used the term to mean any sort of tribal priest, magician, or healer even though being an animist or a 'tribal' magician doesn't automatically make one a shaman.
One of the defining aspects of the role of the 'shaman' is serving the community, usually as a healer and/or provider.
Some of the various duties that a shaman performs are:
1) Healing the body politic of the community.
2) Healing individuals of the spiritual causes of physical and mental illness.
3) Working as a psychopomp to help the souls of the dead travel to their proper resting grounds.
4) Defending the community against malevolent 'sorcerers'.
5) Mediating between the community and the spirits, friendly and antagonistic, that affect the community through appeasing, bargaining with, or threatening the spirits.
6) Finding food or abundance for the community.
While almost anyone can learn some journey skills, it is the role within the community that defines a shaman. If someone is just doing it solely for self-improvement or as a form of 'personal' magic without serving the community (even if it's only a community of 5 or 10 people) then that person is not a shaman. That person might be a strong practitioner of a shamanic technique but is not a shaman.
The Confusion between Shamanism and the Native American Magico-Religious Practices
One of the most common misunderstandings is the belief that the term 'shaman' is indigenous to Native American culture, usually assumed to be North American. This leads to confusing 'shamanism' with the various religious practices of the North American Indian tribes. Some indigenous Americans did incorporate shamanism as defined above, but many did not soul journey. Subsequently their healing methodologies were very different than those utilized by a shaman.
Even within North American tribal societies some shamans were also medicine men and women but, again, being a medicine person doesn't mean that you are also a shaman.
Central and South American shamans usually engaged in soul journey but with one major difference in their methodology. Most Asian and Eurasian shamanic cultures use a percussive beat such as the drum, rattle, tambourine, etc. as the major vehicle for the soul journey but the Central and South American tribes used plant allies, in the form of entheogens, as their main vehicle. This isn't to say that other cultures didn't also use entheogens. Siberian tribes used to feed Amanita Muscaria mushrooms to their reindeer and would then drink the reindeer's urine to effect a hallucinogenic state. Some people claim this is where the 'flying reindeer' concept came from. Notice how Santa's suit resembles an Amanita Muscaria mushroom. South and Central American tribes were unique in that it was their main methodology of journeying.
[In Shamanism in a Nutshell (Part II) JanFreya will further detail the traditional practice and roles of the shaman.]
- JanFreya on the Shaman
- The Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner
- Elements of Shamanism, Nevile Drury
- The Shaman, Piers Vitebski
- Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade
The magazine "Shaman's Drum" is an invaluable source of info on cross-cultural shamanism. Shaman's Drum covers the current events and politics that form and reform the language used in shamanism as well as providing amazing articles by, usually, excellent writers.
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