Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with what they believe to be a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.

A shaman (/ˈʃɑːmən/ SHAH-men, /ˈʃæmən/ or /ˈʃeɪmən/) is someone who is regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing

The word “shaman” probably originates from the Tungusic Evenki language of North Asia. According to ethnolinguist Juha Janhunen, “the word is attested in all of the Tungusic idioms” such as Negidal, Lamut, Udehe/Orochi, Nanai, Ilcha, Orok, Manchu and Ulcha, and “nothing seems to contradict the assumption that the meaning ‘shaman’ also derives from Proto-Tungusic” and may have roots that extend back in time at least two millennia. The term was introduced to the west after Russian forces conqueredthe shamanistic Khanate of Kazan in 1552.

The term “shamanism” was first applied by Western anthropologists as outside observers of the ancient religion of the Turks and Mongols, as well as those of the neighbouring Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples. Upon observing more religious traditions across the world, some Western anthropologists began to also use the term in a very broad sense. The term was used to describe unrelated magico-religious practices found within the ethnic religions of other parts of Asia, Africa, Australasia and even completely unrelated parts of the Americas, as they believed these practices to be similar to one another.

Mircea Eliade writes, “A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = ‘technique of religious ecstasy’.” Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments/illness by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul/spirit restores the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. The shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans may visit other worlds/dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements. The shaman operates primarily within the spiritual world, which in turn affects the human world. The restoration of balance results in the elimination of the ailment.

Beliefs and practices that have been categorised this way as “shamanic” have attracted the interest of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, including anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, religious studies scholars, philosophers and psychologists. Hundreds of books and academic papers on the subject have been produced, with a peer-reviewed academic journal being devoted to the study of shamanism. In the 20th century, many Westerners involved in the counter-cultural movement have created modern magico-religious practices influenced by their ideas of indigenous religions from across the world, creating what has been termed neoshamanism or the neoshamanic movement. It has affected the development of many neopagan practices, as well as faced a backlash and accusations of cultural appropriation, exploitation and misrepresentation when outside observers have tried to represent cultures they do not belong to.

Etymology

The word “shaman” probably originates from the Evenki word šamán, most likely from the southwestern dialect spoken by the Sym Evenki peoples. The Tungusic term was subsequently adopted by Russians interacting with the indigenous peoples in Siberia. It is found in the memoirs of the exiled Russian churchman Avvakum.

The word was brought to Western Europe in the late 17th century by the Dutch traveler Nicolaes Witsen, who reported his stay and journeys among the Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking indigenous peoples of Siberia in his book Noord en Oost Tataryen (1692). Adam Brand, a merchant from Lübeck, published in 1698 his account of a Russian embassy to China; a translation of his book, published the same year, introduced the word shaman to English speakers.

The etymology of the Evenki word is sometimes connected to a Tungus root ša- “to know”. This has been questioned on linguistic grounds: “The possibility cannot be completely rejected, but neither should it be accepted without reservation since the assumed derivational relationship is phonologically irregular (note especially the vowel quantities).” Other scholars assert that the word comes directly from the Manchu language, and as such would be the only commonly used English word that is a loan from this language.

However, Mircea Eliade noted that the Sanskrit word śramaṇa, designating a wandering monastic or holy figure, has spread to many Central Asian languages along with Buddhism and could be the ultimate origin of the Tungusic word. This proposal has been thoroughly critiqued since 1917. Ethnolinguist Juha Janhunen regards it as an “anachronism” and an “impossibility” that is nothing more than a “far-fetched etymology.

21st-century anthropologist and archeologist Silvia Tomaskova argues that by the mid-1600s, many Europeans applied the Arabic term shaitan (meaning “devil”) to the non-Christian practices and beliefs of indigenous peoples beyond the Ural Mountains. She suggests that shaman may have entered the various Tungus dialects as a corruption of this term, and then been told to Christian missionaries, explorers, soldiers and colonial administrators with whom the people had increasing contact for centuries. Ethnolinguists did not develop as a discipline nor achieve contact with these communities until the late 19th century, and may have mistakenly “read backward” in time for the origin of this word.

A shamaness (female shaman) is sometimes called a shamanka, which is not an actual indigenous term but simply shaman plus the Russian suffix -ka (for feminine nouns).

Definitions

There is no single agreed-upon definition for the word “shamanism” among anthropologists. The English historian Ronald Hutton noted that by the dawn of the 21st century, there were four separate definitions of the term which appeared to be in use. The first of these uses the term to refer to “anybody who contacts a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness.” The second definition limits the term to refer to those who contact a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness at the behest of others. The third definition attempts to distinguish shamans from other magico-religious specialists who are believed to contact spirits, such as “mediums”, “witch doctors”, “spiritual healers” or “prophets,” by claiming that shamans undertake some particular technique not used by the others. Problematically, scholars advocating the third view have failed to agree on what the defining technique should be. The fourth definition identified by Hutton uses “shamanism” to refer to the indigenous religions of Siberia and neighboring parts of Asia. According to the Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies, a Mongolian organisation of shamans, the Evenk word shaman would more accurately be translated as “priest”.

Initiation and learning

Shamans may be called through dreams or signs. However, shamanic powers may be inherited. In traditional societies shamanic training varies in length, but generally takes years.

Turner and colleagues mention a phenomenon called shamanistic initiatory crisis, a rite of passage for shamans-to-be, commonly involving physical illness and/or psychological crisis. The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, who was the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China.

The wounded healer is an archetype for a shamanic trial and journey. This process is important to the young shaman. They undergo a type of sickness that pushes them to the brink of death. This happens for two reasons:

· The shaman crosses over to the underworld. This happens so the shaman can venture to its depths to bring back vital information for the sick and the tribe.

· The shaman must become sick to understand sickness. When the shaman overcomes their own sickness, they will hold the cure to heal all that suffer. This is the uncanny mark of the wounded healer.

Roles

Shamans claim to gain knowledge and the power to heal by entering into the spiritual world or dimension. Most shamans have dreams or visions that convey certain messages. The shaman may have or acquire many spirit guides, who often guide and direct the shaman in their travels in the spirit world. These spirit guides are always present within the shaman, although others encounter them only when the shaman is in a trance. The spirit guide energizes the shaman, enabling them to enter the spiritual dimension. The shaman heals within the spiritual dimension by returning ‘lost’ parts of the human soul from wherever they have gone. The shaman also cleanses excess negative energies, which confuse or pollute the soul.

Shamans act as mediators in their culture. The shaman communicates with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the deceased. The shaman communicates with both living and dead to alleviate unrest, unsettled issues, and to deliver gifts to the spirits.

Among the Selkups, the sea duck is a spirit animal. Ducks fly in the air and dive in the water. Thus ducks are believed to belong to both the upper world and the world below. Among other Siberian peoples, these characteristics are attributed to water fowl in general. The upper world is the afterlife primarily associated with deceased humans and is believed to be accessed by soul journeying through a portal in the sky. The lower world or “world below” is the afterlife primarily associated with animals and is believed to be accessed by soul journeying through a portal in the earth. In shamanic cultures many animals are regarded as spirit animals.

Shamans perform a variety of functions depending upon their respective cultures; healing, leading a sacrifice, preserving the tradition by storytelling and songs fortune-telling and acting as a psychopomp (“guide of souls”). A single shaman may fulfill several of these functions.

The functions of a shaman may include either guiding to their proper abode the souls of the dead (which may be guided either one-at-a-time or in a cumulative group, depending on culture), and/or curing (healing) of ailments. The ailments may be either purely physical afflictions – such as disease, which may be cured by gifting, flattering, threatening, or wrestling the disease-spirit (sometimes trying all these, sequentially), and which may be completed by displaying a supposedly extracted token of the disease-spirit (displaying this, even if “fraudulent”, is supposed to impress the disease-spirit that it has been, or is in the process of being, defeated, so that it will retreat and stay out of the patient’s body), or else mental (including psychosomatic) afflictions – such as persistent terror (on account of a frightening experience), which may be likewise cured by similar methods. In most languages a different term other than the one translated “shaman” is usually applied to a religious official leading sacrificial rites (“priest”), or to a raconteur (“sage”) of traditional lore; there may be more of an overlap in functions (with that of a shaman), however, in the case of an interpreter of omens or of dreams.

There are distinct types of shaman who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nani people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp. Other specialized shamans may be distinguished according to the type of spirits, or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts. These roles vary among the Nenets, Enets, and Selkup shaman.

The assistant of an Oroqen shaman (called jardalanin, or “second spirit”) knows many things about the associated beliefs. He or she accompanies the rituals and interprets the behavior of the shaman.[44]Despite these functions, the jardalanin is not a shaman. For this interpretative assistant, it would be unwelcome to fall into trance.

Economics

The way shamans get sustenance and take part in everyday life varies across cultures. In many Inuit groups, they provide services for the community and get a “due payment” (cultures), believe the payment is given to the helping spirits but these goods are only “welcome addenda.” They are not enough to enable shamanizing as a full-time activity. Shamans live like any other member of the group, as a hunter or housewife. Due to the popularity of ayahuasca tourism in South America, there are practitioners in areas frequented by backpackers who make a living from leading ceremonies.

Beliefs

There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world, but several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Common beliefs identified by Eliade (1972) are the following:

· Spirits exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.

· The shaman can communicate with the spirit world.

· Spirits can be benevolent or malevolent.

· The shaman can treat sickness caused by malevolent spirits.

· The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy and go on vision quests.

· The shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.

· The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.

· The shaman can perform other varied forms of divination, scry, throw bones/runes, and sometimes foretell of future events.

Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living. Although the causes of disease lie in the spiritual realm, inspired by malicious spirits, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman “enters the body” of the patient to confront the spiritual infirmity and heals by banishing the infectious spirit.

Many shamans have expert knowledge of medicinal plants native to their area, and an herbal treatment is often prescribed. In many places shamans learn directly from the plants, harnessing their effects and healing properties, after obtaining permission from the indwelling or patron spirits. In the Peruvian Amazon Basin, shamans and curanderos use medicine songs called icaros to evoke spirits. Before a spirit can be summoned it must teach the shaman its song. The use of totemic items such as rocks with special powers and an animating spirit is common.

Such practices are presumably very ancient. Plato wrote in his Phaedrus that the “first prophecies were the words of an oak”, and that those who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to “listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth”.

Belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujería in Latin America, exists in many societies. Other societies assert all shamans have the power to both cure and kill. Those with shamanic knowledge usually enjoy great power and prestige in the community, but they may also be regarded suspiciously or fearfully as potentially harmful to others.[55]

By engaging in their work, a shaman is exposed to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from enemy shamans, or from the means employed to alter the shaman’s state of consciousness. Shamanic plant materials can be toxic or fatal if misused. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is often very highly ritualized.

Soul and spirit concepts

The variety of functions described above may seem like distinct tasks, but they may be united by underlying soul and spirit concepts.

Soul

This concept can generally explain more, seemingly unassociated phenomena in shamanism:

Healing

This concept may be based closely on the soul concepts of the belief system of the people served by the shaman. It may consist of retrieving the lost soul of the ill person. See also the soul dualism concept.

Scarcity of hunted game

This problem can be solved by “releasing” the souls of the animals from their hidden abodes. Besides that, many taboos may prescribe the behavior of people towards game, so that the souls of the animals do not feel angry or hurt, or the pleased soul of the already killed prey can tell the other, still living animals, that they can allow themselves to be caught and killed. For the ecological aspects of shamanistic practice, and related beliefs, see below.

Infertility of women

This problem can be cured by obtaining the soul of the expected child.

Spirits

Beliefs related to spirits can explain many different phenomena.[62] For example, the importance of storytelling, or acting as a singer, can be understood better if we examine the whole belief system. A person who can memorize long texts or songs, and play an instrument, may be regarded as the beneficiary of contact with the spirits (e.g. Khanty people).

Music and songs

Just like shamanism itself, music and songs related to it in various cultures are diverse, far from being alike. In several instances, songs related to shamanism are intended to imitate natural sounds, via onomatopoeia.

Sound mimesis in various cultures may serve other functions not necessarily related to shamanism: practical goals as luring game in the hunt; or entertainment (Inuit throat singing).

South America Shamanic variation

Shamanic rituals as artistic performance

The shamanic ceremony is both a religious ceremony and an artistic performance. The fundamental purpose of the dramatic displays seen during shamanic ceremonies is not to draw attention or to create a spectacle for the audience as many Westerners have come to believe, but to lead the tribe in a solemn ritualistic process.

In general, all performances consist of four elements: dance, music, poetry and dramatic or mimetic action. The use of these elements serves the purpose of outwardly expressing his mystical communion with nature and the spirits for the rest of the tribe. The true shaman can make the journey to the spirit world at any time and any place, but shamanic ceremonies provide a way for the rest of the tribe to share in this religious experience. The shaman changes his voice mimetically to represent different persons, gods, and animals while his music and dance change to show his progress in the spirit world and his different spiritual interactions. Many shamans practice ventriloquism and make use of their ability to accurately imitate the sounds of animals, nature, humans and other noises in order to provide the audience with the ambiance of the journey. Elaborate dances and recitations of songs and poetry are used to make the shamans spiritual adventures into a matter of living reality to his audience.

Costume and accessories

The shaman’s attire varies throughout the region but his chief accessories are his coat, cap, and tambourine or drum. The transformation into an animal is an important aspect of the journey into the spirit world undertaken during shamanic rituals so the coat is often decorated with birds feathers and representations of animals, coloured handkerchiefs, bells and metal ornaments. The cap is usually made from the skin of a bird with the feathers and sometimes head, still attached.

The drum or tambourine is the essential means of communicating with spirits and enabling the shaman to reach altered states of consciousness on his journey. The drum, representing the universe in epitome, is often divided into equal halves to represent the earth and lower realms. Symbols and natural objects are added to the drum representing natural forces and heavenly bodies.

North America

Native American and First Nations cultures have diverse religious beliefs and there was never one universal Native American religion or spiritual system. Although many Native American cultures have traditional healers, ritualists, singers, mystics, lore-keepers and Medicine people, none of them ever used, or use, the term “shaman” to describe these religious leaders. Rather, like other indigenous cultures the world over, their spiritual functionaries are described by words in their own languages, and in many cases are not taught to outsiders.

Many of these indigenous religions have been grossly misrepresented by outside observers and anthropologists, even to the extent of superficial or seriously mistaken anthropological accounts being taken as more authentic than the accounts of actual members of the cultures and religions in question. Often these accounts suffer from “Noble Savage”-type romanticism and racism. Some contribute to the fallacy that Native American cultures and religions are something that only existed in the past, and which can be mined for data despite the opinions of Native communities.

Not all Indigenous communities have roles for specific individuals who mediate with the spirit world on behalf of the community. Among those that do have this sort of religious structure, spiritual methods and beliefs may have some commonalities, though many of these commonalities are due to some nations being closely related, from the same region, or through post-Colonial governmental policies leading to the combining of formerly independent nations on reservations. This can sometimes lead to the impression that there is more unity among belief systems than there was in antiquity.

With the arrival of European settlers and colonial administration, the practice of Native American traditional beliefs was discouraged and Christianity was imposed upon the indigenous people. In most communities, the traditions were not completely eradicated, but rather went underground, and were practiced secretly until the prohibitive laws were repealed.

Up until and during the last hundred years, thousands of Native American and First Nations children from many different communities were sent into the Canadian Indian residential school system, and Indian boarding schools in an effort to destroy tribal languages, cultures and beliefs. The Trail of Tears, in the US, forced Native Americans to relocate from their traditional homes. Canadian laws enacted in 1982, and henceforth, have attempted to reverse previous attempts at extinguishing Native culture.

South America

The Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon have an elaborate cosmological system predicated on the ritual consumption of ayahuasca, which is a key feature of their society.

· Santo Daime and União do Vegetal ( abbreviated to UDV) are syncretic religions with which use an entheogen called ayahuasca in an attempt to connect with the spirit realm and receive divine guidance.

Amazonia

In the Peruvian Amazon basin and north coastal regions of the country, the healers are known as curanderos. Ayahuasqueros are Peruvians who specialize in the use of ayahuasca. Ayahuasqueros have become popular among Western spiritual seekers, who claim that the ayauasqueros and their ayahuasca brews have cured them of everything from depression to addiction to cancer.

In addition to curanderos use of ayahuasca and their ritualized ingestion of mescaline-bearing San Pedro cactuses (Trichocereus pachanoi) for the divination and diagnosis of sorcery, north-coastal shamans are famous throughout the region for their intricately complex and symbolically dense healing altars called mesas (tables). Sharon (1993) has argued that the mesas symbolize the dualistic ideology underpinning the practice and experience of north-coastal shamanism. For Sharon, the mesas are the, “physical embodiment of the supernatural opposition between benevolent and malevolent energies” (Dean 1998: 61).

In several tribes living in the Amazon rainforest, the spiritual leaders also act as managers of scarce ecological resources. The rich symbolism in Tukano culture has been documented in field works even in the last decades of the 20th century.

The yaskomo of the Waiwai is believed to be able to perform a soul flight. The soul flight can serve several functions:

· healing

· flying to the sky to consult cosmological beings (the moon or the brother of the moon) to get a name for a newborn baby

· flying to the cave of peccaries’ mountains to ask the father of peccaries for abundance of game

· flying deep down in a river, to achieve the help of other beings.

Thus, a yaskomo is believed to be able to reach sky, earth, and water.[216]

Mapuche

Among the Mapuche people of Chile, Machi is usually a woman who serves the community by performing ceremonies to cure diseases, ward off evil, influence the weather and harvest, and by practicing other forms of healing such as herbalism.

Aymara

For the Aymara people of South America the Yatiri is a healer who heals the body and the soul, they serve the community and do the rituals for Pachamama.

Part of the healing power attributed to shamanic practices depends of the use of plant alkaloids taken during the therapeutic sessions.

Fuegians

Although Fuegians (the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego) were all hunter-gatherers, they did not share a common culture. The material culture was not homogenous, either: the big island and the archipelago made two different adaptations possible. Some of the cultures were coast-dwelling, others were land-oriented.

Both Selk’nam and Yámana had persons filling in shaman-like roles. The Selk’nams believed their /xon/s to have supernatural capabilities, e.g. to control weather. The figure of /xon/ appeared in myths, too.The Yámana /jekamuʃ/ corresponds to the Selknam /xon/.

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  68. ^ VanWagenen, Bradford Carr (20 May 2011). The shaman’s mesa: a model of individuation (PhD). Pacifica Graduate Institute. Some of these mesas, like those of the Q’ero shamans, contain a dozen sacred objects; others, typical of the north-coastal shamans of Peru, contain over one hundred objects.
  69. ^ Joralemen, D. and D. Sharon 1993 Sorcery and Shamanism: Curanderos and Clients in Northern Peru. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
  70. ^ Dean, Bartholomew 1998 “Review of Sorcery and Shamanism: Curanderos and Clients in Northern Peru” American Ethnologist. 25(1): 61–62.
  71. ^ Christine Hugh-Jones 1980
  72. ^ Stephen Hugh-Jones 1980
  73. ^ Fock 1963: 16
  74. ^ “Trance and Shamanic Cure on the South American Continent: Psychopharmalogical and Neurobiological Interpretations”, Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 21, Issue 1, pp. 83-105, ISSN 1053-4202, 2010)
  75. ^ Gusinde 1966, pp. 6–7
  76. ^ Service, Elman: The Hunter. Prentice-Hall, 1966.
  77. ^ “Extinct Ancient Societies Tierra del Fuegians”.
  78. ^ Gusinde 1966: 175
  79. ^ “Patagonia, Tierra Del Fuego, cruising; The Yagan and Ona Indians”. Archived from the original on 14 June 2015. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  80. ^ Gusinde 1966: 15
  81. ^ Gusinde 1966: 156
  82. ^ Gusinde 1966: 186