Initiation – Shamans are sometimes distinguished from other religious or cultural leaders by a particular style of initiation. In contrast with priests, who are normally educated by other priests in the technical procedures and necessary knowledge for sacrificial and ceremonial practice, shamans are often said to be selected against their will by otherworld persons or spirits who abduct, dismember, and reassemble them as new shamans. During these frightening and sometimes painful experiences, neophyte shamans may have powerful objects inserted into their bodies that will provide them with the power or ability to heal and help their people and/or curse and combat enemies. In some cases, the beginning of initiation is marked by the onset of illness. Whereas “ordinary” people may be killed by these illnesses, shamans may have to struggle to overcome and master the aggressing beings rather than being overwhelmed and destroyed by them. To survive and return from ecstatic journeying or trance is to be remade as a shaman, perhaps with the ability to heal the particular initiatory disease or condition. Similarly, when other people are abducted, they may become possessed and require the services of a shaman to return them to full health and ordinary life.

In some cases, the initiate meets powerful otherworld helpers or allies, and they may even marry otherworld persons. The intimate relationships established between shamans and their otherworld helpers or spouses may entail taboos, prohibitions or expectations that also distinguish shamans from their communities. For example, a male shaman married to a male other-than-human person may have to dress in female attire, either throughout life or only when performing shamanic work. Aspects of Nicholas Black Elk’s biography exemplify a tradition that failure to abide by initiatory regulations may lead to abandonment by one’s helpers or a decline in one’s shamanic abilities. Shamans among the Mapuche of Chile are supposed to renew their initiation regularly in complex communal ceremonies that refresh their relationships with otherworld helpers. In Haitian Vodou, marriages are such a regular aspect of initiation that marriage contracts are drawn up specifying the respective duties of both partners. Alfred Métraux (1959) includes a copy of a contract that specifies that the human partner, Madame Andrémise Cétoute, “must consecrate Tuesday and Thursday to her [spirit] husband Damballah without ever a blemish on herself,” while Monsieur (also “citizen”) Damballah Toquan Miroissé’s “duty is to load his wife with good luck so that Madame Cétoute will never know a day’s poverty.” The contract includes the advice that “it is with work that spiritual and material property is amassed” and concludes, “in execution of article 15.1 of the Haitian Code. They hereto agreed in the affirmative before qualified witnesses.” While the legal language of this contract may be unique to Vodou, it is entirely typical of the establishment and obligations of relationships between shamans and their otherworld companions in many other places.

In addition to such relational introductions, initiates may gain a first experience of the techniques they will employ when working for their communities. They may learn locally appropriate ways to ingest hallucinogens, such as ayahuasca or yagé (treated as a powerful plant person) among Amazonian shamans; how trance and/or possession is performed or revealed to clients; the use of drums, rattles, or other rhythm-making instruments; forms of chanting; the wearing of appropriate costume; and so on. Such lessons may begin in other worlds but continue under the tutelage of more experienced shamans. When Michael Harner sought to understand Conibo shamanism, he was told that he could learn only by experiencing what shamans experience when inspired by ayahuasca. Scholars are divided about the lengths to which it is appropriate to go in order to understand what other people take for granted or wish to explain, but Harner is not alone in taking this initiatory journey.

It should also be noted that although the pattern of illness, abduction, dismemberment, and revelation of knowledge and techniques in the other world may be typical of the experience of many shamans, it is not the only mode of initiation. Sora shamans are far from unique in being apprenticed to relatives who teach them the role and accompany them while dreaming and in other forms of trance. Amazonian shamans seeking shamanic knowledge commonly pay more experienced shamans to teach necessary techniques and chants. It is perhaps safest to conclude only that the gift of becoming a shaman can be inherited, desired, or feared, but it is always up to otherworld or other-than-human persons to decide if they will work with and support someone as a shaman. Only in some cases do they impose their will by the process that is sometimes mistakenly said to be a universal marker of shamanism.

Neo-shamans also often seek initiation.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007