Shamanism is a Spiritualistic system in tribal cultures characterized by non worldly realities in which the officiant, a shaman, searches for lost souls of the living, communes with totem spirits and spirits of the dead, and performs various supernatural feats. Above all, shamans are medical practitioners.
The term “shamanism,” from the Tungus term sâma-n (Tungus is an Altaic language spoken in Manchuria and northward), in its strictest sense refers to practices of Siberia and Central Asia; it is generalized to similar practices found elsewhere in the non-Western world. According to archaeological evidence, shamanic techniques are at least 30,000 years old.
A shaman’s tasks are related to some extent to social complexity. If a society (such as a tribal society) has only one type of magico-religious practitioner, it will be a shaman; as societies grow more complex, the shamanic role becomes differentiated, producing priests, sorcerers, mediums, witches and healers, besides shamans.
Shamanism bears many similarities to Western Mediumship. Both share a core set of beliefs that harks back to a primitive belief system called ANIMISM. Whereas Western mediums are generally female, however, shamans are typically male.
Traditionally, a person becomes a shaman according to heredity or by election by the “supernaturals.” The latter occurs as a serious illness, of which the initiate must heal himself. During the course of the illness, he learns how to access nonordinary realms, where he meets the spirits and souls of the dead that will assist him in his magical-spiritual work. In some cultures, shamans are called to their profession during vision quests, vigils in the wilderness in which attempts are made to receive one’s destiny from the supernaturals.
After receiving the calling, the shaman undergoes rigorous training under an elder shaman. He is initiated in a rite of symbolic dismemberment, death and resurrection; in some cases, he might literally be regarded as a ghost by the villagers.
The shaman’s helping spirits take many forms, including animals, birds, insects, fish, plants or spirits of the dead. Each spirit has a specific function and helps him in performing his duties. Shamans also may have a GUARDIAN SPIRIT.
When shamans are called on to perform their offices— primarily healing and divination—they enter their nonordinary reality through techniques such as drumming, rattling, chanting, dancing, fasting, sexual abstinence, sweat baths, staring into flames, concentrating on imagery or isolation in darkness. In some societies, the use of psychedelic drugs is employed.
Once he has entered this nonordinary reality, the shaman has Clairvoyance to see spirits and souls, and the mediumistic ability to communicate with them. He can travel to the heavens to act as intermediary to the gods or descend to the underworld to the land of the dead, where lost souls roam. The kidnapping or lost ways of the souls of the living are believed to be responsible for many kinds of illnesses. Only the retrieval of the souls can effect a cure (see SOUL LOSS). Other cures are effected by “sucking” out the disease or illness with the help of the shaman’s spirits.
Shamans, like some mediums, resort to sleight-of hand tricks, particularly in sucking out sicknesses. They produce objects such as stones and pieces of bone, which they say are responsible for the illness and then palm them to make them “magically” disappear. Some shamans contend that this sleight-of-hand has nothing to do with the real cure but is done only to provide “evidence” to the patient and witnesses that a cure has taken place.
Like Western Mediums, many shamans Demonstrate their powers at Séances, which take place in darkened quarters such as a tent. They may be bound at the hands and feet to prevent trickery. The Séance commences with singing. Phenomena of the spirits include spirit voices, Rappings and other noises, Poltergeist effects, shaking of the tent, movement of objects without contact,Levitations, handling of hot coals without injury, speaking in tongues (glossolalia) and the howling of animals, which are the “voices” of the spirit helpers.
The spirit helpers parallel the Western medium’s controls in terms of the assistance they provide the shaman; however, they are much more dictatorial and exert much more influence on their human being. Spirit helpers dictate to a shaman how he will dress, how he will live and what he will do. If he fails to follow their instructions, they may become unhappy with him and kill him, according to belief.
Another similarity between shamanic and Western Séances is the belief that to disturb the shaman/medium before the Séance is over, such as by turning on a light or interfering with the spirits, will jeopardize his or her life.
Differences also exist. Some shamans do not enter trance states during a Séance. In general, a Séance energizes and invigorates a shaman, whereas a Séance often exhausts a Western medium. The path to becoming a shaman is often long and painful, whereas it is seldom so for a medium. Shamans live outside the everyday life of their communities and are regarded as being part of another world. Some male shamans even spiritually change their sex and take men as their wives; they also have “supernatural husbands” in nonordinary reality. Western mediums generally carry on mainstream lives.
During the 18th-century Enlightenment, the Western public was fascinated by accounts of shamanism, and this fascination found its way into artistic works by composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, among others. Goethe’s Faust, for instance, is a virtual catalog of Enlightenment knowledge and beliefs about shamanism.
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- Flaherty, Gloria. Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
- Halifax, Joan. Shaman: The Wounded Healer. New York: Crossroad, 1982.
- Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam, 1986.
- Kalweit, Holger. Dreamtime and Inner Space: The World of the Shaman. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1984.
- Nicholson, Shirley, comp. Shamanism. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.
- Villoldo, Alberto, and Stanley Krippner. Healing States. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1986.
- Winkelman, Michael James. Shamans, Priests and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners. Anthropological Research Papers, No. 44. Tucson: Arizona State University, 1992.