The oldest system of Healing in the world, shamanism is prevalent in tribal cultures which, though isolated from one another, have developed beliefs and techniques with startling similarities. A shaman enters an ecstatic altered state of consciousness, which enables him to communicate with guardian and helping spirits and draw upon sources of enormous power. The primary purpose of shamanism is the healing of body and mind. It also is used for Divination and to ensure good hunts and prosperity for a tribe or village.

According to archaeological and ethnological evidence, shamanism has been practiced for some 20,000 to 30,000 years. It may be much older, perhaps as old as the human race. It is found all over the world, including very remote portions of the Americas, Siberia and Asia, Australia, northern Europe and Africa.

Shamanic systems vary greatly, but most share basic similarities. The shaman must function comfortably in two realities, the ordinary reality of the everyday, waking world, and the nonordinary reality of the shamanic state of consciousness. The nonordinary reality is attained in trance which varies from light to deep coma and enables the shaman to see and do things that are impossible in ordinary reality. Once in trance, the shaman enters the lowerworld by slipping into a hole or opening in the earth. In the lowerworld, he sees the cause of disease in a patient and knows its cure, and sees his guardian spirit and spirit helpers. He can shape-shift into these spirits and fly through the air (see metamorphosis). He performs his cures and can see into the future. When his shamanic work is done, he reemerges from the lowerworld back into ordinary reality. Shamans are also said to ascend to the sky in spirit boats or astride the spirits of sacrificed horses.

The nonordinary reality is as real to the shaman as is the ordinary reality. The things he sees are not hallucinations but are externalized. The shamanic state of consciousness is induced through drumming, rattling and dancing or, in some societies, by ingesting hallucinogens.

Most shamans are men, though women also can become shamans; some women shamans are extraordinarily powerful. In some cultures, shamans are involuntarily chosen by the spirits. They realize their calling in a transformational experience, often a serious illness that brings them close to death and is self-cured. In other cultures, persons with natural shamanic gifts are selected at a young age, trained and initiated (see Initiation).

The shaman must obtain a guardian spirit, which is the source of his spiritual powers. The guardian spirit also is called a power animal, tutelary spirit, totemic animal or Familiar. A common method of discovering and connecting with the guardian spirit is the solitary, allnight vigil outdoors. The guardian spirit usually manifests as an animal, bird, fish or reptile but may also appear in human form. It is both beneficent and beneficial and brings to the shaman the powers of an entire species. The shaman invites the guardian spirit into his body; it protects him from illness and from unfriendly forces in the lowerworld. Guardian spirits change over the years as the shaman’s needs change.

After a guardian spirit is acquired, healing and divination may be performed. Healing techniques vary. A shaman may collect spirit helpers, which are the causes and cures of illness. Spirit helpers are represented by plants, insects, small objects, worms and the like. When the shaman sees, in trance, the cause of an illness, he places one of these objects in the back of his mouth and one in the front. He then begins to “suck” the illness out of the body of the patient. The energy that causes the illness is absorbed by the spirit helpers in his mouth who protect the shaman from absorbing the illness himself. The helper in the back of the mouth acts as a backup, in case the illness gets past the helper in front.

In other techniques, the shaman descends to the lowerworld, or the realm of the dead, to bring back the soul of a patient or to retrieve a patient’s guardian spirit. Some shamans exorcise disease-causing spirits in Séancelike procedures or by invoking or cajoling them to leave the patient.

Sleight-of-hand tricks are sometimes used, but do not necessarily negate a healing.

Some traditions of contemporary Paganism and Witchcraft incorporate shamanic practices. most of these concern raising energy, Otherworld journeys and healing. Some Witches, such as Starhawk, consider Witchcraft a shamanistic religion because raising energy, Otherworldy contact and healing are fundamental to it. Some Pagans say the same about various forms of contemporary Paganism. Pagan/Wiccan shamanism fosters a closer connection to the Earth and plays a role in the environmental and ecological interests of many individuals. It also plays a significant role in the creation of healing therapies especially tailored to Pagan and Wiccan spirituality.


  • Eliade, mircea. Shamanism. revised and enlarged ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.
  • Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam, 1982.
  • Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
  • kalweit, Holger. Dreamtime & Inner Space: The World of the Shaman. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1984.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.