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Shamanism refers to a range of traditional beliefs and practices similar to Animism that claim the ability to diagnose and cure human suffering and, in some societies, the ability to cause suffering. This is believed to be accomplished by traversing the axis mundi and forming a special relationship with, or gaining control over, spirits. Shamans have been credited with the ability to control the weather, divination, the interpretation of dreams, astral projection, and traveling to upper and lower worlds. Shamanistic traditions have existed throughout the world since prehistoric times.
Some anthropologists and religion scholars define a shaman as an intermediary between the natural and spiritual world, who travels between worlds in a trance state. Once in the spirit world, the shaman would commune with the spirits for assistance in healing, hunting or weather management.
Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. In contrast to animism and animatism, which any and usually all members of a society practice, shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities. It could be said that shamans are the experts employed by animists or animist communities. Shamans are not, however, often organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests.
Shaman originally referred to the traditional healers of Turkic-Mongol areas such as Northern Asia (Siberia) and Mongolia, a "shaman" being the Turkic-Tungus word for such a practitioner and literally meaning "he (or she) who knows".
Accordingly, the only proper plural form of the word is shamans and not shamen, as it is unrelated to the English word "man".
In its common usage, it has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a term which unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and other lore, and the ability to cure a person and mend a situation. However, this term is generally considered to be pejorative and anthropologically inaccurate. Objections to the use of shaman as a generic term have been raised as well, by both academics and traditional healers themselves, given that the word comes from a specific place, people, and set of practices.
Criticism of the term "Shaman"
Certain anthropologists, most notably Alice Kehoe in her book "Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking", are highly critical of the term. Part of this criticism involves the notion of cultural appropriation. This includes criticism of New Age and modern Western forms of Shamanism, which may not only misrepresent or 'dilute' genuine indigenous practices but do so in a way that, according to Kehoe, reinforces subtly racist ideas such as the Noble Savage.
Kehoe is highly critical of Mircea Eliade's work. Eliade, being a historian rather than an anthropologist, had never done any field work or made any direct contact with 'shamans' or cultures practicing 'shamanism'. According to Kehoe, Eliade's 'shamanism' is an invention synthesized from various sources unsupported by more direct research. To Kehoe, what Eliade and other scholars of shamanism treat as being definitive of shamanism, most notably drumming, trance, chanting, entheogens and hallucinogenics, spirit communication and healing, are practices that 1) exist outside of what is defined as shamanism and play similar roles even in non-shamanic cultures (such as the role of chanting in Judeo-Christian rituals) 2) in their expression is unique to each culture that uses them and cannot be generalized easily, accurately or usefully into a global 'religion' such as shamanism. Because of this, Kehoe is also highly critical of the notion that shamanism is an ancient, unchanged, and surviving religion from the Paleolithic.
(see also Plastic shaman)
Shamanistic practices are sometimes claimed to predate all organized religions, and certainly date back to the Neolithic period. Aspects of shamanism are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by shamanism, as reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, and Calypso among others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and other mysteries. Some of the shamanic practices of the Greek religion later merged into the Roman religion.
The shamanic practices of many cultures were marginalized with the spread of Catholicism. In Europe, starting around 400, the Catholic Church was instrumental in the collapse of the Greek and Roman religions, Temples were systematically destroyed and key ceremonies were outlawed or appropriated. The Early Modern witch trials may have further eliminated lingering remnants of European shamanism. These destroyers are not to be confused with Gnostic Christians which seek to experience the fundemental truth found in all teachings.
The repression of shamanism continued as Catholic influence spread with Spanish colonization. In the Caribbean, and Central and South America, Catholic priests followed in the footsteps of the Conquistadors and were instrumental in the destruction of the local traditions, denouncing practitioners as "devil worshippers" and having them executed. In North America, the English Puritans conducted periodic campaigns against individuals perceived as witches. More recently, attacks on shamanic practitioners have been carried out at the hands of Christian missionaries to third world countries. As recently as the nineteen seventies, historic petroglyphs were being defaced by missionaries in the Amazon. A similarly destructive story can be told of the encounter between Buddhists and shamans, e.g., in Mongolia (See Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon, 1996).
It has been postulated that modern state campaigns against the use of entheogenic substances are the offshoot of previous religious campaigns against shamanism originating with the Catholic Church of Rome.
Today, shamanism, once possibly universal, survives primarily among indigenous peoples, and astrally active Christians, see Gnostic manna:talk. Shamanic practice continues today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and also in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially widespread in Africa as well as South America, where "mestizo shamanism" is widespread.
While shamanism had a strong tradition in Europe before the rise of monotheism, shamanism remains as a traditional, organized religion only in Mari-El and Udmurtia, two semi-autonomous provinces of Russia with large Finnic minority populations.
There is a strong shamanistic influence in the Bön religion of some Central Asians, and in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism became popular with shamanic peoples such as the Tibetans, Mongols and Manchu beginning in the eighth century. Forms of shamanistic ritual combined with Tibetan Buddhism became institutionalized as the state religion under the Chinese Yuan dynasty and Qing dynasty. According to some, one common element of shamanism and Buddhism is the attainment of spiritual realization, at times mediated by entheogenic (psychedelic) substances. However, in the shamanic cultures still practiced by various ethnic groups in areas such as Nepal and northern India, shamans are not necessarily considered enlightened, and often are even feared for their ability to use their power to carry out malicious intent.
In Native American groups, only the shaman had the power to commune with the gods or spirits, to mediate between them and ordinary mortals, to talk with the souls on behalf of the living. The shaman, man or woman, was often an extraordinary character, both in physical appearance and in acting talents. He would be a mystic, poet, sage, healer of the sick, guardian of the tribe, and the repository of stories. Those who did not possess the full range of the shamanistic attributes became simply "medicine men", and functioned as respected healers. To become a shaman, a person had to "receive the call", to suffer a religious experience, and would then be initiated into the mysteries of the art. By symbolic death and resurrection, he acquired a new mode of being; his physical and mental frame underwent a thorough change. During this period of initiation, the novice would see the spirits of the universe and leave his body like a spirit, soaring through the heavens and underworld. There he would be introduced to the different spirits and taught which to address in future trances. According to Mircea Eliade's book "Shamanism", during the initiation, spirits would take the shaman's old bones and replace them with new ones. Since sickness was thought to be caused by an evil spirit entering the victim's body, the shaman would call it out in order to affect a cure. He would do so by a special ritual, beating a rhythm on his drum, swaying and chanting steadily increasing the sound and interspersing it with long drawn out sighs, groans, and hysterical laughter.
Aspects of the practice
Different forms of shamanism are found around the world, and practitioners are also known as medicine men or women, as well as witch doctors.
Initiation and learning
In Shamanic cultures, the shaman plays a priest-like role; however, there is an essential difference between the two, as Joseph Campbell describes:
- "The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own." (1969, p. 231)
A shaman may be initiated via a serious illness, by being struck by lightning and dream of thunder and become a Heyoka, or by a near-death experience (e.g., the shaman Black Elk), and there usually is a set of cultural imagery expected to be experienced during shamanic initiation regardless of method. According to Mircea Eliade, such imagery often includes being transported to the spirit world and interacting with beings inhabiting it, meeting a spiritual guide, being devoured by some being and emerging transformed, and/or being "dismantled" and "reassembled" again, often with implanted amulets such as magical crystals. The imagery of initiation generally speaks of transformation and granting powers, and often entails themes of death and rebirth.
In some societies shamanic powers are considered to be inherited, whereas in others shamans are considered to have been "called": Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which Siberian culture interprets as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shamans are called in their dreams. In other societies shamans choose their career: First Nations would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest"; South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans.
Shamanic illness, also called shamanistic inititatory crisis, is a psycho-spiritual crisis, or a rite of passage, observed among those becoming shamans. The episode often marks the beginning of a time-limited episode of confusion or disturbing behavior where the shamanic initiate might sing or dance in an unconventional fashion, or have an experience of being "disturbed by spirits". The symptoms are usually not considered to be signs of mental illness by interpreters in the shamanic culture; rather, they are interpreted as introductory signposts for the individual who is meant to take the office of shaman (Lukoff et.al, 1992). The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China (Noo and Shi, 2004).
Practice and method
The shaman plays the role of healer in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens. Even in western society, this ancient practice of healing is referenced by the use of the caduceus as the symbol of medicine. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiar helping entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans. In many shamanic societies, magic, magical force, and knowledge are all denoted by one word, such as the Quechua term "yachay".
While the causes of disease are considered to lie in the spiritual realm, being effected by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman will "enter the body" of the patient to confront the spirit making the patient sick, and heal the patient by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimen is often prescribed as treatment. In many places shamans claim to learn directly from the plants, and to be capable of harnessing their effects and healing properties only after obtaining permission from its abiding or patron spirit. In South America, individual spirits are summoned by the singing of songs called icaros; before a spirit can be summoned the spirit must teach the shaman its song. The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit. Such practices are presumably very ancient; in about 368 BCE, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that everyone 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".
The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many shamanic societies. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, and is renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.
By engaging in this work, the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from any enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can be fatal, and the failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to physical death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.
Generally, the shaman traverses the axis mundi and enters the spirit world by effecting a change of consciousness in himself, entering into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens. The methods used are diverse, and are often used together. Some of the methods for effecting such altered states of consciousness are:
- Listening to music
- Sweat lodge
- Vision quests / vigils
- Use of "power" or "master" plants to induce altered states or aromatics used as incense such as
- Ayahuasca - Quechua for "Vine of the Dead"
- Deadly nightshade
- Fly agaric
- Morning glory
- Psychedelic mushrooms - Alluded to euphemistically as "holy children" by Mazatec shamans such as Maria Sabina.
- Salvia divinorum - (sometimes called Diviners' sage)
- San Pedro - Named after (St. Peter), guardian of the Gates of Heaven by the Andean peoples (Quechua name: Huachuma)
Shamans will often observe dietary or customary restrictions particular to their tradition. Sometimes these restrictions are more than just cultural. For example, the diet followed by shamans and apprentices prior to participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony includes foods rich in tryptophan (a biosynthetic precursor to serotonin) as well as avoiding foods rich in tyramine, which could induce hypertensive crisis if ingested with MAOIs such as are found in Ayahuasca brews.
Gender and sexuality
Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may be shamans. In some societies, shamans exhibit a two-spirit identity, assuming the dress and attributes of the opposite sex from a young age, for example, a man taking on the role of a wife in an otherwise ordinary marriage. This practice is common, and found among the Chukchi, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Araucanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navajo, Pawnee, Lakota, and Ute, as well as many other Native American tribes. Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful. They are highly respected and sought out in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their mates.
In Korea, all shamans are female.
Shamanism and New Age
The New Age movement imported some ideas from shamanism as well as Eastern religions. As in other such imports, the original users of these ideas frequently condemn New Age use as misunderstood and superficial.
At the same time, there is an endeavor in occult and esoteric circles to reinvent shamanism in a modern form, drawing from core shamanism, a set of beliefs and practices synthesized by Michael Harner and often revolving around the use of ritual drumming and dance; various indigenous forms of shamanism, often focusing on the ritual use of entheogens; as well as chaos magic. Much of this is focused upon in Europe, where ancient shamanic traditions were suppressed by the Christian church and where people compelled to be shamans often find it improper to use shamanic systems rooted in other parts of the earth. Various traditional shamans express respect for this endeavor, sharply distinguishing it from "light" New Age shamanism. Some anthropologists and practitioners have discussed the impact of such 'neo-shamanism' as 'giving extra pay' (Harvey, 1997 and elsewhere) to indigenous shamanisms, particularly as many pagan- or heathen-'shamanic practitioners' call themselves by specific names derived from older European traditions - the völva or seidkona (seid-woman) of the sagas being an example (see Blain 2002, Wallis 2003).
Sometimes, however, people from Western cultures claim to be shamans, often associated with either the New Age or Neopaganism movements. This is considered offensive by many indigenous practitioners, who view these New Age, Western "shamans" as hucksters out for money or affirmation of self. Many shamanistic cultures feel there is a danger that their voices will be drowned out by self-styled "shamans," citing, for example, the fact that Lynn Andrews has sold more books than all Native American authors put together. Often too, these New Age Shamans (sometimes called Plastic shamans), make up elaborate ceremonies that are often completely fraudulent (such as Sweat lodge ceremonies, or Chuluaqui-Quodoushka). Others may be based on real traditional ceremonies but reproduced in a way that distorts, or commercializes, their meaning. At the same time, dealing with the phenomenon of the "self-styled" New Age shamans, one should exercise caution. If religious and spiritual practices are based on the appropriation of other people's cultures or even contain elements of deceit, this does not automatically make them less valid and "traditional." Strictly speaking, in matters of religion/spirituality, such labels as "traditional " and "non-traditional," "indigenous" and "non-indigenous" do no make sense.
(see also Plastic shaman)
- Neurotheology — speculation regarding the biological basis of spirituality and spiritual practices
- Shaman's Drum Journal
- Core Shamanism
- ↑ includeonly>Staff writer. "The dying fish swims in water", The Economist, December 24 2005 - January 6 2006, pp. 73-74.
- Blain, Jenny, Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism. 2002. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415256518
- Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. 1959; reprint, New York and London: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0140194436
- Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1964; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0691119422
- Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman. 1980, new edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, ISBN 0062503731
- Joan Halifax, ed. Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives. 1979; reprint, New York and London: Penguin, 1991. ISBN 0140193480
- Graham Harvey, ed. Shamanism: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415253306.
- Alice Kehoe, Shamans and Religion: An Anthropoligical Exploration in Critical Thinking. 2000. London: Waveland Press. ISBN 1577661621
- Ivar Lissner, Man, God, and Magic, 1961.
- Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, eds. Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge. 2001; reprint, New York: Tarcher, 2004. ISBN 0500283273
- Richard Noll. Mental Imagery Cultivations as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Roles of Visions in Shamanism. Current Anthropology, 1985, 26: 443-461.
- Richard Noll and Kun Shi. Chuonnasuan (Meng Jin Fu): The Last Shaman of the Oroqen of Northeast China. Journal of Korean Religions, 2004, 6:135-162.
- Daniel Pinchbeck, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. ISBN 0767907426
- Anna Reid, The Shaman's Coat, A Native History of Siberia, 2003. ISBN 0802713998.
- Piers Vitebsky, The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul - Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia to the Amazon, Duncan Baird, 2001. ISBN 1903296188
- Robert J. Wallis, Shamans/neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans. London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 041530203X
- Andrei Znamenski, ed. Shamanism: Critical Concepts, 3 vols. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0-415-31192-6
- The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies by Richard de Mille (1973)
- Daniel C. Noel, Soul Of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities, Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN: 0826410812
- Jay Courtney Fikes, Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties,Millenia Press, Canada, 1993ISBN: 0-9696960-0-0
- Philip Jenkins, Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered NAtive Spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0195161157
- Mariko Namba Walter & Eva Jane Neumann Fridman (2005)Shamanism: an encyclopedia of world beliefs, practices, and culture, Volume 1&2
- Religion and Spirituality: Shamanism at the Open Directory Project
- General shamanism page with American traditions dominant
- Flight of the Condor - Contemporary Shamanism Large collection of essays and teachings from a contemporary shaman
- Gaelic Shamanism website exploring the shamanism inherent within the Gaelic oral tradition of the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland.
- The story of Tantalus a shamanic story from Greek mythology.
- Dance of the Four Winds: Secrets of the Medicine Wheel In this riveting narrative of spiritual discovery Dr. Alberto Villoldo journeys to Peru to investigate the practices used by Indian shamans to access the four paths of the Medicine Wheel ISBN 0892815140
- Shamanism Training in North America - Links to articles on contemporary shamanic practice and trainings.
- The Two-Spirit Tradition Two-Spirit Shamanism in North America.
- The website of Sacred Hoop Magazine promoting the spiritual traditions of shamanism and animism
- Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism - Complements book (see below) and offers public discussion forums.
- Scandinavian Center of Shamanic Studies - Dedicated to the contemporary practice of shamanism
- Global Shamanic Circles - A global list of groups practising shamanism
- Remedies Used By Shamans
- Spiritplants Refuge - Public forums
- Shamanic Medicines - Information on shamanic medicines with links to research, community, & rare plant suppliers
- Ancient Enchanting Instruments Website on Enchanting Instruments including Shamanism (History, Techniques and more...)
-  - Native American forum on Frauds and Plastic Shamansaz:Şamanizm
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