Shamanic Healing

views updated


The rise of shamanism was probably a result of the earliest human societies' efforts to make sense of and better control the world they lived in. Evidence that magic and religious ritual played a part in the life of early Homo sapiens can be seen in early burial practices, artifact material, and cave art, where one can see what appear to be depictions of hunting magic in the form of animals and hunters with weapons painted on the walls of caves. Injuries and illnesses would have been a common occurrence in ancient times, and a need developed for someone to explain such events, and to treat them through the application of a healing substance or by entreating a supernatural force.

Anthropologists have long studied how cultural groups living in the world today view and attempt to control their living environments. In many of these groups there are individuals who perform rituals and ceremonies to ensure a good hunt, adequate crops, good health, and whatever else is deemed important. Rites are performed to keep the community safe, healthy, and well fed, and to ensure the favor of the gods and other natural and supernatural forces. These individuals may also be called upon to diagnose and treat illnesses and disease. "Shaman" is one of many names given to those who perform rituals and healing ceremonies.

A shaman is a person who makes journeys into the spiritual world to seek wisdom for healing, divining the future, or to communicate with the spirits of the dead. They may be male or female and may have received their calling to become a shaman as a result of a near-death experience in which they were carried into the spirit world and met teachers who helped them to learn healing songs, medicines, and revelations about the future. A shaman may also be born into the role, or be trained for it after demonstrating some special aptitude for healing. Shamans are believed to possess special powers that allow them to control the weather, call game animals for a hunt, determine the best time for planting or for moving a village, and especially for curing illness and disease. A shaman often uses trance-like states to move into another dimension to seek help in diagnosing and treating a sick person. These trances may be brought on by dancing, singing, drumming, or other methods. The trance brings the shaman into the spiritual world, where a spirit teacher provides guidance on how to cure an illness or solve a problem. Shamanic healing practices include the use of gongs, rattles, finger bells, dancing rituals, purification ceremonies, physical manipulation, prayer, healing herbs, or removal of something inside a sick person, such as a stone, feather, piece of bone, or other material.

There are different types of healers involved in traditional medical practices. The vast majority of these types (i.e., curanderos, root doctors, spirit mediums, herbalists, and related types) are trained into their professions. (Sorcerers and witches may also be consulted in folk healing systems.) Often, these professions are handed down through the family when a child or young adult demonstrates an interest or aptitude for healing or is born with some peculiarity such as a vale over the face (i.e., a piece of the amniotic sac covering the face). In these cases, individuals may undergo a long period of apprenticeship in which they are trained in the healing arts. A shaman may undergo a long period of training following being called to the profession, but already have the ability to travel out of his or her body to another plane or dimension where guidance, special songs or prayers, and predictions of the future are received.

When performing a healing ritual shamans often go into such trance-like states where they leave their body and travel to a dimension where they meet a teacher or guide. Here they ask for or are given guidance and direction about the nature of the illness they are trying to cure. A shaman may use herbs and other devices in his or her healing ceremonies, but these have come from the teaching the shaman has received either in the out of body experience or from later training from another shaman. In contrast, other traditional healers do not typically travel out of body.

When considering the impact of all the healing systems outside modern medical practice, it is important to understand that an individual's cultural tradition plays a significant role in how the causes and treatments for illness and disease are perceived. For those who believe some supernatural force or an imbalance within them causes their illness, modern Western medicine may have little value and traditional medical practices provided by a shaman or other traditional healer may be the first choice for treatment. Modern medical practitioners are becoming more aware that bringing traditional healing practices into clinics and hospitals can help patients from that culture get well more quickly, or to better accept modern treatments when they are combined with traditional healing methods.

Robert M. Huff

(see also: Black Magic and Evil Eye; Faith Healers; Folk Medicine )


Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Huff, R. M., and Kline, M. V., eds. (1999). Promoting Health in Multicultural Populations: A Handbook For Practitioners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kalweit, H. (1988). Dreamtime and Inner Space: The World of the Shaman. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Kleinman, A. (1980). Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ripinsky-Naxon, M. (1993). The Nature of Shamanism: Substance and Function of a Religious Metaphor. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.