Shamanism: Neoshamanism

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Neoshamanism (also known as urban shamanism) denotes a set of notions and techniques borrowed from traditional peoples and adapted to the life of contemporary urban dwellers. The essence of these techniques lies in attaining a shift of consciousness in which practitioners experience being transported to other worldsto "non-ordinary reality"where they interact with spiritual beings, enlisting their help to solve problems of this world. Neoshamanism became a part of urban alternative spirituality during the flower power and the human potential movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This was a period marked by heightened environmental awareness, interest in non-Western religions, and attempts to find alternative ways to organize spirituality and community that were modeled on an idealized image of "traditional peoples."

One basic idea of the counterculture of the 1960s was that alternative realities could be explored in altered states of consciousness, achieved through mind-altering drugs. When the dangers of this approach became evident, and when drugs were delegitimized in Europe and North America, neoshamanism offered drug-free ways of altering consciousness through monotonous percussion (such as that of a drum or rattle), through dancing and chanting, and through the practice of varieties of the Native American vision quest, such as sitting out in the woods without food, or exposure to intense heat, as in a sweat lodge.

These techniques were brought to Western urban spiritual seekers through descriptions by travelers and anthropologists, as well as through lectures and courses by teachers who claimed to be native or partly nativeor to have done their apprenticeship with native shamans or medicine men. The anthropologist and writer Carlos Castaneda, who claimed to have done field research with a Yaqui medicine man called Don Juan, described in his books his experiences of shamanic apprenticeship involving explorations of non-ordinary reality under the effect of native mind-altering plants. Castaneda had a strong impact on the broad audience of spiritual seekers by introducing into the popular imagination an archetype of "native shaman," a figure of power and wisdom.

Another founding father of neoshamanism was the American anthropologist Michael Harner. Harner studied shamanic practices in the Americas and Northern Europe (in Saamiland), and he received shamanic training among the Jivaro people of Ecuador, where, under the influence of "teaching plants," he underwent dramatic experiences of alternative reality. Harner brought to fruition the idea of the historian of religions Mircea Eliade (19071986) that in the diverse magico-religious practices of traditional cultures there was some common core, which scholars called shamanism. Harner devised methods for peeling away cultural garments from these various "techniques of ecstasy" to provide safe and speedy ways for urban dwellers to acquire the experiences that could be called "shamanic," and to achieve altered states of consciousness in which one could enter alternative realities and interact with the spiritual beings encountered there. The main element of these techniques was the drum journey (Harner, 1980; Bowie, 2000).

Drum Journey

A drum journey often serves as a first occasion for spiritual seekers to encounter neoshamanism and to get a taste of what it has to offer. To the monotonous beat of the drum, participants are invited to experience what in the literature on shamanism is known as "a magic flight of the soul," a journey to non-ordinary reality. Drum journeys are performed at courses or lectures, and at New Age fairs, festivals, cafes, and retreat centers. By way of introduction, the aspirants are given instructions as to how to perform their journey, while at the same time they are offered a generalized shamanic worldview. The world of "traditional peoples," it is usually said on these occasions, consists of the lower world, where one meets power animals; the upper world, where one meets spiritual teachers, and the middle world, which is the ordinary world in its non-ordinary aspect. To reach the lower world, the students are asked to imagine a hole in the ground and, to the sound of drumming, enter it, journey through the tunnel that follows, come out in the lower world, and interact with the beings they encounter, engaging with them through all their senses. Some of these beings become their allies or spirit helpers, also known as power animals. When the drumming ends and people wake up from the trance-like state they have been in, they are expected to write about their experience, then share it with the teacher and the rest of the group.

Prior to the journey, people are given instructions as to which spirit helpers they are supposed to meet. These are wild animals that in Western popular culture are associated with the desirable "natural" qualities of freedom, body harmony, and physical prowesssuch as lions, tigers, pumas, eagles, and dolphins, but not such animals as hens, cows, hyenas, or skunks. There is a high degree of uniformity in the power animals that people meet, even though spirit helpers are supposed to be individual, and even though some people meet idiosyncratic creatures that resemble the aliens in movies or fantasy literature, or even abstract shapes, such as "egg-shaped pyramids." The same is true for the spiritual teachers of the upper world, which may include brave Indian chiefs and warriors, wise medicine women, saints and angels, prophets and spiritual masters, Asa gods (for those engaged with Scandinavian mythology), or even Christ and Buddha. In the words of one neoshamanic teacher, "spirits are chunks of universal energy presented to us in a form that we can understand and accept." The repository of images that people encounter on drum journeys is their shared cultural imagination (Lindquist, 1997, p. 7577).

This drum journey can be used to meet and address such spiritual beings, in whatever form, and to seek their answers to various questions, from the concrete and practical to the abstract and existential, and to ask their help in accomplishing various tasks, such as quitting smoking, finding a job, or dealing with deep psychological traumas, diseases, and even death and dying. Physical healing modeled on traditional methods of removing foreign intrusions and retrieving a lost or stolen soul are also taught at courses and performed for urban clients by individuals who practice shamanic techniques for physical and psychological healing. Other forms of therapy devised by Harner on the basis of drum journeys include power animal retrieval, wherein a healer makes a journey to meet a power animal on behalf of another person; and shamanic counseling, where a client narrates his or her journey as it unfolds, then analyzes the narrative with the counselor in terms of the client's initial questions. This latter technique closely resembles other types of psychotherapy that are based on mental imagery. Such therapy is used, for example, in transpersonal psychology and psychosynthesis (Assagioli, 1965), in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, in the religious healing of Christian charismatic groups (Csordas, 1997), and in the guided meditation employed in Western high magic (Luhrmann, 1989; Greenwood, 2000).


The seidr ritual is another practice associated with neoshamanism that took root in North America and northern Europe. Seidr was developed by people who were accustomed to working with consciousness-altering techniques of drumming and chanting, and with mental imagery associated with drum journeys, but who were also well acquainted with pre-Christian Scandinavian sources, notably the Edda (a poetic collection of ancient Scandinavian epics) and Icelandic sagas. The Edda describes the outward form of seidr as follows: A sorceress or wise woman, Voelva, is invited to farms to deal with failing harvests. Holding a staff, she climbs onto a platform (or, as modern practitioners call it, a "high seat") and covers her face with a hood. She falls into trance, journeys to the other worlds, meets the spirits, and interacts with them on behalf of the community in order to answer questions and magically secure the desired goals.

The seidr was adopted by Neopagans and neoshamans in North America and northern Europe and developed into several versions of a communal ritual that can be performed for a variety of goals. The ritual always involves the "seiding" individual, who acts as Voelva, and a group of fellow practitioners who play an auxiliary role. The landscapes evoked in the seidr's guided meditation (recited by a member of the group) are based on Scandinavian mythology and on the cosmologies of Asatror. In a trance-like state both the participants and the Voelva make a magical soul flight to non-ordinary reality, but it is only Voelva who enters its innermost realms. The spiritual beings Voelva meets are chiefly the gods and other figures of ancient Nordic cosmology. This form of seidr, practiced extensively by North American and British neo-heathens, can be used for divination; while the Voelva is in a trance, people approach the high seat and ask questions, which the Voelva answers, consulting whatever spirits she or he confronts, or aided by other signs encountered in the otherworld (Blain, 2002; Lindquist, 1997).

The trance state in seidr can also be attained by drumming and chanting performed by the group standing around the platform. The rhythmic songs used on these occasions are special galdrar. The drummers are understood to send to the Voelva their "energies," their special intensities or intentionalities, which the Voelva accumulates as if he or she were a sort of battery cell. These energies are then directed toward communal aims, spelled out at the outset of the ritual and dictated by shared normative social morality. The aims might include global or local environmental problems, such as bringing health and strength to the earth and saving rivers, seas, forests, and wild animals. Such local tasks as stopping the cutting down of woods for residential or road construction or healing a local population from disease, may also be set. Alternatively, the goal may be to stop a war, a famine, or a natural calamity in a faraway country, or to offer healing to a specific individual who may or may not be present among the group. In addition to this kind of "instrumental" seidr, the ritual can be performed to receive information on times past or to "see" what a place of historical or archeological significance looked like in ancient times.

Most seidr consist of several runs of the ritual, and several people are given an opportunity to act as Voelva. All those present are welcome to try, and all who do try are duly attended to. As in drum journeys, the ability to journey to non-ordinary reality and meet the inhabitants there is considered to be an innate human quality that is available to all. However, people are endowed with varying abilities to "see," and to convey what they have "seen" to other participants. Individuals gifted in this respect become informal leaders of the community, performing rituals in what becomes an internal tradition, creating new rituals, and inspiring new occasions for rituals that can reinforce community cohesion and the community's normative morality and values.

Both the drum journey and seidr (as well as other methods of entering non-ordinary reality) are methods of consciously working with the mental imagery that one encounters in altered states. This imagery can be used for divination and therapy, but also for creative endeavors in the visual and performance arts, and many neoshamanic practitioners are actively engaged in arts and crafts. Indeed, a person often appropriates the cultural attitude of neoshamanism when he or she starts to use this imagery as a source of creativity, information, and pragmatic action in everyday life. The reality of the journeys becomes integrated into the overall reality of an individual and, sometimes, of a community.

Aims, Ideological Premises, and Worldview

Controversy exists among practitioners as to how to regard non-ordinary reality: Is it an independently existing ontological realm (a position that is extremely important for some practitioners), or does it refer to concealed spheres of individual or group consciousness, the realm of imagination and creativity, the subconscious? The drum journey is more geared to the individualistic practice of interacting with the images that make up alternative realities. The cosmology and the pantheon of non-ordinary reality do not need to be shared, although they often are shared. For many, non-ordinary reality becomes most real in interaction with fellow practitionersthrough sharing narratives of journeys, through discovering other people's spirits in one's own non-ordinary realities, and through sharing the effects of these interactions in real life.

The ritual of seidr, by contrast, is premised on the community, on shared cosmology, and on the ritual division of labor between people who are willing and capable of "seeing" and conveying the seen, and others who ask questions and direct their intentions toward shared goals. Drum journeys may exist as purely therapeutic, nonembedded practices, anchored in a broadly shared Western cultural imaginary, yet otherwise independent of a specific place and a more narrowly defined communal identity. Seidr, however, can and often does become embedded in the projects of the community.

Both seidr and drum journey are neoshamanic rituals that were devised by Westerners, although both refer to the authentic "other," distant in space and time. Both have a goal that can be conceived as universally shamanicto connect the non-ordinary reality with the social, lived reality of this world, and to engage the inhabitants of non-ordinary reality, the spirits, as social beings. Seidr, however, is more suitable as a means to reiterate shared values and normative moral premises. Seidr is better for enacting "magical activism" that is focused on furthering the goals that worldly activists pursue, notably environmental and peace activism, activities in which many neoshamans are involved. Magical or shamanic activism is a supplement, or perhaps a substitute, for other, more conventional kinds of activism, mostly because people perceive the latter as lacking in efficiency, as corrupted, or as ensnared in bureaucracy. Seidr thus fits better as a shamanic form for more active political and social engagement, while drum journeys are more suitable as a means of self-realization and self-healing, along with other methods of New Age and human potential therapies.

The goals for which seidr is performed reflect ideas and values that underlie neoshamanism as a coherent cultural system. Internal literature, such as do-it-yourself books, course handouts, and books and articles written by academics who are also practitioners, presents these norms and values with even greater clarity. One of the attractions of neoshamanism is its power to democratize spirituality and broaden the realm of the sacred. Drawing on the animistic worldview of traditional peoples, neoshamanism declares that everything in natureanimals, plants, and even stonesis alive and all life is sacred. This ethos of democratic spirituality, which includes "nature" into the realm of human morality, makes neoshamanism particularly appropriate for spiritual and ideological movements that affirm the sacredness of nature while pursuing the empowerment of subaltern groups (e.g., varieties of feminist spirituality, postcolonial national identity construction).

Shamanism also serves as a metaphor for alternative, nonmainstream modes of creativity, such as those engendered by female and native artists. More generally, shamanism is used as a trope for a visionary mode of creativity in which both artist and shaman are seen as tapping the wellspring of an archaic "mythic imagination" that had previously been suppressed by patriarchal or colonial domination (Orenstein, 1990; Balzer Mandelstam, 1993).

The democratic ethos of neoshamanism is reiterated in the experience of the non-ordinary that is induced primarily by drum journeys, but also by seidr. The tacit understanding among practitioners is that every person has shamanic abilities, everybody has access to non-ordinary reality, and the experiences and narratives of every journeyer are of equal worth. Normative neoshamanic literature often repeats the premise that "shamanism is not a religion; one does not believe in anything in shamanism, not even that it works." There are no dogmas in neoshamanism, no priests; everybody is her or his own priest and everyone is expected to create her or his own cosmology and pantheon through individual experiences of the non-ordinary. Thus, neoshamanism, especially in Scandinavia, is defined as anarchistic spirituality, with no rules to adhere to, no authorities to follow.

The practice, however, sometimes contradicts these ideological premises, especially within more structured religious communities, such as those found in Neopaganism. As in every movement, there are charismatic teachers and leaders who set the tone and formulate the canons. For example, the ontological reality of the non-ordinary and the spirits is treated by some devout practitioners as near dogma, while others prefer to regard the non-ordinary as the Jungian unconscious and the spirits as archetypes. This theoretical discussion, however, is limited to ideologists, who articulate it in written and oral discourse, and often act within and near academic circles. Other practitioners are not concerned with this ontological discussion and continue to engage in neoshamanic practices as long as they work, and as long as they give meaningful answers to their questions. As a rule, practitioners of high engagement are more concerned with these questions than those of low engagement.

Neoshamanism among Shamanisms

The practices that are broadly labeled shamanic are highly contextual (Atkinson, 1992), and comparisons between neoshamanism and traditional forms of shamanism can be problematic. Insofar as shamanism comprises a set of practices where the non-ordinary and its inhabitants become relevant for, or even a part of, the this-worldly human community, some highly engaged communities of Western neoshamans become more comparable with so-called traditional societies. The most obvious difference is the democratic appeal of neoshamanism, as compared to the widespread view that traditional shamans are special individuals who are chosen by spirits. In traditional societies, shamanic vocation is often a heavy duty, borne by an individual because she or he cannot avoid it. In addition, traditional shamanic initiations often involve real ordeals, such as the periods of physical and mental suffering that are known in Siberian societies as "shamanic illness." Here, the interaction with spirits resembles combat, and the shaman's victory leads to relationships with spirits that are spelled out in the idiom of mastery and control (Jakobsen, 1999). As a person of power, the shaman in many traditional societies is feared as well as respected; he or she is expected to be able to harm as well as to heal. In most neoshamanic contexts, the process comparable to the traditional shamanic initiation may be an overwhelming experience, but it is rarely reported to be frightening or traumatic, nor is it expected to entail any physical or psychological pain.

In Western neoshamanism, spirits are strict but benevolent allies whose lessons are to be embraced, rather than fierce opponents to be conquered and tamed. This neoshamanic construction of spirits as entirely benevolent beings tends to be associated with low-engagement practice and the use of neoshamanism for therapy and self-enhancement. It should be recalled that neoshamanism organized around drum journeys was originally marketed as a safe alternative to drugs, so it is no wonder that its dangerous aspect was downplayed before it became a major popular movement. The innocuousness of the spirits, however, is contested by the accounts of some high engagement practitioners who act as professional shamans or seidr workers for clients or communities (Blain, 2002).

Native American neoshamanic practices are most widespread in North America, but they are also practiced in northern Europe and Scandinavia and have became a part of the global neoshamanic repertoire. This appropriation of Native American spiritual practices by mainstream spiritual seekers has been controversial and has generated indignation among some Native Americans, who themselves hope to restore their indigenous traditions. Native American spiritual leaders have blacklisted some teachers whom they accused of selling sacred ritual knowledge at courses and lectures. However, such Native American practices as the vision quest, sweat lodge, and Sun Dance are now firmly established as neoshamanic practices.

Whether the revival of local shamanisms in postcolonial and post-Soviet regions should be considered neoshamanism will not be discussed here (but see Vitebski, 1995; Humphrey 2002). The shamanic traditions of many indigenous peoples, especially those of Siberian Russia after the fall of Communism, were rediscovered in the 1990s and have been adopted into local medical practices and the political discourse on new identity construction. These projects have been heavily influenced by global flows of information and people, including Western seekers of shamanic spirituality and exotica, metropolitan neoshamans searching for traditional wisdom, and local shamans traveling abroad and becoming acquainted with Western neoshamanism and with renewed native shamanisms in, for example, North America. Russian metropolitan scholars tend to label new local shamans as neoshamans. This labeling implies that such local practitioners are to be explicitly distinguished from (possibly imagined) others who are supposed to have survived hidden away from local urban centers and to represent a putatively authentic local shamanism. Such terminology causes chagrin among local practitioners who claim legitimacy in terms of their belonging to an unbroken tradition of direct initiation. Many Western practitioners are also uncomfortable with the label neoshaman, since this term implies that their practices are separate from the "traditional" practices they claim as their prototypes. What in the West can be seen as a struggle for the primacy of representation, however, in postcolonial contexts can have serious consequences for the practitioners' reputations and careers.

See Also



Assagioli, Roberto. Psychosynthesis: A Manual of Principles and Techniques. New York, 1965. A normative exposition of theory and practice of the field by one of its founders.

Atkinson, Jane Monning. "Shamanisms Today." Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1992): 307330. A comprehensive anthropological review of the various uses of the term shamanism and shamanic practices all over the world.

Balzer Mandelstam, Marjorie. "Two Urban Shamans: Unmasking Leadership in Fin-de-Soviet Siberia." In Perilous States: Conversations on Culture, Politics, and Nation, edited by George E. Marcus, pp. 134165. Chicago, 1993. An anthropological account of how ideas and metaphors of shamanism are used to legitimize leadership and to shape creativity in post-Soviet Siberia.

Blain, Jenny. Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism. London and New York, 2002. An account of historical sources and contemporary practices of seidr by a practitioner who is also an anthropologist. Combines insider advocacy with anthropological analysis.

Bowie, Fiona. The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction. Oxford, 2000. A reader; see pages 190218.

Csordas, Thomas. The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing. Berkeley, 1997. An anthropological analysis of healing practices among North American Catholic charismatics.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. London, 1964. A classic review of shamanic practices all over the world by a historian of religions.

Greenwood, Susan. Magic, Witchcraft, and the Otherworld: An Anthropology. Oxford and New York, 2000. A historical review and analysis of high magic in England by an anthropologist, based on fieldwork as a participating insider.

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. San Francisco, 1980. A popular how-to book that introduces drum journeys and other neoshamanic practices to broad circles of spiritual seekers.

Humphrey, Caroline. "Shamans in the City." In The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism, pp. 202222. Ithaca, N.Y., 2002. An anthropological essay on newly emerged shamanism in a post-Soviet context.

Jakobsen, Merete Demant. Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing. New York and Oxford, 1999. A critical account of courses in neoshamanism as compared to Inuit shamanic practices; see pages 147257.

Lindquist, Galina. Shamanic Performances on the Urban Scene: Neo-Shamanism in Contemporary Sweden. Stockholm, 1997. An anthropological account based on participant observation.

Luhrmann, Tanya. Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, Mass., 1989. A critical anthropological account of high magic in England.

Orenstein Fenman, Gloria. The Reflowering of the Goddess. 1990. An ideological manifesto of a founder of eco-feminism who is also a literary critic.

Vitebski, Piers. "From Cosmology to Environmentalism: Shamanism as Local Knowledge in a Global Setting." In Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge, edited by Richard Fardon, pp. 182203. London and New York, 1995. An anthropologist's review and analysis of the political and social resurgence of shamanism in post-Soviet Siberia.

Galina Lindquist (2005)