views updated May 11 2018


Ashaman is one who serves his people by acting as an intermediary to the spirit world. The claimed ability to communicate with the world beyond death is at least as old as the time when early humans first conceived the idea that some part of them somehow survived physical death and existed in some other place in spirit form. The grief that came with the sorrowful thought of losing all contact with a loved one was lessened by the assertion of a fellow tribesperson that he or she could still communicate with the spirit of the one who lay in the grave. Among early humans, those individuals who claimed to be able to visit the place of the dead were known as shamans, and the messages that they relayed from the spirit world were sought by the elders regarding every major tribal decision. Originally, the term "shaman" was applied to the spirit doctors and exorcists of the Tungus of Siberia, but in recent years the title has been applied as well to the medicine men and women of the various North American tribes who also serve as mediums, healers, and visionaries for their people. Many tribal traditionalists still revere the wisdom that is shared by those men and women who maintain the shamanic traditions and who travel to the other side in the company of their spirit helper.

In the introduction to his book The Way of the Shaman (1982) anthropologist Michael Harner writes that shamans "whom we in the 'civilized' world have called 'medicine men' and 'witchdoctors' are the keepers of a remarkable body of ancient techniques that they use to achieve and maintain well-being and healing for themselves and members of their communities." Harner states that shamanic methods are remarkably similar throughout the world, "even for those peoples whose cultures are quite different in other respects, and who have been separated by oceans and continents for tens of thousands of years."

The anthropologist Ivar Lissner, who spent a great deal of time among the Tungus of Siberia, as well as native peoples in North America, defines a shaman as one "who knows how to deal with spirits and influence them.The essential characteristic of the shaman is his excitement, his ecstasy and trancelike condition.[The elements which constitute this ecstasy are] a form of self-severance from mundane existence, a state of heightened sensibility, and spiritual awareness. The shaman loses outward consciousness and becomes inspired or enraptured. While in this state of enthusiasm, he sees dreamlike apparitions, hears voices, and receives visions of truth. More than that, his soul sometimes leaves his body to go wandering."

It is believed that during those times when the souls of shamans go wandering, they project their consciousness to faraway places on Earth as well as to the shadow world of spirits. These soul journeys may inform those who seek their shaman's counsel of everything from where to find the choicest herds of game to how to banish a troublesome spirit from their home. Those men and women who aspire to learning such techniques for themselves may pay a shamanic practitioner for the privilege of undergoing an arduous course of training that would include periods of fasting, going on vision quests, and encounters with the world of spiritsa regimen that may take the student many years to accomplish.

In 1865, the great warrior Roman Nose, who had studied under the tutelage of White Bull, an elderly Cheyenne medicine man, lay on a raft for four days in the midst of a sacred lake. Roman Nose partook of no food or water, and he suffered a relentless sun by day and a pouring rain by night. But he felt none of these distractions, for Roman Nose was in a trance so deep that he appeared to be dead.

When he returned from the Land of the Grandparents, the place of spirits, Roman Nose had obtained the necessary vision teachings to attack the white man's cavalry who were invading the Powder River country. On the day of battle, Roman Nose mounted his white pony and told the assembled warriors not to accompany his charge until the Blue Coat soldiers had emptied their rifles at him. The power that he had received from the spirits during his "little death" had rendered him impervious to their bullets.

Roman Nose broke away from the rest of the war party and urged his pony into a run toward the ranks of white soldiers standing behind their wagons. When he was so near that he could see their faces, Roman Nose wheeled his mount and rode parallel to their ranks and their rifles. He made three or four passes before volley after volley from the soldiers' Springfield rifles. He remained untouched, unscratched. Finally a musket ball knocked his pony out from under him, but Roman Nose rose untouched and signaled his warriors to attack. They believed that magic he had received from the spirits kept him safe that day from all the bullets.

While one can pursue the path of becoming a medicine man or woman by undergoing a vision quest, receiving a spirit guide, and serving an apprenticeship under the direction of an established medicine person, traditionally, it seems, the greatest shamans are created by spiritual intervention in the shape of a sudden and severe illness, spells of fever, epileptic seizures, or possession by tutelary spirits. It would appear that those who become the most effective intermediaries between the worlds of flesh and spirit must have their physical bodies purged and nearly destroyed before they can establish contact with spirits.

Black Elk (18631950), the respected medicine practitioner/shaman of the Oglala Sioux, became a "hole," a port of entry for spirits to enter the physical world, when he fell terribly ill as a boy of nine. He heard voices telling him that it was time for him to receive his first great vision, and he was taken out of his body by two spirit guides who informed him that they were to take him to the land of his grandfathers. Here, in the land of the spirits, Black Elk received the great vision that was to sustain him all of his life. When he was returned to his body, his parents greeted the first flutterings of his eyelids with great joy. The boy had been lying as if dead for 12 days.

As he grew to maturity and learned to focus his healing and clairvoyant energies, Black Elk never failed to credit the other world for his accomplishments and to explain that he was but a "hole" through which the spirits entered this world. Rather than the term "hole," today's counterparts of the shamanic mission might say that they are spirit mediums or channels through which the power from the spirit world might flow.

In many tribal societies, the pseudo-death, or near-death experience, appears to be nearly a precondition that must be met by those who aspire to the role of the most prestigious of shamans.

In 1890, Jack Wilson, a Paiute who worked as a hired hand for a white rancher, came down with a terrible fever. His sickness became so bad that for three days he lay as if dead. When he returned to consciousness, he told the Paiutes who had assembled around his "corpse" that his spirit had walked with God, the Old Man, for those three days; and the Old Man had given him a powerful vision to share with the Paiute people.

His vision proclaimed that the dead of many tribes were all alive, waiting to be reborn. If the native peoples wished the buffalo to return, the grasses to grow tall, and the rivers to run clean, they must not injure anyone; they must not do harm to any living thing. They must not make war. They must lead lives of purity, cease gambling, put away strong drink, and guard themselves against all lusts of the flesh.

Jack Wilson's grandfather had been the esteemed prophet Wodziwob. His father had been the respected holy man Tavibo. Among his own people, Wilson was known as Wovoka; and now he, too, had spent his time of initiation in death and had emerged as a holy man and a prophet.

The most important part of the vision that the Great Spirit had given to Wovoka was the Ghost Dance. The Paiute prophet told his people that the dance had never been performed anywhere on Earth. It was the dance of the spirit people of the Other World. To perform this dance was to insure that the Great Mystery's blessings would be bestowed upon the tribe. Wovoka said that the Old Man had spoken to him as if he were his son and assured him that many miracles would be worked through him. The native people had received their shamanic messiah.

A crucial element in shamanism is the ability to rise above the constrictions and restraints of linear time. In his text for American Indian Ceremonial Dances (1972), John Collier comments upon the shaman's and the traditional native people's possession of a time sense that is different from the present societal understanding of the passages of minutes, hours, and days. At one time everyone possessed such freedom, Collier says, but the mechanized world took it away. If humans could exist, as the native people in their whole lives affirmed, "in a dimension of time, a reality of timenot linear, not clock-measured, clock-controlled, and clock-ended," Collier suggests that they should gladly enter it, for individuals would expand their consciousness by being there. "In solitary, mystical experience many of ourselves do enter another time dimension," he continues. But the "frown of clockwork time" demands a return to chronological time. The shaman, however, recognizes that this other time dimension originated "within the germ plasm and the organic rhythmsof moveless eternity. It is life's instinct and environment and human society's instinct and environment. To realize it or not realize it makes an enormous difference."

Achieving a deep trance state appears to be the most effective way that shamans regularly abandon linear time restrictions in order to gain entrance to that other dimension of time. By singing their special songs received in vision quests or dreams, shamans put themselves into trances that permit them to travel with their spirit helpers to the Land of the Grandparents, a place free of "clockwork time," where they gain the knowledge to predict the future, to heal, and to relay messages of wisdom from the spirit people.

Delving Deeper

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Paulette Molin. The Ency clopedia of Native American Religions. New York: MJF Books, 1992.

Lissner, Ivar. Man, God and Magic. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1961.

Steiger, Brad. Medicine Power. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Spirit Guide

When spirit mediums speak of their control or guide, they are referring to the entity from the world beyond physical death who assists them in establishing contact with deceased humans. The spirit guides of mediums usually claim to have lived as humans on Earth before the time of their death and their graduation to higher realms of being.

In the shamanic tradition, the spirit guide or spirit helper is usually received by those who choose to participate in a vision quest. Before initiates embark upon this ordeal, tribal elders and shamans tutor them for many weeks on what to expect and what is expected of them. In many shamanic traditions, the spirit helper serves as an ambassador from the world of spirits to the world of humans an often manifests in animal form to serve as a kind of chaperone during visits to other dimensions of reality.

For the more contemporary spirit mediums, who often prefer to call themselves "channels," the guide may represent itself as a being who once lived as a human on Earth or as a Light Being, an extraterrestrial, or even an angel. Regardless of the semantics involved, today's mediums and channels follow the basic procedures of ancient shamanic traditions.

Delving Deeper

Fodor, Nandor. Between Two Worlds. New York: Paperback Library, 1969.

Garrett, Eileen. Many Voices: The Autobiography of a Medium. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1968.

Murphy, Gardner, and Robert O. Ballou, eds. William James on Psychical Research. New York: Viking Press, 1960.

Paranormal News. 1 October 2001.

Post, Eric G. Communicating with the Beyond. New York: Atlantic Publishing, 1946.

Totem Animal

Among the shamanic or medicine teachings of the traditional Native Americans, the totem animal represents the physical form of one's spirit helper, the guide, who will lead the shaman into the spirit world and return him or her safely to the physical world. Contrary to the misinterpretations of early missionaries, the native people did not worship these animal representations of their guides as gods.

Latvian ethnologist Ivar Lissner stated in his Man, God, and Magic (1961) that his 17 years of expeditions among the shamans and people of the Tungus, Polynesians, Malaysians, Australian Aborigines, Ainus, Chinese, Mongols, and North American tribes demonstrated to him quite clearly that totemism is not religion. While all these diverse people lived in a world filled with animate beings, they all believed in a single supreme deity.

Aside from a few Venus-type mother-goddess statuettes, there remains a rather strange collection of ghostly creatures and a great variety of two-legged beings with the heads of animals and birds. Why, so many anthropologists have wondered, did these cave painters, despite their remarkable artistic gifts, never pass on an accurate idea of their features? Why did they confine themselves to portraying beings that were half-human, half-animal?

And then Lissner has an inspiration. It is quite possible that the Stone-Age artists really were portraying themselves, but in something more than in human shape. Perhaps they were depicting themselves "in the guise of intermediary beings who were stronger than common men and able to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of fate, that unfathomable interrelationship between animals, men, and gods." Lissner suggests that what the ancient cave painters may have been relaying is that the "road to supernatural powers is easier to follow in animal shape and that spirits can only be reached with an animal's assistance." The ancient artists may have been portraying themselves after all, but in animal guise, shamanistically.

The spirit guides, appearing as totemic animals, guide the shamans to the mysterious, transcendent reality beyond the material world and lead them into another dimension of time and space wherein dwell the inhabitants of the spirit world. It is through such a portal that mediumistic shamans must pass to gain their contact with the grandfathers and grandmothers who reside there. With their spirit guide at their side in the form of a totem animal, they can communicate with the spirits and derive wisdom and knowledge which will serve their tribe or those who have come to seek specific information from the world beyond death.

Delving Deeper

Bennett, Hal Zina. Spirit Animals and the Wheel of Life. Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads Pub lishing, 2000.

Steiger, Brad. Totems: The Transformative Power of Your Personal Animal Totem. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.

Vision Quest

The personal revelatory experience and the contact with the spirit world received during the vision quest becomes the fundamental guiding force in the shaman's power (medicine). In addition to those who would be shamans, all traditional young men and women may partake of the vision quest, setting out alone in the wilderness to fast, to exhaust the physical body, to pray, to establish their own contact with the dimension of spirit, and to receive their individual "medicine" power. The dogma of tribal rituals and the religious expressions of others become secondary to the guidance that one receives from his or her own personal visions.

"The seeker goes forth solitary," writes Hartley Burr Alexander in The World's Rim (1967) "carrying his pipe and with an offering of tobacco. There in the wilderness alone, he chants his song and utters his prayers while he waits, fasting, such revelation as the Powers may grant."

The vision quest is basic to all traditional Native American religious experience, but one may certainly see similarities between the youthful tribal members presenting themselves to the Great Mystery as helpless, shelterless, and humble supplicants and the initiates of other religious traditions who fast, flagellate,

and prostrate themselves before their concept of a Supreme Being. In Christianity, the questing devotees kneel before a personal deity and beseech insight from the Son of God, whom they hope to please with their example of piety and self-sacrifice. In the Native American tribal traditions, the power granted by the vision quest comes from a vast and impersonal repository of spiritual energy; and those who partake of the quest receive their personal guardian spirit and a great vision that will grant them insight into the spiritual dimensions beyond physical reality.

For the traditional Native American, the vision quest may be likened to the first Communion in Christianity. Far from being a goal achieved, the vision quest marks the beginning of the traditionalist's lifelong search for knowledge and wisdom. Nor are the spiritual mechanics of the vision quest ignored once the youths have established contact with their guardian spirit and with the forces that are to aid them in the shaping of their destiny. At any stressful period of their life, the traditionalists may go into the wilderness to fast and to seek insight into the particular problems that beset them.

Hartley Burr Alexander saw the continued quest for wisdom of body and mindthe search for the single essential force at the core of every thought and deedas the perpetually accumulating elements in medicine power. The reason the term "medicine" became applied to this life-career function is simply because those attaining stature as men and women who had acquired this special kind of wisdom were so often also great healers. The true meaning of "medicine" extends beyond the arts of healing to clairvoyance, precognition, and the control of weather elements. The power received in the vision quest enables the practitioner to obtain personal contact with the invisible world of spirits and to pierce the sensory world of illusion which veils the Great Mystery.

Delving Deeper

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Paulette Molin. The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions. New York: MJF Books, 1992.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Shamanism was characterized by Mircae Eliade (1964 [1950]), the famed scholar of comparative religion, as someone who entered an ecstatic state to interact with the spirits on behalf of the community. These universals of shamanistic healers have been characterized in terms of an innate psychology by Michael Winkelman (2000), who points to other universal characteristics of shamans: Charismatic group leadership in communal ritual activities, generally carried out overnight, involves the use of chanting, music, drumming, and dancing. Ecstasy, an altered state of consciousness, is a key aspect of training and practice, with the characteristic altered states of consciousness experience known as the soul journey, or soul flight. Interaction with the spirit world, in training and professional practice, includes training involving a vision quest and an initiatory death-and-rebirth experience. Control of animal spirits as a primary source of power includes the ability to transform into animals and to provide assistance in hunting. Professional abilities include healing, diagnosis, and divination. Maintaining an ambivalent moral status reflects the ability to do harm through sorcery.

Gender-specific roles and sexual restrictions of shamanistic healers reflect adaptations to altered states of consciousness and the effects of social processes on characteristics of altered states of consciousness. Relationships of sex and gender to shamanistic healers vary in terms of their social contexts. Cross-cultural research shows how shamanistic healers vary in gender roles as socioeconomic adaptations to universal human potentials involving healing and altered states of consciousness. This research illustrates the validity of the term shaman as a cross-cultural concept. Shamanism is revealed in the universal features of the spiritual healing practices of hunter-gatherer and simple agricultural and pastoral societies worldwide in which transformed men and women engage spirit powers. Shamans and other shamanistic healers manifest cultural universals involving adaptations to potentials of human nature, an integrative mode of consciousness similar to dreams. These altered states of consciousness experiences are induced in community rituals for interactions with the spirit world to obtain information and provide healing.

Shamans differ from other types of shamanistic healers in their altered states of consciousness (soul flight, death-and-rebirth experience), use of sorcery, power relationships with animals, and their preeminent role in society as charismatic leaders. Other types of shamanistic healers are found in societies with priests, male secular and sacred leaders who dominate religious and political life and alter the more egalitarian gender dynamics of shamanism. In these more complex societies shamanistic practices persist in female-dominated cults of medium-ship and possession.


Shamans are predominately males, but in most cultures, females also are chosen, generally inheriting spirits from parents or grandparents. The shaman's involvement in hunting, warfare, and raids may contribute to a male predominance among shamans. There are also restrictions on females practicing shamanism during childbearing years. Women typically function as shamans before marriage and following menopause. These restrictions on female shamans' practice may reflect consequences for cardiovascular function, oxygen availability, and other vital parameters produced by altered states of consciousness, reflected in their conceptualizations as half-death. Risks that altered states of consciousness could pose to the fetus apparently underlie this prohibition on women engaging in shamanic practices when they could be pregnant.

Females are also occasionally found among shamanistic healers of agricultural societies but are virtually absent from the healers found in more complex, politically integrated societies. These hierarchical societies also have shamanistic healers called mediums, who are typically female; relatively infrequent male mediums are often weak or effeminate. These female mediums are generally from lower social strata in strongly patriarchal societies. Mediums are respected people, nonetheless, particularly among women and their possession cult. Mediums experience altered states of consciousness, engage spirits, and provide healing and divination, activities characteristic of shamans; but they differ from shamans in that they lack soul flight, death-and-rebirth experiences, animal relations, sorcery powers, and the high social prestige of shamans. Medium cults involve possession—control by spirit entities that take over the body, speech, and mind of the individual. Female recruits to the cults are those who are ill from spirit possession; they gain control of the spirits through cult participation. Mediums do not typically have long-term sexual restrictions, but their spirit spouses may dictate restrictions on sexual relations with their physical spouses. The predominance of females among mediums may reflect how their disadvantaged status contributes to the malnutrition, abuse, and trauma that may predispose women to altered states of consciousness. Through statements made while possessed by male spirits, mediums mediate male and female domains and exercise indirect influence in a male-dominated society where their subordinated status limits their direct confrontation with male power.


Shamanistic healers generally refrain from sex in preparation for professional activities. Religious officiants of many major religious traditions are frequently enjoined to permanent celibacy. Sexual restrictions for shamanistic healers normally begin during training, with sexual prohibitions for weeks, months, or even years. Traditions dictate celibacy for several days before and after ceremonies, explaining sexual restrictions in terms of purity and the idea that spirits are attracted to the celibate. Many shamanistic traditions view spirit relations in sexual terms, engaging in sex with spirit entities and having spouses and children in the spirit world. Spirit spouses may be jealous of physical spouses and require that shamans abstain from sex.

Sexual restrictions on shamanistic healers may reflect adaptations to the physiological dynamics of sexual orgasm and induction of altered states of consciousness. Orgasm requires simultaneous increase in both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Julian Davidson (1980) points out that when a peak of excitation is reached, the sympathetic system collapses, exhausted, and the parasympathetic state as with those of altered states of consciousness, becomes dominant. The rebound aspect of the parasympathetic aspect means that the greater the excitation in the sympathetic system before collapse, the stronger the parasympathetic relaxation response. Sexual activity could interfere with the dynamics of excitation and physiological collapse, reducing the degree of sympathetic excitation by prior release in orgasm. Sexual prohibitions may assure more powerful altered states of consciousness. Postceremony sexual restrictions in some shamanistic traditions might relate to the anorgasmic states potentially produced by altered states of consciousness. This is illustrated in the Tantric traditions that use sex with prevention of ejaculation to induce more profound altered states of consciousness.


The belief that shamanism is normally associated with homosexuality or other cross-gendered behaviors is not validated by Michael Winkelman's and Doug White's cross-cultural studies (Winkelman 1990, 1992; Winkelman and White 1986); shamans, shaman/healers and healers are not typically considered to have cross-gendered tendencies. Mediums, however, may incorporate weak, effeminate, or homosexual males. The widespread transvestism associated with Chukchi shamans studied by Waldemar Bogoras (1904–1909) does not appear typical. Homosexual and gender-switching individuals may be attracted to shamanistic roles because changing identities is fundamental to shamanic professional roles involving communication with spirits. Gender crossing does occur in some shamanic enactments as a way of gaining ritual power through incorporating symbols of femininity, but without involving homosexuality.

Barbara Tedlock (2004) points out how aspects of self and identity are defined in the interactions between male and female personalities displayed in shamanic performances. Shamanic performances engage gender expressions in enacting powers in nature, feminine as well as masculine, making shamans mediators between gender concepts. The sacred is often expressed in transformations involving a blending of gender characteristics and gender reversals. Gender dynamics may be expressed in shamanic healing specializations where female powers and energies are engaged for nurturance and integration, whereas male symbols engage warlike activities of exorcism and attacks to defeat spirit entities thought to cause illness. Universal concepts are expressed in gender differences that shamanistic healers can balance and integrate in patients through ritual.

Shamanic practices allow access for both genders, with males predominating in these roles. Sexual restrictions are important consideration in these practices. As societies become more complex, shamanistic practices become more predominantly female. Their incorporation of male spirits give voice to oppressed females and some degree of power in male-dominated societies, including restricting their spouse's sexual access.

see also Witchcraft.


Bogoras, Waldemar. 1904–1909. The Chukchee: Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History. Vols. 7 & 11. Leiden: Brill and Stechert.

Davidson, Julian. 1980. "The Psychobiology of Sexual Experience." In The Psychobiology of Consciousness, ed. Julian M. Davidson and Richard J. Davidson. New York: Plenum Press.

Eliade, M. 1964. Shamanism Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lewis, I. M. 1971. Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Tedlock, Barbara. 2004. "Gender in Shamanism." In Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, ed. Mariko Namba Walker and Eva Jan Neumann Fridman. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Winkelman, Michael. 1990. "Shaman and Other 'Magico-religious' Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of Their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformations." Ethos 18(3): 308-352.

Winkelman, Michael. 1992. Shamans, Priests and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-religious Practitioners. Anthropological Research Papers, number 44. Tempe, Az.: Arizona State University.

Winkelman, Michael. 2000. Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.

Winkelman, Michael, and Doug White. 1986. "A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners and Trance States: Data Base." In HRAF Research Series in Quantitative Cross-Cultural Data, Vol. 3, ed. David Levinson and Richard Wagner. New Haven, CT: HRAF Press.

                                      Michael Winkelman


views updated Jun 11 2018



A complex pattern of diverse rites and beliefs, shamanism is a tribal religion in societies without a literary tradition. Healing is one function of the shaman and the most important along with prophecy. The shaman uses mystical powers to journey to other worlds or realities and communicate with spirits in order to bring about a balance between the physical and spiritual worlds.


Shamanism is the oldest form of human healing. It is a type of religious medicine that originated over 25,000 years ago in the Paleolithic hunting cultures of Siberia and Central Asia. The English word shaman is derived from the Siberian Tungus word "saman," which is defined as a technique of ecstasy. The shaman is considered a great master of trance and ecstasy. He or she is the dominating figure in certain indigenous populations.

Most early cultures' healing practices stem from a shamanic tradition. For instance, when visiting the sick, Egyptian magicians often brought a papyrus roll filled with incantations and amulets in order to drive out demons.

The shaman is often the religious leader or priest of the tribe. He is believed to have magical powers that can heal the sick. The shaman is called upon to mediate between the people of the community and the spirit world to cure disease, exorcize evil spirits, and to promote success in hunting and food production and to keep the tribal community in balance. Traditional shamanic rituals included singing, dancing, chanting, drumming, storytelling, and healing. The shaman is a specialist in human souls. He is able to see them and know their form and destiny. The shaman controls the spirits. Rather than being possessed by them, he communicates with the dead, demons, and nature spirits.

The shaman's work is based on the belief that the soul can forsake the body even while a person is alive and can stray into other cosmic realms where it falls prey to demons and sorcerers. The shaman diagnoses the problem, then goes in search of the wandering soul and makes it return to the body.

Shamanism is still practiced all over the world, although each culture's shamanic tradition has evolved in different ways. Native American medicine men perform soul flights and vision quests to heal. North American Inuit shamans undertake undersea spirit journeys to ensure a plentiful supply of game. Tibetan shamans use a drum to help them in spirit flight and soul retrieval. Central and South American shamans often use hallucinogenic plants to invoke their shamanic journeys. Australian aborigine shamans believe that crystals can be inserted into the body for power. Some cultures have female as well as male shamans.


Shamanism is based on the belief that the condition of the soul must be addressed in order for healing to occur. Relief of pain, anxiety , and stress , as well as spiritual and emotional healing, are common benefits of a shamanic healing.


Shamans believe that there are realities that exist beyond the dimension that we experience on Earth. They believe that all creation is aliverocks, plants, animals, trees, fishand work regularly with these forces of nature.

The role of the shaman is to mediate between different realities to treat disease and create harmony between the physical and spiritual dimensions. Shamanism is a combination of "magic" and medicine. A shaman is a warrior who uses his power to combat disease, demons, and practitioners of black magic. They also perform rights to assure success in hunting and fishing, to protect the tribe's lands, and increase and develop the family. Although shamans have traditionally been male, there are many female shamans in contemporary Asia and Africa.

Shamans can see and exorcize spirits, perceive when a person's soul has fled from the body, and return souls to their rightful owners. They specialize in soul healing, healing

physical sickness, and delivering a deceased person's soul to the underworld of death. They also communicate with ancestral spirits, gods, and demons through ceremony, sacred dance, vision quests, by visiting places of power, and through dreams and out-of-body experiences.

The basis of a shaman's work stems from his or her mastery of the ecstasy technique, in which he or she enters an altered state of consciousness known as the trance state. During this state, the shaman's soul leaves his or her body to travel to nonphysical realities, in order to communicate with spirits and gain information for healing.

The state of ecstasy is brought about in several ways, depending upon the shaman's culture. Native American shamans use drumming, dancing, and chanting to enter the trance state. Some Central and South American shamans use peyote or other hallucinogenic plants to enter a state of altered consciousness.

During their spiritual journey, shamans may travel to heavens and hells, higher levels of existence, parallel physical worlds, or other regions of the world. The shaman is protected during his travels by spirit helpers and such animal guides as bears, wolves, stags, hares, and birds.

According to Central and North American shamanism, disease is caused when the soul strays or is stolen from the body. To restore health a shaman goes in search of the spirit, captures it, and persuades it to return. Illness may also be caused when the body becomes possessed by evil spirits, or by a magical object such as a pebble or insect that has been telepathically implanted in the body by sorcerers of black magic. The shaman removes the item by sucking it out of the patient's body.

Shamans often wear ritual costumes such as feathers, masks, or animal skins. They may also use ritual objects, charms, and herbs.

Training & certification

Becoming a shaman is not an ordinary task that occurs overnight. Shamans go through strenuous training before they begin to practice as a shaman. They are usually chosen or "called" by the spirits. This call to become a shaman may involve a series of tests to prove intent and worth.

A personal crisis, severe trauma, near-death experience, lightning strike, or life-threatening illness may serve as the calling to become a shaman. Initiation may also occur though dreams or visions as the spirits are made known to the chosen one. This connection between a call to become a shaman and physical or emotional trauma is one reason why some historians and psychiatrists regard shamanism as evidence of mental illness. They see resemblances between the dreams, visions, and other unusual experiences reported by shamans and the delusions and hallucinations associated with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

In many cultures, the shamanic tradition is passed from father to son, from mother to daughter, or to those outside the shaman's family who have answered the call. The teaching involves training by master shamans in the ecstatic trance; a thorough understanding of traditional shamanic techniques; the names and functions of spirits; and the mythology and genealogy of the clan. While in the apprentice stage, the shaman-to-be learns about the soul: the forces that can threaten it and where it may flee or be captured by evil spirits.

A shaman's initiation typically involves a visionary death or dismemberment of the body during the trance journey. By knowing death and returning from it, the shaman attains the secret of life and the power to heal. The shaman-in-training must also undergo an initiation in which he faces and resolves his fears. After the initiation, the shaman is trained by a more experienced shaman until he has reached a level of mastery.

In modern times, shamanic knowledge is being shared with the general population. One does not have to belong to a native tribe to become a shaman. Carlos Casteneda, one of the most well-known writers of shamanism, studied under a Native American Yaqui shaman. Dr. Michael Harner, an anthropologist, is one of the world's leading authorities on shamanism and has even started a nonprofit educational organization, The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Modern shamanism is often practiced in groups and lodges and through workshops and classes. Shamanic training may be obtained through similar schools or psychological or spiritual teachers.

Several schools of shamanism are located in the United States:

  • Dance of the Deer Foundation, Center for Shamanic Studies, P.O. Box 699, Soquel, CA 95073. (831) 475-9560.
  • The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, P.O. Box 1939, Mill Valley, CA 94942. (415) 380-8282.



Goldberg, Dr. Bruce. Soul Healing. Minneapolis, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1997.

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1990.

Mindell, Arnold. The Shaman's Body. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1993.

Moorey, Teresa. Shamanism: A Beginner's Guide. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997.


Polimeni, J., and J. P. Reiss. "How Shamanism and Group Selection May Reveal the Origins of Schizophrenia." Medical Hypotheses 58 (March 2002): 244-248.

Jennifer Wurges

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD


views updated Jun 08 2018


The term "shamanism" is of Russian-Tungusic origin. Most generally, a shaman is a man or a woman who acts as a mediator between the spirit and physical worlds. Shamanism as a religious concept and practice came under the focus of Western eyes in northern Asia and Siberia, where it had relatively precise meanings associated with "magic" and trancelike states of human ecstasy. Ecstatic states that enable mystical experience and insight are thought to be a special and definitive characteristic of shamanism.

Traditional shamans were leaders of religious groups and wielded powerful spiritual gifts, including effective utilization of sacred fire, and the practice of magical, mystical flights wherein the spirit (and sometimes the body, too) defies the known laws of physics and travels to destinations far and uncharted. In fact, the mark of a shaman vis-à-vis other spiritual mediators is that the shaman is believed to enjoy the capacity to separate his soul from his body at will, allowing the former to travel to destinations that are otherwise restricted to physically embodied visitors.

Perhaps the central distinguishing factor of shamanism is a shaman's deft relationship with the spiritual world. Counted among the types of spirits over which shamans hold dominion are spirits of the dead, demons, and spirits that are believed to be found in nature, such as those common to rivers and animals, for example. Shamans control their helping spirits, though at times they can be possessed by them. Shamans often have conflicts and bouts with their spirits. The shaman often deploys the aid of spirits in divination, clairvoyance, and prophecy (the accurate foretelling of future events, or the ability to know and articulate with accuracy past events in a person's life). Shamans rely on the aid of helping spirits to divine events—past and present—in the lives of people who seek their aid. Although not an exclusively expert province of shamanism, healing with the aid of helping spirits is also a practice that marks shamanic techniques. People seek the healing aid of shamans for ailments of all types, including physical disease, discomfort caused by curses and Witchcraft, and for familial, social, or psychological problems. Seekers also come to shamans for extra help when in need of special favors from the spirit world.

In their oracular efforts and functions as benevolent healers, shamans typically cultivate efficacious relationships with animals. In Native North American tribes of the Southwest, for example, an owl is often the embodiment of a shaman's helping spirit. In Native North American lore, an owl manifests powers of warning and protection that aid the shaman in his or her work. More generally, a shaman is marked early in his or her life by a close relationship with animals. Animals are drawn to the shaman, and even wild beasts behave as tame and nurturing friends when in the presence of a shaman. The extraordinary affection displayed by animals toward any one individual is often the sign that a person has been "called" to shamanism.

Such a calling, or the trajectory to archaic religious or sacred specialists, has been the subject of much study in the history of religions. Drawing from the work of Mircea Eliade, David Carrasco has delineated a pattern of shamanic calling and initiation that begins with: (1) a sensitive and troubled individual who (2) receives sacred knowledge through fantastic dreams and visions plus formal instructions under the (3) guidance of a great shaman, during which the initiate (4) forms relationships with helping spirits, usually in the form of animals, which enable the seeker to (5) grasp a deep truth and techniques that enable him or her to renew contact with that wisdom and (6) obtain the powers to heal varieties of sickness and to attack and kill enemies.

This pattern of initiation usually involves a great ordeal, sometimes experienced during a sickness that takes the novice to the brink of death, and introduces him or her to the terrors of finitude and spiritual forces. During this ordeal, which often includes ecstatic dreams, the hero is tested. He or she is symbolically killed and reborn into the vocation of singer, healer, and poet. This ordeal involves face-to-face encounters with terrible monsters, scenarios of chaos that may include visualizing the dismemberment and destruction of one's own body, community, and cosmos. This total crisis emerges into a new integration of the self and the acquisition of sacred knowledge that is to be used to benefit the community. This is the meaning and purpose of such religious ecstasy. Thus shamans are typically distinguished by the way they go about obtaining shamanic powers—through personal calling and experience that enable them to manipulate spiritual powers for the aid of a community.

In Native North American Indian tribes shamanic functions are common to most if not all tribal members as each seeks to cultivate special relationships to helper spirits, and with the animals. What distinguishes shamans is the intensity of shamanic powers, especially shamanic ecstasy, and the degree of their knowledge of myth and ritual. This degree of knowledge is particularly relevant in regard to rites of passage, hunting, warfare, and healing. Often a medicine man of a particular tribe displays shamanic techniques.

Euroamericans, too, have displayed shamanic tendencies, beginning particularly in the nineteenth century, with the Fox sisters in upstate New York. In 1848 the Fox sisters convinced others that they could communicate with spirits of the deceased. They staged elaborate séances in which seekers came to receive messages from beyond the grave that were communicated by a simple system of knocks. This practice of mediumship spread rapidly and gave rise to American Spiritualism. Similarly, and also in the nineteenth century, a Frenchman known as Allen Kardec developed a system for communicating with spirits and deploying them in the service of divination and healing; he elaborated this process into the religion of Spiritism. Spiritism spread throughout Latin and North America.

More recently, in 1968, anthropologist Carlos Castaneda published what he claimed to be a documentary account of his apprenticeship into shamanic techniques under the tutelage of Don Juan, a Yaqui elder and medicine man. Castaneda's work implicitly opened up Yaqui shamanism for a generation of Americans who were disenchanted with traditional Christian religions and bent on experimenting with fresh religious myths and rituals.

Since the 1980s at least this American impulse for religious seeking and experimentation has unfolded into what has been called the "New Age." New Age devotees eschew traditional Euroamerican religions in favor of practices derived from Eastern religions and from Native North Americans. A preferred religious practice of the New Age is shamanism. This penchant for shamanism is evinced by the burgeoning literature on the topic, including and especially Michael Harner's The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing (1980). If Carlos Castaneda implied that just about any American could become a shaman if he or she followed the right path, Harner promises as much to his American New Age audience. Looking to Castaneda, Harner provides a handbook of sorts, with a step-by-step guide to shamanism and healing.

Though not recognized as such, today shamanic practices are part of the everyday fabric of American life. It is hardly possible to visit any American city or small town without spotting a palm or card reader. Spiritual healing, psychic phenomena, astrology, and tarot specialties are profitable cottage industries in today's religious economy. Additionally, spiritual healing and communication with the spirit world are becoming increasingly mainstream in forms of American Christian evangelicalism. Shamanism today permeates many aspects of the collective religious imagination of American society.

See alsoDevils, Demons, and Spirits; Dreams; Ecstasy; Healing; Journey and Journeying; Magic; Mysticism; Myth; Native American Religions; New Age Spirituality; Rites of Passage; Ritual; sÉance; Spiritualism; Trance; Visionary.


Carrasco, David. "A Perspective for the Study of Religion in Chicano Experience: Bless Me, Ultima as a Religious Text." Aztlán 3 (1982):195–222.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask. 1964.

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman: A Guide toPower and Healing. 1980.

Luis D. León


views updated May 29 2018


Shamanism is the world's oldest and most enduring religious, medical, and psychotherapeutic tradition. For tens of thousands of years and across the world, shamans have functioned as tribal general practitioners and have offered a means for understanding and dealing with death and the dead.

Shamanism is a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entities from whom they gain knowledge and power in order to serve their community. Shamans often undergo a rigorous training program that may involve apprenticeship, solitude, asceticism, and spirit guides. When trained, they function as tribal physicians, counselors, priests, and spiritual practitioners.

Shamans' relationships to death and dying are multifaceted and involve both their training and their healing work. Shamans may sometimes be chosen because they unexpectedly cheat death by recovering from severe illness. During their training they may undergo one or more powerful death-rebirth experiences in which they experience themselves dying and being reborn, often finding themselves healed and strengthened by the process. In contemporary terms this can be understood as an early example of a profound, archetypal process that has been valued and sought in multiple cultures and religious traditions for its spiritually transformative potential. During training, the shaman is also expected to develop the capacity to see and relate to "spirits," some of whom are thought to be ancestors and ancient shamans, and some of whom may become helping guardian spirits that guide and empower the shaman.

Once shamans are trained, several of their practices relate to the dead. The spiritual entities that shamans interact with may be the spirits of the living or the dead. Sick individuals may lose their spiritthe term dispirited is still usedand face suffering and death unless the shaman can recover it. Spirits of the dead may be lost, troublesome, or malevolent, and the shaman must intervene by guiding, healing, or vanquishing them. Others might be troubled by spirits, but the shamans alone are masters of them and their realms.

Techniques such as fasting, solitude, drumming, dancing, and using psychedelics may be employed to induce altered states of consciousness in which spirit vision is enhanced for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. These techniques may especially be preludes to, and inducers of, the shamanic journey: a controlled out-of-body experience to other realms where shamans may meet, mediate with, learn from, and heal spirit entities.

The tradition of shamanism has much to teach contemporary researchers and healers. It demonstrates an ancient form of medicine, spirituality, and thanatology; the power of disciplines such as solitude, asceticism, and spiritual practice; the responsible use of psychedelics; the potentials of altered states of consciousness and controlled out-of-body experiences; and the use of all these for dealing with death and serving one's community.

See also: Communication with the Dead; Ghosts


Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask. London: Arkana, 1989.

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Walsh, Roger. The Spirit of Shamanism. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1990.



views updated Jun 11 2018


This entry consists of the following articles:

an overview [first edition]
an overview [further considerations]
siberian and inner asian shamanism
north american shamanism
south american shamanism


views updated May 14 2018

shamanism A term, originating from Siberia, used to describe diverse religious activities in a large number of technologically simple societies. The shaman is a part-time, non-institutionalized, charismatic religious specialist whose power emanates from his or her perceived ability (often enhanced by mind-altering drugs) to contact external spiritual forces; and, through them, to prescribe solutions to technological, political, and social problems of their own society.