Shamans represent humanity’s most ancient forms of healing, spirituality, and community ritual. In Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964), Mircea Eliade characterized the shaman as someone who enters ecstasy to interact with spirits on behalf of the community. Although some have challenged his suggestion of the universality of shamanism, the cross-cultural research of Michael Winkelman has established the universal validity of the concept of the shaman, as well as the characteristics of Shamans, particularly their differences with respect to other types of magico-religious practitioners. In Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing (2000), Winkelman illustrates how the cross-cultural similarities in shamans relate to humans’ evolved psychology. Shamanism was an important evolution of human culture and consciousness and created practices to expand ancient primate activities for ritual healing and group integration.
While shamans and priests are both religious practitioners, they differ in many basic ways. Shamans enter into a direct relationship with the spiritual world, for example, while priests mediate with respect to deities. Winkelman’s research, particularly in Shamans, Priests, and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners (1992), provides empirical evidence for these differences: Shamans of hunter-gatherer societies reflect biological adaptations to an evolved psychology involving altered states of consciousness (ASC), while priests reflect adaptations to the social leadership needs of agricultural groups.
Unlike priests who generally acquire their positions by virtue of social position in class or kinship ranks, the shaman is thought to be chosen by the spirits. Shamans acquire their special status through experiences of the spirit world. While most people in shamanic cultures may deliberately seek contact with the spirit world in a vision quest, only a few will have the benefit of being chosen by the spirits for special experiences and powers. Spirit-world experiences occur spontaneously in illness, hallucinations, dreams, and visions, and they are further induced through vision quests involving prolonged fasts; the ingestion of emetics, tobacco, and hallucinogen drugs; and other arduous techniques that provoke profound alterations of consciousness, which are interpreted as entry into the spirit world. Ritual inductions of spirit-world experiences generally employ drums, rattles, and other percussion, as well as singing and chanting.
The universals of human culture associated with shamanism involve the use of techniques for altering consciousness to produce an experience of interacting with the spirit world. These experiences are key to providing healing and information for the community. The altered states of consciousness associated with shamanism are a human universal derived from human biology, reflecting extraordinary aspects of normal systemic reactions of the brain and nervous system in maintaining homeostasis, or internal balance (Laughlin, McManus, and d’Aquili 1992; Winkelman 2000). The psychiatrist Arnold Mandell has characterized this neurobiological transcendence in terms of activation of the serotonergic linkages between the limbic (emotional) brain and the R-Complex (behavioral) brain (1980). This activation produces strong slow-wave (theta, 3-6 cycles per second) brain discharges that induce synchronized brain waves across the levels of the brain and between the frontal hemispheres.
The particular form of altered consciousness associated with shamanism is called a soul journey, soul flight, or some other similar term referring to the departure of some aspect of the self, particularly one’s soul or spirit, from the body in order to journey to the spirit world. This shamanic soul journey is distinct from the possession experiences associated with the altered states of consciousness of more complex societies. Possession involves experiences in which a person’s sense of personal consciousness and volition is replaced by the controlling influences of a spirit entity who possesses the person’s body and controls it (Bourguignon 1976). This divine control of one’s person is not typically associated with shamanic practice. The shaman remains aware of self during the soul journey, while possessed people typically report a lack of awareness of the experience following possession. Winkelman has integrated cross-cultural and interdisciplinary explanations that suggest important influences on the nature and form of altered states of consciousness from a variety of dietary, social, political, and ritual practices. The shaman’s awareness during the soul journey reflects the active engagement in altered states through early ritual practices, while the possessed person’s sense of external dominance by the possessing entity reflects influences external to the self, such as endocrine imbalances from nutritional deficiencies and dissociate experiences induced by oppressive social conditions.
Shamans have additional universal characteristics that differentiate them from the priests and possessed mediums of more complex societies. Cross-culturally, shamans are characterized as charismatic leaders whose community rituals generally involve healing and divination. Other characteristics of shamans are:
- They undergo an altered state of consciousness (ASC), characterized as a “soul journey.”
- They perform rituals involving chanting, music, drumming, and dancing.
- They have had initiatory death-and-rebirth experiences and guardian spirit encounters.
- They have close relationships with animals in control of spirits and development of personal powers.
- They use therapeutic processes to recover lost souls, defined as the separation of some vital aspect of personal essence due to attacks by spirits and sorcerers.
Shamans typically engage the entire local community in all-night ceremonies. During hours of dancing, drumming, and chanting, the shaman may dramatically recount mythological histories and enact struggles in the spirit world. Shamans also have the capacity to engage in sorcery and malevolent magic to harm others.
Shamans use rituals to induce the altered state of consciousness (ASC) typified in a soul journey, where a spiritual aspect departs the body and travels to the spirit world. The ASC is typically produced through drumming and dancing to the point of collapse (or deliberate repose), and it may be potentiated by dietary and sexual restrictions and medicinal plants. The overall physiological dynamics of ASC induction involve excitation until exhaustion, which induces the relaxation response, a natural recuperation process. The shaman’s ASC includes: a death-and-rebirth experience, producing a self-transformation; a flight to the lower, middle, and upper levels of the spirit world, reflecting transformations of consciousness; and personal transformation into an animal, enabling the shaman to travel and use special powers.
The shamanic ASC stimulates the reptilian and paleomammalian levels of the brain, and the associated preverbal processes. The ASC synchronizes diverse brain regions with theta brain wave discharges, which are produced by serotonergic linkages that propel these discharges from the brain stem and limbic areas into the frontal cortex. This produces an integration of lower brain processes into consciousness; an interhemispheric synchronization of the frontal cortex; and a synthesis of emotion, thought, and behavior. ASCs induce information integration, social bonding, stress reduction, and healing through enhancement of visual representation faculties. Humans have a visual symbolic system utilized in the dream mode of consciousness and illustrated in the typically visual (as opposed to verbal) material manifested in dreaming. This visual presentational symbolism (as opposed to the verbal representational system) provides a medium for manifestation of information from the preverbal levels of the unconscious. Winkelman (2000, 2002) discusses how shamanic rituals elicited and integrated this symbolic capacity to produce a new level of mental evolution underlying the development of the modern cultural capacity during the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition approximately 40,000 years ago.
Shamanism focuses on internal mental images, evoking them through ASC and ritual practices for integrating dream processes, particularly overnight ritual activities. Shamanic visions engage psychobiological communication processes that integrate unconscious psychophysio-logical information with affective and cognitive levels. Shamanic images provide analysis, synthesis, and planning through integrating the informational and personal processes associated with dreaming, a visual symbolic system of self-representations involving the paleomammalian brain. Shamanic traditions recognize this use of the dream capacity in terms such as dream time. This process engages ASC induction activities that produce theta waves and induce awareness of this emotionally salient material. This integration of normally unconscious content into conscious processes produces a sense of interconnectedness and transpersonal healing experiences.
Shamans are the preeminent healers of premodern societies. Their roles as healers include medical and psychiatric functions, addressing physical disease as well as a variety of psychological conditions. Shamanism provides mechanisms for inducing healing through systemic psychological integration using ritual, symbols, and ASC. Shamans’ practices represent the evolution of a “holistic imperative,” a drive toward more integrated levels of consciousness (Laughlin, McManus, and d’Aquili 1992). Shamanic traditions produce integrative responses that synchronize divergent aspects of human cognition and identity through several mechanisms, including: (1) using ASC, ritual, and symbols to activate synchronizing brain processes; (2) the stimulation of processes of lower-brain structures and subconscious aspects of personality and self; and (3) incorporating people into community rituals that strengthen social support and identity. These therapeutic processes still have relevance in the modern world, as evidenced by the modern resuscitation of the ancient shamanic practices.
SEE ALSO Animism; Magic; Mental Health; Mental Illness; Miracles; Purification; Religion; Rituals
Bourguignon, Erika. 1976. Possession. San Francisco: Chandler and Sharpe.
Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New York: Bollingen Foundation.
Mandell, Arnold. 1980. Toward a Psychobiology of Transcendence: God in the Brain. In The Psychobiology of Consciousness, eds. Julian Davidson and Richard Davidson. New York: Plenum.
Winkelman, Michael. 1986. Magico-Religious Practitioner Types and Socioeconomic Conditions. Behavior Science Research 20 (1-4): 17-46.
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 Paper No. 44. Tempe: Arizona State University.
Winkelman, Michael. 2000. Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.
Winkelman, Michael. 2002. Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12 (1): 71-101.
Winkelman, Michael. 2004. Shamanism As the Original Neurotheology. Zygon Journal of Religion and Science 39 (1): 193-217.
In the strict sense, shamanism is a religious phenomenon of Siberia and Central Asia, where the religious life of society centred on this figure. The word comes to us through Russian, from the Tungusic saman. Shamanism can best be defined as a technique of ecstasy, in which the soul of the shaman leaves the body and journeys through the spirit world. In their trances, shamans are able to communicate with the dead, and with demons, nature spirits, and the elements, without becoming subject to them. They speak secret or otherworldly languages, and, in the soul's ‘magical flight’, they can travel immense distances, ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld. Shamans cure illnesses, accompany the dead to the next world, and serve as mediators between people and the gods. They form a small mystical elite which directs the community's religious life and guards its ‘soul’.
Shamans are of the elect, and have access to a region of the sacred inaccessible to other members of the community. They are persons who stand out in their respective societies by virtue of characteristics that, in modern Europe, represent the signs of a vocation or a religious crisis. They are recruited either by hereditary transmission of shamanic profession, or by spontaneous vocation (‘calling’ or ‘election’). They are taught by ecstatic means, through dreams or trances, or by masters who instruct them in shamanic techniques, mythology, genealogy, secret languages, and the names and functions of spirits.
Initiation may take the form of a public ritual or a private dream or experience. One of the commonest forms of election is when the shaman encounters a divine or semidivine being who appears in a dream, sickness or other circumstance, tells him that he has been ‘chosen’, and incites him to follow a new rule of life. Sometimes the shaman's relation to the initiatory spirit is sexual, and the spirit becomes the shaman's celestial spouse. The spirits associated with a shaman vary in relation and familiarity to him: some are ‘helpers’ or ‘familiars’, whom he controls; others are ‘tutelary’, and teach him; still others are the divine or semidivine beings he conjures during seances.
The secret languages of a shaman are used to communicate with spirits and animal spirits: they are learned from a teacher or through his own efforts, i.e. directly from the spirits. A language often originates in animal or bird cries. The shaman's costume varies widely, and often incorporates animal symbolism (e.g. the feathers of birds, essential for the flight of the soul). The shamanic experience does not take place while shaman is in his everyday, profane dress, but only when he dons his sacred wardrobe.
The shaman is indispensable in any ceremony concerning the experiences of the human soul (which is, for example, inclined to forsake the body in illness). This is why, all through Asia and North America and elsewhere as well (e.g. in Indonesia), the shaman performs the function of doctor and healer. Disease is generally attributed to the soul's having strayed away or been stolen (by the spirits of recently dead people), and treatment consists principally of finding it, capturing it, and forcing it to return to the patient's body. It is the shaman who announces the diagnosis, searches for and finds the patient's fugitive soul, and makes it return to animate the body.
The origin of sickness can also be the intrusion of a magical object into the patient's body or his ‘possession’ by evil spirits: the cure then consists of extracting the harmful object or expelling the demons. This may be accomplished by the shaman ‘sucking’ or seeming to pull out the object, such as a stone or an animal bone, from the afflicted part of the patient, thus removing the cause of the illness.
Shamans are known to possess unusual physical endurance, demonstrated in heavy masturbation, and insensitivity to fire and to knife cuts, and they also perform bodily feats such as escaping from tied ropes. Yet their principal gifts are those of the spirit, which include divination and clairvoyance. The shaman is a healer and a seer because he commands the techniques of ecstasy: his soul can safely abandon his body and roam vast distances before returning to his body, ascend to the sky and descend to the underworld. He knows the roads of extraterrestrial regions: sanctified by initiation, instructed by tutelary spirits, and protected by guardian spirits, he is the only human being able to challenge the dangers of these regions, and venture into a mystical geography.
Certain currents in modern medicine have initiated a renewal of focus on the powers of the imagination to heal the ailments of the body. Traditional shamans are thought to perform cures ‘through the mind’, by various ritualized, symbolic actions designed to dispel sickness by mimetic means. Thus, techniques and phenomona in contemporary medicine such as hypnosis, autogenics, placebo response, and imaging, which stress the effects of mental or emotional states on physical illness or well-being, are occasionally referred to as a twentieth-century Western form of ‘shamanism’.
Achterberg, J. (1985). Imagery in healing: shamanism and modern medicine. New Science Library, Boston.
Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy. (trans. W. R. Trask ). Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
See also healing; magic; possession.
The magician or "medicine man" of primitive tribes, with powers of healing, prophecy, or paranormal phenomena. The term is thought to derive from Tungus shaman and Sanskrit sramana (ascetic). As distinct from priests, shamans have no ritualistic knowledge, but operate rather as occult adepts. Their primary ability, at least in their Siberian setting, was the power of astral travel. The gift of shamanism is often a hereditary function, and its nature is communicated orally from one shaman to another.
Shamanism has been studied among the Eskimos and in Scandinavia, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Siberia, Manchuria, Mexico, Yutacan, Guatemala, and the North Pacific coast. A shamanistic performance often includes dancing, a mediumistic trance, and spirit possession. The role of the shaman (and shamaness) became the subject of a new movement in the West that began in the 1980s primarily through the work of Michael Harner and a number of popular teachers (many with Native American backgrounds) who have developed a neo-Shamanism that draws on many themes emphasized in the New Age movement. Neo-Shamanist leaders have varied: some, such as Sun-Bear, have attempted to translate traditional Native American themes into useful practice for those outside of the Native American community. Other have developed new systems claiming Native American esoteric traditions as a base (Lynn Andrews) and still others have simply taken traditional occult teachings upon which they have placed a Native American overlay.
Andrews, Lynn V. Star Woman. New York: Warner Books, 1986.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964.
Harner, Michael. Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
Sun Bear. Path of Power. Spokane, Wash.: Bear Tribe Publishing, 1983.
Careful observations of shamanism make the analysis of M. Eliade (Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaiques de l'extase, 1951) improbable, although it has had wide influence. He attempted to separate two forms, regarding the ascent as a survival of archaic religion, to be called ‘pure shamanism’ (but by other writers ‘white shamanism’), with the descent and contest against malevolent spirits as innovations (‘black shamanism’). There is no serious warrant for these distinctions in the practice of shamanism as observed.
sha·man / ˈshämən; ˈshā-/ • n. (pl. -mans) a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits, esp. among some peoples of northern Asia and North America. Typically such people enter a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing.DERIVATIVES: sha·man·ic / shəˈmanik/ adj.sha·man·ism / -ˌnizəm/ n.sha·man·ist / -nist/ n. & adj.sha·man·is·tic / ˌshäməˈnistik; ˌshā-/ adj.sha·man·ize / -ˌnīz/ v.