What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is the oldest known spiritual practice and discipline. Like all organically developed systems, it is an evolving tradition: it has taken a range of forms in various cultures at different times. However, it is also a universal path, showing remarkable similarities across the globe and across time. We find traces of shamanism in the Americas, Russia, Africa, Asia, the Far East and China, as well as in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. We have 30–40,000-year-old cave paintings in Spain and France. We have cave paintings stretching back about 28,000 years in the outback of Australia. The rock art of Niger in Africa dates back 30,000 years and a skeleton of a female shaman found in Israel is about 12,000 years old.
Ancient myths, stories and traditional ceremonies also contribute to our knowledge about shamanism. Strong elements of shamanic spirituality are found in Celtic and Russian myths, the creation stories of the Americas, Australia and Africa, and the ceremonies, symbols and beliefs of Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. The continuum of this ancient spiritual path has been disrupted, broken and suppressed many times, mainly through conquerors, missionaries and political activities, but, astonishingly, it has never been fully eradicated. In very remote areas, lineages of shamans have kept the tradition alive through the ages; in other parts of the world, it has been forced underground, only to surface once more as the suppressing forces have retreated or loosened their grip.
We can see this in South America, especially in the Amazon and the High Andes, where shamanism still flourishes, despite forceful attempts by Spanish invaders and missionaries to suppress it. The same applies to Africa and Australia, where tribal shamanic customs were never fully eradicated, despite the efforts of colonial and religious powers. The endurance of this ancient spiritual practice can also be seen in the revival of the North American indigenous traditions, as well as the vibrant post-Soviet resurgence of shamanism in Siberia and Mongolia, which I saw with astonishment on a recent trip.
Most sources indicate that the word ‘shaman’ stems from the Evenki language of the Tungus tribe in Siberia, as it is closely related to their word saman, which can be roughly translated as ‘one who knows’ or ‘one who is excited, moved, raised’.1 The gender-neutral term ‘shaman’ is now used in general for people who are involved in the tradition, even if they have different titles in different cultures, such as medicine man or woman in North America and Canada, healer in Africa, or kupua in Hawaii.
Traditional Shamanism: A Worldwide Phenomenon
Our knowledge about shamanism in indigenous cultures is incomplete, but besides the artefacts and myths, we have accounts from early European visitors2 to different parts of the world, as well as contemporary academic studies.3 Lately, some accounts have come from shamans around the world who are descended from traditional lineages. The accounts from the early Europeans encountering tribal shamans, starting around the 16th century, are important records, as they have negatively influenced popular thinking about shamanism for centuries, and to an extent still do. For the Europeans, the ecstatic rituals, magical ceremonies, peculiar healing practices, unfamiliar chants, masks and ritual clothing, beating of drums, trance dances and bizarre visions produced much fear and horror.
Their descriptions reflected that fear and also the Christian religious views of the times, as they equated shamanic practices with witchcraft and consorting with the devil. Later, during the Age of Enlightenment, in accordance with the new ‘rational thinking’, most Europeans accused shamans of being either tricksters and charlatans or psychotics and schizophrenics. It was a long time before the western view of shamans began to change. A more positive picture only began to emerge between 1930 and 1950, when anthropologists ethnologists, psychologists and biologists embarked on studying the remaining indigenous cultures around the world more intensely, learning their languages, interviewing shamans and recording their own investigations.
In 1932, for instance, John Neihardt recorded the still famous life story of Black Elk, a medicine man of the Oglala Sioux, revealing him as a great visionary, healer and leader, and in 1949 Claude Lévi-Strauss, the renowned French anthropologist, likened shamans to psychoanalysts, stressing their immense knowledge of the human mind and finally laying to rest the opinion that they were deranged or mentally ill.5 Most importantly, anthropological reports showed that despite their cultural differences, all shamans claimed to communicate with spirits in the interest of their community. Nevertheless, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that shamanism received the credit it deserved.
Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, published in 1951 and still a major reference work today, provided a synthesis of cross-cultural research whilst eliminating many misconceptions and prejudices and coining the term ‘masters of ecstasy’ to describe the shamans’ altered states and soul flights to other worlds. Whilst Eliade’s book inspired professionals, it was Carlos Castaneda’s 1969 book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge6 that ignited unprecedented popular interest and motivated Western spiritual seekers and researchers alike to live with indigenous people, ‘study’ the shamans and partake in (mainly plant-induced) ceremonies and quests. The subsequent reports showed that shamans worked as psycho-spiritual and physical healers, ritualists, mythologists, mediums and visionaries, using their skills for the benefit of their tribes, and were pioneers in exploring the wider capacity of the human mind.
Characteristics of Traditional Shamanism
These and other studies have shown that traditional shamans worldwide, without being a culturally homogenous group, have certain cosmologies, ways of working and characteristics in common. Traditional shamanism is a path universally used to expand consciousness to connect with energetic other worlds and to work with those forces for the benefit, health and harmony of a community and its members. Shamans are therefore seen as intermediaries between worlds and guardians of the spiritual, psychic and ecological equilibrium of both the group and its individual members.
Shamans within indigenous communities are interdependent with nature, with the spirit worlds and with their tribes. This interdependence is the trademark of indigenous traditional shamans, who either come from a lineage or are ‘chosen by spirit’. Their training is long and intense and during their initiation they often go through a period of transformation accompanied by a life-threatening mental and physical illness, which leads them through death and rebirth experiences in extreme altered states of consciousness.
Traditional shamans had – and still have – vast knowledge about the natural and spirit worlds which forms the basis of their work as healers, visionaries, divinatory practitioners, ritualists and ceremonialists, mythologists, mediums, dreamers, psychics, psychopomps, creators, manifestors and teachers. In order to ‘fly’ to the spirit worlds, to work within them and to bridge the worlds, they use a compendium of skills and means. These include smoke and herbs, rituals and ceremony, power tools and clothing, trance dance and trance movements, merging with and shapeshifting into nature spirits and animal spirits, close connections with ancestral spirits and spirit allies, the ingestion of hallucinogenic sacred plants, and the vibrations of drum rhythms, sounds and voices.
Contemporary Shamanism: A Living Practice
Since the first wave of Western interest brought shamanism to wider attention, it has gone through an immense revival and also many changes. It has become part of a progressively more urban, global and technologically interconnected world and attracted countless spiritual seekers and lately growing interest – and acceptance – from anthropologists, medical practitioners, psychologists, physicists, biologists and therapists. In the early stages of this revival, the 1970s/1980s, many westerners began to bring back what they had learned from indigenous shamans, mainly in South America, and practise shamanism themselves, running courses and workshops and creating schools, centres and foundations.
From these schools we now have a second generation of shamanic teachers all over the western world. Traditional shamans and teachers, especially from Mexico and South America, also began to travel to the USA and Europe to spread their teachings, whilst North American elders and teachers from the Hopi, Lakota and Navajo sent increasingly urgent ecological messages to the world, attracting seekers and inspiring foundations, schools and courses. In the 1990s, African shamanism came to the fore with books such as Luisah Teish’s Carnival of the Spirit, which introduced the world to the sacred traditions of the Yoruba, and the works of Malidoma Somé concerning the Dagara people.
Over the last 20 years or so shamanism from the Far East and from Tibet and Nepal, which has interesting Buddhist components, has also found its way into mainstream contemporary shamanism. Australian Aboriginal teachers can now be found on social media and at conferences, and in Mongolia and Siberia shamans and their teachings have become accessible and widespread. Parallel to this, many of the Western shamanic practitioners and teachers have been taking groups of seekers to learn from traditional shamans in various parts of the world and traditional shamans have in turn been opening their doors to an increasing number of people. This has now, especially in Mexico and the Amazon and Andes, almost reached the level of mass tourism.
Adding to the mindboggling diversity, we are currently seeing shamanism being integrated into other movements and disciplines in various ways. The consciousness movement has incorporated shamanic cosmology. Ethno-medicine is growing around the world. Strands of transpersonal psychology have incorporated shamanic views of human consciousness. The ecology movement has very much adopted the Earth-based elements. The interconnection of the modern world is reflected in the mixtures and combinations, the interweaving of the old and the new, that is contemporary shamanism.
Characteristics of Contemporary Shamanism
It is impossible to define contemporary shamanism precisely, as it is such a mixed bag, but we can, as most literature does, compare it to the traditional and become aware of the similarities and the differences. Western shamanic practitioners and teachers are not shamans in the traditional sense (I am rather sceptical when they call themselves shamans; I prefer the term ‘shamanic practitioner’). They neither come from lineages of shamans nor have they gone through the profound initiation rites and the long training periods of traditional shamans. They are not embedded in classical indigenous communities, with ‘place and tradition’ grounding their work.
In line with developments away from communities and towards the individual, Western shamanic approaches are more focused on the development and healing of the individual. Nevertheless, contemporary shamanic approaches share their cosmology and many aims and tools with the traditional. They work, as traditional shamans do, towards wholeness, focusing on the integration of the mind/body with the soul/spirit and the whole human with the wider field of spirit. They also work for the community, albeit defining ‘community’ now in a more global sense or forming communities with a specific focus, such as the many circles that exist locally all over the Western world.
They also employ altered states, form a bridge between the worlds, expand our consciousness and help us to understand our own nature whilst bringing us back to a soul-centred way of life, connected to Earth, spirit and the sacred. Contemporary shamanism is comparable to traditional shamanism in its work with spirits and spirit allies and its use of a vast range of tools that have been developed within traditional shamanism. It uses ceremony, ritual and vibrational instruments, and employs myths, stories and archetypal symbolism, trance dance, vision quests, wilderness camps, lucid dreaming, natural hallucinogens, various energy healing approaches, medicine wheel teachings and more. Contemporary shamanic practitioners and teachers understand, as traditional shamans do, that the teachings come ultimately from spirit.
Good practitioners, although skilled in their craft, will always work with the help of spirit, and good teaching will facilitate spirit connection for the student. In that sense, the teachings and practices developed over millennia belong to us all, as they are derived from Earth and spirit. We can utilize the vast knowledge that is increasingly being passed on to us by traditional shamans for our own healing and development, as long as we understand that shamanism is about spirit, soul, Earth, connection, consciousness and community. Contemporary shamanism is about experiencing those valuable, timeless and universal teachings and finding our own ways of incorporating them into our lives.
As we get involved in shamanic practices, our lives become more enchanted, meaningful, purposeful and authentic, and we take our rightful places as positive co-creators in the developing flow of life, connected to and in harmony with spirit – and our own spirit.
The Shamanic View of the World
The traditional shamanic world-view, which is shared by contemporary shamanism (although sometimes described in more modern terms), is based on the profound experiences shamans have within altered states and other realms. It is also informed by their intense connections with the natural world, their rites and initiations, and the knowledge passed on to them by their ancestors, teachers and spirit teachers. Here are the key concepts:
Everything is made of vibrations/energy fields and is connected
Experiencing and exploring reality from different planes of consciousness, shamans perceive the universe in the form of vibrations and energy fields and come to the only possible conclusion: the universe is a living being, energetic/vibrational in essence, in which everything is connected. Or, in other words, the world beyond the materially visible one is an evolving web of vibrating fields, which we would now call the ‘quantum realm’ or ‘the pool of consciousness’. It is worth mentioning here that this view seems to be increasingly confirmed by science, especially by physics, higher mathematics and biology, and is now being used as the basis of ecology and energy psychology.
Everything contains a life-force essence: spirit
Connected to the view that, on a deeper level, everything vibrates and is energetically interdependent is the notion that everything contains an energetic essence. In shamanism this is called ‘spirit’. ‘Everything’ means literally everything: animals, rocks, plants, rivers, lakes, oceans, stars, galaxies, humans. ‘Spirit’, in contemporary terms, consists of vibrating patterns that carry information. So if we refer to the spirit of a particular plant, star, person, animal, stone or any object we can think of, we are talking about its unique vibrating patterns and, most importantly, the information these patterns carry. It is this spirit essence, loaded with information, that makes a being what it is – a human a human and a tree a tree – but it also transcends this because it is a basic life-force that exists throughout the universe, manifesting in different forms.
There is a source: Spirit, Great Mystery or Great Spirit
The vibrating life-force essence called spirit is not to be confused with the terms ‘Great Spirit’ or ‘Spirit’ or ‘Great Mystery’, which are used to describe a creation source from which the life-force essence stems. As the name ‘Great Mystery’ implies, we don’t know its precise nature. We only know that it is seen as an original source that manifests in countless forms within a universe that creates and recreates itself and has no limits in time and space. This source is undivided and whole, and is perceived as being sacred in every traditional shamanic culture. To understand this concept better, we could replace ‘Spirit’ or ‘Great Mystery’ with the more contemporary terms ‘Source’ or ‘Oneness’. So there is this Source, this Oneness, which is perceived in all spiritual systems as being undivided and from which all aspects of creation arise. This source can only create if it divides, or, as Deepak Chopra says: ‘Out of itself, Oneness creates the many.’ If we look at nature, we can see that all life evolved from a single cell-division or, if we look at the Big Bang theory, there was an explosion of something whole that then divided. In spiritual terms, we talk about creation from the original Source.
Everything is sacred and evolving
Now, if this is so, then all the different aspects of creation, past and future, are already, in the form of potentialities, inherent in this original Source. If we take this further and postulate, as many have done lately, that the still-expanding universe has a holographic quality, based on the physicist David Bohm’s theories, then all the potentialities, as well as the original Oneness, are everywhere, because from the first moment of division onwards, the ‘potentiality within the original source’ is reflected holographically throughout the universe. This is, as far as I understand it, what the 15th-century Indian mystic poet Kabir means when he says, ‘Wherever you are is the entry point,’ and what Black Elk means when he says, ‘Everywhere is the centre of the world. Everything is sacred.’ Following on from this is the shamanic notion that everything is evolving in a ‘sacred dance of creation’. It is in a state of ‘becoming’. If we look at expressions such as ‘All life is sacred’ or ‘Nothing should be done to harm the children’, we understand that shamanism entails striving for a life that honours the sacredness and continuity of creation.
We are spirit in essence
In the shamanic world-view, we, like everything else, are essentially spirit in manifested form, albeit a rather complex one. Therefore our lives are expressions of a spiritual intention, a potentiality seeking to manifest itself at its fullest: we, too, are in a state of ‘becoming’. I personally have struggled with this concept of ‘becoming’ and have concluded that it ultimately means developing to our highest level of possibility and ultimately to our highest possible level of consciousness, individually as well as collectively (human consciousness development is far from over).
We have a soul
So, we are spirit, which is the underlying life-force. But in both traditional and contemporary shamanism you might encounter a differentiation between ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’. Some cultures assume one soul, whilst others speak of three souls. Here it suffices to make a general distinction between soul and spirit. Spirit, as an essence, contains all the life-force possibilities there are – in potential form all that we as humans can become. The part of us that knows this and drives us to become all we can be is our individual soul. Our soul also knows the energetic imprints we carry in the form of individual and collective experiences (which some call karma). So it is our soul that provides us with an inner voice, compass and direction, reminding us, often in little whispers, that there is more, and it is our soul that suffers if we don’t follow this ‘spiritual path of becoming’. Our soul can be altered by our experiences during every lifetime. It can be split, diminished and hurt. In shamanism, it is assumed that it is mainly the ‘loss of soul’ that causes emotional, physical and mental disease as well as a diminishing of vital life energy. An important task of the shaman is to travel to different worlds to bring back these soul parts and reintegrate them in the individual or the community.
Spirits are energetic entities
Spirits, from a shamanic point of view, are entities in these different worlds – the spirit realms. They are experienced as non-material and intelligent, and they provide the shaman with information, power, energy, help and wisdom. The shaman always works with spirits, especially with guides and spirit helpers, ancestral spirits, animal spirits and nature spirits, and cultivates a profound and respectful relationships with them.
Everything is treated as being real
Shamans are on the whole not too concerned with what can be proven, at least not in a scientific sense. From a shamanic perspective, everything that can be experienced is real, whether it exists in the form of matter or the form of energy and whether we experience it in our normal state of mind or in an altered state. So, in shamanism, parallel universes, different layers of reality, infinite possibilities, immanent potentialities and various states of consciousness are not puzzling. For the shaman, there is no sense of the ‘natural’ versus the ‘supernatural’, or ‘reality’ versus ‘fantasy’. There is only that which we can see and that which is hidden, and the visible and invisible are not only connected but equally real.