Shamanism: Definition, History, and Beliefs

Khentii shaman
Mongolia, Khentii province, a shaman near a sacred shamanic ovoo.

Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Image Bank /Getty

The practice of shamanism is found around the world in a variety of different cultures, and involves spirituality that often exists within an altered state of consciousness. A shaman typically holds a respected position in his or her community, and performs vitally important spiritual leadership roles.

Key Takeaways: Shamanism

  • “Shaman” is an umbrella term used by anthropologists to describe a vast collection of practices and beliefs, many of which have to do with divination, spirit communication, and magic.
  • One of the key beliefs found in shamanistic practice is that ultimately everything—and everyone—is interconnected.
  • Evidence of shamanic practices has been found in Scandinavia, Siberia, and other parts of Europe, as well as Mongolia, Korea, Japan, China and Australia. Inuit and First Nations tribes of North America utilized shamanic spirituality, as did groups in South America, Mesoamerica, and Africa.

History and Anthropology

The word shaman itself is a multi-faceted one. While many people hear the word shaman and immediately think of Native American medicine men, things are actually more complex than that.

“Shaman” is an umbrella term used by anthropologists to describe a vast collection of practices and beliefs, many of which have to do with divination, spirit communication, and magic. In most indigenous cultures, including but not limited to Native American tribes, the shaman is a highly trained individual, who has spent a lifetime following their calling. One does not simply declare oneself a shaman; instead it is a title granted after many years of study.

Mongolian Buu Shamans
Mongolian Shamans or Buu, sit together as they take part in a sun ritual ceremony.  Kevin Frayer / Stringer / Getty Images News

Training and Roles in the Community

In some cultures, shamans were often individuals who had some sort of debilitating illness, a physical handicap or deformity, or some other unusual characteristic.

Among some tribes in Borneo, hermaphrodites are selected for shamanic training. While many cultures seem to have preferred males as shamans, in others it was not unheard of for women to train as shamans and healers. Author Barbara Tedlock says in The Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine that evidence has been found that the earliest shamans, found during the Paleolithic era in the Czech Republic, were in fact female.

In European tribes, it is likely that women were practicing as shamans alongside, or even in place of, men. Many Norse sagas describe the oracular works of the volva, or female seer. In several of the sagas and eddas, descriptions of prophecy begin with the line a chant came to her lips, indicating that the words which followed were those of the divine, sent by way of the volva as messenger to the gods. Among the Celtic peoples, legend has it that nine priestesses lived on an island off the coast of Breton were highly skilled in the arts of prophecy, and performed shamanic duties.

Akha Shaman
An ethnic Akha shaman in Thailand performs rituals to help find members of a missing soccer team in 2018.  Linh Pham / Stringer / Getty Images

In his work The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story, Michael Berman discusses many of the misconceptions surrounding shamanism, including the notion that the shaman is somehow possessed by the spirits he or she is working with. In fact, Berman argues that a shaman is always in complete control–because no indigenous tribe would accept a shaman who could not control the spirit world. He says,

“The willingly induced state of the inspired can be regarded as characteristic of the state of both the shaman and religious mystics whom Eliade calls prophets, whereas the involuntary state of possession is more like a psychotic state.”

Evidence of shamanic practices has been found in Scandinavia, Siberia, and other parts of Europe, as well as Mongolia, Korea, Japan, China and Australia. Inuit and First Nations tribes of North America utilized shamanic spirituality, as did groups in South America, Mesoamerica, and Africa. In other words, it’s been found throughout most of the known world. Interestingly, there is no hard and concrete evidence linking shamanism to the Celtic-language, Greek, or Roman worlds.

Today, there are a number of Pagans who follow an eclectic sort of Neo-shamanism. It often involves working with totem or spirit animals, dream journeys and vision quests, trance meditations, and astral travel. It’s important to note that much of what is currently marketed as “modern Shamanism” is not the same as the shamanic practices of indigenous peoples. The reason for this is simple–an indigenous shaman, found in a small rural tribe of some far-off culture, is immersed in that culture day to day, and his role as a shaman is defined by the complex cultural issues of that group.

Michael Harner is an archaeologist and the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, a contemporary non-profit group dedicated to preserving the shamanic practices and rich traditions of the many indigenous groups of the world. Harner’s work has attempted to reinvent shamanism for the modern Neopagan practitioner, while still honoring the original practices and belief systems. Harner’s work promotes the use of rhythmic drumming as the base foundation of core shamanism, and in 1980 he published The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. This book is considered by many to be a bridge between traditional indigenous shamanism and modern Neoshaman practices.

Beliefs and Concepts

Shaman in Sussex
A Sussex shaman puts a spell on the Cuadrilla drill site during an anti-fracking demonstration. Kristian Buus / Corbis News / Getty Images 

For early shamans, beliefs and practices formed as a response to the basic human need to find an explanation—and exert some control over—natural occurrences. For instance, a hunter-gatherer society might make offerings to spirits that influenced the size of the herds or the bounty of the forests. Later pastoral societies might rely upon the gods and goddesses who controlled the weather, so that they would have plentiful crops and healthy livestock. The community then came to depend on the work of the shaman for their well-being.

One of the key beliefs found in shamanistic practice is that ultimately everything—and everyone—is interconnected. From plants and trees to rocks and animals and caves, all things are part of a collective whole. In addition, everything is imbued with its own spirit, or soul, and can be connected to on the non-physical plane. This patterned thinking allows the shaman to journey between the worlds of our reality and the realm of other beings, serving as a connector.

In addition, because of their ability to travel between our world and that of the greater spiritual universe, a shaman is typically someone who shares prophecies and oracular messages with those who may need to hear them. These messages may be something simple and individually focused, but more often that not, they are things that will impact an entire community. In some cultures, a shaman is consulted for their insight and guidance before any major decision is made by the elders. A shaman will often utilize trance-inducing techniques to receive these visions and messages.

Finally, shamans often serve as healers. They can repair ailments in the physical body by healing imbalances or damage to the person's spirit. This may be done by way of simple prayers, or elaborate rituals involving dance and song. Because illness is believed to come from malevolent spirits, the shaman will work to drive the negative entities out of the person's body, and protect the individual from further harm.

It's important to note that shamanism isn't a religion per se; instead, it's a collection of rich spiritual practices that are influenced by the context of the culture in which it exists. Today, many people are practicing shamans, and each does so in a way that is unique and specific to their own society and world view. In many places, today's shamans are involved in political movements, and have often taken key roles in activism, particularly that focused on environmental issues.

Sources

  • Conklin, Beth A. “Shamans versus Pirates in the Amazonian Treasure Chest.” American Anthropologist, vol. 104, no. 4, 2002, pp. 1050–1061., doi:10.1525/aa.2002.104.4.1050.
  • Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Tedlock, Barbara. The Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine. Bantam, 2005.
  • Walter, Mariko N, and Eva J Neumann-Fridman, editors. Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture. Vol. 1, ABC-CLIO, 2004.