Our World: Shamans and Spirits

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality - Michael Harner 2013

Our World: Shamans and Spirits

Close your eyes,

then you will find the way.

—from a Puyallup Indian myth1

Based on archaeological and comparative ethnological evidence, shamanism is believed by many scholars to be at least 30,000 years old and quite possibly is more ancient. Without dispute, it is the most time-tested system for healing through the purposeful integration of mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities. Although the word “shaman” comes from the Tungusic-speaking peoples of Siberia and north China, the worldwide similarity of the basic practices led anthropologists to apply the term generically elsewhere.

Until the present century, shamanism was practiced on all inhabited continents by indigenous peoples, including such widely separated peoples as the Sami (formerly “Lapps”) of northernmost Europe, the aboriginal peoples of Australia, the Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, and the indigenous peoples of North and South America. However, due to such factors as introduced disease, wars, missionization, and persecution, the numbers of indigenous shamans were drastically reduced in the last five centuries, commonly along with a radical erosion of their culture’s shamanic knowledge. In the last few decades this situation has started to change.


Definitions are often a contentious matter, particularly in the case of shamans and shamanism. What I offer now is what I have personally found useful in my work with shamans, and within shamanism, for half a century. The following words are not intended to satisfy everyone, or perhaps even most, but they are intended to communicate what I am talking about in this book.

While the work of shamans encompasses virtually the full gamut of known spiritual practices, shamanism is universally characterized by an intentional change in consciousness (Eliade’s “ecstasy”) to engage in purposeful two-way interaction with spirits. Its most distinctive feature, which is not universal, is the out-of-body journey to other worlds.2 It should be noted that in some indigenous societies, there are shamans who do not journey at all, and others who journey only in the Middle World or, if they journey beyond the Middle World, may not go to both the Upper and Lower Worlds. What they all do share is disciplined interaction with spirits in nonordinary reality to help and heal others.

Whether journeying or not, shamans depend heavily upon the assistance of their tutelary entities, or helping spirits, with whom they interact in the altered state of consciousness that worldwide is most commonly achieved with the aid of auditory (sonic) driving. Both in traditional indigenous settings and in contemporary society, shamans work within a holistic framework. They address the spiritual side of illness in a complementary relationship with the nonspiritual treatment of illness and injury.

Shamans must be distinguished from sorcerers. Sorcerers are not healers and commonly cause pain and suffering.


A basic assumption in shamanism is that there are two realities, and the perception of each depends upon one’s state of consciousness. This assumption is explicit in core shamanism but usually is implicit in indigenous shamanism, where there is commonly not as much interest in a disciplined distinction between realities. Indeed, some indigenous shamans I have known seemed to enjoy the drama and romance of a blurring between realities.

Shamans access another reality especially in order to work with helping spirits to heal, divine, and accomplish other tasks for their patients and clients. This other reality is accessed by entering the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC), as I described in The Way of the Shaman.3 The SSC can range from light to deep and is most commonly entered temporarily with the help of auditory driving.

Those in the ordinary state of consciousness (OSC) perceive ordinary reality (OR); those in the SSC are able to enter into and perceive nonordinary reality (NOR). These states are both called realities because each is empirically encountered and has its own forms of knowledge and relevance to human existence.

NOR is not a consensual reality, and indeed if it were, shamanic practitioners would have no function, for it is their responsibility to perceive successfully what others do not. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the shamanic practitioner is the ability to move back and forth at will between these realities with discipline and purpose in order to heal and help others.


“Seeing” is an important aspect of shamanism and shamanic journeying. As Eliade remarks, “ ‘Seeing’ a spirit … is a certain sign that one has in some sort obtained a ‘spiritual condition,’ that is, that one has transcended the profane condition of humanity.”4 The word “seer” in English may refer to the ancient European shamans, those who were “see-ers.” Similarly, the Matsigenka Indians of the Upper Amazon call a shaman one “who sees.”5 At the same time, “seeing” is a gloss in shamanism for more than visualizing, for it refers to perceiving with all the senses, including hearing, touch, smell, and taste.

Shamans differ from those who believe in spirits, because they know from firsthand experience that spirits exist. They see the spirits, touch them, hear them, smell them, and converse with them. This is why in many tribal societies around the world, the shaman is referred to not only as “one who sees” but also as “one who knows,” or as a “person of knowledge.” Shamans no more believe spirits exist than you believe your family, friends, and acquaintances exist. You know your family, friends, and acquaintances exist because you talk and otherwise interact with them daily. Similarly, shamans know spirits exist because they interact with them daily or, more often, nightly, for it is usually easier to see spirits in darkness. Also, darkness is an important medium for identifying spirits, for it eliminates the possibility of confusing them with the ordinary images of daylight reality.

The familiar concept of the “third eye” from Eastern spiritual practices crops up elsewhere. It is often known among Australian aboriginals, for example, as the “strong eye,” located similarly in the center of the forehead. Sometimes a quartz crystal, a uniquely important stone cross-culturally in shamanism, is pressed into that center to help the beginning shaman see shamanically more clearly.6 In former times, a Paviotso shaman in America could carry a quartz crystal on the cave power quest described in Chapter 1 so as to be able afterward to “see through anything.”7 The seeing of shamans is not restricted to perceiving in darkness but commonly extends to seeing through things that in ordinary reality appear to most people as opaque. In shamanic extraction healing work, one sees or senses the illness within the sick person.8

A power to “see through anything” is a common feature of shamanic experience. This power brings its own light to penetrate darkness and matter, as Knud Rasmussen notes for the Iglulik Eskimo:

The first time a young shaman experiences this light, while sitting up on the bench [in the darkened igloo] invoking his helping spirits, it is as if the house in which he is suddenly rises; he sees far ahead of him, through mountains, exactly as if the earth were one great plain, and his eyes could reach the end of the earth. Nothing is hidden from him any longer.9

In shamanism, “seeing” also involves seeing with the heart, or knowing in your heart that what you are perceiving is truth. This emotional certainty is fundamental to the experience of direct revelation and is one of the features that usually characterize shamanic seeing.

In 1968 I was discussing shamanic seeing with French ethnologist Jacques Lemoine, a specialist in the shamanism of the Hmong peoples of Laos. Although an outstanding fieldworker, he had never asked the shamans if they saw images, because they had already told him that they “saw with the heart.” Therefore he assumed that no visual perception was involved. I urged him to interview one of his Hmong shaman friends further. Sure enough, a few months later he reported that they did indeed see images with their closed and covered eyes when they were doing their journeys and other work, and that they still said they saw with the heart, simply because emotional certainty was part of their direct revelations. Such an emotional certainty is also necessary for successful work in Western shamanic healing.


For the Westerner, it is easy to assume that shamans practice their profession full-time. In fact, however, shamans usually spend most of their time doing ordinary work such as farming or hunting, food gathering and processing, and child-rearing. In the evenings, and upon request, they journey and do other shamanic work in a disciplined and controlled way. Their spiritual work in an altered state of consciousness is very intense. It is not possible even to eat a meal when doing it. So it is inconceivable that one could be working in this kind of altered state of consciousness all day on a regular basis. Shamans must be part-timers.

Persons may become shamans in many different ways. In Siberia, for example, shamans might inherit the power and knowledge through their families.10 Elsewhere in Siberia, and in some places in native South America, persons might suffer a serious illness, such as smallpox, and be expected to die but then have a miraculous recovery.11 Or perhaps it was a freak accident like a lightning strike that one survived. When such a thing happened, the community members characteristically concluded that healing power had come to save the person. They then sometimes asked the power-blessed person, upon recovery, to help heal someone else who was sick. The recovered person, even if unsure of his or her ability, could hardly refuse relatives and friends in need. If, in response, he or she successfully intervened, a shaman could be born.

In some indigenous societies, children were watched to see if they showed signs of being directly in touch with the spiritual realms, such as when they spontaneously sang a song apparently received from the spirits, as among the Pomo of Native California. If such signs occurred, then the children’s healing powers might be tested by the adults.12 However, even in such cases the child was rarely recognized as a full-fledged shaman until becoming an adult. Shamanic practitioners worldwide were typically mature adults, usually with their own children.

In certain cultures, it was quite common to pay an established shaman for training. For example, East Greenland Eskimo shamans usually had several paid teachers.13 Among the Shuar in eastern Ecuador, the only known way to become a shaman is to buy the power, in the form of spirit helpers, from another shaman.14 The usual payment in the 1950s was in shuar kuit, or “Indian valuables.” To pay a well-known shaman for a weeklong period of training and power transmission, a man might have to spend two or three years amassing enough feather headdresses, blowguns, curare blowgun dart poison, perhaps a hunting dog, and maybe even a muzzle-loading shotgun. Today shamanism remains strong among the Shuar, but the payment is usually in major amounts of Ecuadorian currency.

There are other ways, too, that one may become a shaman. In the Conibo tribe of eastern Peru, for example, the beginner, under the guidance of a shaman, may learn primarily from the spirit of a tall sacred tree (the ceiba).15 In the old days among Inuit of the Arctic, usually one of the most valued ways to become a shaman was to be initiated by the spirits in extreme isolation while suffering. To achieve this, an apprentice, under the supervision of a shaman, might spend days alone in a miniature igloo in the dead of winter without any heat, light, food, and little or no water, until the spirits brought enlightenment and healing power.16

Perhaps one of the most mysterious and distinctive ways of becoming a shaman has been through experiencing the dismemberment of one’s body in an altered state of consciousness. Accounts of this kind of initiatory experience are relatively common among Siberian tribes and Aboriginal Australian people. Later we will examine this important type of shamanic experience and its significance (see Chapter 11).

While there are many ways to become a shaman, how is not as important as the strength of the helping spirits supporting a person. In other words, the crucial issue is not whether one pays a shaman, as among the Shuar, or almost starves and freezes to death in isolated darkness on the ice, as among some Inuit in the days before missionization. Rather, the issue can be stated very simply: does one’s shamanic work produce successful results for those who ask for help? If such results come, it matters little how or where one trained, or if one trained at all in a formal sense, for the people will recognize him or her as a shaman. Shamans are known by their works, and the ultimate judgment is by those on whose behalf they work for healing, divination, and other purposes.


Shamans need to be distinguished from priests. Priests, whether tribal priests or those of the major civilizations, typically lead ceremonies involving extended traditional liturgies and rituals that should be performed in a specified manner, with emphasis on prayer in honor of the spirits and gods. The ideal is to perform the public ritual perfectly without the slightest deviation in detail of prayer or offering.

Such rituals can be beautiful and emotionally moving, but they are not shamanism. While shamans can and do make prayers and offerings, shamanism is very much a revelatory activity in which the shaman moves from this reality to another. There are, of course, cultures in which individuals do both priestly and shamanic work. These persons are shaman-priests. The mara’akame of the Huichol Indians of northwestern Mexico are an example of such individuals. To become a mara’akame, one must spend years learning the priestly liturgies perfectly, as priests must do in other traditions. At the same time, the mara’akame learns to change consciousness and journey with the aid of the native hallucinogens, usually peyote or datura. Some mara’akame are more priests than shamans, and others are more shamans than priests, but they typically can act as both.

The medicine men and women of the Plains tribes of native North America likewise can be most accurately considered shaman-priests. Through the vision quest, the purification lodge, and other consciousness-changing practices and rituals, they learn to interact directly with the spirits, often in darkness. In addition, they learn detailed traditional public rites and prayers in order to honor the spirits recognized by the society. This normally takes years of training to perform correctly. Direct revelation is thus balanced simultaneously with ceremonial leadership in a ritual.

Whether a specific medicine man or woman can be defined technically as a shaman depends heavily on their direct interaction with the spirits and partly upon whether they make journeys in an altered state of consciousness. Such journeying among Plains peoples is often a very subtle thing that cannot be easily recognized by an outsider, and is done most commonly in the Middle World. In the case of any specific medicine man or woman, it might take years for an outsider to discover whether that person makes such journeys and, if they do, whether they sometimes go beyond our Middle World.

My intent in distinguishing between indigenous priests and shamans is not to make invidious comparisons, for the work done by each has its own traditional value to the community. The differences, however, ought to be kept in mind, because it would be confusing and misleading if the meaning of “shaman” were to become blurred.


There are many specialized shamanic practices. Mediumship (or “channeling”) is a significant example. In mediumship a helping spirit (or “guide”) comes to the medium, who, after entering an altered state of consciousness and relinquishing control, voluntarily embodies it. Shamans do this, too, to varying degrees, depending upon the needs of the situation. Doing this in shamanism goes by various names, such as voluntary possession, merging, union, or embodiment. In indigenous shamanism, the spirit merging with the shaman is often considered to be a god, goddess, or ancestor. In contrast to my position decades ago, I now acknowledge mediumship as an important aspect of shamanic practice. However, if a medium does no other kind of shamanic work, it is hard to call it full shamanism. Nineteenth-century British mediumship comes to mind as studied and described by Alfred Russel Wallace.17

Full shamans can invite a helping spirit to speak through them, answering questions, but the merging is more commonly done to bring power into the shaman to heal others. Even more distinct from mediumship is the journey of shamans to visit other worlds. The spirits who help the shamans on journeys are not called “guides,” because that is really a mediumistic term and can be confused in full shamanism with spirit animals, who may simply guide a person from one place to another on a shamanic journey.

If deep in an altered state of consciousness, the fully merged shaman here in the Middle World can be relatively unconscious of what the embodied spirit is communicating, or doing, through him or her. In contrast, the journeying shaman is usually quite aware of what is happening (except in a reconstructed Sami method) and attempts to remember as many details of the journey experience as possible. Thus the shaman normally can later relate to others in detail what took place in a spirit world, whereas a shaman who has consciously “stepped aside” to facilitate mediumistic communication often emerges from the altered state with limited memory, if any, of what transpired.

While the shamanic journey is seen as the most distinguishing feature of shamanism, most experienced shamans include in their practice degrees of mediumship, voluntary possession, merging, and embodiment, and they can be very important parts of their work. This is particularly true when shamans bring back a helping spirit to heal a patient or to answer questions through the shaman.

The concept of the two realities is useful in understanding the subtle distinction between “merging” and “embodiment.” In nonordinary reality the shaman’s spirit, or soul, may merge or engage in union with another spirit in another world, without involving the body of the shaman remaining in the Middle World. Thus, it is not “embodiment.” However, if those spirits join together in the shaman’s body here in the Middle World, as in mediumistic work or certain kinds of shamanic healing, that can be called “embodiment,” although at a deeper level it still is a form of merging or union of the shaman’s own spirit or soul and another.

Depending on the indigenous culture, a person who does only mediumship may be considered a shaman, as often is the case in Korea and parts of Southeast Asia. I have changed my earlier position on this, but nonetheless they do not appear to be full shamans. In Japan, women who are mediums specialize in being possessed by the spirits of the dead in order to help them communicate with the living. I have not read reports that they heal their clients otherwise. If they do not, then they probably should not be called shamans.

The reasons for such limited or truncated shaman-like work appear lost in the mists of history. What is clear is that historical factors have greatly affected what survives as shamanism.


Indigenous peoples supply shamans and their families with food and other assistance in order to reciprocate their divinatory, healing, and other services. Shamans who help their people do not need to worry about their families going hungry. Because tribal reciprocity is more subtle than the impersonal cash exchanges of our market economy, some Westerners mistakenly have assumed that shamans do not get paid for their work, especially since such reciprocity is not mentioned publicly.

By way of illustration, I once took members of a Plains Indian medicine men’s society to an international healing conference in Austria. Most of these medicine men had never done their sacred work off the reservation. At the international conference, before conducting a mass healing session, the medicine men made speeches of the type they gave on the reservation to their people. As on the reservation, they were careful to declaim, “We do not accept payment for this work.”

After these speeches were made to the Europeans, the medicine men produced a profoundly impressive traditional healing session in utter darkness. When it was over and the lights came on, the audience was obviously awed and impressed. They trooped out of the room in silent respect but without leaving a single gift, having taken the holy men at their word.

What the European audience did not understand was that, among the medicine men’s people, their speeches about not accepting payment were to make clear that their healing work was not done to acquire cash, and that their healing services were available to all, rich and poor. Nonetheless, on the reservation after such a healing session, almost everyone tried to leave some sort of gift behind. These gifts were usually symbolic offerings such as tobacco but often included envelopes containing significant amounts of money, given especially by the families of the patients.

For the medicine men, the failure of the Europeans to leave gifts so shocked them that they refused to do another healing session the rest of the month they were scheduled to stay in Europe. Instead, they mainly watched television, especially Western movies, in their hotel rooms until time to return to America.

One reason I share this story is that today in contemporary Western circles there can be a certain romantic idealism about the material side of shamanism—sometimes to such a degree that Westerners may look askance at anyone who accepts payment, other than a pouch of tobacco, for shamanic services. They should know that today among Native Americans of the Northwest Coast, it is not unusual for a person to leave a gift of a hundred dollars or more for a healing session of two hours by an outstanding shaman, with money being shared by the shaman and the assisting drummers. Similarly, among the Mono-Yokuts people of Native California in the early twentieth century, shamans were commonly given gifts of thirty to fifty dollars per healing session, the equivalent at that time of at least one or two weeks’ pay for a farm laborer.18

Repayment of obligations takes different forms in different societies, but it takes place nonetheless. In a few tribal societies, shamans may explicitly specify how much is to be paid in exchange for their services. Among the Shuar people of the Upper Amazon, the payment for a healing to an outstanding shaman traditionally was a pig, featherwork, a blowgun, a shotgun, or a combination of these. If the shaman had to travel to a patient in a distant neighborhood, often payment was required in advance!

What is important is that matters of material reward not be on the minds of shamans, for such preoccupations can interfere with their necessary concentration on working generously and compassionately with the spirits to help others. Similarly, to mention payments to shamans can interfere with their being helped by compassionate spirits in the healing work.


Tribal shamans may seem to work long hours. When the sun sets, their day’s ordinary chores done, they then have shamanic tasks to undertake in their community. The work at times can appear quite strenuous, involving several hours of dancing, drumming, and other physical activity, as in Siberia.

In some parts of the indigenous world, well-known shamans may also be requested to make distant “house calls,” requiring them to walk, paddle, or ride horseback (or reindeer-back) significant distances to visit infirm patients, although more frequently patients and clients come to visit the shamans.

The shamans’ arduous routines and the ceaseless demands of their communities have led some Western observers to wonder why anyone would want to shamanize. Indeed, it is common even for many younger relatives of a tribal shaman to express the disinclination to become a shaman, for fear that their lives would not be their own.

Nevertheless, for millennia persons have become shamans. To explain this, some anthropologists have proposed that individuals become shamans in order to acquire social power and prestige. Such factors can, of course, sometimes be involved, along with the pursuit of wealth, as is the case with some Shuar in Ecuador. But looking at shamanism cross-culturally and from the inside, economic and social factors are not particularly important, for there are far greater nonmaterial rewards. What the outsiders miss, not having experiential knowledge of shamanism, is the great spiritual joy and ecstasy one commonly experiences working with the spirits and helping others who are suffering or in pain.


In my opinion, it is unsafe not to know shamanism. Virtually all humans have unconscious connections with spirits, but the vast majority of Westerners lack conscious knowledge of them and thus fail to employ them to help and protect themselves. In addition, they may use them unknowingly in nonordinary ways that may be harmful to others.

For example, New York City or any major urban area is a shaman’s nightmare. There we have millions of people crowded together, often tense and under stress, commonly experiencing ungenerous feelings toward others but without any awareness or control of their power to harm others on a spiritual level. When a cartoonist draws someone “looking daggers” at someone else, it is a metaphor for the spiritual harm that people can wreak on others. Through shamanic knowledge and training, one can bring full awareness to such power so as to help, not hurt, others.

Shamans all over the world know that deep feelings of hostility toward another person can result in that other person becoming seriously ill. Knowing this, shamans (not sorcerers) can exercise consciousness and discipline to control the nonordinary, or spiritual, side of their anger, only venting the ordinary side. In this way, wise and experienced shamans carefully keep their spiritual powers under control to protect the object of their anger from psychic or spiritual damage.

Such shamanic self-control is not just altruistic. In shamanic cultures, it is well known that shamans can harm as well as heal; but it is also known that doing harm spiritually is a very serious mistake—not just because of ethics but because it is suicidal. In the folk wisdom of tribal societies around the world, it is taught that harmful shamanic acts, or sorcery, sooner or later backfire onto the perpetrator with a multiplier effect.

Conversely, the multiplier effect that punishes shamans “gone bad” rewards those who focus their abilities on alleviating human suffering. When shamans generously use their power to heal others, the compassionate spirits usually give them even more power and help them advance on this path.


The Middle World, our home, has a complex assortment of spirits, many of which unfortunately have limited compassion, or none at all, and can even be the source of illness and trouble. Others can be positive beings, as are many nature spirits, and helpers, most famously the power animal, a spirit type that we will discuss shortly.

Here I will offer only brief sketches of some problematical Middle World spirits, since they are not the focus of this book.


Some spirits of deceased persons have significant determination and power to remain in the Middle World to look after their surviving family members. They are typically the spirits of people who possessed considerable power during their lifetime but lost it, usually very late in life. The deceased person’s power spirit usually lingers in the Middle World in haunts that had long been familiar to it. This is the kind of spirit that my Shuar companions were depending upon to protect them at that river crossing.

It is also the kind of power spirit that traditional Inuit, for example, sought for their children by giving them the name of a deceased relative that they admired for hunting and other manifestations of power. By bestowing the name upon a child, they hoped to attract the same power to the child for his or her adult life.

These quasi-compassionate ethnocentric spirits usually provide power and protection only to their own descendants. As their intent is to protect and help their own successive generations, they are not fully compassionate in the sense that they may also undertake hostile action against outsiders who seem to threaten their descendants, their sacred places and objects, and their interests. In other words, they are both compassionate and hostile, depending upon with whom they are dealing.

An Illustration: The Shuar (Jívaro)

Until the spiritual culture of the Shuar significantly deteriorated during the last half of the twentieth century under the impact of missionization and colonization, they sought the power of an ancestor to make them resistant to illness and misfortune, and to avoid being killed in a hostile world of feuds and warfare. In short, the power was to ensure deserving descendants a long life. Young men would seek power at distant sacred waterfalls, while the women sought their power spirits within the shelter of small lean-tos in the forest close to their homes. Both genders used hallucinogens to help them perceive the spirits.19

As the men were the warriors, the power was considered especially important for their protection and success against enemies. There were two stages to the male Shuar’s classic vision or power quest—the first one was the vision itself, the arutam, usually at a sacred waterfall. As I described in my book The Jívaro, the power seeker suffered from hunger, exhaustion, and cold prior to getting a vision at a remote waterfall. If the suffering pilgrim was successful, a typically frightening vision came for a few seconds and tested the person’s bravery and seriousness of purpose. The second part of this quest usually occurred the next night during the questing person’s descent from the waterfall. At that time, the person slept beside the rapid of a river and hoped for a dream, which was the real transmission of the power.

If the dream came, it mostly was in the form of an appearance by a Shuar warrior, in traditional tribal dress, who spoke to the dreamer more or less in this fashion: “I am your ancestor. Just as I have killed many times, so will you. Just as I have lived a long time, so will you.” Immediately a feeling of power permeated the body of the dreamer, who usually then awoke, feeling an urge to kill.

These local ancestral spirits were expected by the Shuar not only to give them strength and well-being, but also to give them power in killing their families’ enemies. These ethnocentric spirits were those of persons who before or after dying resolved to continue to protect their descendants. They retained the Middle World prejudices they nourished when alive, so their compassion was mixed with hostility and even vengeance.

However, as I learned living with the Shuar, an outsider does not necessarily have to be a descendant to come under the protection of an ethnocentric power if the outsider has been helping its descendants. This may help explain my success at the waterfall and, years later, at the cave. Even so, the spirit’s protective power can be subsequently taken away from strangers, and even descendants, who behave in ways that do not honor the ancestor. Not only may these ethnocentric spirits take away the protective power, they may even exact vengeance on outsiders who have failed to protect sacred objects and places where the ancestral spirits reside.

The Example of the Nganasan Idol

A possible example of the vengeful side of a quasi-compassionate ethnocentric power is the main spiritual protector of the Nganasan people of western Siberia. This spirit is considered to be merged with an impressive carved anthropomorphic wooden figure (see Plate 5). The Nganasan have traditionally treated the figure with extreme reverence, leaving it in the care of a shaman with the responsibility of keeping the spirit content by communicating with it and making offerings.

As with other ethnocentric spirits, its compassion does not usually extend to outsiders, and especially not to tribes that have been enemies of the Nganasan. When going into battle against other tribes, the Nganasan carried this wooden image on a special sled, which seems somewhat analogous to the sacred ark that the ancient Hebrews carried into battle.

This wooden carving was of unknown age among the Nganasan, but certainly very old. It had a difficult history during the last couple of centuries, having been stolen from the Nganasan at least once and later recovered. In the mid-twentieth century it was in the care of the most famous Nganasan shaman, but, being old, he was worried about what would happen to it after he died. So he passed it on to a friend, the Russian ethnologist Yuri Simchenko, for safekeeping at his apartment in Moscow in order that it would not fall into the wrong hands.

In the 1980s, during a period of social and economic upheaval in the then Soviet Union, food became scarce in Moscow, and Yuri Simchenko soon was desperate for funds to feed his family. He contacted a visiting Finnish ethnologist to see if the Nganasan figure could be sold in the West to get some money for food. Heimo Lappalainen agreed to help and smuggled the carving out of Russia. Heimo, a friend and colleague, then contacted me, explaining how he needed to sell it at Yuri’s request, and told me Simchenko’s price.

Heimo and I agreed that we did not want to let the object be lost by selling it on the open market. So money was found to buy the carving from Yuri for the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. On behalf of the Foundation, I kept it in our home, covered and stored in a safe place. My intention was to return the power object to the Nganasan people when the political and economic situations in the former Soviet Union settled down and made it safe to do so. I treated it with respect and care, offering the image tastes of foods that I presumed the Nganasan people ate, and making assurances that I would get it home. I had long since concluded that spirits were real.

Then I noted that a curious series of fatalities occurred as the “idol” was taken farther and farther away from its own people. First the Nganasan shaman, Seime, died soon after turning over the figure to Yuri Simchenko. Then when Simchenko transferred the figure to Heimo Lappalainen to take to Finland, Simchenko died, and then when Heimo left the figure with me in America and returned to Finland, he died as well. Needless to say, this chain of events had a healthy effect on my conscientiousness, and I mentally elevated the spirit to deity-status just to be on the safe side. Over the subsequent years I kept giving it traditional offerings.

Finally, a few years ago, after many difficulties and false starts in Russia, the Foundation was able to return the object successfully to the Nganasan people through a meeting and ceremonial exchange at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. There Dr. Bill Brunton of the Foundation turned it over to a representative of the Nganasan people who, with her companions, was to take the idol back to Siberia. Bill noted that she was observably nervous and trembling as she accepted the power object, spoke to it, and gave it offerings. She and her entourage later reported, apparently with some relief, that their trip home to Siberia had gone amazingly well. For my part, I’m happy to relate that by all accounts, Bill Brunton and I both are still alive.


Among important spirits of the Middle World are the amoral powers, who lack even the narrow compassion of the ethnocentric spirits. Use of these powers to affect the lives of others without their permission is a symptom of sorcery.

These amoral spirits, whose effective realm is the Middle World, include the spirits of elements and the spirits of certain small objects and creatures, such as the tsentsak of the Shuar, which are “bribed” with tobacco to do whatever their “master” wishes, whether a shaman or a sorcerer.

A form of sorcery once common in Europe involves the use of the spirits of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, all of which are amoral. Wood, an Asian-named fifth element, can also play a (usually less recognized) role.

A present-day European survival of such sorcery was described to me by an Irish woman whose grandmother taught her how to “source” the elements to provide her with their power by rubbing dirt from the garden (earth) or charcoal (fire) from the fireplace on the forehead.20 (One could speculate that this “sourcery” may be the origin of the English word “sorcery,” despite the slight variation in spelling.)

Being amoral, the spirits of the elements lack compassion and simply provide power to reinforce whatever a sorcerer is attempting to do, whether for good or bad. Using these Middle World spirits, a sorcerer is tempted to affect and even damage other people’s lives,21 quite in contrast to the ethics of core shamanism, which emphasize the help of the transcended compassionate spirits dwelling in the Upper or Lower Worlds. If a shaman were for some reason to “go bad” and attempt to cause pain and suffering to another person or being, such compassionate spirits typically take back the powers they had lent to the shaman. Once this happens, the now powerless person is no longer able to heal others and, without the protection of that power, may become seriously ill or die if in a society where sorcery is prevalent.

A Classic Case of Sorcery: The Shuar Again

The Shuar (Jívaro) provide a good example of troubles that can occur when shamans are limited to the Middle World, as I first learned among them more than half a century ago. Working with Middle World spirits is both complicated and dangerous, and this was the world of the Shuar shamans. They did not ascend to the Upper World and went only a very short distance toward the Lower World—that is, only into the lakes and the rivers. A society that is thus limited to Middle World spirits tends to be strong on bewitching (sorcery). I shall use the past tense in writing about their practices, although I learn from visiting Shuar that much of what I describe still continues covertly. Overt bloodshed, however, is said to have declined due to the intervention of the Ecuadorian police.

Among the Shuar during my time in the field, this situation was aggravated by a strong spiritual dependence on an amoral spirit, the element water, which was implicitly emphasized as an underlying source of power. Rather than being sourced directly, as in the Irish case cited earlier, it was the common denominator of some of the most powerful spirits, including the local ancestors dwelling at the sacred waterfalls; the first and eternal shaman, Tsunki, dwelling underwater; and the boa constrictor in the lagoons. Shamans worked with such spirits to indirectly source the power of water.

Shuar shamans worked with other amoral spirits besides those of the elements. Both the good and bad shamans typically had small helping spirits, such as those of insects, snakes, and thorns that, depending on the type, were usually called tsentsak or tunchi. The “good” or healing shamans used them for curing patients, while the “bad” shamans employed them for bewitching.

Both these types were quite amoral and ready to be “bribed” by the shamans to help them. The tsentsak and tunchi spirits love tobacco, so shamans attracted and retained their services by ingesting an infusion of green-tobacco-leaf water day and night to feed and keep them merged with the shaman’s body.

Almost all Shuar shamans kept the spirits of these small helpers merged with their bodies not only to assist them in healing patients, but also to protect themselves from attacks by wawek or yahauchï uwishin (shamans “gone bad” who became sorcerers). For example, the tsentsak could gather together as shields to protect their “masters” when incoming tsentsak and tunchi “missiles” were sent by sorcerers to kill or seriously injure them.

The Shuar were formerly involved in long and bloody feuds. In the course of those armed conflicts, shamans would understandably get angry at the murderer of a family member or close relative. Some, unable to control their anger, would then use their power to retaliate shamanically against the perpetrator.

This was considered a big mistake, and shamans who did this were known, even to their close relatives, as having become “bad” shamans or wawek, in recognition of the fact that they had not only deviated from the shamanic ideal of helping to alleviate suffering and pain, but were also working in the opposite way.

If they engaged in spiritually hostile acts against a relative, they could anger a common ethnocentric ancestral spirit attempting to guard its descendants. Consequently, the spirit could be expected to remove its power from such a shaman, with only the “perfume” of the power remaining and then continually dwindling.

When the power had completely vanished, such persons were shamans no more. They now became victims of their own acts, for they had lost their protective power. Reportedly in a year and a half or less, they were expected to meet calamitous and painful deaths, such as by sorcerers and other enemies.22 Beyond the Shuar, and in general, such sorcery has a karmic-like effect that eventually hurts or kills the sorcerer.


Also in the Middle World are the spirits of deceased persons who are involuntarily here, unlike quasi-compassionate ethnocentric spirits that have chosen to remain. They normally do not have much power but still can be a widespread source of illness.

These spirits most commonly do not know that they are dead, and they are aware that they are lonely and usually unhappy. For this reason, they are often called “suffering beings,” or sometimes “wandering” or “lost” souls. In their unhappiness, they may seek to enter a living person’s body/mind or simply be hovering close to that person. In doing so, they typically reinforce the illusion that they are still alive, as they have merged with or attached to the living person. They not only can influence dreams, but the “memories of those deceased beings may become confused with the dreams of the living person, with the result that living persons may assume erroneously that they are having their own past-life experiences.”23

The person who is subjected to such an influence will not only be affected in dreams. In more extreme cases, he or she can become confused to the point of being unable to continue to function adequately as a member of society. Thus, troubles of a spirit nature can have serious repercussions in a person’s health and community life. It is the task of the shaman, when requested, to heal such persons with spiritual help.