What is shamanism?
The World of 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.