Traditional shamanism: a worldwide phenomenon
What is shamanism?
The World of Shamanism
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,4 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.7
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.