Shamanism is an anthropological term referencing a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world. In areas where indigenous shamanism still thrives, there is a clear divide between "lay" people (who participate in and practice shamanic belief and tradition) and the professionals or specialists themselves. A lay practitioner of shamanism is not awarded any special title, as this is the norm within traditional societies. (Participation in shamanic ritual does not make one a shaman, any more than participation in a Catholic Mass makes one a Bishop.) A shamanic professional, who is a highly-trained and very often spiritually selected individual, is sometimes known as a shaman.
Shamanism encompasses the belief that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments/illness by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul/spirit restores the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. The shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans may visit other worlds/dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements. The shaman operates primarily within the spiritual world, which in turn affects the human world. The restoration of balance results in the elimination of the ailment.
The shaman's social role may be defined by a set of connected behaviors, rights and obligations as conceptualized by actors in a social situation and the expected behavior in a given individual within their cultural social status and social position.
Shamanism is a 'calling'. Individuals who are 'called' typically experience an illness of some sort over a prolonged period of time. This illness will prompt the individual to seek out spiritual guidance and other shamanic healers. Such illnesses are usually not healed/curable by physicians and western medicine. The shaman heals through spiritual means that consequently affect the human world by bringing about restored health.
Cultural anthropology approaches shamanism as an integral part of the study of culture, belief, and practice.
Shamans gain knowledge and the power to heal by entering into the spiritual world or dimension. The shaman may have or acquire many spirit guides in the spirit world, who often guide and direct the shaman in his/her travels. These spirit guides are always present within the shaman though others only encounter them when the shaman is in a trance. The spirit guide energizes the shaman, enabling him/her to enter the spiritual dimension. The shaman heals within the spiritual dimension by returning 'lost' parts of the human soul from wherever they have gone. The shaman also cleanses excess negative energies which confuse or pollute the soul.
Shamans act as "mediators" in their culture. The shaman communicates with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the deceased. The shaman communicates with both living and dead to alleviate unrest, unsettled issues, and to deliver gifts to the spirits.
Shamans perform a variety of functions depending upon their respective cultures: healing; leading a sacrifice; preserving the tradition by storytelling and songs; fortune-telling; acting as a psychopomp (literal meaning, “guide of souls”). In some cultures, a single shaman may fulfill several of these functions.
The functions of a shaman may include either guiding to their proper abode the souls of the dead (which may be guided either one-at-a-time or in a cumulative group, depending on culture), and/or curing (healing) of ailments. The ailments may be either purely physical afflictions—such as disease, which may be cured by gifting, flattering, threatening, or wrestling the disease-spirit (sometimes trying all these, sequentially), and which may be completed by displaying some supposedly extracted token of the disease-spirit (displaying this, even if "fraudulent", is supposed to impress the disease-spirit that it has been, or is in the process of being, defeated, so that it will retreat and stay out of the patient's body) --, or else mental (including psychosomatic) afflictions—such as persistent terror (on account of some frightening experience), which may be likewise cured by similar methods. Usually in most languages a different term other than the one translated "shaman" is applied to a religious official leading sacrificial rites ("priest"), or to a raconteur ("sage") of traditional lore; there may be more of an overlap in functions (with that of a shaman), however, in the case of an interpreter of omens or of dreams.
In some cultures there may be additional types of shaman, who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nani people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp.] Other specialized shamans may be distinguished according to the type of spirits, or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts. These roles vary among the Nenets, Enets, and Selkup shaman (paper; online). Among the Huichol, there are two categories of shaman. This demonstrates the differences among shamans within a single tribe.
Soul and spirit concepts
The variety of functions described above may seem like distinct tasks, but they may be united by underlying soul and spirit concepts.
This concept can generally explain more, seemingly unassociated phenomena in shamanism:
This concept may be based closely on the soul concepts of the belief system of the people served by the shaman (online). It may consist of retrieving the lost soul of the ill person. See also the soul dualism concept.
Scarcity of hunted game
This problem can be solved by “releasing” the souls of the animals from their hidden abodes. Besides that, many taboos may prescribe the behavior of people towards game, so that the souls of the animals do not feel angry or hurt, or the pleased soul of the already killed prey can tell the other, still living animals, that they can allow themselves to be caught and killed. For the ecological aspects of shamanistic practice, and related beliefs, see above.
Infertility of women
This problem can be cured by obtaining the soul of the expected child.
Beliefs related to spirits can explain many different phenomena. For example, the importance of storytelling, or acting as a singer, can be understood better if we examine the whole belief system. A person who can memorize long texts or songs, and play an instrument, may be regarded as the beneficiary of contact with the spirits (eg. Khanty people).
There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world; and several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Common beliefs identified by Eliade (1964) are the following:
- Spirits exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
- The shaman can communicate with the spirit world.
- Spirits can be good or evil.
- The shaman can treat sickness caused by evil spirits.
- The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy and go on "vision quests."
- The shaman's spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
- The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.
- The shaman can tell the future, scry, throw bones/runes, and perform other varied forms of divination
Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living. Shamans require individualized knowledge and special abilities. Many shamans operate alone, although some take on an apprentice. Shamans can gather into associations, as Indian tantric practitioners have done.
Although the causes of disease lie in the spiritual realm, inspired by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman "enters the body" of the patient to confront the spiritual infirmity and heals by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of medicinal plants native to their area, and an herbal treatment is often prescribed. In many places shamans learn directly from the plants, harnessing their effects and healing properties, after obtaining permission from the indwelling or patron spirits. In the Peruvian Amazon Basin, shamans and curanderos use medicine songs called icaros to evoke spirits. Before a spirit can be summoned it must teach the shaman its song. The use of totemic items such as rocks with special powers and an animating spirit is common. Such practices are presumably very ancient. Plato wrote in his Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that those who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to "listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth".
Belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in Latin America, exists in many societies. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm. Other societies assert all shamans have the power to both cure and kill. Shamanic knowledge usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, but it may also be regarded suspiciously or fearfully as potentially harmful to others.
By engaging in their work, a shaman is exposed to significant personal risk. Risks may emerge from the spirit world, from enemy shamans, or from the means employed to alter the shaman's state of consciousness. Some of the plant materials used by shamans are toxic or fatal if misused. Failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is often very highly ritualized.
Boundaries between the shaman and laity are not always clearly defined.
Among the Barasana [of Brazil], there is no absolute difference between those men recognized as shamans and those who are not. At the lowest level, most adult men have some abilities as shamans and will carry out some of the same functions as those men who have a widespread reputation for their powers and knowledge.
The Barasana shaman knows more myths and understands their meaning better, nonetheless the majority of adult men also know many myths.
Among Eskimo peoples the laity have experiences which are commonly attributed to the shamans of those Eskimo groups. Daydream, reverie, and trance are not restricted to shamans. Control over helping spirits is the primary characteristic attributed to shamans. The laity usually employ amulets, spells, formulas, songs. Among the Greenland Inuit, some of the laity have greater capacity to relate with spiritual beings. These people are often apprentice shamans who failed to complete their initiations.
The assistant of an Oroqen shaman (called jardalanin, or "second spirit") knows many things about the associated beliefs. He or she accompanies the rituals and interprets the behavior of the shaman. Despite these functions, the jardalanin is not a shaman. For this interpretative assistant, it would be unwelcome to fall into trance.
As mentioned, a (debated) approach explains the etymology of word “shaman” as meaning “one who knows”.Really, the shaman is a person who is an expert in keeping together the multiple codes through which this complex belief system appears, and has a comprehensive view on it in their mind with certainty of knowledge. The shaman uses (and the audience understands) multiple codes. Shamans express meanings in many ways: verbally, musically, artistically, and in dance. Meanings may be manifested in objects such as amulets.
There are semiotic theoretical approaches to shamanism, (“ethnosemiotics”). The symbols on the shaman's costume and drum can refer to Power animals, or to the rank of the shaman.
There are also examples of “mutually opposing symbols”, distinguishing a “white” shaman who contacts sky spirits for good aims by day, from a “black” shaman who contacts evil spirits for bad aims by night. (Series of such opposing symbols referred to a world-view behind them. Analogously to the way grammar arranges words to express meanings and convey a world, also this formed a cognitive map?). Shaman's lore is rooted in the folklore of the community, which provides a “mythological mental map”. Juha Pentikäinen uses the concept “grammar of mind”. Linking to a Sami example, Kathleen Osgood Dana writes:
Juha Pentikäinen, in his introduction to Shamanism and Northern Ecology, explains how the Sámi drum embodies Sámi worldviews. He considers shamanism to be a ‘grammar of mind’ (10), because shamans need to be experts in the folklore of their cultures (11).
Armin Geertz coined and introduced the hermeneutics, “ethnohermeneutics”, approaches to the practice of interpretation. Hoppál extended the term to include not only the interpretation of oral and written texts, but that of “visual texts as well (including motions, gestures and more complex ritual, and ceremonies performed for instance by shamans)”. It not only reveals the animistic views hiding behind shamanism, but also conveys their relevance for the contemporary world, where ecological problems have validated paradigms about balance and protection.
Shamanism is believed to be declining around the world. Some of this is due to other religious influences, like Christianity, that want people who practice shamanism to convert to their own religion. Another reason is western views of shamanism as primitive and supersititious. Whalers who are frequently interacting with inuit tribes are one source of this decline in that region.
In many areas, former shamans ceased to fill the functions in the community they used to, as they felt mocked by their own community, or regarded their own past as a deprecated thing, sometimes even unwilling to talk about it to an ethnographer.
Moreover, besides personal communications of former shamans, even some folklore texts narrate directly about a deterioration process. For example, a Buryat epic text details the wonderful deeds of the ancient “first shaman” Kara-Gürgän: he could even compete with God, create life, steal back the soul of the sick from God without his consent. A subsequent text laments that shamans of older times were stronger, possessing capabilities like omnividence, fortune-telling even for decades in the future, moving as fast as bullet; the texts contrast them to the recent heartless, unknowing, greedy shamans.
In most affected areas, shamanistic practices ceased to exist, with authentic shamans died and their personal experiences following. The loss of memories is not always lessened by the fact the shaman is not always the only person in a community who knows the beliefs and motifs related to the local shamanhood (laics know myths as well, among Barasana, even though less; there are former shaman apprentices unable to complete the learning among some Greenlandic Inuit peoples, moreover, even laics can have trance-like experiences among Eskimos; the assistant of a shaman can be extremely knowledgeable among Dagara). Although the shaman is often believed and trusted exactly because he/she "accommodates" to the "grammar" of the beliefs of the community, but several parts of the knowledge related to the local shamanhood consist of personal experiences of the shaman (illness), or root in his/her family life (the interpretation of the symbolics of his/her drum), thus, these are lost with his/her death. Besides of this, in many cultures, the entire traditional belief system has become endangered (often together with a partial or total language shift), the other people of the community remembering the associated beliefs and practices (or the language at all) became old or died, many folklore memories (songs, texts) went forgotten—this may threaten even such peoples which could preserve their isolation until the middle of the 20th century, like the Nganasan.
Some areas could enjoy a prolonged resistance due to their remoteness.
- Variants of shamanism among Eskimo peoples were once a widespread (and very diverse) phenomenon, but today are rarely practiced, and they were already in the decline among many groups even in the times when the first major ethnological researches were done, e.g. among Polar Eskimos, in the end of 19th century, Sagloq died, the last shaman who was believed to be able to travel to the sky and under the sea—and many other former shamanic capacities were lost in that time as well, like ventriloquism and sleight-of-hand.
- The isolated location of Nganasan people allowed shamanism to be a living phenomenon among them even in the beginning of 20th century, the last notable Nganasan shaman's séances could be recorded on film in the 1970s.
After exemplifying the general decline even in the most remote areas, let us mention that there are some revitalization or tradition-preserving efforts as a response. Besides collecting the memories, there are also some tradition-preserving and even revitalization efforts, sometimes led by authentic former shamans (for example among Sakha people and Tuvans). However, according to Richard L. Allen, Research & Policy Analyst for the Cherokee Nation, they are overwhelmed with fraudulent Shaman. "One may assume that anyone claiming to be a Cherokee "shaman, spiritual healer, or pipe-carrier," is equivalent to a modern day medicine show and snake-oil vendor." In fact, there is no Cherokee word for Shaman or Medicine Man. The Cherokee word for "medicine" is Nvowti which means "power".
Besides tradition-preserving efforts, there are also neoshamanistic movements, these may differ from many tradtitional shamanistic practice and beliefs in several points. Admittedly, several traditional beliefs systems indeed have ecological considerations (for example, many Eskimo peoples), and among Tukano people, the shaman indeed has directly resource-protecting roles, see details in section Ecological aspect.