Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world. A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.
The term “shamanism” is presently often used as an umbrella term referring to a variety of spiritual practices. 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 khazar word “shaman” was first applied to the ancient religion of the Turks and Mongols, as well as those of the neighboring Tungus and Samoyed peoples. The word was introduced in Europe via the Evenk (Tungus) language of North Asia, after Russian forces conquered the shamanistic Khanate of Kazan in 1552. Later, western scholars also described similar magical or religious practices found within the religions or practices of other peoples in Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas.
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.
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. Among the Huichol, there are two categories of shaman. This demonstrates the differences among shamans within a single tribe.
Among the Hmong people, the shaman or the Ntxiv Neej (Tee-Neng), acts as healer. The Ntxiv Neej also performs rituals/ceremonies designed to call the soul back from its many travels to the physical human body. A Ntxiv Neej may use several shamanistic tools such as swords, divinity horns, a gong (drum), or finger bells/jingles. All tools serve to protect the spirits from the eyes of the unknown, thus enabling the Ntxiv Neej to deliver souls back to their proper owner. The Ntxiv Neej may wear a white, red, or black veil to disguise the soul from its attackers in the spiritual dimension.
European exploiters in the early 19th century referred to traditional healers in parts of Africa in a derogatory manner as “witch doctors” practicing Juju. More contemporary anthropology records that the Dogon, or their ancestors from South Africa, practiced shamanism.
In the semi-desert Northern Cape region, the shamans of the |Xam people were known by the compound word ‘!gi:ten’, where ‘!gi’ is ‘power’ and ‘ten’ indicated possession. The word is phonetically identical to the Xhosa word for ‘doctor’. In areas in Eastern Free State and Lesotho, where they co-existed with the early Sotho tribes.
The classical meaning of shaman as a person who, after recovering from a mental illness (or insanity) takes up the professional calling of socially recognized religious practitioner, is exemplified among the Sisala (of northern Gold Coast): “the fairies “seized” him and made him insane for several months. Eventually, though, he learned to control their power, which he now uses to divine.”
The term sangoma, as employed in Zulu and Kongo languages, is effectively equivalent to shaman. Sangomas are highly revered and respected. Illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, pollution (contact with impure objects or occurrences) or by the ancestors themselves,either malevolently, or through neglect if they are not respected, or to show an individual her calling to become a sangoma (thwasa). For harmony between the living and the dead, vital for a trouble-free life, the ancestors must be shown respect through ritual and animal sacrifice.
The term inyanga also employed by the Nguni cultures is equivalent to ‘herbalist’ as used by the Zulu people and a variation used by the Karanga, among whom remedies (locally known as muti) for ailments are discovered by the inyanga being informed in a dream, of the herb able to effect the cure and also of where that herb is to be found. The majority of the herbal knowledge base is passed down from one inyanga to the next, often within a particular family circle in any one village.
Shamanism is also known among the Nuba of Kordofan in Sudan (former Nubia).
Initiation and learning
Shamans are normally “called” by dreams or signs which require lengthy training. However, shamanic powers may be “inherited”.
Turner and colleagues mention “shamanistic initiatory crisis”, a rite of passage for shamans-to-be, commonly involving physical illness and/or psychological crisis. The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China.
The wounded healer is an archetype for a shamanic trail and journey. This process is important to the young shaman. S/he undergoes a type of sickness that pushes her or him to the brink of death. This happens for two reasons:
- The shaman crosses over to the under world. This happens so the shaman can venture to its depths to bring back vital information for the sick, and the tribe.
- The shaman must become sick to understand sickness. When the shaman overcomes her or his own sickness s/he will hold the cure to heal all that suffer. This is the uncanny mark of the wounded healer.
Shamans gain knowledge and the power to heal by entering into the spiritual world or dimension. Most shamans have dreams or visions that tell them certain things. The shaman may have or acquire many spirit guides, who often guide and direct the shaman in his/her travels in the spirit world. 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.
Among the Selkups, the sea duck is a spirit animal because ducks fly in the air and dive in the water. Thus ducks belong to both the upper world and the world below. Among other Siberian peoples these characteristics are attributed to water fowl in general. Among many Native Americans, the jaguar is a spirit animal because jaguars walk on earth, swim in water, and climb in trees. Thus jaguars belong to all three worlds, Sky, Earth, and Underworld.
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. The soul is the axis mundi, the center of the shamanic healing arts. Shamans change their state of consciousness allowing their free soul to travel and retrieve ancient wisdom and lost power.
Shamans perform a variety of functions depending upon their respective cultures; curing (healing) of ailments, leading a sacrifice, preserving tradition by storytelling and songs, fortune-telling, and acting as a psychopomp (“guide of souls”). The functions of a shaman may also include 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).
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 abilities as shamans and will carry out 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 Inuit peoples the laity have experiences which are commonly attributed to the shamans of those Inuit 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, 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.