The term “shamanism” is presently often used as an umbrella term referring to a variety of spiritual practices. , although it was first applied to the ancient religion of the Turks and Mongols, as well as those of the neighboring Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples.
The word “shaman” originates from the Evenk language (Tungusic) of North Asia and was introduced to the west after Russian forces conquered the shamanistic Khanate of Kazan in 1552. Upon learning more about religious traditions across the world, western scholars also described similar magico-religious practices found within the indigenous religions of other parts of Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas as shamanism.
Shamanism encompasses the premise 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.
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 a phenomenon called 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. 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.
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 assist in soul retrieval. In shamanism it is believed that part of the human soul is free to leave the body. 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.
Because a portion of the soul is free to leave the body it will do so when dreaming, or it will leave the body to protect itself from potentially damaging situations, be they emotional or physical. In situations of trauma the soul piece may not return to the body on its own, and a shaman must intervene and return the soul essence.
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.
Shamans perform a variety of functions depending upon their respective cultures; healing,leading a sacrifice, preserving the tradition by storytelling and songs, fortune-telling, and acting as a psychopomp (literal meaning, “guide of souls”). 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 a 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 a 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.
There are distinct 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.
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.
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. For this interpretative assistant, it would be unwelcome to fall into trance.
- Icaros / Medicine Songs
- Sweat lodge
- Vision quests
- Swordfighting / Bladesmithing