"Shaman" is a term in Evenk, Manchu and other Manchu-Tungus languages for a religious figure; who performs several functions, one of which is analogous to the function of a healer in other cultures. Sometimes the shaman is called a "medicine man" in English. (Though the word ends with "-man," it is a gender neutral term: a man or woman may be a shaman, depending upon cultural tradition. The plural is shamans.) The role of the shaman is to provide medical care, and to provide for other community needs during crisis times, via supernatural means (means that people from a European cultural tradition might regard as magic, a concept which has its roots in the shamanism of the Middle-east, see magi). The role of the shaman is to communicate with entities on the "spiritual plane", and to secure their aid to provide for the needs of their communities.

Shamans have existed in most parts of the world, and the ancient shamans of Europe are distantly remembered as druids, Baal Shem and volvas, and in fairy tales as wizards and witches. Fairy tales and even the language of everyday life include frequent references to knowledge obtained because "a little bird told me," which is a remnant of the idea that shamans can communicate directly with animals. In the western world many of the roles of shamans have been replaced by (or rather evolved into those of) priests, scholars and doctors.

Joseph Campbell described the essential difference between priest and shaman:

"The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own." (1969, p. 231)

The "Master of the Animals" represented in Neolithic cave paintings has Bronze Age counterparts in the natures of Orion in the Aegean and Enkidu in the Sumerian/Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.

Some shamans encourage the belief that they possess supernatural qualities that transcend human nature. To wit, shamans are usually credited with the ability to speak to spirits and perform feats of magic such as astral projection and healing. Shamans are usually found in tribal cultures with nature religions and beliefs in ancestor spirits, though some persons in modern Western Cultures also consider themselves to be shamans. The shaman's office is frequently held to be hereditary and his ancestral spirits may act as his chief conduits for spiritual aid. However, the most powerful shamans are those who have a natural aptitude for the calling. These individuals easily enter into the separate reality of the spirits, and do so without the need of drugs or other artificial support. Tradition also holds that the spirits choose the shaman, not people. A shaman may be initiated via a serious illness or near-death experience.

One of a shaman's main functions is to protect individuals from hostile supernatural influences. He or she deals with a range of spirits, performs sacrifices and procures oracles. The shaman may act as psychopomp, conducting the spirits of individuals who have just died to the proper refuge for dead spirits. Shamanistic traditions often include induction of trance through natural drugs (often neurotoxins known to be hallucinogens), chanting, fasting, dancing and music. The drum (tungur in Altaic) is an important instrument in shamanic ceremonies, as it is commonly used to induce autohypnotic phenomena. Researchers also suspect that in some cultures schizophrenia or similar conditions may predispose an individual to the role of shaman. That view is a negative interpretation of the same insight that is enunciated by many shamanic cultures -- that the best shamans spontaneously perform their functions.

The Sami shaman is named naid.


Shamanism refers to a variety of traditional beliefs and practices, that involve the ability to diagnose, cure, and sometimes cause illness because of a special relationship with, or control over, spirits. This tradition has existed all over the world since prehistoric times.

The word shaman originated among the Siberian Tungus (Evenks) and literally means he (or she) who knows; the belief that it may be derived from Sanskrit may be due to a confusion of shamanism and shamanism, from sanskrit shramana, Pali and Prakrit samana; but the samanas were ascetics, not shamans. There is a reported shamanistic influence on central Asian and Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) which also uses Sanskrit, so perhaps there is an overlap from popular etymology, if not a direct linguistic influence. Lamaistic Buddhism became popular with shamanic peoples such as the Mongols and Manchu after the fourteenth century. Forms of shamanistic ritual combined with Lamaism became institutionalized as state religion under the Chinese Yuan dynasty and Qing dynasty. Shamanistic practices are thought to predate all organized religions, and certainly was practiced in the neolithic. Aspects of it are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by it, reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, Calypso and many others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries. The transsubstantiation of bread and wine in the Catholic religion can be seen as a shamanic relic, suggestive of the use of entheogenic (psychedelic) substances to attain spiritual realization.

First let us note that not all traditional peoples approve of the use of shaman as a generic term, given that the word comes from a specific place and people. It has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a highly descriptive term which unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and other lore; and the ability to cure a person and mend a situation.

Second, shamanic practice continues not only in wild areas but in cities, towns, suburbs and shantytowns all over the world, not only in the tundras or the jungles or deserts.

Different forms of shamanism are found around the world, and are also known as medicine men and witch doctors. It has been especially common among circumpolar peoples; in Old Norse Religion, however, shamanism was seen as un-manly and practiced mainly by women, see Volvas and Wiccas (although in Old Norse mythology, the supreme god Odin was also seen as the foremost shaman). These shamans were killed by the church as witches.

Shamanism is based on the belief that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. In contrast to animism and animatism, which any and usually all members of a society practice, shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities. Shamans are not, however, organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests.

Shamans enter into trances, either autohypnotically or through the use of hallucinogens, during which time they are said to be in contact with the spirit world. In some societies shamanic powers are inherited. In others, shamans are "called:" Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which they interpret as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shamans are called in their dreams. In yet other societies shamans choose their career: Indians of the Plains would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest;" South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans. Shamans often observe special fasts and taboos particular to their vocation. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiars, usually spirits in animal form, or (sometimes) of departed shamans.

Shamans can communicate with these spirits to diagnose and cure victims of witchcraft. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also witches. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community but may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared. Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may be shamans (in Old Norse culture, as mentioned above, only women; for men to practice shamanism was shameful). In some societies male shamans exhibit a "two-spirit" identity, assuming the dress and attributes of a woman from a young age, including taking on the role of a wife in an otherwise ordinary marriage; this practice is common, and found among the Chukchee, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Aruacanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navaho, Lakota, and Ute, as well as other Native American tribes. Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful. They are highly respected and sought out by men in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their husbands.

Core Shamanism

Michael Harner synthesized shamanic beliefs and practices from all over the world into a system now known as core shamanism or neoshamanism. It does not hold a fixed belief system, but focuses on the practice of trance travel and may on an individual basis integrate indigenous shamanism, the teachings of Carlos Castaneda and other spiritualities. It is popular within the New Age movement and often confused with indigenous shamanism by its followers.


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