Shamanism - An Introduction
In the last thirty years shamanism became increasingly popular. Many people gain contact with their spirits and learn journeying to the spirits world. However, the connotation of the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" changed slowly in many heads and the original meaning of these terms seems to be obscured and mistaken for more dogmatic and religious paths (especially in the US of A). My homepage tries to clear up this misunderstandings and offers valuable hints for the serious practitioners of the shamanic path. Anthropologic literature shows a great variety of definitions of the term "shaman". Some of them I want to share with you. I am quoting Paul Uccusic, who listed some of them in his book "Der Schamane in uns":
Bellinger (Knaurs großer Religionsführer, 1986): ""Shaman (tungus.), sha-men (chines.), from samarambi (mansdhurian, flailing around madly)."
Lörler (1986): "Translated in german 'shaman' means 'to heat oneself up, to burn, to work with fire or heat'. The word originated from eastern siberian languages."
Panoff/Perrin (1982): "Originated from the tungusian (altaian language) saman - 'the one which is enraptured or loosing his self-control'"
Eliade (1952): "The shamanism strictu sensu is a siberian phenomenon par excellence. The russian word is derived from tungusian origins. In other central and northern asiatic languages this word is translated as ojun (jakutic), buga, boga (buge, bu) and udagan in mongolian (cf. burjatic udayan, jakutic udoyan, shamaness), turktataric kam, gam, mongolian kami etc. The tungusic term was explained as originated from the pali root samana."
Harner wrote that a shaman is a "man or woman who is deliberately changing his or her state of consciousness to communicate with a otherwise hidden reality in order to get informations and knowledge for his or her community." This last definition
renounces a religious foundation. The conception of shamanism is empiric whereas the religious conception is basing on dogmatic belief. However in traditional context both can be mixed, shamanism and religion are different things. This difference is very important. The traditional christian church looses much of its popularity. It has lost much of its mysticism and charisma.
Conservativism and dogmatism have token the place of intense peronal experience. More and more people are seeking other ways to satisfy their desire of mysticism and answers. Many think shamanism a practicable alternative to religion. Often they recognize very late that it is not as easy as they asume. Shamanism practiced as a path of life confronts you with yourself on a very intense
way. It offers no recipies of solving problems as religion does in its holy books.
Successfull shamanhood includes the personal development of the individual practicing it, as well as living this process. The spirits are talking to the shamanist but many tend to ignore unpleasant advices and pictures. They compensate their uncertainity
with dogmatic sentences of belief which take the role of commandments, just as in religion. The path is developing more and more to an indoctrinating believing-system which originated from the practitioner to run away from his or her flaws, the shadow-self.
Shamanhood in Europe was successfully viped out by the church and the inquisition. Traditional shamans disappeared but many shamanic fragments remained in the believing of the common folk. Shamanism as such is very old and can be dated back far in prehistoric times. Cultural anthropologists try to define shamanism as an initial stage of the institutionalized religious systems. The tribal shaman has many duties. He is healer, judge, preserver of myths, a specialist of supernatural things, the contact person to the spirits which rule many aspects of common life within the tribe. The failure of the shaman in his deeds was very often equal to his death (by the hands of his own community). Later these jobs were divided between more and more different persons and specialists. A common prejudice I encounter in the esoteric scene is that shamans are in some ways enlightened. Shamans are NOT enlightened masters or Gurus. Certain literature and persons of dubious seriousness seem to fuel such legends in western peoples. These thoughts are of buddhistic or hinduistic origins and mysthical (theosophical and anthroposophical) glossed over. Shamans were around thousands of years before the first codification of any such dogmatas concerning the enlightment. Please get that in your heads and stop bothering me with such weird ideas.
Felicitas Goodman discovered that many prehistoric paintings and sculptures are showing postures which alter the consciousness when done correctly. The painting in the cave of Lasceaux is showing a human with a birds head. On one hand it is a testimony of shamanism in the stone ages and on the other hand it is a detailed instruction of a certain posture. The staff with the bird on its top used as a vertical axis the body of the shaman is building an angle with the horizontal axis of exactly 37°. This painting is aging more than 14000 years. A egyptian painting of Osiris from the 3rd. Millenium B.C. is showing the deity in exactly the same position and angle. I am practicing variour positions with sometimes amazing success.
In many cultures shamans have to undergo long instruction periods. Sometimes such instruction periods are finished with a formal initiation rite which can be an important part of being recognized as a shaman within the community. In our western society I noticed that there are two major tendencies: The first thinks after finding the tiergeist they are "shamans" and the other spends much money on seminars in which they think to "learn" shamanism and afterwards think they are "shamans". As I have stated shamanism requires much more then only the intention of becoming a shaman. See also the story of one would-be shaman in Siberia. The tendency of copying other shamanic cultures, especially the american (southern and northern) ones I am partly leading back to the believe that everything is good which is not belonging to own traditions (most of the time christianity).
Not everyone claiming to be a shaman, actually is one. Especially in our western culture, where traditional shamanism is extincted and is being revived recently, this proofes to be a bigger problem. I am sure this is provoking protests from the side of many would-be shamans. The art of shamanism can be compared with the mastery of a musical instument. There may be one hundred persons practicing shamanistic technics, but there will be only very few actually having the special talent of shamanizing, too. It is quite a difference to use shamanic technics for yourself or for your community or personal surroundings. The ability and the desire of shamanizing are rarely united in one person - well, untill the mid eighties, at least. Since then the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and other individual native shamans and european practicians of the art offer more possibilities to learn shamanizing. Gifted individuals are born in (currently) non-shamanic cultures, as well. Please note that it depends on the spirits whether one is destined to shamanize or not. If you receive the medicine to shamanize by the spirits you are being accepted as a shaman by them. However, recognition in real-life as a shaman depends on the culture you are living in and in the way how you are living the vision. It will take still some time until shamans are recognized and accepted in western cultures again.
The gift of shamanizing is often inherited to the most promising descendant after the death of the last bearer of this talent (or: the last keeper of the spirits). Sometimes shamans appear sporadically in families otherwise inconspicuous. Especially gifted shamans are often excentrics. As long as they are not shamanizing actively, they appear to the common people sometimes even as insane lunatics. The call of the spirits can be very strong. Psychosomatic and other pathologic symptoms are increasing untill the shamanic initiation crisis takes place. The new shaman is confronted with the non-ordinary reality and his talents. In siberian and arctic cultures this crisis can be life-threatening and the shaman can fall into deep comateous or catatonic states, even for longer times. The soul is leaving the body and is being roofed by the spirits. The initiation crisis often reveals future special talents of the shaman. Details of the vision are interpreted by older shamans or the shaman gets his knowledge from the spirits directly.
After the shaman returned to consciousness he has survived death and is a twice-born person. Near death experiences triggered by diseases or accidents can include a call of the spirits for the individual suffering. Other signs of a gifted shaman can be: homosexuality, transgenderism, unusual anatomy, bad health state (chronical) and many other things marking a person as "different" to the common people. Please note that all these signs are not automatically imply that you are a shaman. These sings are only more common among shamans.
Sometimes it is fascinating to have an eye on the families dispositions. As mentioned above in some families shamans are quite common and in others not. There can be a saltatory emerging of shamans in a family when only every two or three generations shamans appear in the ancestry. Sometimes hundreds of years pass by before the next shaman appears in a family.
Against the thesis that the initiation crisis is vital for becoming a shaman stand the researchings of Michael Harner and of course of some shamanic cultures. He sold his rifle to receive instructions. The acceptance of the community is absolutely necessary for a shaman. This can be achieved through a formal initiation rite (as shown by Mark Oppitz in his film) or by his deeds. The rumours of the abilities of a shaman can be very exaggerating, but spreading the fame of the shaman very far. In many cultures shamans have to undergo long instruction phases, before they have the ability to heal and to act as shaman. The shaman learns everything about the myths (which he is actually living during his ecstatic flight of the soul), songs, herbs, spirits and laws of his tribe. Many aspects of everydays life may require the help of a shaman now and then. The new shaman learns everything about rites and controlling trance states.
Well, this enumeration is idealized in a way. It should illustrate how much a shaman had to know, before he was allowed to shamanize for his community. In europe we encounter a similar phenomenon in the magic secret societes. Novices have to undergo a trial period and then a magical initiation. Before a novice magician actually can do magic he has to learn many things concerning magic. I recommend Nevill Drury's masterpiece "The Shaman and The Magician" for deeper studies on this thematic complex. The chaos magic current which was developed in the second half of the 20th century as a synthesis from the old traditions is a great chance to revitalize european and western shamanism and magic. Another path is chosen by Harners Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which tries to make the shamanic technics known to a large amount of people.
Even if only a few attendants of the courses actually have the shamanic talent the public acceptance of shamanism is growing. However the danger of degeneration into a kind of easy-to-digest-and-comfortable "flower-power" shamanism is very high. A shaman must also know how to do whichcraft and sorcery. Look at living shamans and you will realize this reality. Of course they don't teach this at workshops - this would be light-hearted and dangerous. Among the common deeds a shaman also knows how to counterattack and reflect evil magic influences. Ina Rösings "Mundo Ankari" series is a valuable resource for the reality of "black healing" in the andean Callawaya-culture. Besides, anyone interested in the andean curanderos should read her masterpiece. To evaluate South-American shamans it is absolutely necessary either to visit the Andes or to read such excellent anthropological reports. As a magician or shaman you must deal with the darkest sides of humankind, too. In western culture this is unknown and they are masters in repression of dark sides. Shamans are idealized as demigods and superhumans. They have bad sides, too. But they know them and don't repress them.
Shamans in indoeuropean and arctic cultures use a kind of working garment. There exists a large variety of different traditions concerning the exact outlook of such garments. It can have different functions. It can increase the trance-state or even be necessary to induce the trance, at all. It protects the shaman during his flight (some garments are weighing more than 50 kgs and resemble an armor). Shells and metal amulets and talismans accompany every move of the shaman with noises - which can repell evil spirits. The helping spirits can be represented by attachments to the garment. Sometimes a symbolic skeleton can be seen on the costume. It symbolizes the ability of rebirthing and reincarnation of the shaman. The european traditions know very little on the old shamanic costums. The fool's cap of the king's fool in the middle ages and the bells on diverse Fasnet-costums are all that is left of the ancient shamanic costum. Because of this lack of tradition the western shaman has the possibility to listen to his spirits and create an own and unique shamanic costum.
The technical writings should be considered as a pool of hints and ideas how to deal with some things you encounter nowadays in shamanistic contexts. Keep always in mind that these writings are derived from my own experiences and that of at least four other shamans. I use the term "shaman" as active person in my articles, regardless whether you would label yourself by this term or not. The term "neoshamans" has some bad undertones in most studies, using this term - thus I avoid it. I am not political correct, it is easier and less clumsy to use normal speech rather then the artifical he/she or shamanEss or other shit like this. Provocation is a fertile way of reflecting your own points of view. May the spirits be with you and you shall find plenty of knowledge on my site!
Shamanic Apprentice: At the River Tumnin, Nanai; Photo by I.I. Kosminskij, 1929; © Russian Ethnographic Museum St. Petersburg.
Lasceaux: table 10 from Eiszeitmalerei of Herbert Kühn, Berlin 1956
Groeat shaman of the Ewenks: Photo by J.J. Makarenko, 1913: © Russian Ethnographic Museum, St. Petersburg.