There are many excellent discussions on shamanism available on the Web. Rather than duplicate their efforts, I’ve compiled an annotated resource list that represents what I feel is a solid overview on the subject.
First, a warning about the terms “shaman” and “shamanism.” The term shaman comes from the Tungus region of Siberia and denotes a traditional healer and practitioner of that region. Certain anthropologists, including Alice Kehoe in her book Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking, are highly critical of the term when used outside of its original context. Part of this criticism involves the notion of cultural appropriation. This includes criticism of New Age and modern Western forms of shamanism, which may not only misrepresent or dilute genuine indigenous practices but do so in a way that, according to Kehoe, reinforces subtly racist ideas such as the “Noble Savage.”
She makes the point that what popular writers and scholars of shamanism treat as being definitive of shamanism, most notably drumming, trance, chanting, the use of entheogens and hallucinogenics, spirit communication, and healing, are practices that (a) exist outside of what is defined as shamanism and play similar roles even in non-shamanic cultures, such as the role of chanting in Judeo-Christian rituals, and (b) are unique to each culture that uses them and cannot be generalized easily, accurately, or usefully into a global “religion” such as shamanism. Because of this, Kehoe is also highly critical of the notion that shamanism is an ancient, unchanged, and surviving religion from the Paleolithic era.
That said, I believe the “rediscovery” of shamanic practice is one of the most important spiritual developments of our era. It has been my path for most of my life, even though I didn’t have any language for it, and my concerted practice and field of study for nearly two decades now. And as Holger Kalweit wrote in his excellent book Dreamtime and Inner Space:
Shamanism and similar areas of research have gained in significance because they postulate new ideas about mind and spirit. They speak of things like vastly expanding the realm of consciousness…the belief, the knowledge, and even the experience that our physical world of the senses is a mere illusion, a world of shadows, and that the three-dimensional tool we call our body serves only as a container or dwelling place for Something infinitely greater and more comprehensive than that body and which constitutes the matrix of the real life.
Getting a Handle on the Basics
I’ve found four FAQs or introductory articles about shamanism that I can recommend. Most others you’ll find are either perfectly wretched, or are adaptations of these four:
Wikipedia’s excellent Shamanism article, nicely balanced and well articulated. From its introductory paragraphs:
Shamanism refers to a range of traditional beliefs and practices similar to Animism that claim the ability to diagnose and cure human suffering and, in some societies, the ability to cause suffering. This is believed to be accomplished by traversing the axis mundi and forming a special relationship with, or gaining control over, spirits. Shamans have been credited with the ability to control the weather, divination, the interpretation of dreams, astral projection, and traveling to upper and lower worlds. Shamanistic traditions have existed throughout the world since prehistoric times.
Some anthropologists and religion scholars define a shaman as an intermediary between the natural and spiritual world, who travels between worlds in a trance state. Once in the spirit world, the shaman would commune with the spirits for assistance in healing, hunting or weather management….Other anthropologists critique the term shamanism, arguing that it is a culturally specific institution and that by expanding to fit any healer from traditional societies it produces a false unity between these cultures and creates an idea of an initial human religion predating all others.
When you’re finished with Wikipedia’s main shamanism article, be sure to read their provocative Plastic Shaman article as well:
Plastic Shaman is a pejorative and colloquialism used for individuals who try to pass themselves off as shamans, or other traditional spiritual leaders, but who actually have no genuine connection to the traditions they claim to represent. Rather, plastic shamans use the mystique of these cultural traditions, and the legitimate curiosity of sincere seekers, for personal gain. This exploitation of students and traditional culture can involve the selling of fake “traditional” spiritual ceremonies, fake artifacts, fictional accounts in books, illegitimate tours of sacred sites, and often the chance to buy spiritual titles.
The Big FAQ
Second, there’s the comprehensive (some would say exhaustive) Shamanism—General Overview FAQ written for the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.shamanism (the group is still active, fitfully, but the discussions are rarely cogent or helpful), though unfortunately this FAQ hasn’t been updated since 1996, so many of the resources listed there are outdated.
The document is an embarrassment of riches, with spot-on explanations and discussions of complex issues. For example, here’s how it answers the simple question, “What is shamanism?”:
Shamanism is classified by anthropologists as an archaic magico-religious phenomenon in which the shaman is the great master of ecstasy. Shamanism itself was defined by the late Mircea Eliade as a technique of ecstasy. A shaman may exhibit a particular magical specialty (such as control over fire, wind or magical flight). When a specialization is present the most common is as a healer. The distinguishing characteristic of shamanism is its focus on an ecstatic trance state in which the soul of the shaman is believed to leave the body and ascend to the sky (heavens) or descend into the earth (underworld). The shaman makes use of spirit helpers, with whom he or she communicates, all the while retaining control over his or her own consciousness. (Examples of possession occur, but are the exception, rather than the rule.) It is also important to note that while most shamans in traditional societies are men, either women or men may and have become shamans.
There are a number of relatively common practices and experiences in traditional shamanism which are being investigated by modern researchers. While the older traditional practices are ignored by some researchers, others have begun to explore these older techniques. The emergence of the new field of the “anthropology of consciousness” and the establishment of Transpersonal Psychology as a “Fourth Force” in psychology have opened up the investigation of research into the nature and history of consciousness in ways not previously possible. Outside of academic circles a growing number of people have begun to make serious inquiries into ancient shamanic techniques for entering into altered states of consciousness.
Traditional shamans developed techniques for lucid dreaming and what is today called the out-of-the-body experience (OOBE). These methods for exploring the inner landscape are being investigated by a wide range of people. Some are academics, some come from traditional societies and others are modern practitioners of non-traditional shamanism or neo-shamanism. Along with these techniques, the NDE or near-death-experience have played a significant role in shamanic practice and initiation for millenia. There is extensive documentation of this in ethnographic studies of traditional shamanism. With this renewed interest in these older traditions these shamanic methods of working with dreams and being conscious and awake while dreaming are receiving increased attention.
The ability to consciously move beyond the physical body is the particular specialty of the traditional shaman. These journeys of Soul may take the shaman into the nether realms, higher levels of existence or to parallel physical worlds or other regions of this world. Shamanic Flight, is in most instances, an experience not of an inner imaginary landscape, but is reported to be the shamans flight beyond the limitations of the physical body.
As noted in this article, the call to shamanize is often directly related to a near death experience by the prospective shaman. Among the traditional examples are being struck by lightning, a fall from a height, a serious life-threatening illness or lucid dream experiences in which the candidate dies or has some organs consumed and replaced and is thus reborn. Survival of these initial inner and outer brushes with death provides the shaman with personal experiences which strengthen his or her ability to work effectively with others. Having experienced something, a shaman is more likely to understand what must be done to correct a condition or situation.
The Shorter FAQ
A third resource is the Introduction to Shamanism that was written as a shorter FAQ for the same newsgroup. Some of the Q&As are particularly helpful. For example:
Q: Is shamanism a religion?
A: No. Shamanism is neither a religion nor a spiritual path. It is a set of spiritual practices that may be used by anyone no matter what their religion is. A religion is defined as a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader or tradition. The creeds of the various religions that shamanism can be found in lack any uniformity, only the practices of the shaman are similar….The word shamanism is loosely used to identify a classification of religions in the same way that monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, and animism are types of religion, but not religions themselves.
Q: What is Shamanic Initiation?
A: Shamanic Initiation varies from culture to culture but in traditional societies usually involves an intense vision or dream of being killed and dismembered (and sometimes eaten) and then reassembled with a new “shamanic body.” This dream or vision is often considered the call to become a shaman. Before being accepted by the community a potential shaman must often also undergo initiation ceremonies performed by the elder shamans of the community. Unlike modern civilized initiations into Lodges or Covens the potential initiate may not survive the ordeal of the initiation ceremony. In neo-shamanism the initial Journey to Retrieve a Power Animal and instructions on Journeying could be considered an initiation of sorts.
And a Glossary
Finally, there’s the section of the otherwise dull FAQ for another newsgroup, soc.religion.shamanism (now nearly defunct), that contains a helpful glossary of shamanic terms and concepts.
Differences between Shamanism and . . .
. . . Neoshamanism
In a superb article on neoshamanism, Jason Godesky presents a stunning indictment of the aforementioned “plastic” shamans, and a powerful picture of authentic shamanic practice, both ancient and modern. He writes:
The shaman is an ambiguous figure in any tribe. He is touched by the numinous “Other.” The power to heal is also the power to kill, and the benevolent shaman is also the malevolent sorcerer. He wields a power that is frightening. In a tribal society where everyone belongs, it is the shaman’s burden to be the only one that is marginal—the only one that is shunned, alienated, and forever on the outside. The shamanic journey is very often described as a terrifying experience….This is the ordeal that the shaman undertakes for his community. Why would anyone choose such a life? They don’t; they are chosen. The shamanic sickness leaves them with a stark choice: become a shaman, or die.
Godesky goes on to reveal the biases and shortcomings of the work of Carlos Castaneda, Mircea Eliade, Michael Harner and his Foundation for Shamanic Studies, and other important voices in modern shamanism. Then he gets to the crux of the matter:
Shamans undertake a perilous ordeal on behalf of their communities. Neoshamans commit the most cardinal sin of shamanism: to abuse the spirit world for a spiritual joyride, or worse still—for nothing more than their personal enlightenment.
A real shaman never journeys for himself; he journeys for others. “Neoshamans” become nothing more than ecstatic tourists, and the ancient traditions of shamanism become, in their hands, nothing more than the latest spiritual fad, another bullet point in “neopaganism” or “the New Age.”
Shamanism is profound. It is the original religion; it is hard-wired into the human brain. “Neoshamanism,” though, is nothing more than spiritual masturbation—it puts on the pretense of profundity, but in the end, it is nothing but a nest of hucksters and charlatans pretending to titles they have never earned.
Native peoples are often deeply insulted by “neoshamanism,” and with good reason. Castenada couldn’t even be bothered to make sure his fictive account of “a Yaqui way of knowledge” mesh with Yaqui beliefs. Neoshamans strike native peoples as hucksters, charlatans and frauds who, having stolen all their material possessions, are now set to rob their culture, as well. Neoshamans desecrate the last thing they have left—their beliefs.
We, trapped inside civilization, have lost something vital. The shamanic sickness strikes as many of us as it ever has; only its cure is gone from us. The specific traditions of specific cultures are specifically adapted to their situations. We have no right to simply steal them. But we can learn from them.
First, we must build our communities. Without a tribe, there can be no shaman. Once there is a tribe, the shaman’s quest can begin….
. . . Native American Spirituality
In her article “Shamanism: It Ain’t Native American Religion!”, Tori McElroy (aka Starrhawke, not to be confused with the Wiccan writer Starhawk) clarifies one of the most common confusions in popular culture:
Unfortunately, the term shamanism has been misused in popular culture for many years. The entertainment industry has used “medicine man” and “shaman” interchangeably (and usually inaccurately) to describe holy men and women of Native America. The public began to assume that “shaman” was a Native American word, and that “shamanism” was a universal Indian Religion—yet in reality, there is no universal “Indian Religion.” There are hundreds of Indian Nations in North America, each with its own culture, language, and spiritual belief system. Many of these Nations are very different from one another in their religious traditions, and none of them describe their beliefs as shamanism. Even from a scholarly standpoint, few Native systems can be accurately described as “shamanism”—the ecstatic trance-journey is simply not a major part of most North American Indian cultures. . . . [Moreover,] Shamanism is not a catch-all term for indigenous religion, earth-based religions, spiritual healing, or beliefs in totems, animal guardians or nature spirits.
A Word about Harner
Michael Harner, who created the term “core shamanism” to describe the underlying cross-cultural principles and practices common to all shamans, gets a lot of undeserved bashing, I think. The hugely popular basic workshops offered by his Foundation for Shamanic Studies, have introduced a hungry public to shamanic practice. I received training from the Foundation and found it tremendously helpful; at the same time, I can see its limitations—mainly in its tendency to make many people think of themselves as shamans and shamanic practitioners (even setting themselves up in business, doing shamanic counselling and whatnot) whose time would be much better spent selling candles and incense in a New Age shop.
Whatever the faults of the Foundation and some of its adherents, there’s no denying that Harner knows his stuff. I would point you to two articles he’s written that are available online: “Discovering the Way of the Shaman” (actually, it’s the first chapter of his groundbreaking book The Way of the Shaman); and a superb piece introducing his work, “Science, Spirits, and Core Shamanism”:
Shamans have long acted on the principle that humans are part of the totality of nature, related to all other biological forms, and not superior to them. This “pagan” principle was one of the many reasons that European shamans were persecuted by the Inquisition and that indigenous shamans elsewhere were likewise condemned by Western missionaries who considered such a view as contrary to the Biblical account of the origin of man and woman. Indeed, it was not really until Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man that Westerners began, often reluctantly, to return to a general recognition of humankind’s kinship to all other life forms. In other words, the West, through science, finally adopted a position for which it had long persecuted and ridiculed shamans.
Another basic implicit principle in shamanism is that there are two realities and that the perception of each depends upon one’s state of consciousness. Therefore, those in the “ordinary state of consciousness” (OSC) perceive only “ordinary reality” (OR). Those in the “shamanic state of consciousness” (SSC) are able to enter into and perceive “nonordinary reality” (NOR). These are both called realities because each is empirically encountered. Each is recognized to have its own forms of knowledge and relevance to human existence.
NOR is not a consensual reality, and indeed if it were, shamanic practitioners would have no function, for it is their responsibility to alter their state of consciousness and perceive successfully what others do not. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the shamanic practitioner is the ability to move back and forth at will between these realities with discipline and purpose in order to heal and help others.