What is Shamanism?
Despite the seemingly universal nature of shamanism, different cultures
and individuals have elaborated distinctive forms of shamanic practice. Shamanism as a practice has rarely become a formal
social institution. Almost everywhere, shamanism was in the past and still is today a set of local activities and perspectives,
rather than an ethnic or national institution.
Five fundamental features define shamanic perspectives or worldviews.
1. Shamanic practitioners share the conviction that all entities- animate or otherwise-are imbued with a holistic
life force, vital energy, consciousness, soul, spirit, or some other ethereal or immaterial substance that transcends the
laws of classical physics. Much of the shaman’s long training is dedicated to developing a high ethic, a value system
founded on a deep reverence for all life. (Tedlock 05) The Polynesian mana, Lakota wakanda, Peruvian causay, Chinese Taoist
ch’I are conceived of as powerful forces that permeate everything.
2. Shamans believe in the web of life
in which all things are interdependent and interconnected; there is a cause and effect relationship between different dimensions,
forces, and entities of the cosmos.
3. Shamans organize this complex reality by saying the world is constructed
in a series of levels connected by a central axis in the form of a world tree or mountain. (Tedlock 05) Shamans travel to
these worlds moving up or down through the cosmic levels and sometimes sideways into alternative worlds upon the earth.
The shamans of the mountains in Peru travel through a three world cosmology, the Ukhupatcha, the underworld, the Kaypacha,
the middle world- this world as we know it, and the Hanakapatcha, the upperworld. There are sub worlds of stones, plants,
ancestors, angelics and more. The shaman will travel to these worlds to perform soul retrievals, destiny retrievals and healing
for the community.
WHO IS A SHAMAN?
4.Societies everywhere designate certain individuals as
taking on the role of “shaman” for their group. Such people have the capacity to understand and change events
in the ordinary world. They can accomplish this during normal waking consciousness or more typically they will enter an altered
state of consciousness by rattling, drumming, fasting, undertaking a vision quest, engaging in lucid dreaming and luminous
awareness. Shamans are people of percept. When they want to change the world, they engage in perceptual shifts that change
their relationship to life. They envision the possible, and the outer world changes.
Compared with their
peers, shamans excel in insight, imagination, fluency in language, and knowledge of cultural tradition. That knowledge lies
at the heart of shamanism is indicated by indigenous terms for shamans from cultures all over the globe. The term shaman itself
comes from the Evenki language of Siberia and means “the one who knows.” Other terms for shaman refer to key characteristics
of their public performances, including Sakha- oyuun, “to jump, leap, or play,” Yurok- kegey,”one who sits
or meditates as a practice”, Buryat -khatarkha, “to dance or trot like a reindeer,” and Huichol mara’akame,
“singer.” Because shamans are able to prophesy, to see and know things that ordinary people cannot, in Inuit they
are called wabinu, “seeing person”, and angakut, “seeing with closed eyes.”(Tedlock 05) Shamans are
known for their superb concentration. During a journey they must focus for long periods without distraction, but their attention
is not fixed immovably on a single object as is a yogi’s. Rather, their attention is fluid, moving freely as their journey
The shaman is an empiricist. The shaman depends primarily on firsthand experience, of the senses , to aquire
The shaman operates in non-ordinary reality only a small portion of her time, and then
only as needed to perform shamanic tasks, for shamanism is a part time activity. The master shaman is usually an active participant
5. Shamans recognize extraordinary forces, entities, or beings whose behavior in an alternative
reality affects individuals and events in our ordinary world. They understand that actions or rituals performed in the ordinary
reality can lead to effects in the alternative sphere.
At the heart of shamanic practice is the active pursuit
of knowledge. Shamans are primarily concerned with the maintenance or the restoration of equilibrium in all elements of the
individual as well as the cosmos. Shamans, like scientists, personally pursue research into the mysteries of the universe,
and believe that the underlying causal processes of that universe are hidden from ordinary view. (Harner)
Nature of Shamanism
Shamanism consists of both a healing practice and a religion sensibility, with startling similarities
between shamanistic ideas and activities in cultures as far apart as Siberia, the Amazon basin, Southeast Asia, and Nepal.
Birth and death provide key actions and metaphors within these shamanic systems, and novice shamans are said to ”to
be born to” or “to die to” the profession. Later, in their subsequent practices, they may assist at actual
births and deaths.
In the distant past there probably were purely shamanistic communities, but today shamanism
is only one spiritual strand mixed together with others, including, in various degrees, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism,
and various folk religions. Because it lacks an institutional framework and a central figure, shamanism appears, disappears,
and reappears in varied historical and political settings. Flexible and innovative, shamanic ideas have been adapted in the
remotest jungles and deserts on earth, in the courts of Mayan kings and Chinese emperors, among intellectuals in post-Soviet
Siberia, and contemporary pagans in Europe, North America, and Australia. (Tedlock 05)