Your guide to shamanism

What is shamanism?

Sometimes referred to as witch doctoring, shamanism is practised all over the world whereby a practitioner, or shaman, will enter an altered state of consciousness to gain spiritual insights for the good of the community. Shamans are still found all over the world, notably among the indigenous people of West, East and Southern Africa, North America, East Asia and Northern Eurasia, as well as in parts of South America. Usually, although not exclusively, a shaman will make contact with the spirit world by entering into a trance. In some cases, psychedelics or psychoactive drugs are taken to assist the shaman with this process. When in this altered state, the spirits are said to guide the shaman, often by helping them to find a way of healing someone or to tell them the best way a community should proceed. Shamanism has been studied by academics for a long time, mostly by anthropologists who have immersed themselves in local cultures.

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 How is shamanism practised?

No two cultures that use shamanism are the same. However, there are some common threads that are found in most places around the world where shamans operate. Medicine songs or chants are common. For example, South American shamans will often sing icaros, a type of medicine at ayahuasca ceremonies that supposedly cleanse the spirit of the people undergoing them. Vigils are also common, whereby a shaman will stay awake for a prolonged period. Ecstatic dancing is also a feature of shamanism. These dances will usually involve very repetitive movements and go on for a long time. Sweat lodges are also something that shamans tend to use, sometimes in combination with fasting, another common feature of the practice. In Native American culture, vision quests are quite common, a practice whereby natural phenomena are invoked as symbols of a personal journey. In South America, yachay, a special type of phlegm, is used in shamanic ceremonies. To get it, shamans will sometimes stick darts into their noses.

Where does shamanism come from?

Most scholars now agree that shamanism predates modern history but that it spread around the world as humans started to settle in new places. It is thought, but not yet firmly established, that shamans began operating sometime in pre-history in either Northern Europe or Northern Asia or possibly both. The Sami people of Finland, for example, are known to have shamanic traditions that go back a very long way indeed. In Russia, female shamans are common. Indeed, the word for a female shaman, shamanka, is derived from the Russian way of feminising nouns. The nomadic Tuvan people of central Russia, the Tuva, are thought to have the least altered forms of shamanic ceremonies of anywhere in the world. Whether or not all shamanic rites in other parts of the world have been adapted from these earliest known examples is a matter of some debate, however, especially when they might have developed in isolation for centuries.

Which beliefs are associated with shamanism?

According to Mircea Eliade, a historian of religion who also studied Indian a href="">philosophy, there are some common beliefs that all true shaman and shamanka share. Although his work, which was mostly conducted in the 1970s, has since undergone some criticism, the fundamental beliefs he identified still hold water for many academics working in this field. Eliade said that the most tangible belief of a shaman would be that the spirit world exists and that spirits reside in it. Also essential to the belief system of all shamans is that these spirits can be communicated with. Many shamans will also believe that spirits can be both helpful or unhelpful but that the benevolent ones can be identified by a skilled shaman and communed with to help cure sickness. Many shamans also believe their soul can temporarily depart their body to enter the spirit world. Some also believe that other forms of divination are possible, such as scrying.

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What is shamanism in Korea?

Different shamanic ceremonies are conducted in Japan and China, while Korea has its own distinctive shamanic culture. The indigenous religion of the Korean peninsula is one of animism, whereby all living things, objects and places are said to have their own spirit. This religion focuses on the worship of gods, the veneration of ancestors and the acceptance of nature spirits that have an influence on daily life. Mudang and baksu are the names given for shamanka and shamans, respectively. There is a great deal of mythology surrounding Korean shamanism, with many supernatural beings and gods being described in Korean folk tales. Much of this mythology is passed on orally through what are known as bon-puri, shamanic narratives, which are recited at gut rituals. Famously, Jeju Island, in South Korea, is a centre for such rituals and where much of the shamanic culture of the country is practised.

Can shamanism be used for therapy?

Some people believe so, yes. Increasing numbers of Westerners have become interested in the psychoactive healing that is said to be possible in ayahuasca ceremonies, for example. These are designed to cleanse people who partake in them. Although the practice is banned in many jurisdictions, using it as a therapy is something that is still possible in certain South American countries. Equally, drum journeys which are derived from a form of Native American shamanism, are a popular form of therapy in the West. These tend to use a meditative state which is heightened by the drummer to help people discover more about themselves at a spiritual level. Sometimes, other forms of shamanic journeys are offered for therapeutic reasons, but most are variations on the same theme of guided meditation.

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Is shamanism a way of life?

In many cultures, a shaman will choose a life path that is different to the rest of the society in which they live. Rather like the priesthood, shamans are a part of society but also separated from it. This is usually down to the focus that they need to have on their connections with the spiritual world, while those around are probably more focussed on the material one and all of the concerns that go with it. Equally, shamanka and shamans will often be separated from their society to an extent because of the status that they hold. This is not so in all societies, but many shamanic practitioners are considered to be of high status, people with special skills. In the West, people who are interested in shamanic traditions will also frequently develop a lifelong interest in them, and so, in a way, this also becomes a way of life for them.

Where can shamanism be found today?

As you have read, shamans operate in South America and Korea to this day. They are very much a part of the culture in Korea, where even the relatively new religion of Christianity has some echoes of shamanism in it. In South America, hotspots of shamanic activity are to be found in Peru as well as much of the Amazon basin, especially among the indigenous tribes who live in the rainforest there. The female traditions of shamanka remain strong in Russia, mainly in the northern and central regions of Siberia. In Europe, the shamanic traditions of the old Norse religions have largely died out, but some of their ideas live on through modern witchcraft. The Sami people of Lapland constitute the only remaining outpost of shamanism in Europe. In the USA and Canada, it is Native Americans who keep shamanic traditions alive. In Japan, there is a tradition of blind women, known as itako, carrying out shamanic-like ceremonies that continue to this day.

Is shamanism a part of New Age practices?

The New Age movement covers many aspects of spirituality, and so, in some sense, it is bound to have adherents of shamanism within it. Indeed, New Age followers tend to be more interested in shamanic traditions than the general population. In the United States, where the New Age movement first took off in the late 1960s, there has certainly been an upturn in interest in all spiritual matters relating to the indigenous people of the continent, something which includes shamanic rites, of course. However, it would not be fair to say that shamans are inherent to New Age traditions. Rather, they are simply a feature of them. To some, shamanic ceremonies have been co-opted by some New Agers in a way that could be viewed as cultural appropriation whereby people 'play' at being shamans without understanding the deeper spirituality that underpins it. That said, others approach it without any such concerns.

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How does shamanism use music?

Shamanic music is a big part of many ceremonies and rites. Sometimes, shamans and shamanka will try to imitate the sounds of the natural world through their music. This is what anthropologists call sound mimesis. A common form might be to emulate the sounds of animals vocally or to use onomatopoeic words so that a natural sound is created. In some cultures, bells and drums are used to create a rhythmic structure to shamanic music. In the Tuvan culture in central Russia, shamanka will have their own song, known as an aigysh, which they will recite to help make connections with the spiritual world. In some cases, musicologists have pointed out that the use of repetitive rhythms, often with rises and falls in tempo, create a psychological effect on listeners, which helps them to enter the right sort of mental state for the ritual to be effective.

What is a spirit spouse in shamanism?

Despite the diverse nature of shamanism around the globe, spirit spouses are a common feature. They are to be found in the shamanic traditions of Oceania, Africa and South America. Essentially, what a spirit spouse is is a spirit that the shaman will connect to every time they enter their altered state of consciousness. This spirit will develop a relationship with the shaman or shamanka such that they effectively become spouses over time. Acting as a spirit guide, the spouse can act in both benign and malevolent ways, so it is up to the shaman to keep on good terms with their spirit spouse. It is important to note that spirit spouses also play a part in non-shamanic cultures too. They feature in the Yoruba religion of West Africa, for example. In some Christian traditions, they also exist, often referred to as a type of demon – males are called incubus while females are known as succubus.

What does neurotheology say about shamanism?

Neurotheology is a branch of academic research that attempts to explain religion and other forms of belief through neural mechanisms. When it comes to shamanism, neurotheology attempts to explain why it has featured in so many diverse cultures for so long. The theory is that people's brains have an integrated cognitive effect following shamanic practices. In other words, where shamanism has a positive effect on an individual, a group or even the shaman, the rites associated with it a reinforced and carried out more often. This would also account for why shamanic practices tend to promote greater social intelligence and a sort of theory of mind among practitioners. This theory places more emphasis on the social and cognitive effects of shamanic rituals than spirituality.

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Shamanism in summary

Although shamans and shamanka claim to be able to enter the spirit world where they can commune directly with spirits through their soul, there is no proof of this. Consequently, many anthropologists have sought to find social and functional explanations for shamanic activities. However, this misses the point of what many shamans would argue is going on. In shamanism, it is the very unknowability of the spirit world to normal people that makes shaman stand out as special. Not only does this give them a special role in their societies, but it means that 'ordinary' members of society do not have to concern themselves so much with spiritual matters. This division might have some element of social control, but it also tends to make societies more cohesive. Perhaps this is why shamanic practices have been found all over the world and only started to be ousted when organised religions began to be exported around the globe.

For some, there is no problem with belief in folk religions and shamanic traditions and holding other spiritual beliefs at the same time. Although some have criticised Westerners for the cultural appropriation of shamanic traditions in modern times, the fact is that they have continued to adapt to changing societal needs for centuries. Today, most shamanic traditions are better understood than they ever have been before. As such, shaman and shamanka are likely to continue with their rites and rituals just as they always have for many years to come despite the increasing pervasiveness of the modern world.

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