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Shamanism: Definition, History, and Beliefs by Patti Wigington (Updated June 25, 2019)

Shamanism: Definition, History, and Beliefs

by Patti Wigington (Updated June 25, 2019)


The practice of shamanism is found around the world in a variety of different cultures, and involves spirituality that often exists within an altered state of consciousness. A shaman typically holds a respected position in his or her community, and performs vitally important spiritual leadership roles.

History and Anthropology

The word shaman itself is a multi-faceted one. While many people hear the word shaman and immediately think of Native American medicine men, things are actually more complex than that.

“Shaman” is an umbrella term used by anthropologists to describe a vast collection of practices and beliefs, many of which have to do with divination, spirit communication, and magic. In most indigenous cultures, including but not limited to Native American tribes, the shaman is a highly trained individual, who has spent a lifetime following their calling. One does not simply declare oneself a shaman; instead it is a title granted after many years of study.

Training and Roles in the Community

In some cultures, shamans were often individuals who had some sort of debilitating illness, a physical handicap or deformity, or some other unusual characteristic.

In European tribes, it is likely that women were practicing as shamans alongside, or even in place of, men. Many Norse sagas describe the oracular works of the volva, or female seer. In several of the sagas and eddas, descriptions of prophecy begin with the line a chant came to her lips, indicating that the words which followed were those of the divine, sent by way of the volva as messenger to the gods. Among the Celtic peoples, legend has it that nine priestesses lived on an island off the coast of Breton were highly skilled in the arts of prophecy, and performed shamanic duties.

In his work The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story, Michael Berman discusses many of the misconceptions surrounding shamanism, including the notion that the shaman is somehow possessed by the spirits he or she is working with. In fact, Berman argues that a shaman is always in complete control–because no indigenous tribe would accept a shaman who could not control the spirit world. He says,

“The willingly induced state of the inspired can be regarded as characteristic of the state of both the shaman and religious mystics whom Eliade calls prophets, whereas the involuntary state of possession is more like a psychotic state.”

Today, there are a number of Pagans who follow an eclectic sort of Neo-shamanism. It often involves working with totem or spirit animals, dream journeys and vision quests, trance meditations, and astral travel. It’s important to note that much of what is currently marketed as “modern Shamanism” is not the same as the shamanic practices of indigenous peoples. The reason for this is simple–an indigenous shaman, found in a small rural tribe of some far-off culture, is immersed in that culture day to day, and his role as a shaman is defined by the complex cultural issues of that group.
Michael Harner is an archaeologist and the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, a contemporary non-profit group dedicated to preserving the shamanic practices and rich traditions of the many indigenous groups of the world. Harner’s work has attempted to reinvent shamanism for the modern Neopagan practitioner, while still honoring the original practices and belief systems. Harner’s work promotes the use of rhythmic drumming as the base foundation of core shamanism, and in 1980 he published The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. This book is considered by many to be a bridge between traditional indigenous shamanism and modern Neoshaman practices.
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