A Brief Guide to Shamanism
Prepared in Part by: Peter Theo
|This guide on Shamanism was prepared by Peter Theo using information that was in part obtained from referenced publications as well as the written teachings of a Shaman Elder, Maggie Wahls. Some information may be restricted through its original copyrights and may require permission prior to reprinting or publishing.|
A Brief Guild to Shamanism
What is a Shaman?
A Shaman is defined primarily as a healer and spiritual counselor for his/her community. Shamans sometimes serve other roles within their community, such as; medicine man, officiant of ceremonies, priest, personal guide, and amateur psychiatrist. A Shaman may also work with the spirit world and the unseen energies that consist of our total reality. In many cultures a Shaman is considered to be a community pillar that assists with balancing energies between the living and the dead. In performing such work, there are many practiced ceremonies designed around assisting the healthy flow of energies between our dimensional states of reality. Shamans are also known as people who can enter altered states of consciousness in order to complete their work. The purpose of a Shaman is to be a spiritual servant of their community.
The path of a Shaman is one that is life long. A true Shaman follows this path throughout their life and many times reincarnates to subsequently serve again as a Shaman.
What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is not a religion, but a spiritual path based on community service. Shamanism is believed to be one of the oldest forms of spiritual practice, regardless of what Shamanism was called; its practice and principles predate all known religions. Although Shamanism has undergone some evolutionary transitions, it has remained relatively unchanged.
Traditional Shamanism has usually been found in hunting and gathering tribes. Some of these cultures who have had Shamans in the past are; Native Americans, Australian Bushmen, African Native Tribes, South and Central Americans (Incas, Mayans, Aztecs), Eskimos, Many Siberian Tribes, as well as many tribes within the Oceanic and Asian peoples.
Shamanistic practices can also be found in other cultures that may term their spiritual leaders under different names, but may also observe primarily earth based traditions.
Modern day Shamanism has an eclectic approach and is more in tune with the problems of our present day world. While drawing upon much of the same mythology and practice of the more primitive Shamanistic teachings, modern Shamans work to reform those areas harmful to the human spirit and the health of the planet.
Where Does the Word Shaman Come From?
The word Shaman is an English translation of the Tungus word Saman. The Tungus are an indigenous people of Siberia located in the Altai Mountains. The literal translation of the Tungus word Saman, means, “To know”. Other research indicates that the word Shaman was derived from earlier peoples, perhaps even the Vedic people of northern India. One such example is that the Tibetan word for a Buddhist monk is Samana.
Regardless of the words true origin, it has come to represent on a global level all that practice Shaman like techniques.
What is the Purpose of a Shaman and how do Shamans Serve their Community?
Shamanic roles vary, according to Tom Cowan, author of the Pocket Guide to Shamanism, some of the roles or services of a shaman are: "…healing the spirit, herbal healing, body work, divination, dream work, soul-leading...." It should be noted that not every Shaman performs the same services. Not every shaman is a healer of the spirit or body. (Pages 23-27) The actual role of a Shaman depends upon the Shaman’s “calling”. Some Shamans are herbal healers, energetic healers, diviners, communicators with other realities, soul retrievers, and light-workers. The role is of less importance than the service a Shaman provides.
Healing the spirit is the primary function of a Shaman. This may include:
Hands on healing
Soul Extraction – Energetic Protection
Soul extraction involves the Shaman extracting psychic darts or chords that have intruded upon the soul or etheric body of the patient. This is sometimes an attack from someone who has attempted to harm, maim, or kill the patient. The traditional dart attack will often manifest as pains where no wounds exist. This involves, according to Michael Harner, author of The Way of the Shaman, a literal "sucking out" of the intrusion. This sucking out of the intrusions is done both psychically and mentally. There are other methods of soul extraction as well. A modern approach to such issues may involve protection and cleansing rituals performed by the Shaman for the individual in need.
Soul Retrieval – Energetic Reclamation and Grounding
Soul-retrieval is the process by which the Shaman retrieves pieces of the person lost soul. This is often accomplished by journeying to the spirit world and requesting assistance from the spirits, ancestors, and guides that dwell in other realities or worlds. These beings assist the Shaman in discovering what is wrong with the person and often help the Shaman fight a battle with the being now possessing those parts to win them back and bring them to the patient. Some of the classic symptoms of a person in need of soul retrieval would perhaps include those suffering from a mental illness, those abused as children, or those who sense that something is missing in their lives.
This can be a dangerous act and often the Shaman if he or she is not trained well enough can fall into physical or mental traps laid by the possessing entities that may cause illness or psychosis for the Shaman. Often times a clients energy is un-focused and not grounded or centered, this condition is most common among individuals affected by this condition.
Soul Restoration – Re-centering Energy after a Trauma
Soul restoration is the literally restoring of one’s soul. This occurs when a person is near death and his/her soul seeks to move on. This "death" could be the result of a psychic attack or an accident from which the body has recovered physically, but not spiritually. Again the Shaman will journey to the place where the patient has lost his or her soul and barter for that soul to bring it back and restore it to the patient. It takes much strength and power by the Shaman to deal with these otherworld entities and the Shaman must know how and where to wield that power for the good of all. Shamans are not in the business of destruction but rather healing.
Hands on Healing – Energy Work
Hands-on healing or body work is most certainly a part of what a Shaman does. This technique is still widely used today by Reiki masters, massage therapists, chiropractors and Shamans. Shamanistic hands-on healing involves the energy or spirit of the Shaman working with the energy or spirit of the patient.
Divination - Intuition & Guidance (Aligning ones self with supportive energies)
Divination is the means by which a Shaman can foretell the future, describe the illnesses of people and find their cure. Divination shows the path to the Shaman; which direction the patient should walk to receive healing. This is accomplished in varying ways and the method used often depends on the teaching the Shaman received from his particular tribe or elder. The most common Shamanic method is journeying to the Otherworld and requesting information from elders, guides and spirits who live there. It is been said that Genghis Khan used his shamans that way. There are many other beings that are greatly involved in your life and wish to see you whole and happy. A Shaman has intimate an relationship with these wise ones and uses this gift on the patient’s behalf.
Herbal healing gives credence to the true belief that the Shaman is a medicine man or witch doctor. Herbal healing began with the beginning of the earth. Many of the hunting and gathering tribes had the ability to heal with plants indigenous to their area. Today this knowledge is fast disappearing and Shamans everywhere try to support the preservation of indigenous plant life and the lore surrounding them. Many Shamans spend their entire careers discovering and recording these plants for the future of us all.
Herbalism is used in conjunction with spirit healing to facilitate recovery. Many Shamans are herbalists.
Dream Work – Dream Interpretation
Dream work or dream interpretation is another Shamanic tool to assist with healing. Shamans will listen to the dreamer's dream, sometimes for several days, until they fully connect with it. Then they will dream the dream themselves and resolve the conflict to the highest good of the dreamer. This again is a difficult task and requires rigorous training by the Shaman in his or her apprenticeship to accomplish.
Soul Leading – Working with the Dead
Soul leading is another important function of a Shaman. This is the process in which the Shaman will escort the newly dead to their place in the Otherworld. This is done because the Shaman who is familiar and a frequent visitor to the Otherworld will be able to find the "soul" its proper place.
Not all Shamans practice everything that is listed above.
Generally speaking, a Shaman approaches healing using a “holistic” method by performing work that involves counseling, rituals, herbs, and physical healing methods. The goal is to address the mind, the body, and the spirit of the person that is seeking assistance. The light of the Shaman burns in each person and the practicing Shaman is responsible for acknowledging that a person’s power to heal comes from within themselves. Shaman’s are here to provide guidance to their communities with such matters and ideally are here to help usher into this physical plain an evolved sense of humanity, personal power, and Divine connection. It is also important to note that Shamanic healing is by individual choice and in no way should replace care from a professional physician. Many patients combine standard medical care in addition to Shamanic or other indigenous and alternate healing methods.
How do Shamans perform their Work?
Shamans primarily perform their duties on an energetic level, meaning that they take into account a “mind, body, spirit” connection when performing their work.
The basis of Shamanic technique is to honor the life system as a “whole”. Instead of addressing challenges as a symptom, a deeper cause for that symptom is sought. Many times it is a matter of speaking to the patient to identify direct life factors that play into a particular problem. A Shaman may very well provide practical counsel; however the treatment is centered around performing energy work and ensuring that the patient is provided support for on non-physical levels of reality.
Shamans utilize several techniques to perform there work. Some of the more common techniques are journeying, chakra based and dimensional energy work, meditation, counseling, performing ceremonies, and entering altered states.
What is Journeying?
Journeying is leaving "this world" reality to enter the "Otherworld" while in the altered state of “ecstasy”. It is the actual traveling through the various levels of the Worlds: Siberian Shamans have 9 levels and usually travel on the back of a goose or a horse. American Indians have 3 levels and travel in accompaniment with their totem guides. African Shamans, depending upon the tribe have multiple layers of the Otherworld and travel with their ancestors. Although each culture has their own methods of traveling they all have some kind of journeying to the Otherworld.
According to Tom Cowan, when a Shaman journeys he/she is letting their spirit leave their body to journey to the astral plane or spirit realm. There are many ways of obtaining this state of ecstasy or altered state. This altered state of consciousness has many levels including full awake, dreaming, and daydreaming. Unlike drug induced or dreamed realities, Shamanic journeying is intentional, focused and directed at all times. (Pocket Guide to Shamanism pages 111-112)
What is a Guided Journey?
A guided journey is a learning journey. It does not necessarily have to begin with the ecstatic state; often it can take place in deep sleep or in a guided meditation. A guided journey occurs when a spirit guide or animal guide (totem) takes control of the dream and "guides" you to where they want you. A guided journey is not always pleasant. This is where the Shaman learns more about him/herself and grows into their powers, it is where they meet and grow to know their guides and spirit teachers. It is also where they face their fears and overcome them so they are able to journey into the Otherworld and battle spirits.
What are the Principles of Shamanism?
The Basic Truths of Shamanism
This reflects upon your ability to use your power to
understand that there are no limits to what you can do. In other words, the
Shaman that says I can do this is the one that can.
The Aspects of Balance
This is how we process energy with our conscious thoughts.
The Emotional Aspect
The Spiritual Aspect
How Does One Learn to Become a Shaman?
There are two traditional kinds of instruction a Shaman receives and many forms a neo-Shaman can use. The traditional methods as stated by Mircea Eliade in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy are:
Training by the ecstatic method is through visions and dreams. Often the apprentice spends months, even years in solitude living in a cave or forest in a most deplorable manner. This instruction is given by previous ancestors, spirits and guides and involves an initiation in the Otherworld. The conditions lend themselves to the ecstatic state through starvation and isolation. This is one reason why there are so few Shamans and why the lineage is not being continued in the hereditary manner.
Traditional training is usually done by the current Shaman as he or she tries to produce an heir for the tribe. Often a Shaman will spend 20 or more years training his or her apprentice. The traditional training includes the names of spirits, history of the clan (tribe); herbalism and other skills Shamans need to do their work.
Neo-Shamans sometimes try to glean the information they need from various books, seminars or Shamanic schools. They can however receive traditional training if they find the right teacher and are qualified to do so. In today’s world, there are fewer Shamans than ever before. The balance of the realities lies in the Shamanistic work being done. The lack of current Shamans is evident in the imbalance being seen in this world today. So the traditional teaching of apprentices is being allowed now by those few Shamans who have the proper mind and heart to keep the practice clear and focused on its own purpose.
Please keep I mind that the path of Shamanism is not a hobby or something to be taken lightly. If one embarks on this path without guidance, protection, and the proper mindfulness, one can cause harm to others as well as themselves.
What Do Shamanic Initiations Involve?
The Shamanic initiation is two-fold; happening simultaneously in this world and in the “next”. This initiation is part of the "call" that all traditional Shamans receive. This is a very involved and serious process that can, at times, result in death or permanent disabilities if not seen through to proper conclusion.
The story is told of a young Manchu apprentice who was so frightened that he tore himself away from his vision of an eagle grabbing him with his talons and fell off a cliff to his death.
A Siberian Shamanic initiation, which includes the following Tribes: Tungus, Manchu, Yakut, Samoyed, Ostyak, and the Buryat, involved dismemberment and then having the organs replaced, usually with crystals, or other objects. It was not only a spiritual rite but there was actual physical surgery of sorts. This was the private side of the initiation and then there was also a public initiation which the master Shaman and the members of the community would initiate the apprentice thus publicly recognizing him or her as "Shaman." There are always two sides, a public side and a private side; a physical side and a spiritual side to initiations and also to practice.
The initiatory dreams and visions of a Yakut Shaman included dying in a ritual death that lasted three days. This "death" included visions of being dismembered and then put back together. With the Yakut Iron metal was used to put the Shaman back together. A bird transports the Shaman to the other world and there it places the Shaman on a ripened branch of pine pitch, or in another version gives birth to the Shaman on a branch of the world tree. (Eliade, pages 35-38)
The initiation among the Samoyed also features birds, trees and dismemberment. The Samoyed candidate encounters several divine figures, these being "the Lord of the Waters, the Lord of the Earth, the Lord of the Tree”, and many others. The Lord of the Tree bestows upon the Shaman a branch from which he/she will make a holy drum. (Eliade, pages 38-43)
The Tungus, Buryat, Manchu and Ostyak include ritual dismemberment or death and resurrection as well. This dismemberment involves Shamanic ancestors and sometimes evil spirits will torture the future Shaman for days. (Eliade, pages 43-45) Death and resurrection is found in almost every Shamanic initiation regardless of culture including the Eskimos of Alaska, the tribes in Australia, Africa, and Native peoples of North and South America.
Ammasalik Eskimos are attacked by animals and then devoured whence new flesh will grow on their bones. For those of the Iglulik tribes, the Shaman teacher will extract the soul from the candidate and examine it to see if he/she is worthy. (Eliade, pages 58-62)
The Australian Shaman believes that a supernatural being called the Nagatya opens the belly and places crystals within the body that give the Shaman his or her magical powers. This usually takes place in a cave rather than in a tree as for the Samoyeds. There are several variants of the same scheme among the four major tribes in Australia, but all hold true to a ritual dismemberment. (Eliade, pages 45-50)
This ritual death and resurrection is found among many of the African tribes. The common theme among African tribes is the removal of the head and restoration of the brains to give the future Shaman clearer vision to see the spirits. (Eliade, pages 55-58)
Among the native people of North and South America, death and resurrection is also part of the initial initiation through dreams and visions. Though the use of hallucinatory drugs is more wide spread among the Native Americans, their experiences are too similar to the Siberian Shaman to discount their visions as simply drug induced. (Eliade, pages 53-55) In fact, the similarities of initiatory visions across cultures are astounding.
If one is seeking to become a Shaman on his own without apprenticing, he or she is sometimes referred to as a neo-shaman. John Matthews, author of the Celtic Shaman finds little value in this type of Shaman and here explains what an initiation might consist of for one of these people. Being paraphrased; The Neo-Shaman experiences this vision in several ways. It is usually self-induced, through fasting, meditation, sweat lodges, and the use of drugs. The neo-shaman will go through a process of "recovering (his/her) senses" by meditating and visiting the "cave of care" where one faces their own personal demons. (Matthews, pages 15-32) The "true" initiations of Shamans all have a common theme: Ritual dismemberment and replacement of organs either by spiritual means or with other matter i.e. crystals.
According to Eliade there is a common theme among tribal Shamanic initiations:
Public initiation among the Shamanic cultures follows the "true" or private initiation, though for tribal members it is not any less important. The initiation is performed after a period of initial ecstatic experience, and formal training with the tribal Shaman. Public initiation is highly ritualistic, often involving physical pain and feats of physical strength and is witnessed by the tribe.
According to Eliade, the Tungus and Manchu both have a demonstration of physical feats correlated with mental discipline. The Tungus have the initiate physically climb up a rope, which represents the road to the sky; this ceremony can last up to nine days. The Manchu apprentices may walk across a hot bed of coals or dive through holes cut into the ice covered sea, thus demonstrating their ability to control body temperature. This is very similar to the Tibetan monks go out into the snow with only wet sheets wrapped around their bodies and must heat themselves. According to Eliade the Manchu hardly ever use the bed of coals anymore because they are losing their Shamanic powers altogether.
Sometimes the public initiation is less concentrated on the physical and more centered on celebration. The Yakut initiate, after climbing up a mountain or a hill, will be given vows he must repeat surrounded by nine chaste men (on his right) and nine chaste women (on his left). Among the Samoyed and Ostyak there is singing and dancing. Nine pigs are slaughtered and offered as feast to the whole tribe after which the initiate will enter a state of rapture.
The Buryat initiation is more detailed and rather involved. First the initiate must be cleansed; this usually is done twice. Next, birch trees are arranged in the following order to be used. One of the birches is set up in the yurt or tents smoke hole. The others are set up away from the tent in the following order:
Another has a horse and a bell tied to it.
The initiate lies in a trance for 3 days, and then crawls out of the smoke filled yurt to celebrate his/her emergence as a Shaman. The horse is symbolic in Siberian culture of transportation to the gods, or the Otherworld. The number nine is significant in all of the Siberian rituals because there are nine layers of heaven in Siberian religion. One should also note that in each ritual, some sort of ascent, or climb heavenward was used.
The Eskimos’ public initiation is less public, but nonetheless an initiation. The initiate will rub stones together awaiting an important event. This may continue for several seasons. He may change teachers at the end of each season to allow for a more well-rounded education. (Eliade, pages 58-62)
The Australian Bushmen initiation includes drinking of water containing crushed crystals. The apprentice is then lead to a grave to begin his symbolic death. He then ascends to the heavens with the use of a magical cord or perhaps a rainbow bridge. The use of a cave instead of a tree is one of the differences between Australian shamans and others. (Eliade, pages 131-139)
African public initiation varies from tribe to tribe although it always contains the ritual death, resurrection and ascension. This is followed by a demonstration of Shamanism to the tribe and Shaman elder. As with African tribes, North American Indian tribal customs vary. Shamans of North and South America also have public initiations. Those of North American Plains Indians involve certain degrees of physical tests to prove ones worth to the tribe along with a spirit quest or vision quest. Most, but not all, North American Native Indian tribes have some sort of ritual ascent along with the ritual death and resurrection. South American Indian customs also vary to a degree somewhat, although the use of tobacco seems to be a common thread along with ritual seclusion. The Araucanians tribe also use a ritual ascent of a tree stripped of its bark called a rewe.
The neo-shaman, depending upon which Shamanic path he/she is following may also engage in a public "type" ceremony, though this is less public than the ceremony of the traditional Shaman. This can include a sweat lodge cleansing, public drumming circle or a private vision quest for which the neo-shaman may go on a weekend retreat with other neo-shamans.
As we can see there is a common thread throughout Shamanic "public" initiations as there are in the "true" initiations:
1. Ritual death
Good Books to Read about Shamanism:
If you are seeking books to learn how to be a Shaman there are plenty out there, though the best in this category is by Michael Harner. If you want to learn about Shamans and their history I recommend books by Mircea Eliade. Please be cautioned; although some have investigated the history thoroughly; they have not practiced Shamanism and do not know many things that are not found in books.
“Aspects of a Shaman”, This is an article written by one of my primary teachers and may serve to make a good side link.
“The Vortex of Thought”, This is another article written by Maggie Wahls, and may also make an interesting side link. It contains excellent information and commentary regarding the power of our thoughts and becoming more aware of them.
Cowan, Tom Shamanism: As a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life, The Crossing Press Freedom CA, 1996 ISBN# 0-89594-838-9
Matthews, John The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook Element Books, Boston, MA 1992 ISBN# 1-85230-245-3
Stevens, Jose and Lena Stevens Secrets of Shamanism: Tapping the Spirit Power Within You Avon Books NY, NY 1988 ISBN# 0-380-75607-2
Campbell, Joseph Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God Penguin Books NY, NY 1987 ISBN# 0-14-00-4304-7
Eliade, Mircea Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy Princeton University Press, Princeton University USA 1974 ISBN# 0-691-09827
Steiger, Brad Totems: The Transformative Power of Your Personal Animal Totem Harper SanFrancisco, CA 1997 ISBN# 0-06-251425-3
Sun Bear, Wabun Wind, and Shawnodese Dreaming with the Wheel: How to Interpret and Work with Your Dreams Using the Medicine Wheel Fireside NY, NY 1994 ISBN# 0-671-78416-1
Also visit: http://www.shamanelder.com
This guide on Shamanism was prepared by Peter Theo using information that was in part obtained from the above listed books as well as the written teachings of a Shaman Elder, Maggie Wahls. Some information may be restricted through its original copyrights and may require permission prior to reprint or publishing.
For more information on Shamanism and Shamans, I would recommend contacting one of my personal teachers, Shaman Elder Maggie Wahls. Her website is: http://www.shamanelder.com.