Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with what they believe to be a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.

Beliefs and practices that have been categorized as “shamanic” have attracted the interest of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, including anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, religious studies scholars, philosophers and psychologists. Hundreds of books and academic papers on the subject have been produced, with a peer-reviewed academic journal being devoted to the study of shamanism. In the 20th century, many Westerners involved in counter-cultural movements have created modern magico-religious practices influenced by their ideas of indigenous religions from across the world, creating what has been termed neoshamanism or the neoshamanic movement. It has affected the development of many neopagan practices, as well as faced a backlash and accusations of cultural appropriation, exploitation and misrepresentation when outside observers have tried to represent cultures to which they do not belong.

Initiation and learning
Shamans often claim to have been called through dreams or signs. However, some say their powers are inherited. In traditional societies shamanic training varies in length, but generally takes years.

Turner and colleagues mention a phenomenon called “shamanistic initiatory crisis”, a rite of passage for shamans to be, commonly involving physical illness or psychological crisis. The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, who was the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China.

The wounded healer is an archetype for a shamanic trial and journey. This process is important to young shamans. They undergo a type of sickness that pushes them to the brink of death. This is said to happen for two reasons:

  1. The shaman crosses over to the underworld. This happens so the shaman can venture to its depths to bring back vital information for the sick and the tribe.
  2. The shaman must become sick to understand sickness. When the shaman overcomes their own sickness, they believe that they will hold the cure to heal all that suffer.

The Role of the Shaman

South Moluccan shaman in an exorcism ritual involving children, Buru, Indonesia (1920)
Shamans claim to gain knowledge and the power to heal by entering into the spiritual world or dimension. Most shamans have dreams or visions that convey certain messages. Shamans may claim to have or have acquired many spirit guides, who they believe guide and direct them in their travels in the spirit world. These spirit guides are always thought to be present within the shaman, although others are said to encounter them only when the shaman is in a trance. The spirit guide energizes the shamans, enabling them to enter the spiritual dimension. Shamans claim to heal within the spiritual dimension by returning lost parts of the human soul from wherever they have gone. Shamans also claim to cleanse excess negative energies, which are said to confuse or pollute the soul.

Shamans act as mediators in their cultures. Shamans claim to communicate with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the deceased. Shamans believe they can communicate with both living and dead to alleviate unrest, unsettled issues, and to deliver gifts to the spirits.

Among the Selkups, the sea duck is a spirit animal. Ducks fly in the air and dive in the water and are thus believed to belong to both the upper world and the world below. Among other Siberian peoples, these characteristics are attributed to water fowl in general. The upper world is the afterlife primarily associated with deceased humans and is believed to be accessed by soul journeying through a portal in the sky. The lower world or “world below” is the afterlife primarily associated with animals and is believed to be accessed by soul journeying through a portal in the earth. In shamanic cultures, many animals are regarded as spirit animals.

The functions of a shaman may include either guiding to their proper abode the souls of the dead (which may be guided either one at a time or in a group, depending on culture), and the curing of ailments. The ailments may be either purely physical afflictions such as disease, which are claimed to be cured by gifting, flattering, threatening, or wrestling the disease-spirit (sometimes trying all these, sequentially), and which may be completed by displaying a supposedly extracted token of the disease-spirit (displaying this, even if “fraudulent”, is supposed to impress the disease-spirit that it has been, or is in the process of being, defeated, so that it will retreat and stay out of the patient’s body), or else mental (including psychosomatic) afflictions such as persistent terror, which is likewise believed to be cured by similar methods. In most languages a different term other than the one translated “shaman” is usually applied to a religious official leading sacrificial rites (“priest”), or to a raconteur (“sage”) of traditional lore; there may be more of an overlap in functions (with that of a shaman), however, in the case of an interpreter of omens or of dreams.

There are distinct types of shaman who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nani people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp. Other specialized shamans may be distinguished according to the type of spirits, or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts. These roles vary among the Nenets, Enets, and Selkup shamans.

The assistant of an Oroqen shaman (called jardalanin, or “second spirit”) knows many things about the associated beliefs. He or she accompanies the rituals and interprets the behaviors of the shaman. Despite these functions, the jardalanin is not a shaman. For this interpretative assistant, it would be unwelcome to fall into a trance.

Shamanism Beliefs
There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world, but several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Common beliefs identified by Eliade (1972) are the following:

  • Spirits exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
  • The shaman can communicate with the spirit world.
  • Spirits can be benevolent or malevolent.
  • The shaman can treat sickness caused by malevolent spirits.
  • The shaman can employ trances inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy and go on vision quests.
  • The shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
  • The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.
  • The shaman can perform other varied forms of divination, and sometimes foretell of future events

Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living. Although the causes of disease lie in the spiritual realm, inspired by malicious spirits, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman “enters the body” of the patient to confront the spiritual infirmity and heals by banishing the infectious spirit.

Many shamans have expert knowledge of medicinal plants native to their area, and an herbal treatment is often prescribed. In many places shamans learn directly from the plants, harnessing their effects and healing properties, after obtaining permission from the indwelling or patron spirits. In the Peruvian Amazon Basin, shamans and curanderos use medicine songs called icaros to evoke spirits. Before a spirit can be summoned it must teach the shaman its song. The use of totemic items such as rocks with special powers and an animating spirit is common.

Such practices are presumably very ancient. Plato wrote in his Phaedrus that the “first prophecies were the words of an oak”, and that those who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to “listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth”.

Belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujería in Latin America, exists in many societies. Other societies assert all shamans have the power to both cure and kill. Those with shamanic knowledge usually enjoy great power and prestige in the community, but they may also be regarded suspiciously or fearfully as potentially harmful to others.

By engaging in their work, a shaman is exposed to significant personal risk as shamanic plant materials can be toxic or fatal if misused. Spells are commonly used in an attempt to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is often very highly ritualized.