Shamanism is a worldwide phenomenon. All across the globe, different cultures evolved remarkably similar ways of interacting with their environment and the spirit world beyond.
Though the word “shaman” may be derived from a word for a Buddhist monk, it came to mean a spiritual leader among the Ural-Altaic people. From there, its use has expanded to encompass anyone of any culture with specific beliefs and methods for approaching the spirit world.
What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is a set of beliefs and practices that govern how humans interact with spirits. These can vary pretty widely from culture to culture — some shamans, for example, undergo a kind of deific possession during their rituals, while others do not.
Shamans serve an important role in their communities. They act as healers, diviners, interpreters of omens and dreams, and maintainers of balance.
People often turn to shamans to help them cope with trauma, recover from emotional, mental, or physical problems, or connect more deeply with nature and their communities.
While shamanism can be part of a larger religious or spiritual framework, it isn’t a religion itself. In Tuvan culture, for example, shamanic practices are part of Tengriism or Buddhism. For many neoshamans, shamanism is part of a modern earth-centered religion like Wicca.
While shamanic practices can have some pretty huge differences from culture to culture (and even from shaman to shaman), shamanism is marked by some pretty consistent core beliefs.
Core beliefs of Shamanism include:
- Animism. Shamans are animistic, meaning that they believe that all things have a spiritual component. These are the spirits that shamans interact with during rituals like the shamanic journey. To some shamans, abstract concepts, words, and names have spirits of their own.
- Communication. Spirits not only exist, they can be spoken to, reasoned with, and even bribed when necessary. A shaman might, for example, undertake a journey to speak to the spirit of a fox to convince it to stop stealing poultry from the community.
- The spirit worlds. In neoshamanism, the spirit realms are commonly visualized as the lower, middle, and upper worlds. The lower worlds are the realm of instinct and survival, and are home to the spirits of animals, plants, and natural phenomena. The middle world is the spiritual equivalent of the physical world. The upper worlds are the realm of higher thought, and are home to enlightened beings, ancestors, deceased shamans, and angel-like beings.
- Spiritual free will. Spirits can behave as they please. Some can be benevolent, or they can be malevolent. Benevolent spirits can act as guides, protectors, and sources of knowledge. Malevolent spirits range from harmless tricksters, to actively harmful.
- Healing. Some spirits can be the cause of emotional, or even physical, illness. Shamans are able to cure these illnesses.
- Reciprocity. The shaman seeks to live in balance with nature, and to help their community exist in this balance as well. Part of their job is to seek the spirits of nature to learn ways for humans to be better partners and stewards of their environment.
- Trance. Shamans can enter trance states through a variety of means. These states allow them to navigate the spirit realms as needed.
- Divination. Shamans may either go on a journey to uncover secret information, or use other divination methods like runes, bone throwing, or cartomancy.
- Music. Music has power. It can be a way to induce an altered mental state, announce the shaman’s entry into the spirit world, or serve as an auditory guide during a journey. In forms of shamanism where possession occurs, music may also soothe the possessing spirit and guide it back home when the ritual is complete.
Neoshamanism has evolved a set of practices based on those of traditional shamans. These include:
- Journeying. The shamanic journey is the keystone of shamanism — the ability to enter the spirit worlds and communicate with their denizens supports the rest of the shaman’s work. In this, the shaman enters a trance state that allows them to go to the lower, middle, or upper spirit worlds to receive answers to questions, diagnose illness, or find cures for spiritual maladies.
- Soul retrieval. Soul retrieval is a specific type of shamanic healing journey. It centers on the belief that traumatic events can cause part of a person’s soul, or vital essence, to splinter off and be lost. This can leave people suffering long-term effects of trauma. The shaman goes into the spirit world to find these soul fragments and return them to their home so that healing may begin.
- Shamanic healing. Not all forms of shamanic healing involve soul retrieval. Shamans can also go into the spirit realms to talk to the spirits of illnesses, and the spirits of medicinal plants. This allows them to seek a diagnosis and find a cure for ailing members of their communities.
- Ecstatic dance. Ecstatic dance is a free-flowing, unrehearsed form of dance in which the dancer surrenders to the rhythm of the music and allows it to guide their movements. This form of dance is notable for being able to induce a trance state, leading to dancers feeling a deep sense of joy, serenity, and connection to each other and their surroundings. Some shamans undertake shamanic journeys while dancing.
Entheogen Use in Shamanism
Entheogens are plants and fungi that contain psychedelic compounds capable of inducing a trance or visionary state when consumed. Their use is a big part of some types of traditional shamanism.
Among northern peoples, psychedelic mushrooms might be fed to reindeer to purify them of their toxic compounds, and the resulting extract drunk to induce a trance state.
Their use is less prevalent among neoshamans, though some still turn to entheogens to connect with nature or the divine, heal emotional or physical ailments, or for visionary rituals.
Psychedelic plants and fungi hold all of the wisdom of nature within them, so they have the capacity to harm or heal. Shamans only attempt to use them with a calm, clear state of mind, in safe, peaceful, natural surroundings.
In some cultures, psychedelic plants may be given to people in need of healing. The shaman then sings medicine songs to activate the power of the plants, and guide the subject through the healing process.
Shamanic healing is a complex subject, and beginners should study under an experienced shaman before attempting it.
Since shamanism holds that physical, mental, or emotional maladies may have a spirit origin, it’s the shaman’s responsibility to go in search of the cause of these illnesses. Once diagnosed, the shaman can then seek out a cure.
Soul retrieval is another means of shamanic healing. People who’ve lost a piece of themselves in a traumatic event can suffer from unexplained issues for years after the fact. Returning the lost portion of their soul can help these problems resolve.
As mentioned above, some traditions use entheogens as a healing modality. Psychedelic compounds have received a lot of scientific attention over the past few years for their ability to help with conditions ranging from chronic pain to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Their healing properties are something that shamans have known about for ages — administering entheogens and acting as a guide through the experience is one of the shaman’s most important roles.
Traditional Shamanism vs Modern Shamanism
Today, there are two kinds of shamans:
Traditional shamans come from a culture or religion with an unbroken history of shamanism. They may have been trained as part of a lineage that stretched back thousands of years.
Modern shamans, also known as neoshamans or urban shamans, are people who have turned to shamanic practices as a way to re-engage with nature and the spirit world.
Beginners may be self-taught, or undergo a training process from a traditional or modern shaman.
While neoshamanic practices might differ widely from their traditional counterparts, all shamans have the same goals: To heal others, and keep themselves and their communities in balance with their natural environment.
Getting Started with Shamanism
While there are endless books and videos on the subject, nothing really replaces learning from another shaman. The spirit worlds can be dangerous and difficult to navigate, and not all spirits are kind and helpful.
Learning from an experienced shaman gives beginners the chance to experience a shamanic journey without having to worry about what they might experience.
If it isn’t possible to find in-person instruction in shamanism, there are plenty of teachers online. While these won’t give the same experience, they’re still a valid and helpful way of learning shamanic rituals and practices.
Metaphysical shops and Meetup groups can be another way to find drumming circles, ecstatic dance groups, and other people who can help you hone your shamanic skills.
Shamanism is a beautiful way to get in touch with nature, the spirit world, your community, and your own innate talents and abilities. Shamanic journeys and rituals are profound transformative experiences, even for beginners, that offer unique and wonderful ways to help heal both people and nature.