What is shamanism?
 
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What is shamanism?


Crowan
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What is shamanism?

The word itself comes from the language of the Evenki, a Tungus-speaking people who hunt and who herd reindeer in Siberia and in Northern China. It is pronounced "shaa-man" with the emphasis on the second syllable. It was among the Evenki that Russian anthropologists first documented shamanism and, by a hundred years ago, the word was being used to describe people from other cultures who did the same work. Although shamans have been persecuted by all the major religions and, more recently, by Communist governments, shamans still exist in many different ethnic groups around the world.

And it is the work that he or she does that defines someone as a shaman. Let's look at what that work is. A good definition is that a shaman journeys, at will, to the spirit realms to communicate and negotiate with the spirits and to return with power, healing or knowledge for the community.
There are five important points in this definition that I think deserve a closer look. The first is the word, "journeys". If a shamanic trance journey doesn't take place then it isn't shamanism that is occurring. Secondly, this journey is done "at will". That is, the journey, although not necessarily the things that happen on it, are under the shaman's control. If you find yourself outside your body without having intended leaving it, you are not practising shamanism. And thirdly, the journey is to the spirits. Astral travel is not shamanic journeying.

Fourthly, there must be communication with the spirits. Many people are aware of spirits who don't talk or listen to them. There must be two-way, meaningful communication for it to be shamanism.

And lastly, the journey must be "for the community" Shamanism is not self-therapy or self-improvement, although this kind of journey is necessary in order for us to develop along our spiritual paths. During the interaction with the spirits the shaman comes to have a deeper and more spiritual understanding of the world.

Shamanism cannot exist without the community. There is no such thing as a "lone shaman". Evenki shamans operate within Evenki society. Salish shamans operate within Salish society. If we practice shamanism here then it must be within our society. It must have a place within our culture, just as it has in any other culture. Shamanism is not a New-Age word. It cannot be used to mean anything other than has been described. It has a precise meaning both to the Evenki and to anthropologists and therefore should have to us. I do not believe that we have the right to take a word from another culture and change its meaning simply because we like the word, or we like the reactions of our friends if we call ourselves "shamans".

For many years anthropologists, studying shamanic cultures, dismissed shamans as 'charlatans' or 'madmen'. But, gradually, anthropologists realised that if they were ever to understand shamanism they would have to experience it themselves. Michael Harner was one of these anthropologists. He learned to shamanise from the Shuar of Peru, then brought what he had learned north to the U.S.A. and formed the Foundation of Shamanic Studies to study shamanism in all its forms world-wide. He coined the phrase "core shamanism" to describe this world-wide shamanism without cultural or religious overlays.

Core shamanism is, therefore, the common threads of shamanic practice from all over the world. It is the heritage of everyone, wherever they live, whatever their ethnic or cultural background or religious beliefs. On core shamanic workshops it is those common threads that are taught. This is not because shamanism should, or can, be practised in a cultural void, but because we are a part of our culture, just as the Inuit shaman is part of his or the Sora shaman is part of hers. It makes no more sense that someone born and brought up in the United Kingdom should learn to practise Nepalese shamanism than that someone born and brought up in Central Africa should practise Huichol shamanism. We each belong to our own cultures and to the lands where we live. So 'core' means that central part of shamanic practice that is not dependent upon cultural traditions. But to most core shamanic practitioners it means more than this. It means also that shamanism is 'core' to our practice and to our lives.

We don't live in a shamanic society. That is self-evident. But does shamanism have a place in this society? Well, if it didn't, then the spirits wouldn't co-operate with us, and no amount of our teaching would enable you to meet them. So, what place does it have? In hunter-gatherer societies shamanism is traditionally used to locate game and to appease the spirits of the hunted animals. In agricultural societies the shaman works, for a large part, with the spirits of the weather and of the crops.

Essentially, the shaman is a negotiator between humans and the spirits in order to keep (or to restore) balance to the community. And here? Now? Well, shamanic healing is a large part of the work of contemporary shamanic practitioners. Much more so than in native cultures. A close friend of mine went, several years ago, to a trans-American shamanic conference. She was the only non-native person there, but she was also the one who had most shamanic experience – because the communities of the native shamans were kept in balance – mainly by ceremony - and needing only a tweak here and there. Our culture is out of balance with the spirits and so we need to do more ‘patching-up’ work. Also, here, we tend not to see illness as a reflection of the spiritual lack of balance in the community, so our work – through necessity – is often on the level of sticking plasters on broken legs.

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hecate8
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Unfortunately, what a lot of those who use it mean is very individual, idiosyncratic, and, not infrequently, stuffed with romanticized misconceptions. So there's no 'what do people mean by that?' that wouldn't fill a book or several. It's fairly likely that most (but not necessarily all) of them are influenced (to greater or lesser degree, directly or indirectly) by the so-called 'core shamanism' of Michael Harner and the FSS, and/or by Carlos Castaneda, Lynn Andrews, etc, or the armchair anthropology of Eliade, but that doesn't narrow it down much.

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Tashanie
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A very interesting and informative post Crowan. Thank you. It is obvious that just as people can call themselves 'Christian' or 'Muslim' but have a belief that fuels very unchristian or unislamic behaviour, so someone can say they are a 'Shaman' but not behave in a way that agrees with core shamanism.

Does a person have to be 'called' or be 'special' on some way or can ANYONE become a Shaman. Is the ability to journey and communicate with spirits natural so everyone has the potential ?

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Crowan
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Does a person have to be 'called' or be 'special' on some way or can ANYONE become a Shaman. Is the ability to journey and communicate with spirits natural so everyone has the potential ?

Some people cannot journey. Sometimes this is because of soul loss - they have so little soul that sending out more on the journey is not possible - and sometimes it seems to be because they cannot relax and disengage the part of the brain that's telling them they can't do it. I've also known people who take months to learn - and continuing to try through months of failure takes a particular type of person anyway. But these are in a minority. In my personal experience of teaching journeying, I'd say at least 90% can do it reasonably easily.
But this is just learning to journey. And most people in our culture who journey are not shamans. (And the difference between "people who 'do' shamanism, shamanic practitioners and shamans is a whole different topic that I'll go into if you're interested).
In a shamanic culture - where the majority of people don't journey - the potential shaman is called. Here (although a suprising number her are called as well) it's possible to learn to journey without doing anything other than self-development (which I'm in no way belittling, but which isn't being a shaman).
So yes, I would say almost anyone can learn to journey and to contact spirits. Very few will have the potential to become shamans.

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Mrs. S.
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Nice thread, Crowan. You have put flesh on the bones of my understanding of shamanism - that it is/was a man or woman who journeyed into the spirit world on behalf of the tribe.

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Paul Crick
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Is not a shaman a male who communicates with spirit and a shawoman a female that communicates with spirit?

I know these days people do not utilise male and female titles like they used to do, but a priest used to be a man and a priestess used to be a woman, I know they both call themselves priests these days, but to me a priest is a male and a priestess is the female counterpart!

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Crowan
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Is not a shaman a male who communicates with spirit and a shawoman a female that communicates with spirit?

I know these days people do not utilise male and female titles like they used to do, but a priest used to be a man and a priestess used to be a woman, I know they both call themselves priests these days, but to me a priest is a male and a priestess is the female counterpart!

No. Shaman is a Tungus word which has no gender inherent in it. You can have male and female shamans (not, "shamen"!) The fact that the word ends in "...man" is coincidence.

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Paul Crick
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Thanks for the explanation Crowan. 🙂

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Crowan
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You are welcome, Paul.:)

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Principled
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Interesting thread Crowan.

How do Shamans explain the creation of the universe?

Love and peace,

Judy

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Crowan
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Interesting thread Crowan.
How do Shamans explain the creation of the universe?
Love and peace,
Judy

Shamanism occurs in many different cultures. Creation stories are cultural and, therefore, vary from culture to culture. This means that many people in this culture – and I include myself, here – believe the universe started with the Big Bang, while – at the same time – understanding whichever creation myth fits. In the UK that could mean Celtic, Norse etc.

You need to appreciate that there is no dogma, no ‘holy book’, no founder. All shamanism comes from the spirits and those spirits will direct the cultural belief systems according to what people and spirits in a particular place need.

The common thread – the bit that makes it ‘shamanism’ – is the shamanic trance journey, undertaken to the worlds of the spirits (or to this world, but on the ‘level’ in which we can communicate with the spirits), in order to bring back healing, wisdom and information for the community. Along with this is, of course, a belief in animism.

In some places, where other religions have had a huge influence, these religions (usually Christianity, Islam or Buddhism) have had an influence on basic shamanic belief, just as they have had on each other. For example, Non-Amazonian Peruvian shamanism is influenced by centuries of Catholicism. Tibetan shamanism is influenced by Buddhism. Here that often comes out in a belief that there has to be an overall god (goddess, great spirit or whatever). This comes from monotheistic (usually Christian) culture that has pervaded Europe for so long.

But basically, you could ask many different shamanists and get many different answers.

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Principled
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Thanks! 🙂

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