The shaman is a ritual specialist who is a healer and spiritual mediator. He or she entertains a close relationship with the larger spiritual universe, endowing him or her with powers to divine or to heal and act as a psychopomp—a guide of the souls of the deceased to their afterlife. The word shaman is derived from the verb saman meaning “to know.” The term was borrowed from the Manchu-Tungus languages (comprised of, among others, the languages of the Even and the Evenki peoples of the Russian Far East and northern China). Shamanism is a powerful vocation, at times hereditary but always achieved through demonstrated expertise in the shamanistic arts. Though the first descriptions of shamanism were recorded in the Russian Far East, anthropologists and others now use the term to describe an array of ritual and religious practices that are found across the planet.
The classic work that summarized and defined shamanism was Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. First published in French in 1951, this text provides a detailed account of shamanism in all its facets. Eliade’s work highlights some of the characteristic features of shamanism, which include the initiation of the shaman, the powers of the shaman, and the shaman in traditional cosmology. The term shaman is, in many ways, synonymous with the term “medicine man” or “curer” that was often applied to comparable ritual specialists in the Americas and elsewhere.
Central to shamanism is the spiritual death and rebirth of the shaman. Among the Sakha (Yakut) of the Russian Far East, a great bird carries off the future shaman’s soul to the underworld where it must ripen. Once ready, the bird carries the soul back to the earth where it is cut into pieces and devoured by spirits of disease and death. It is through the feasting that the shaman gains power over these spirits, and the greater the number of spirits partaking in the feast, the greater the powers of the future shaman. In other regions, the shaman is spiritually tortured and killed by the souls of shaman ancestors who also cook the flesh. While the spirit is being devoured, the physical body of the shaman remains inert, and the community waits for the rebirth of the shaman. Shamans do not always willingly accept the “call” of the spirits or ancestors: in certain cases, future shamans will become physically ill and incapacitated if they resist the call to the vocation.
Once reborn as shaman, the new initiate must master shamanic techniques including songs, ritual techniques, and knowledge of medicinal plants. The shaman’s assemblage often includes a drum or other musical instruments. The shaman is seen as having the power to communicate with spirits and the shaman’s spirit can often travel to distant locations, often the upper or lower spirit world. Central to the practice of the shaman is the altered state of consciousness or psychosomatic trance, in which the individual enters into a highly charged emotional state and is carried beyond normal consciousness and rationality. Though hallucinogenic plants are sometimes used to achieve this altered state, the shaman can achieve this state through the use of rhythmic sound and movement, thus the importance of the drum that can mimic the rhythm of the beating heart. However, achieving an altered state of consciousness is not the end; rather, it is simply the means to the end. The purpose of the ceremony and the ritual is to permit shamans to channel their souls and spirit-helpers to communicate and interact with the supernatural universe, exercising their power over the spiritual domain.
Elements of shamanism are found across the globe and in a number of forms of religious belief. Though shamanism is associated with animism, shamanic elements are found in Buddhism—the lama in Tibetan Buddhism is in many ways a syncretism of shamanic and monastic practices; Islam—the Whirling Dervishes use music, rhythmic prayer, and chants as well as dance to achieve a form of trance; and certain Christian sects that believe they can be possessed by the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. However, those individuals that we can truly identify as shamans are usually found in those societies in which humans are part of a much richer spiritual tapestry, as is the case in the Russian Far East and Northern Asia.
Central to shamanistic cosmology is the division of the cosmological universe into an upper, middle, and a lower world inhabited by a variety of sacred entities and spirits. Shamans draw their power from the ability to navigate between these layers. In Central and Northern Asia, at the center of cosmology is the “World Tree,” the tree of life and immortality; in other regions it is a “World Pillar” or a “World Mountain.” The tree, pillar, or mountain is rooted in the underworld, tying it to the sky; it can also represent the many layers of the sky, and only the most powerful of shamans can ascend to the very apex of the heavens.
Symbolism and ritual are central to the practice of the shaman. The drum and other accoutrements of the shaman are usually decorated with a world tree or other elements of cosmology. The drum and instruments are the sole preserve of the shaman and retain the power of the shaman after death; after death a shaman’s drum is often cut and rendered unusable, and the shaman’s spirit is treated with due care. The same is true of the costume—often decorated with mirrors, pieces of metal, and a variety of symbols and patterns, it is a cosmological microcosm, inhabited by spirits even after the death of the shaman. In certain regions, the shaman dons a mask as part of his costume.
Shamans play a variety of roles. In certain societies, shamans can be either “white” or “black” as some will use spirits to harm rather than to help humans. The shaman is often called upon to diagnose the cause of misfortune that may be plaguing a community— for example, a long spell during which no game is killed while hunting. Under these circumstances, the shaman will try to identify any taboos that were broken or other breaches that may have offended or disrupted the spiritual harmony. Shamans invariably are called upon when illness strikes. Often disease is understood in spiritual terms, caused by either spirits that attack or inhabit the body, or the loss or theft of one’s soul (for example, by a sorcerer or rival shaman in another village), and shamans are called upon in these circumstances to diagnose the cause of illness and to use their powers to redress the spiritual imbalance and bring about a recovery.
- Eliade, M. (1972). Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy (W. R. Trask, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Kozak, D. (2000). Shamanisms: Past and present. In R. Scupin (Ed.), Religion and culture: An anthropological focus. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Thomas, N., & Humphrey, C. (1994). Shamanism, history and the state. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.