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A Brief Concise Summary on Shamanism

by

High Priestess Mish Daya Mysrique Lee-Price

Mystique Mish – The Wayfinder

I write this without fear of being reproached or of it being disputed. My research and understanding of this subject has been exhaustive and what I have read, know and understand is highly supported.

As the heading details this is but a summary and as such will not be a conclusive informative article on the subject and in no way to be accepted as the definitive work on this topic. Shamanism is the 'oldest' magical practice in existence. It pre-dates any other magical practice and was in existence in one form or another even in prehistoric primitive human society.

"Shaman" is the English rendering of saman ("shah-man"), an Evenk noun and verb from the Tungus people of Siberia [1] and its origins lie in words meaning, "to become excited" [2].

The Shaman, female or male, is the community/ tribe/ clan/ village specialist in direct dealings with the Beyond [3] and "perhaps the first people to seek to penetrate and interpret the secret currents of life" [4]. Although the word Shaman comes from Siberia, other cultures and societies around the world had other names or words to describe this unique individual. The practice flourishes still in many parts of the world, such as Siberia, Tibet, Alaska, Canada, North and South America, Africa, New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia usually by the indigenous and original inhabitants of the country. It is my own personal interpretation the word has come to mean "one who walks the Other-Worlds".

Whilst the Tungus have no word for Shamanism, it has come into usage by anthropologists, historians of religion and others in contemporary society to designate the experience and the practices of the shaman. Its usage has grown to include similar experiences and practices in cultures outside of the original Siberian cultures from which the term shaman originated [5].

The anthropological practice of looking at another culture and reaching conclusions about that culture have led many anthropologists to misrepresent Indigenous and more traditional societies. Ironically, according to several on-line web sources, many indigenous cultures, especially Native Americans, find the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" offensive.


The hegemonic practice of 'Modern' society of reading everything within a western context has led to many errors in history. It has also resulted in the practice of the true Shaman being sadly under examined in most cultures. The introduction of European labels such as "witch doctor" and "medicine man" and the on-set of Christian assimilation have seen many indigenous cultures altered, debased and undervalued.

According to Ernesto De Martino in his book, "Primitive Magic - The Psychic Powers of Shamans and Sorcerers" when discussing 'the Problems of Magical Powers in the History of Ethnology' [6] which is the science that analyzes and compares human cultures, social structure, language, religion, and technology and cultural anthropology:

"One cannot stress too strongly that a sharp awareness of the effects of our own cultural orientation (western) upon the object of study is probably far more important than the organization of expeditions to the actual scenes and places concerned; the main problem for the historian (and indeed the anthropologists) is less to see, read and hear, than to know how to see, read and hear. The reaction of our cultural structure becomes more marked according to its sensitivity towards a particular sore-point. The stronger its reaction, the easier it is to see the limitations of our own civilization, its persistent cultural presumptions, its thinly-disguised hostility to the presumptions of the world of magic."

In my own thesis on Neo-Druidism, titled: "Aeonism - A Philosophy of Being" [7] I wrote:

"Healthy Mytho-poetica is stable, contextual and ever-changing. The embodiment of evolutionary potential is transferred to us, the humans, yet all evolutionary change is not necessarily for the better. The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was an epochal evolutionary event and left us with a much more complex 'world' and the gains and losses are difficult to assess. Would you trade 'consciousness', 'self-awareness' and the 'narrative I' for a greater sense of spiritual well being? Would you trade modern technological Western society, with all of its material wonders (including this computer!) for a near guarantee of spiritual happiness? Is it necessary to trade; is this concept of gains and losses beside the point? Can we have it all? Can we have great technological understanding with its unavoidable, intense use of the ecology and a Unicameral Mind that is at ease with communication with the gods and is capable of benefiting from such a relationship? Can you imagine a technological West with compassion towards Gaia and all the beings."

It is obvious that 'Individualism' is the bane for all spiritual growth in Communities.

Individuality is the process of developing personality and uniqueness in a Society/ Tribe/ Clan/ Community as opposed to Individualism, which is the pursuit of the individuals' own needs, wants and desires at the expense of the wider community.

The shaman can afford to be a unique individual and is possibly viewed by others of the community as somewhat eccentric if not out-rightly mad, however it is the shaman's sacred trust to report what he discovers on his journeys to the rest of his community.

The TRUE student of Shamanism must therefore look at the practice and the cultural diversity of the practice totally objectively. The one underlining factor is that Magic exists. Magic is all around us. It is as much a part of us as it is a part of a Universe that is endless and infinitive.

I also state in my thesis:

"We think that the Dreamtime is specific to the native Australians but historical records suggests otherwise. These extraordinary people are 'simply' one of the last stewards of the Dreamtime; they have miraculously preserved it into the 20th and 21st century. In the Dreamtime, the gods walked the earth and shaped it according to their creative whims and their serious needs. That creation of the 'world' also structured it for us; it provided the frame for the 'mirror' with which we reflect 'heaven'. In ritual, we leave linear, secular time and enter the sacred time of the Dreamtime. In that space, we can communicate with the gods directly, learn from them and possibly acquire spiritual knowledge of the type that is forever beyond language. In such mytho-poetic rituals, we explore other dimensions of the 'world' and dimensions of ourselves that are not reachable otherwise. If we cannot do so directly, the shaman will do so for us with the difficult techniques of ecstasy, for that is his sacred trust. When the shaman returns from spirit-soul journeys, he or she communicates the experience to the clan and all are enriched and made wiser by the experience." [7]

I also wrote:

"The fundamentals of human society; family, clan and tribe with their attendant rituals did not spring de novo from the mind of humankind. Our societies, with their passions, complexity, happiness and unhappiness mirror that of gods. We MUST mirror the gods, not because we are inferior parrots, but because the closest of reciprocal relationships provides the most complete, multilevel nourishment for ALL, both the gods and us. The mirror reflects reciprocity and the possibility for the healthiest of symbiosis. If our social and mytho-poetic structures did not mirror 'heaven' then the reciprocal nurturing behavior which leads to the best of all possible 'worlds' would be much more difficult. When our Bicameral Minds Broke Down(c.3,000 BC - 0 AD) and Consciousness with its Self Awareness and narrative 'I' appeared, we lost the easy ability to talk to the gods. We MUST regain it if our overall 'health' is to be restored. Isolated regions of recovery, as promoted by Western reductionist science when working alone, will not suffice." [7]

I stated in my thesis that "We can all be bodhisattvas to Gaia if we choose." And as such we all can once more tap into the Bicameral Mind and rediscover our Dreamtimes. We all have the potential of becoming shamanic but only a few will be found worthy and called by the spirits to act as their messengers and heralds.

One of the most interesting descriptions of the Shamanic beliefs I came across during my research was discovered in the book, 'The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Divination' [8] :

"The shamanic cosmos is centered in a great tree or axis that connects three different worlds: a heavenly world of wisdom spirits to which the shaman may fly in ecstatic trance; a lower or underworld of power figures, souls and soul-devouring creatures; and the everyday reality between them where these things take effect. It is only entering the other worlds that the real causes of things happening in our particular world can be found.

In the world of the shaman, people have two souls, a body soul that makes physical life possible, and a free soul that can travel outside of the body."

It is well recorded and widely accepted in the many reference and research papers that I have read; that the role of a shaman is not something everyone can aspire to. Like priests of the Western Judeo-Christian society, shamans are not self-appointed, but called to the vocation by the spirits themselves. It is believed to be an inherited honor bestowed upon a son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, nephew or niece, however, if the tribal shaman is without children, an apprentice is found amongst the more gifted children of the tribe.

The young would-be shaman was then, required to venture into the wilderness for a period of time determined by his success or failure in meeting up with spirits. If the spirit world finds the acolyte worthy, He or She is then rigorously trained and recognized by the Elders and the community.

"In tribal cultures, becoming a shaman is a vocation, and the call often comes through suffering and disease. Shamans are "wounded healers," marked out by the spirits. They are pursued, torn apart, taken on a visionary journey, and given a new body. Through this initiation they acquire the capacity to heal and serve rather than be the victim of their visionary capacity. In the process, they also acquire a tremendous physical energy, endurance, and concentration." [9]

There are those who believe that the Shaman has probably had about 20-30 years full time apprenticeship style training, where absolute obedience and respect is afforded the Shaman Elder. In certain cultures and countries this may be the case, however, according to many sources this is only one example of many. A shaman can be born as such with the traditional marking of a Shaman: a full head of hair, a full set of teeth and a birthmark. In many cases although the shamanic arts require rigorous training and many years of patient practice, which are traditionally overseen outwardly by another shaman and inwardly by spiritual beings or guardians who befriend and empower the apprentice. The apprentice is chosen by the shamanic calling rather than choosing it and it is the spiritual beings who make the final decision. No shaman becomes one without the transpersonal nod from them.

It is the Shaman who instinctively knew which herb or plant has healing or magical qualities, whether he was taught by another shaman or experimented on himself, or as some believe, may have access to ancestral knowledge acquired from his esoteric journeys.

It is the shaman who instinctively knew when it would rain and when there would be drought. It is the shaman who knew when best to plant crops and when best to harvest. It is the shaman who knew when it was the best time to hunt and whether or not the hunt would be successful.

"The witch-doctor becomes more and more excited; chanting all the time and turning in circles, he bends backwards and strikes the ground violently with his head; then takes great leaps into the air; he approaches a psychic state which is somewhere between consciousness and trance: his divine powers increase; he goes through the actions of a hunter and mimics the quarry and the various phases of the hunt in the most life-like way …" [10]

"The séance came to an end and the tribe was satisfied to know that the hunters would kill eight elephants, of which six would be males; they were also informed that one of the hunters would be killed.

The hunters made their last preparations and left for the hunt in a state of elation. The most amazing thing was that all of the predictions proved to be entirely correct." [11]

"Ritual and interventions arise at need, emphasizing the individual's capacity to create and move in the world of myth." [12]

In ritual dance at Koori Corroborees (Australian Native Indigenous People Ceremonies), which I have had the fortune to attend, I have witnessed similar activity. In ritual dance the participants would mimic the hunt and the actions of the quarry. This helps the hunters focus on their role and the mindset of the quarry and builds in them a sense of balance and symmetry with the natural world. The Shamanic practice of the Australian Aboriginal, as previously stated, is possibly the last finite example of a traditional culture, which is heavily influenced by the shaman and the shamanic practice.

The sacred vocation of shaman entailed more than just healing, although the most common is that of a healer. Another task of the shaman was that of soul retrieval; finding the soul of a sick person that was held in the underworld, and if possible, setting it free. The shaman also, "understands the concept of The Circle of Life. We are born, we live, and someday each of us will die. It is as natural as the Seasons turning and understanding each is in the domain of the shaman." [13]

As such, the shaman would have "an understanding of the movement of the Earth and the Moon in relationship to the Sun and other planets and stars" [14] and be able to utilise the Agricultural rule when to plant and when to harvest.

"Shamanic Flight, is in most instances, an experience not of an inner imaginary landscape but reported to be the shaman's flight beyond the limitation of the physical body." [15] and thus, what is today known as Astral Projection and Outer-Body-Experience (OBE).

The shaman's ability to consciously move beyond the physical body through trance, and to "fly" to the spirit realms and the "Other Worlds", is another commonality. The shaman would often communicate with ancestral spirits to seek knowledge or ancestral approval for a member of the community or the community as a whole.

It must be acknowledged, that there are still in existence other primitive tribes and cultures that still practice the shamanic way all over the world. Native Indigenous Americans and others tribes, although heavily influenced by the Western Culture and Western Judeo-Christian social structures, may practice there ancestral rites in secret and not promote these activities within the society they co-exist in.

The Buddhist faith and the Hindu faith incorporate shamanic practices, as too do other know faiths. The Haiti ritual of Voodoo is shamanic in nature.

A shaman may exhibit a particular magical specialty such as control over the elements or the control over fire (fire-walkers). A shaman may have the ability to read minds or communicate with animals. The shaman may have the "gift of tongues".

"The shaman is also, a skilled actor, stage magician and ventriloquist. Most of his ceremonies are performed, and he relies on the willing support of his audience, who form a kind of chorus. His skill at illusion is part of his ability to open the gates to extraordinary experiences." [16]

The shaman's arts or abilities encompasses drumming, music, painting, sand-painting, body-painting, tattooing, mandra, talisman, juggling, illusionism, puppetry, ventriloquism, rope-walking, fire-walking, fire-eating, animal training, plant cultivation, astronomy, metallurgy, theater, healing and much, much more.

The shaman is the Healer, Counselor, Teacher and Priest and it is his sacred trust to advise, help, heal and teach as needed for the common good of the community. This often means placing the community first.

Shamanism, the practice, according to many sources, is a magical vocation in tune with Nature and is especially an ancient healing tradition, when in actually fact it is much, much more. The practice and tradition, depending on the culture and country, where it is practiced, actually encompasses SUPER NATURE or the supernatural.

The conclusions reached by early 19th century "anthropologists" was that they were healing by magic and performing other magic rituals when on the most part they were using long established natural methods of healing and energy working. Even their trance state had a practical purpose.

It would be counter productive to devalue the practice and exile it completely from modern Society. Unfortunately most Western and European writers on the subject of magic today, find themselves influenced by their own cultural preconceptions. Throughout his book "Primitive Magic - Powers of Shamans and Sorcerers", Ernesto De Martino questions the cultural presumptions and the fundamental anti-historical attitudes of scientific researchers and writers in the field. His writing itself shows his own cultural preconceptions and quiet often throughout the book he incorrectly associates the shaman magical practices with "witch-craft".

The interesting thing is that the shaman role within the community happens as a global phenomenon. It is part of the human psyche to seek out the other world and undervalued by the hegemony of modern anthropology as psychobabble.


(Footnote: This is but a condensed version of a larger article, which I hope to incorporate in a book.)

Selected Bibliography:

  1. [Source: http://www.elexion.com/lakota/textos/texto18b.htm]
  2. [Source: Dictionary of the Occult Geddes & Grosset]
  3. [Source: http://www.elexion.com/lakota/textos/texto18b.htm]
  4. [Source: Dictionary of the Occult Geddes & Grosset]
  5. [Source: http://deoxy.org/shaover.htm ]
  6. [Source: Primitive Magic - The Psychic Powers of Shamans and Sorcerers Ernesto De Martino]
  7. [Source: http://aeonist.draondragonfly.com.au ]
  8. [Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Divination - Stephen Karacher]
  9. [Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Divination - Stephen Karacher]
  10. [Source: Les Pygmees de la fordt equatoriale - Father R. G. Trilles]
  11. [Source: Les Pygmees de la fordt equatoriale - Father R. G. Trilles]
  12. [Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Divination - Stephen Karacher]
  13. [Source: http://www.angelfire.com/journal/cathbodua/Shamanism.html ]
  14. [Source: http://www.angelfire.com/journal/cathbodua/Shamanism.html ]
  15. [Source: http://dexy.org/shaover.htm ]
  16. [Source: Illustrated Encyclopedia of Divination - Stephen Karacher]
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