Thursday, November 19, 2009

Shamanism. Spirituality or Magick

At the onset of my research into this centuries old way of life I'd already had in place preconcieved notions and ideas. While doing my research I was very surprised at certain things that came up which, now, have changed some of those notions. On the other hand some have stayed the same. The biggest difference is the amount of knowledge and insight I have gained, some quite literally fascinating.

This serves as an introduciton to shamanism as my next post will be a conversation which I had with Caoimhin O Coileain, living in the UK, who is a shaman.

Read on to see if your understandings stay the same or become different as to what you had before...

Live Well,



Shamanism predates all known religions and might be the basis of which all religion was built upon, although shamanism itself is not a religion. It is a set of beliefs and behaviors which allows the shaman to shift consciousness to obtain information, heal, retrieve souls, or seek for guidance from the ancestors in the spirit world. Traditional shamanism has remained unchanged over time.

Modern day shamanism has a more eclectic approach and is more in tune with the problems of the "modern world" while using the methodology of the "primitive world." According to Tom Cowan, author of "Shamanism: As a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life", the modern American shaman "...draws upon what is best in our sociey while it reforms those areas harmful to the human spirit and the health of the planet", (page 12).

The word shaman is the English translation of the word saman, which is Tungus, and mean's "to know". The Tungus are an indigenous people of Altai Mountains in Siberia. The word shaman in Tungus designates the shamanic way of life, experiences and beliefs rather than a religion. It appears as if the word saman may be a derivative of the Tibetan word for a Buddhist monk, saman.

Though there is no universal Native American word for shaman, there were nevertheless shamans. The Ojibwa Native American Indian tribe did have jugglers of the "hidden truth", called jes' sakid. These jugglers were able to speak to gods, spirits, and heal. Eskimos named their shamans angakok, who claimed to be capable of flight and they journey to the Otherworld (the Sea).

In some African cultures, the shaman is a diviner, a person who is chosen by the ancestors to be a link between the living and the dead. The Igbo tribe located in parts of West Africa named their shaman's Dibia. John Matthews, author of the "Celtic Shaman", states that the Celtic Shamans are called Geilt, meaning madman, wild, or file, meaning poets, (page 4).

The word Shaman has since come to represent all those outside of Siberian culture who practice shaman like techniques. These include witchdoctors, medicine men, Dreamwalkers, and diviners. Although the shaman goes by many names in many cultures, it is a generally accepted term to describe somene who fits the known description but it is most important to state that it is a job, not a person.

A shaman will enter into "shamanic ecstasy" (a state of intense joy beyond rational thought), containing 3 main points:

  1. Shamanic Ecstasy

  2. Prophetic Ecstasy

  3. Mystical Ecstasy

Ecstasy is a state of consciousness which is entered for onoe or more of the following reasons:

  1. To engage in soul retrieval
  2. To guide the souls of the dead
  3. To divine answers from the spirits in regards to future events
  4. To add to his personal knowledge by associating with higher beings.

There are 2 primary ways of becoming ashaman: hereditary or receiving the call. There are also 2 secondary ways of becoming a shaman: being appointed or choosing to do so of your own free will. These self-made shamans are considered less powerful than the former 2.

Extreme psychotic like episodes marks receiving the "call", usually epileptic appearing and is often confused with epilepsy. This is not confused with a mental disorder. The "call" is a temporary unbalance that the shaman experiences, and is usually brought under control once he or she accepts the call. Refusing or delaying of the call can often amount in continuing of the mental unbalance and can result in permanent mental illness if it is avoided long enough. It can also be marked by being attacked by an animal, struck by lightening or some other near death experience.

Traditional training is usually done by the current shaman, and if not available, the tribal elders. The traditional training includes the names of spirits, history of the clan (tribe); herbalist and other needed to skills to become a successful shaman.

Neo-shamanic training involves reading how-to books, attending weekend seminars, and joining shamanic schools. Neo-shamans can have an ecstatic experience and or receive the "call", though this is often not the case.

The shamanic initiation is achieved both in this world and in the next and it takes place simultaneously. This initiation is part of the "call" that all traditional shamans receive.

The true initiation of shamans all have a common theme: Ritual dismemberment and replacement organs either by spiritual means or with other matter, i.e. crystals. There is a common theme among tribal shamanic initiations:

  1. Time spent alone, away from the tribe, in the wilderness
  2. Being symbolically made to look like a corpse
  3. Symbolic funeral
  4. Descent into the Otherworld
  5. Self-induced or drug induced trance
  6. Period of training
  7. Rites of passage or torture

Public initiation is performed after a period of initial ecstatic experience or "true" initiation, and formal training with the current shaman. It is highly ritualistic, often involving physical pain and feats, and is witnessed by the tribe.

The neo-shaman, depending upon which shamanic path he/she is following will also engage in a public "type" ceremony, though this is less public than the ceremony of the traditional shaman. This ceremony can involve a sweat lodge, pubilc drumming circle or a vision quest, of which the neo-shaman will go on a weekend retreat with other neo-shamans. As we can see there is a common thread throughout shamanic "public" initiations as there are in the "true" initiations:

  1. The number nine is prevalent or a division of
  2. Some sort of assent
  3. Ritual death and resurrection

In conclusion we can attempt to define a shaman as one "who knows". A traditional shaman as one whom follows the ecstatic path and who can claim hereditary powers. Neo-shaman as someone who has a more eclectic approach and is more in tune with the problems of the modern world while using the methodology of the primitive world. And that shamanism is the practice of the ecstatic experience and has certain beliefs and behaviors that qualify it as such.

Also, that no matter what name a shaman may go by, being a shaman is a job description, one not always wanted or asked for, but a job nonetheless. That no matter the name you choose to call yourself as long as you hold to the basic principles and beliefs of a shaman, then you are one.

Source: "On Shamanism," by Strix d'Emerys