Monday, August 31, 2009

Key elements of Shamanism.

Key Elements of Shamanism
copyright Alison Sinclair 2009

Mircea Eliade, historian of religion, considered the classic forms of shamanism, in his seminal Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy with particular reference to practices and beliefs in Siberia and Central Asia. The term shamanism comes from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman. The noun is formed from the verb ša- ‘to know'; thus, a shaman is literally “one who knows.” The shamans recorded in historical ethnographies have included women, men, and transgender individuals of every age from middle childhood onward (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Important Elements
Some key elements of shamanism are identified below:

1. Eliade defines this complex phenomenon as “shamanism = technique of ecstasy.” By this he meant that “shamanism specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.”

2. The shamanic flight implies a sacred cosmology, often identified in tribal myths and beliefs that see the ultimate reality as structured in a three-storeyed cosmology: upper world, earth and the lower world. The vocation of the shaman allows him or her to travel in trance through the various planes of consciousness and reality at will. In this world view, the lower world, central world, and upper world are all experienced as inhabited by spirit-beings.

3. Shamans often utilise some variation of an axis mundi, a central axis linking the upper and lower world with our world and supporting it, which is often symbolized by a cosmic tree, a sacred mountain or a ritual pillar. Elements of the shamanic ascent may still be found in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, for example Jacob's ladder in the Old Testament with angels ascending and descending on it, and the golden ladder rising to heaven seen by Dante in Paradiso.

4. A shaman works with helping spirits, who are under his or her control. Sometimes shamanic power is derived directly from the supreme being or other divine entities, ancestors or guardian spirits, (the owl, fox, bear, etc.), which can act as messengers of the spirits or gods. This collaboration with spirits should be distinguished from possession by spirits, since the shamanic operator retains control. According to certain tribes, transmission of power takes place in dreams and includes initiation.

5. Shamans through their trances act as intermediaries between people in their community and the spirit world and are thus able to heal others, accompany the dead as psychopomp, serve as mediators. “The shaman is the great specialist in the human soul; he alone “sees” it, for he knows its “form” and its destiny.” (Eliade, pp3-9 Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”)

6. Although the classic model of shamanism is found in the Arctic and Central Asian regions, the phenomenon is not limited to those countries. Elements can be found in other regions of the world, and among mystical elements of different religions. Notably, shamanism occupies a role of central importance in native American traditions. In some societies, the priest or priestess may also be a shaman, for example, a Bon Po or a Tibetan Buddhist shaman.

7. Eliade mentions the chief methods of recruiting shamans as follows:
(1)hereditary transmission of the shamanic profession;
(2)spontaneous vocation (call or election); or
(3)some may become shamans by their own free will or that of the clan but they are considered less powerful than those called by the spirits.

8. Shamans are recognised in the community after receiving two kinds of teaching:
(1)ecstatic such as dreams, trances etc.;
(2) traditional (shamanic techniques, names, functions of spirits, mythology, etc.) This course of instruction given by spirits and old master shamans is equivalent to initiation. “It is only this twofold initiation – ecstatic and didactic – that transforms the candidate from a possible neurotic into a shaman recognised by his particular society.” Eliade, p.14.

9. Friendship with animals, knowledge of their language, and experiencing transformation into an animal are signs that a shaman has re-established the “paradisal” situation lost at the dawn of time. (Eliade, p.99)

10. According to anthropologist and proponent of neo-shamanism, Michael Harner, there are two main methods of shamanic healing:
(1)Removing something that does not belong: this technique does not require a shamanic journey, i.e. it consists in working in the middle world typically using divination techniques and moving back and forth from what Harner calls “ordinary” and “non ordinary” reality. (Smith, p. 17.) Typically the shamanic efforts are focused on locating foreign or pathogenic objects in the body of the afflicted and then extracting it.
(2)Restoring something which is lacking in the sick person: The restoring method does typically involve the shamanic journey to retrieve the lost soul. The person may be stressed, distressed or traumatized, resulting in the loss of a vital principle or power. The shaman then typically journeys into the other world to retrieve the lost soul or power and restore it to the person.
(Cited in Smith, p.17, who also mentions other conditions that may require shamanic intervention, including spirit intrusion, breach of taboo and sorcery.)

Shamanism in today's society
Psychotherapist and trained shaman Sandra Ingerman, a student of Harner, developed a shamanic approach to soul loss, which is adapted to western culture. Ingerman believes that the shamanic view of soul loss speaks to the widespread experience of soul loss in modern western society, which can also apply to other contemporary societies. She claims that a whole variety of disorders have their underlying cause in soul loss.
C. Michael Smith, a Jungian psychotherapist, writes about how C.G. Jung's views of complexes relates to modern western understandings of soul loss and dissociation. Loss of vital souls, vital energies, correlates well with Jung's notion of psychic libido. In a Jungian view, the shaman can be understood as employing a trance device similar to active imagination for accessing at will the personal and collective unconscious of his/her patient (depending on where the split off energies are located.) A special advantage of the shaman is the the map that he or she has acquired through numerous ecstatic journeys. This map of the inner world serves as can be held or lost.
Ai Gvhdi Waya, hereditary Eastern Cherokee Metis shamaness, in her book “Soul recovery and extraction” explains that the shamanic technique described as “flight” is in fact an expert use of the right hemisphere of the brain to access other dimensions in order to locate lost parts of an individual's soul. This is typically, although not always, induced by drumming. She identifies signs of soul loss, which may be helped by shamanic intervention, as indicated by symptoms including depression, memory loss especially of early years, addictive behaviour, codependence, and victim's mentality. Although shaman is usually thought of as helping human beings, work can also be done for other parts of the natural world, including animals, plants and the land.
Shamans differ greatly in quality and in degree of expertise. For example, some shaman based cultures use hallucinogenic drugs to achieve the necessary altered states; and some shamans may use their powers negatively, becoming sorcerers. Furthermore, not all are able to perform long distance journeying. It is therefore recommended that clients exercise caution when approaching shamans to have work done on them, and ensure that the person has adequate training, experience and a heart-centred orientation. No hallucinogenic substances are required, in fact, to make the shift into alternative reality.

Eliade considered the ecstatic experience to be a primary element of shamanism. It was not the result of any particular historical civilization but rather was fundamental to the human condition, and hence known to the whole of archaic humanity (Eliade, p. 504). What changed with the different forms of culture and religion were the interpretation and evaluation of these experiences. Shamanism is a practice originating in early hunter-gatherer societies that is still practiced today, whereby trained and experienced practitioners can, through accessing alternative reality and altered states of consciousness, assist people in becoming more balanced and integrated individuals.

For further information see the references below, or


Eliade, M., (1951), 2004. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Bollingen Series LXXVI. Princeton University Press.
Encyclopædia Britannica. " shamanism ." Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Ingerman, S., 1991. Soul Retrieval. Harper-Collins
Harner, M., 1980. The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. Harper & Row Publishers, NY.
Smith, C. Michael, 2007. Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue: Retrieving the Soul/Retrieving the Sacred. Paulist Press.
Waya, Ai Gvhdi, (1992) 2004. Soul Recovery and Extraction. Blue Turtle Publishing.

No comments: