Shamanism Lesson 1

Author: Khemaysekhmet
Date: Tuesday, 3 January
Brief Introduction

1. The Meaning behind the word:

Shamanism (/ˈʃɑːmən/ shah-mən or /ˈʃeɪmən/ shay-mən) is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.

A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing. The word “shaman” probably originates from the Tungusic Evenki language of North Asia. According to ethnolinguist Juha Janhunen, “the word is attested in all of the Tungusic idioms” such as Negidal, Lamut, Udehe/Orochi, Nanai, Ilcha, Orok, Manchu and Ulcha, and “nothing seems to contradict the assumption that the meaning ‘shaman’ also derives from Proto-Tungusic” and may have roots that extend back in time at least two millennia. The term was introduced to the west after Russian forces conquered the shamanistic Khanate of Kazan in 1552.

The term “shamanism” was first applied by western anthropologists as outside observers of the ancient religion of the Turks and Mongols, as well as those of the neighboring Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples. Upon observing more religious traditions across the world, some caucasian anthropologists began to also use the term in a very broad sense, to describe unrelated magico-religious practices found within the ethnic religions of other parts of Asia, Africa, Australasia and even completely unrelated parts of the Americas, as they believed these practices to be similar to one another.

Mircea Eliade writes, “A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = ‘technique of religious ecstasy‘.” Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments/illness by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul/spirit restores the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. The shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans may visit other worlds/dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements. The shaman operates primarily within the spiritual world, which in turn affects the human world. The restoration of balance results in the elimination of the ailment.

Beliefs and practices that have been categorized this way as “shamanic” have attracted the interest of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, including anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, religious studies scholars, philosophers, and psychologists. Hundreds of books and academic papers on the subject have been produced, with a peer-reviewed academic journal being devoted to the study of shamanism. In the 20th century, many westerners involved in the counter-cultural movement have created modern magico-religious practices influenced by their ideas of indigenous religions from across the world, creating what has been termed neoshamanism or the neoshamanic movement.[6] It has affected the development of many neopagan practices, as well as faced a backlash and accusations of cultural appropriation,[7]exploitation and misrepresentation when outside observers have tried to represent cultures they do not belong to.

2. Roles of the Shaman:

Shamans claim to gain knowledge and the power to heal by entering into the spiritual world or dimension. Most shamans have dreams or visions that convey certain messages. The shaman may have or acquire many spirit guides, who often guide and direct the shaman in his/her travels in the spirit world. These spirit guides are always present within the shaman, although others encounter them only when the shaman is in a trance. The spirit guide energizes the shaman, enabling him/her to enter the spiritual dimension. The shaman heals within the spiritual dimension by returning ‘lost’ parts of the human soul from wherever they have gone. The shaman also cleanses excess negative energies, which confuse or pollute the soul, Shamans act as mediators in their culture. The shaman communicates with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the deceased. The shaman communicates with both living and dead to alleviate unrest, unsettled issues, and to deliver gifts to the spirits.

Among the Selkups, the sea duck is a spirit animal. Ducks fly in the air and dive in the water. Thus ducks are believed to belong to both the upper world and the world below. Among other Siberian peoples, these characteristics are attributed to water fowl in general. The upper world is the afterlife primarily associated with deceased humans and is believed to be accessed by soul journeying through a portal in the sky. The lower world or “world below” is the afterlife primarily associated with animals and is believed to be accessed by soul journeying through a portal in the earth.[32] In shamanic cultures many animals are regarded as spirit animals.

Shamans perform a variety of functions depending upon their respective cultures; healing, leading a sacrifice, preserving the tradition by storytelling and songs, fortune-telling, and acting as a psychopomp (literal meaning, “guide of souls”). A single shaman may fulfill several of these functions.

The functions of a shaman may include either guiding to their proper abode the souls of the dead (which may be guided either one-at-a-time or in a cumulative group, depending on culture), and/or curing (healing) of ailments. The ailments may be either purely physical afflictions—such as disease, which may be cured by gifting, flattering, threatening, or wrestling the disease-spirit (sometimes trying all these, sequentially), and which may be completed by displaying a supposedly extracted token of the disease-spirit (displaying this, even if “fraudulent”, is supposed to impress the disease-spirit that it has been, or is in the process of being, defeated, so that it will retreat and stay out of the patient’s body), or else mental (including psychosomatic) afflictions—such as persistent terror (on account of a frightening experience), which may be likewise cured by similar methods. In most languages a different term other than the one translated “shaman” is usually applied to a religious official leading sacrificial rites (“priest”), or to a raconteur (“sage”) of traditional lore; there may be more of an overlap in functions (with that of a shaman), however, in the case of an interpreter of omens or of dreams.

There are distinct types of shaman who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nani people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp. Other specialized shamans may be distinguished according to the type of spirits, or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts. These roles vary among the Nenets, Enets, and Selkup shaman. Among the Huichol, there are two categories of shaman. This demonstrates the differences among shamans within a single tribe.

Among the Hmong people, the shaman or the Ntxiv Neej (Tee-Neng), acts as healer. The Ntxiv Neej also performs rituals/ceremonies (soul retrievals) designed to call the soul back from its many travels to the physical human body. A Ntxiv Neej may use several shamanistic tools such as swords, divinity horns, a gong (drum), or finger bells/jingles. All tools serve to protect the spirits from the eyes of the unknown, thus enabling the Ntxiv Neej to deliver souls back to their proper owner. The Ntxiv Neej may wear a white, red, or black veil to disguise the soul from its attackers in the spiritual dimension.

Boundaries between the shaman and laity are not always clearly defined. Among the Barasana of Brazil, there is no absolute difference between those recognized as shamans and those who are not. At the lowest level, most adults have abilities as shamans and will carry out the same functions as those who have a widespread reputation for their powers and knowledge. The Barasana shaman knows more myths and understands their meaning better, nonetheless the majority of adults also know many myths.

Among Inuit peoples the laity have experiences which are commonly attributed to the shamans of those Inuit groups. Daydream, reverie, and trance are not restricted to shamans. Control over / alliance with helping spirits is the primary characteristic attributed to shamans. The laity usually employ amulets, spells, formulas, songs. Among the Greenland Inuit, the laity have greater capacity to relate with spiritual beings. These people are often apprentice shamans who failed to complete their initiations.

The assistant of an Oroqen shaman (called jardalanin, or “second spirit”) knows many things about the associated beliefs. He or she accompanies the rituals and interprets the behavior of the shaman. Despite these functions, the jardalanin is not a shaman. For this interpretative assistant, it would be unwelcome to fall into trance.


Exclusively used from the wiki page for Part One.
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