The Shaman: A poorly understood, fascinating, and useful ancient universal role

If one is to adequately understand shamanism and discuss it meaningfully, then one must use a definition which indicates a cross-culturally comparable religious phenomenon, just as the term shaman must indicate a cross-culturally comparable religious functionary.

This is a work-in-progress and many of the ideas expressed here are subject to change.

In all human societies there exist individuals whose job it is to guide and supplement the religious practices of others. Such individuals are highly skilled at contacting and influencing supernatural beings and manipulating supernatural forces. Their qualification for this is that they have undergone special training. In societies with the resources to support full-time occupational specialists, the role of guiding religious practices and influencing the supernaturals belongs to the priestess or priest. Societies that lack full time occupational specialization have existed far longer than those in which one finds such specialization, and in them there have alwyas been indvidiuals who have acquired religious power individually, usually in solitude and isolation, when the "Great Spirit," the "Power," the "Great Mystery," or whatever is revealed to them. These persons become the recipients of certain special gifts, such as healing or divination; when they return to society they are frequently given another kind of religious role, that of the shaman.

In the United States and in certain areas of western Europe perhaps millions of people may have learned something about shamans through reading either the popular autobiograpy of Black Elk, a "traditional" Sioux Indian "medicine man," or Carlos Castaneda's apparently fictional accounts of his experiences with Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian shaman.


Shamanism was first recognized by Western observers working among traditional herding societies in central and northern Asia, and it is from the language of one of these societies, the Tungus-speaking peoples of Siberia, that the term "shaman" is derived. In Siberian Tungustic the word is "saman", meaning "one who is excited, moved, raised," and refers to individuals who, while in a trance state, visit the realm of mystical beings to communicate with them and in the process gain mystical power. The principal functions of the Siberian shaman are guiding the dead to the afterworld, acting as a medium between the living and the dead, and finding out from the mystical beings what is ailing a patient or what the right medicine is. Shamanism among the Tungus does not involve the power to cure a particular illness, but rather only determines the cause of the malady. In this respect, the Tungusic shaman is a medical diagnostician rather than a healer.

As anthropologists gained a better cross-cultural perspective concerning shamans, the term shaman was broaded to encompass a number of different types of specialists (including medicine women and men, diviners, spiritualists, palm readers, and magicians) found throughout the world who are generally believed to have access to mystical beings whom they contact on behalf of their clients. Most, but not all, contact their mystical beings while in an altered state of consciousness brought on by smoking, taking drugs, rhythmic drumming, chanting, or monotonous dancing. While in the trance, the shaman becomes a medium or spokesperson for one or more mystical beings, a feature of shamanism in non-Western societies which finds parallels in the activities of professional channelers in the United States and western Europe who also speak on behalf of mystical beings for their paid clients.


In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the terms shamanism and shamanistic have been broadly, indeed Ipai (California) shamansloppily, applied to a vast spectrum of religious activity (cf. Kendall 1985:27), just as the term shaman has been broadly & sloppily, to a vast spectrum of "religious" practitioners. Unfortunately, there is little consensus among researchers, scholars, or laypersons as to exactly what a shaman is &/or does, and some definitions are somewhat culturally biased.

One of the earliest comprehensive studies of shamanism was Mircea Eliade'a Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy . According to Eliade (1960) the shaman is a specialist in archaic techniques of ecstasy. He notes, for example, that shamans among Siberia and central Asian societies possess certain psychological features and capacities that render them apt for ecstasy -- for going outside themselves, i.e., going into a trance state. During the trance the shaman's soul leaves her/his body and ascends to the sky or descends to the underworld in order to communicate with a variety of mystical beings (gods, spirits, ghosts of the dead, demons).

While Eliade's description of shamanism stresses ecstasy and the shaman's ability to go into a trance and travel to the realm of the sacred powers, other scholars interpret shamanism more loosely. For example, in constract to the ecstatic-trance state of the northeast Asian arctic shaman, some religious functionaries give guidance by taking in a spirit, that is, rather than going to the spirits, the spirits come to them. This is the case for much of the shamanism in China and Japan where shamans typically sing songs and go into a trance as a way of being temporarily inhabited or possessed. During the possession, the shaman performs divinations, discerning what the spirits want or what the future will require. And frequently Japanese shamans will band together and walk a regular route through their local villages, offering personal advice and medical healing. In performing this work they developed teaching techniques that contributed to Japanese theater and dance (Carmody & Carmody 1989).

Andreas Lommel, in his work on shamanism (Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art), draws a distinction between a medicine person and a shaman, noting that the

future shaman acts under an inner compulsion ... a psychosis that is emerging for some reason or other is so strong that the only way out open to the individual attacked by it is to escape from it into shamanistic activity, that is to say essentially by means of artistic productivity, such as dancing or singing, which always involves a state of trance (1967:9-10)

In other words, any person suffering from a psychosis, and who escapes from it through artistic productivity in a trance state is a shaman, or at least a "future shaman."

In his article, California Indian Shamanism & Folk Curing, Lowell Bean says that shamans were not only the "principal religious functionaries" among Native California groups, but frequently political administrators simultaneously, as well as being "the principal philosophers, poets, artists, musicians, intellectuals, scientists, doctors, and psychotherapists" (Bean 1992:53). They served as mediators between the sacred and profane worlds. And like Siberian shamans, shamans among Native Californian societies went in "magical fight" to gain mystical power (knowledge about the universe). This power was then used by the shaman to aid the souls of the deceased in their journey to the land of the dead, to relay instructions from the mystical world on proper life-styles in the here and now, and to diagnostic and cure illness.

The Carmodys, in their text Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions , offer the following omnibus definition of a shaman:

One who is a specialist in ancient techniques of ecstacy. The shaman normally is a functionary for a nonliterate community, serving as its healer, intermediary with the gods, guide of the souls of the dead to their rest, and custodian of traditional tribal lore. The typical shaman comes to this role through either heredity or having manifested idiosyncratic traits (epilepsy, sexual ambiguity, poetic sensitivity, dramatic dreams). Psychologically, shamans depend on an ability to function in two worlds, the ordinary reality of daily life and the extraordinary reality they encounter through their ecstatic journeys. As well, they serve their tribe as a defense of meaning, by incarnating a contact with the powers thought to hold the tribe's destiny (Carmody & Carmody 1989:33).

From various cultural anthropology textbooks come the following definitions of a shaman:

a part time religious specialist who has unique power acquired through her or his own initiative; such individuals are thought to possess exceptional abilities to deal with supernatural beings and powers.

part time religious specialists who are thought to have supernatural powers by virtue of birth, training, or inspiration. These powers are used for healing, divining, and telling forturnes during times of stress, usually in exchange for gifts or fees.

part-time religious figures who mediate between ordinary people and religious entities. Shaman is a general term encompassing curers ("witch doctors"), mediums, spiritualists, astrologers, palm readers, and other diviners.

In anthropological literature shamanism indicates a cross-culturally comparable religious phenomenon, just as the term shaman indicates a cross-culturally comparable religious functionary.

William Lebra provides a useful working definition of shamans: individuals who wield recognized supernatural powers for socially approved ends and have the capacity to enter culturally acknowledged trance states at will (William P. Lebra n.d., cited in Harvey 1979, 4). Another take on shamans and what they do is offered by Thomas Buckley (Yurok Doctors and the Concept of "Shamanism" ) who defines shamanism as involving "the application of knowledge and power gained through direct contact with spiritual beings toward either benign (e.g., healing) or malign (e.g., sorcery) ends. Usually shamans are professionals, specialists who are paid for their services" (In Bean 1992:117). Buckley also notes that the term 'shaman' "does not correlate with any single explicit, indigenous Yurok category. It may justifiably be applied to quite separate sorts of individuals who controlled considerable power acquired through training" (1992:132). NOTE: This may also be the case for all shamans.


If we accept William Lebra's working definition of shamans (individuals who wield recognized supernatural powers for socially approved ends and have the capacity to enter culturally acknowledged trance states at will), then shamans exist in almost all parts of the globe. Eliade's study (1964) examines shamanism in most regions of Asia (northern, central, east, southeast), Tibet, Oceania, North and South America, and central Europe. Edman's volume Studies in Shamanism deals disucsses shamanism among the native peoples of North America (including the arctic-dwelling Inuit or Eskimos), Nepalese, people of Kalash-Kaffir, Israelites (on the basis of biblical evidence), Hungarians, and Swedes. Other studies have dealt with Greek and Malay cases. And if the definition of shamanism is extended to include divination by trance, then many African localities must be added.


At the core of Native American religious systems lay belief in a primary holy force. For the Sioux it was wakan; for the Algonquin, orenda. Other tribes gave it other names. But shamans throughout the continent agreed that a holy force held all things together. North American Indian life largely revolved around this force. It made nature a source of benevolent influences that on occasion turned severe. Perhaps the key goal of most American Indians was to keep harmony with such holy natural power, to move with its cosmic pulse. Harmony was the way to fertility of both tribe and nature, to success in both gathering & hunting, to a full life. By contrast, disharmony led to disaster: ruined crops, no game or fish, sickness, etc.


The most general Inuit religious conception was "Sila," described by the Alaskan Inuit shaman Najagneq as

a great spirit, supporting the world and the weather and all life on earth, a spirit so mighty that his utterance to mankind is not through common words, but by storm and snow and rain and the fury of the sea; all the forces of nature that men fear.

However, Sila also could express himself gently, by sunlight or calm of the sea. The Inuit shaman mediated between Sila and the nation. According to another Inuit shaman, Igjugarjuk, a shamn sought "true wisdom", which only could be learned

far from the dwellings of men, out in the great solitudes; and is only to be attained through suffereing. Privation and suffering are the only things that can open the mind of man to those things which are hidden from others.

These hidden powers chose the people to whom they would reveal themselves. Such revelations often came in dreams or visions. The Inuit shaman's way to power is through an initiatory ordeal that often has had a death-resurrection motif. Eliade's materials on Inuit shamans detail other initiatory techniques.


For a discussion of California Indian shamanism please click here.


The African religious functionary that most closely fits Lebra's working definition of shamans (individuals who wield recognized supernatural powers for socially approved ends and have the capacity to enter culturally acknowledged trance states at will) is the diviner, individuals who become filled by a spirit that reads omens, interprets movements of sacred animals, etc., and who can find lost articles, identify thieves, recognize witches, and so on. Common divinatory systems stretch across Africa, from Zaire to South Africa, and students travel long distances to study with famous teachers.

Diviners, like African native doctors, support the forces of good, just as witches and sorcerers are agents of evil. Members of most African ethnic groups ("tribes") believe that witches work at nkght, are usually but not always female, and inherit or buy from demons a power to inflict harm.


The essential features of aboriginal Australians' religions include

In a fairly comprehensive survey of aboriginal Australian belief systems, T. G. H. Strehlow noted that most groups believed in eternal supernatural beings, whom they linked with totemic animals, plants, or natural phenomena (totem = an animal, plant, or other object serving as the emblem of a family or clan).

The principal figure in traditional Australian ritual life has been the medicine man, who derives his healing powers from visionary contacts with supernatural beings (the aboriginal shaman derives his healing powers from his ability to travel to the realm of the supernaturals). Usually he possesses magical items that symbolize these powers. Since the basic goal of the aboriginal Australian religious systems was to keep harmony with the powers (ancestral totemic spiritis or divinities), the primary role of the medicine men was to assist the people in maintaining their ties with the land and to one another. This was done most often through the ritualistic retelling and re-enactment of myths and the preparation of elaborate paintings on the walls of caves and rock overhangs. These paintings symbolized the creative actions of various supernatural beings in the "dream time," the time before people were created.


One should not get the idea that shamans are NOT to be found in modern, industrial societies, for they are. Few people realize that the faith healers and many other evangelists in their own society correspond in many respects to one or more definitions of a shaman. Furthermore, given the current revival of interest in the supernatural that is taking place in the United States and western Europe, shamans may become more common.


How an individual actually becomes a shaman varies from society to society. In some societies, it's possible to become a shaman by having a particularly vivid or powerful vision in which spirits enter the body. In other societies, one can become a shaman by serving as an apprentice under a practicing shaman. Among the Tungus of Siberia, people who often experience bouts of "hysteria" are the most likely candidates for shamanism because such people are thought to be the closest to the spirit world (see Service 1978). In societies that regularly use hallucinogenic drugs, almost any person can achieve the altered state of consciousness needed for the practice of shamanism. For example, Michael Harner (1973) reports that among the Jivaro Indians of the Ecuadorian Amazon who use hallucinogenics widely and have a strong desire to contact the supernatural world, about one in four men is a shaman.

As practiced by the Reindeer Tungus of Siberia, shamans are people who have the power to control various spirits, can prevent those spirits from causing harm, and, on occasions, can serve as medium for those spirits (Service 1978:127-28). Tungus shamans - who can be either women or men - use special paraphernalia (such as elaborate costumes, mirrors, tambourines). Beating on a tambourine induces a trance in the shaman and produces a recptive state of conscioiusness on the part of the onlookers. The shaman, possessed by the rhythmic drumming, journeys into the spirit world to perform certain functions for individual clients or the group as a whole. These functions may include

In Siberia initiation into shamanism entails, on the part of the novice shaman, learning tribal lore and ecstatic techniques and then passing an initiatory ordeal, which amounts to a ritualized experience of suffering, deal, and resurrection.

In some societies, one becomes a shaman by passing through stages commonly related by many myths. These stages may or may not involve:

The shaman invariably receives a spiritual "call" which indicates that she or he may be a worthy candidate for the role, whereupon the process of becoming a shaman begins.

In some cultures shamans reportedly do not seek the call - it comes to them spontaneously.

When the shamanic role is hereditary, it may descend in either the female or male line in accordance with cultural tradition.

Superior skill or unusual talent, either intellectual or physical, is sometimes seen as a "sign" of shamanic potential.

In some cultures a person may consciously seek the role by achieving an acstatic experience. The vision quest was particularly important among many western North American Native American groups.

The shamanic candidate may also become a member of the profession by purchase or transfer of formulas, equipage, rights, or supernatural experience from another shaman. According to Harner, the would-be shaman among the Jivaro gives a gift to a practicing shaman, who administers a psychotropic drink under the influence of which a spirit helper or "dart" is transferred.

Shamans, for the most part, are set apart from the sorcerers and witches of their own and more complex societies in that theirs is a more positive and important role.

In some societies, public initiatory rites usually precede the final acceptance of a shaman.

The ritual death and rebirth which the initiate experiences while in a state of trance --i.e., ecstacy -- is remarkable similar in a wide variety of cultures.

Although the initiation rite of a shaman may take only a short time, the full acquisition of the shamanic role sually takes many years and is achieved only after many tests or trials, along with instruction from master shamans.

Aspects of the initiatory expereience are apparently repeated, at least in part, whenever the shaman goes into trance.

Even though the initiation is so important for the validation of the shaman's status, it does not establish it for all time.

The shaman often finds herself or himself in competition with other shamans and the target of envy.

Most societies believe that the shaman's power can be used for either "good" or "evil."




Bean, Lowell John, ed.
1992California Indian Shamanism. Menlo Park: Ballena Press.

Bean, Lowell John, & Sylvia Brakke Vane
1992"The Shamanic Experience." InCalifornia Indian Shamanism, ed. by L.J.Bean. Menlo Park: Ballena Press.

Carmody, Denise L. and John Tully Carmody
1980Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Edmans, Carl-Martin, ed.
1967Studies in Shamanism. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell.

Eliade, Mircea
1964Shamanism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Harner, Michael
1980The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Harvey, Youngsook Kim
1979Six Korean Women: The Socialization of Shamans. St. Paul: West Publishing Co.

Hultkrantz, Ake
1979The Religions of the American Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kendall, Laurel
1985Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.