Prolegomena to the Study of Shamanism


‘Ochir’ a Mongolian shaman, early 20th century.

1.  Introduction

2.  Origin and Meaning

3.  The Shaman

4.  The Shamanic Mystique


1.  Introduction

Shamans are ritual specialists in hunter-gatherer societies (Lewis-Williams, 2002) who are more potent and important than witch-doctors (Lewis, 1969). These specialists were thus found originally in the homogenous, technological simple, loosely structured hunting-gathering cultures of ancient times. Shamanism is a religious practice where there is communication with good and evil spirits through “…a professional class of priest-seers…” (McKillop, 1998), and thus associated with “…archaic techniques of ecstasy…” (Eliade, 1964), and a widespread practice across Eurasia and elsewhere as a primitive religion survival. In this sense some regard shamanism as evidence of the ancient origin of human archetypal concepts of spirituality.

Presently shamanism is a religious phenomenon characteristic of Siberian and Ural-Altaic peoples. Despite various theories of origin shamanism can be described as a “…widespread complex of religious and medical beliefs, centred on a community or family shaman, who is usually perceived to be a mediator between spiritual and human worlds…” (Balzer, 1996). In consideration of the religious and supernatural functions the shaman is in essence “…a social functionary who, with the help of guardian spirits, attains ecstasy in order to create a rapport with the supernatural world on behalf of his group members.” (Hultktantz, 1973).

The phenomenon of shamanism is found throughout China, Tibet, Japan, through Korea to include many Turkic and Mongoloid clans and tribes. The origin of shamanism is recognised as having occurred in northern and central Asia. Among the Japanese may be found the temple yamabushi, the Chines have their wu-i healer magicians, and there are the devil doctors of Sri Lanka (Leach, 1972). Furthermore it can be noted that the “…primitive religion of these tribes is polytheism and polydaemonism, with strong roots in nature worship…” (MacCulloch, 1918). In other words we have a religious system where shamans, as intermediaries, act between supernatural entities and earthbound humans.


Yupik Shaman

In religious terms shamans are a class of polytheists (employing shamanistic sacra) and worldwide religious practitioners who “…imitate trance states, generally called altered states of consciousness (ASC), for the purpose of communing with spirits (Jones, 2006). As a vigorous cross-cultural phenomenon (VanPool, 2009) the origins of shamanism are “…hidden deep in the mists of our primordial past.” (Pearson, 2002), whose roots stretch back as far as the Palaeolithic, and which is supported by archaeological evidence. Shamanism therefore consists of a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world (Hoppal, 1987). For others, including anthropologists from the onetime Soviet Union, shamanism is “…essentially a ‘pre-class’ religion that may nevertheless survive in class societies in a marginal, peripheral cult form.” (Lewis, 1986).

2.0 Origin and Meaning

The term shaman is Tungus in origin from saman or sramana meaning ascetic (McKillop, 1998; Leach, 1972) and in Sanskrit  sramanas. Shamanism is not limited to circumpolar peoples as it occurs in south-east Asia, Oceania, and with Amerindians. The name comes from Siberia where a shaman is also called a tabid and female shamans called shamankas, Inuit angekok, in Lapland noi’de (Sandars, 1968), with shamanism the basis of Finno-Ugric religion (Guirand, 1982). Placed in perspective the career of the shaman “…belongs to that special category of ethnographically specific concepts used cross-culturally outside their own native contexts.” (Lewis, 1986).

In Siberia a shaman is such by hereditary transmission or spontaneous vocation, whereas in north America shamanism is a voluntary quest. However, just because shamanism describes the religion of the tribes of the Urals-Altaic region, it does not deny that the practice of shamanism also occurs in more or less complete forms elsewhere (MacCulloch, 1918). Another interpretation of the meaning of ‘saman’ is also from the Tungus describing “…a person who moved between different worlds on supernatural errands (Pearson, 2002)

Shamanism occurred all over the ancient world (Matthews, 1991), and is an animistic belief that “…presupposes an elemental force in all objects which can be dominated by a greater force…” (Guirand, 1982). A shaman is not a magician, not a visionary, not a healer, are usually male but female shamans occur, but importantly it is the “…intensity of his experience that makes him unique. His ability to extend his consciousness beyond that of the ordinary human being.” (Matthews, 1991). In other words the concept of shamanism and its practice “…is central to the recognition of shamanism.” (Aldhouse-Green, 2005), and archaeologically present in the presence of bone whistles, flutes, shamanic drums, as well as large animal bones called osteophones because they could be used as resonant instruments.

The term became accepted among the Tungus and the Turko-Mongolic cultures of ancient Siberia as well as by Altaic mythology, where shamans acted as mediators and travelling spirit guides for those cultures (Hoppal, 2005). In so far as the Tungus people and their shamanism are concerned  “…historically and geographically they have been influenced by culture and borrowing and exchange on a wide front, with the shaman playing a crucial and innovative role as recurring agent and mediator for alien spiritual forces.” (Lewis, 1986).

The most complete manifestation of shamanic practice occurs in Manchuria and Siberia (Leach, 1972) being notable among the Yakuts, Tungus, Koryaks, Ostyaks, Samoyeds as well as the Chukchee. Among the Ostyak and Samoyed tribes the position of shaman is hereditary. The shamans of the central Inuit are usually men called angakok who are noted for their displays, drum dancing and therapeutic performances (Leach, 1972). In the Russia of the 17th century the practioners of shamanism were often “…confused with common sorcerers, the general import of shamans as ecstatic healers and innovators was accepted in the 19th century.” (Hultkrantz, 1999).

3.  The Shaman

In the realm of English-speaking social anthropology “…there is a marked contrast…between American and British usage…the term ‘shaman’ enjoys a secure position in American cultural anthropology.” (Lewis, 1986). The shaman possesses a number of functions which depends upon their culture, and which includes sacrificial rituals, healing, fortune-telling, story-telling and singing, as well as being a ‘guide to souls’ or psychopomp (Hoppal, 2005). In some respects shamans are women and men “…who through the acquisition of supernatural powers, are believed to be able to either cure or cause disease.” (Leach, 1972). The shaman is not only in “…direct intercourse with the spirits, and actual (bodily and spiritual) access to the spirit world…” (MacCulloch, 1918), but possesses as a result  superior knowledge to ordinary people. The primary religious role of the shaman is that of healer and diviner. Both aspects are achieved by spirit possession or the journey of the soul of the shaman to the underworld or heaven.

Shamans are not merely intermediaries between the spirit domain and the human world but ‘mend the soul’ by treating illness and ailments (Eliade, 1964). In some ethnic groups the powers of the shaman are believed inherited or regarded as a calling by signs and dreams. A shaman can attain his or her religious status through personal quest, vocation or heredity, but is in essence a mouthpiece of the spirits who became his or her initiatory familiars. The shamans of South America became so as a result a supernatural calling or specialised training and who thus became “…the intermediaries between the supernatural world and the communities.” (Leach, 1972). In this manner the phenomenon and practice of shamanism represents “…a cult whose central idea is the belief in the ability of some individuals chosen by some spirits to communicate with them while in a state of ecstasy and perform the functions of an intermediary between the world of spirits and the given human collective (collectivity).” (Basilov, cited in Lewis, 1986).

A shaman is a particular type of individual combining functions and abilities (Lommel, 1966) who requires special training, with separation from cares and distractions of ordinary life (Lewis, 1969), with initiation often involving isolation and mentoring by an older shaman. A shaman often shows signs of mental instability, excitability, and hysterical dissociation, exhibiting suggestibility and subject to hallucinations (Lewis, 1969), but shamanism is not linked to mental illness because the shamanistic mind is “…a complex interweaving of mental sates, visions and emotions.” (Lewis-Williams, 2002). The central “…core of shamanism…” is the “…shamanic séance…” (Balzer, 1996) and an issue over which controversy still abides. A shaman must have a mana to carry on his role which he can only obtain  by being predestined for it, as well as by submitting to certain rituals (Adam, 1954). Mana, a term originating in Polynesia, can be considered as an immaterial power believed by many pre-literate peoples to be inherent in certain privileged persons and things.

Shamans use accessories called sacra which are their tools including drums, piped and whistles, which they employ in caves and shrines designated as ritual spaces (VanPool, 2009). In this context it has to be stressed that there are shamans and priests, not shamans or priests. Shamans frequently use musical instruments and noisemakers (Vitebsky, 2001), and “…consider their drums to be animated entities whose spirits can help the shamans on their journey.” (Potapopov, 1999). Drums are used by shamans by many Inuit groups and several Siberian peoples, as well as many cultures using feathers regarded as the messengers of the spirits.


drum shaman

A drum shaman

However, the sacra of priests compared to those of the shaman, include ritual paraphanalia used in public ceremonial locations, as well as carvings of deities, statuary and the divine written word. The shaman establishes a rapport with the spirits.


Cheyenne Medicine Man by Howard Terpning. Source: public domain.

The medicine man uses methods where spiritual aid is not essential, thus “…the methods of the medicine-man and the magician, as distinct from the shaman, are also found everywhere, and frequently enter into shamanistic practice.” (MacCulloch, 1918). In other words the term shaman, if loosely defined, has been considered in terms of ‘sorcerer’, ‘ritualist’ or simply ‘medicine-man’ (Aldhouse-Green, 2005). Every shaman possesses a harmless animal familiar, as well as a collection of iconographic symbols, tutelary and liminal creatures, as well as anthropomorphic figurines, not forgetting their psycho-active herbs and fungi (VanPool, 2009).


A Sami shamanic drum.  Source: public domain.

Hunter-gatherers exhibit a number of characteristics of shamanism (Lewis-Williams, 1997), which distinguish it from other religions by “…the power that man or rather certain men particularly endowed, the shamans, exercise over nature.” (Guirand, 1982). Hunter gatherer shamans are therefore specialists with authority and prestige who mediate between people and surrounding natural and supernatural powers (Sandars, 1968). Theoretical studies attempt to define shamanism in terms of function and the identity of the shamans as individual practitioners, nonetheless shamans “…can be male of female, old or young, sympathetic or tyrannical, renowned or secret…” (Balzer, 1996).

As a polytheistic class shamans cannot be categorised as a uniform or homogenous group dichotomous with priests – indeed ambiguous definitions only serve to obscure their unique cultural religions and beliefs (Aldhouse-Green, 2005; Tedlock, 2005). The practices of shamans developed, as is now known, amongst the Inuit, the native Americans of the northern Pacific coast, of California, and those of the plains and other Amerindian tribes (Leach, 1972). Indeed, we can reliably and profitably use shamanic studies to describe their cross-cultural religious pattern (Tedlock, 2005). In this context shamanism is not a religion as such (Aldhouse-Green, 2005), with the role of the Tungus ‘saman’ being an ‘ecstatic’ one. This aspect underlies the fact that a shaman “…may be regarded as one whose priestly, prophetic, and magico-medical functions have not been differentiated.” (MacCulloch, 1918).

4.  The Shamanic Mystique

Characteristics of shamanism are: (1) it posits a range of institutionalised altered states of consciousness; (2) the visual, aural and somatic experiences of altered states are seen as conceptions of alternative states of reality; (3) people with special powers and skills – shamans – have access to this alternative reality; (4) the nervous system via altered states leads to dissociation. Shamans use dissociation to achieve four ends which are also features of hunter-gatherer shamanism: (1) shamans are believed to contact spirits and supernatural entities; (2) they heal the sick; (3) they control the movements and lives of animals; (a) have the ability to change the weather. These four functions coupled with the altered states are believed mediated by and facilitated by “…a variously conceived supernatural potency of power…” and this potency is “…commonly associated with animal helpers that assist shamans in the performance of their tasks.” (Lewis-Williams, 1997; 2002).

The underlying premise of shamanism is that invisible spirits pervaded the lives and world of the living (Hoppal, 1987) and that in this situation within the shaman’s power was the “…ability to summon spirits who can perform tasks beyond the capacity of ordinary people.” (Leach, 1972). The shaman dramatizes his or her performance in order to “…transform into spiritual creatures through rituals that induce Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) to create…Shamanic States of Consciousness (SCC)”. (Harner, 1980). In the trance state the most common feeling is one of swimming or flying, an important and significant indicator of the transition or implying “…an altered state of consciousness is important, shamanism may be described as an ecstatic religion.” (Aldhouse-Green, 2005).

One of the functions of a shaman is the periodic performance of sacrifice, a ritual which is an “…important part of the shamanistic rites of healing and divination…” (MacCulloch, 1918). Another shamanic ability is shape-shifting where dressed in feathers, animal pelts, head-dresses, whereby “…when in a trance state. shamans in many traditional communities experience transmogrification from human to animal form.” (Aldhouse-Green, 2005), and the guardian spirits of the shaman may be in animal form. Therefore transmogrification, the assumed shape-shifting, the shamanic trance is necessary and central to enable entry into the sprit dimension.

Considering rock art shamans often make use of images to interact with their tutelary spirits (Lewis-Williams, 1988). These tutelary spirits include ritually sent messenger birds as guides, as well as jaguars and bears (Harner, 1973), especially during their flights. The panels of shamanic rock art comprise entopic images (Clottes, 1998) where colour in such art has intrinsic spiritual meaning (Whitley, 2000).


Shamanic petroglyph or pictograph from south east Utah.  Source: public domain.

Even though there are may variations of shamanism throughout the globe there are many shared common beliefs pertinent to the phenomenon (Eliade, 1964), and in many tribes the functions and role may be divided among different kinds of shaman (MacCulloch, 1918). The shamanic universe differs from place to place, from time to time, from culture to culture, but the fundamental structure remains the same (Pearson, 2002). The performances of shamans “…are elaborated with rituals and symbols to ensure safe passage between the worlds.” (Wilbert, 1987), with the goal of preserving the “…cosmic equilibrium by acquiring and applying knowledge…” (Pearson, 2002).

The special shamanic skill is the ability to travel from the ordinary world, which confines the community, into the realm of spirits (Pearson, 2002), therefore shamanism must involve “…soul journeys of persons chosen by the spirits: the shaman’s soul must be able to use trance to leave the body, visit the spirit world…(Aldhouse-Green, 2005). It is apparent that the core of shamanic practice “…is the  acquisition of supernatural power through ecstatic trance.” (Pearson, 2002).

The Latin for trance is transitus meaning ‘passage’ and where transive means to ‘pass-over’ and is a necessary “…pre-requisite for any kind of shamanism.” (Pearson, 2002). These trances become séances of a dramatic character for shamanic dialogues with the spirits (MacCulloch, 1918). In general terms the shaman makes his or her passage across the axis mundi, and enters the spirit world by affecting a transition of consciousness (Hoppal, 1987). The hypnotic trance is attained either through autohypnosis brought about by drumming and dancing, or by the use of entherogens. The trance plays an important role in the journey of the shaman making the drama, “…the shamanic ritual is crucial for the theatre.” (Aldhouse-Green, 2005).

Psychoactive agents or plants include cannabis sativa, tobacco, Datura, Peyote cactus (also called dumpling cactus or mescal button), and Psilocybin mushrooms, as well as Fly Agaric. As well as shamanistic sacra such as smoking pipes “…most shamanic rituals include some form of hallucinogenic agent.” (Pearson, 2002), as shown by remains of datura in pipes. It is considered that the use of psychoactive plants and hallucinogenic fungi underlies north coast Peruvian art. From Central Mexico around 1700 BP there have been found frescoes indicative of mushroom worship as well as mushroom ‘stones’ which may be suggestive of a cult or shamanic “…link between these stone mushroom figures and the ritual use of sacred hallucinogenic mushrooms.” (Pearson, 2002).


Peyote cactus

Using psychotropic agents such as plants to induce altered states of consciousness (ASC) is a worldwide phenomenon (Schultz, 1979). Shamans in the New World use peyote and datura each one inducing different experiences (Furst, 1972). The established hallucination or ASC is “…fundamentally an experience of sight or visual hallucination…” (Pearson, 2002). To be more accurate ecstasy “…is a humanistic and theological trance, trance is a medical term for the same phenomenon.” (Hultkrantz, 1993). Shamanism and ecstasy as a result of rituals aimed at transformation means that ecstasy is a “…psychogenic mode of reaction that forms itself according to the dictates of the mind and that evinces various depths in different situations. It thus swings between frenzy and hilarious rapture on one hand, death-like comatose passivity on the other, and a mild inspirational light trance.” (Hultkrantz, 1973).

In addition to the use of psychoactive substances to achieve ritual ecstasy, chanting and rhythmic sounds are also commonly employed. The trance state can thus be induced by the rhythms of large, flat oval drums combined with chants, incense or narcotics. Many traditional societies make use of musical sacra, including rattles, percussion instruments, and drums. These are an integral and essential part of the ritual designed to create the conditions of ‘sonic drawing’ within the ritual location.  However, it should be noted that “…not all trance dances are shamanistic, any more than all feats of magic, cure, or all dreams or visions.” (Leach, 1972). As with rock and cave art sites shamanic ritual locations “…will likely contain the tools used to administer psychoactive agents, drums or other noise makers, and shamanic symbolism…” (Whitley, 2001).


North American shaman with pipe

It is wrong to assume, as does Eliade (1964), that shamanism always involves a ‘soul in flight’ (Hultkrantz, 1973). The concept of the trance and magical flight allows the shaman to commune with the spirit entities. In other words the shaman discards his own identity during his magical journey in order to make contact with the spirits.

References and sources consulted

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Basilov, . N.  (cited in Lewis, 1986).

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Conkey, M. W. et al.  (1997).  Beyond Art: Pleistocene Image and Symbol.  California Academy of Sciences, USA.

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Furst, P. T.  (1972).  Flesh of the Gods.  Praeger, New York.

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Helsko, K.  ed.  (2004).  Theoretical Perspectives in Rock Art Research.  Oslo.

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