Shamans serves as a bridge between the Blue Road of Spirit and the Red Road of Physical Life, and as such, hear, see and/or communicate with the “Spirit World.” A Shaman fulfills the Role of priest/priestess, healer, spiritual advisor, teacher of arcane wisdom, outspoken sage and silent observer.
The word shaman has been popular with the Western world for approximately 100 years. It has been popularized by anthropologists in an effort to categorize specific spiritual practices. There are many different practices from cultural and social perspectives. Shamans, in Western thought, are persons whose life and purpose has been dedicated to the well-being of their community. Shamans have many different titles such as, witch doctors, medicine men, and sangoma’s.
Shamanism may be the oldest of all the healing arts. Archaeologists and anthropologists have dated shamanistic practices as ancient as 40,000 years. The oldest archaeological evidence of shamanistic practices are attributed to the Tungus peoples of the Altai and Ural Mountains of western China and Russia. In this context the word shaman, saman, refers to ‘someone who knows’. Often times the shaman was thought to be the only person in the tribe able to communicate with the spirits of ancestors, and the various Gods and Demons. The Shaman had the role of being the communicator and translator of the Spirits and the unseen world to the people of the community/tribe/village. Shamans intercepted, interpreted and acted in accordance with the voice of their guiding Spirits.
Researchers have found many early cultures had their own and often unique forms of shamanism. Some of the cultures evidencing shamanic practices are the peoples of North and South American, Asia, India, Africa, the South Pacific and Australia. We can see through the artifacts and local myths and stories that each early culture throughout the world had its own shamans and shamanic practices. The treatment of the shaman socially often varied from group to group, but not many envied the role. There were then, and still are, many superstitions and fears surrounding communication with the Spirit World and the unseen that few people want to travel this road (check out this podcast episode on the Call to Shamanism for more).
Shamanism as a specific practice; the use of entering trance and altered states of consciousness to talk to spirits. These were always the spirits of the forces of nature that the community dealt with. The shaman helped remind people of their obligations to the animals that gave them life. Shamanism was a kind of sacred theatre performance of the values and beliefs of an animist community. But it was the form rather than the collected totality of beliefs.
Animism seems the general term to describe a way of seeing the world, and shamanism a way of acting in that world. But it seems when animist cultures say everything is alive, they mean it in the same way as we may see everyone in a room of people as alive. They talked to the spirits of rocks, sea, rivers, mountains, bears, tigers, eagles, bison, mice, trees, and on and on. As equals. Maybe the system of spiritual beings was a way of representing the view that all was alive and aware in the world. But I think animism is a religion in the sense that each animist culture would tell you how the world was made, stories of all that existed, and the place of humans in that world. Shamanism would only tell you one way to act in that world, but would rely on the beliefs and traditions of the specific tribe. What animists have in common, of course, is that in all their many variations, the world is never made for man as that would be unthinkable. But I think we have to come to terms with religious phenomena when we talk of animism, and shamanism and possession and ceremonial rites.
The study of shamanism focuses on practices and experiences. Each culture has within it a mythology and cosmology unique to itself (podcast episode on creating your own personal mythology). Shamanism is distinguished by the ability of the shaman to enter into trance. Ecstatic trance states are generally considered to be a primary way to establish the difference between shamanism and other spiritual practices. Shamans are also healers, diviners and priests.
A shaman is an explorer of doorways – doorways from ordinary reality into non-ordinary reality, portals leading from the physical world into the spirit world. Part of the ecstatic experience is feeling the transformative and invigorating presence of invisible powers. Shamans, and shamanic practitioners long to experience them again and again, to be back in those realms where eternity meets the temporal world, where it is known that there is more to the universe than can be perceived with physical senses.
What makes a shaman different from other mystics and visionaries is the intentional journey – or soul flight – into the spirit world. In other words, unlike the common perception that mortals must wait for spirits of nature or the dead to make contact – an occurrence that happens more frequently than most people realize – the shaman initiates contact by going directly into the spirits’ world. Rather than waiting for the spirits to visit us, the shaman becomes the visitor into their invisible realms. Because they know the entry points, shamans can cross the borders of ordinary and non-ordinary reality at will, enter the spirits’ reality, and develop the skills, understanding, and competence for functioning in that dreamlike world.
Entries into the Otherworld are of two types: portals that “open into the earth” for lower-world journeys and portals that “lead to the other side of the sky” for upper-world journeys. Experiences of entering these portals, finding animal guides and learning the geography of non-ordinary reality are at the heart of core shamanic practices.
What distinguishes the shamanic practitioner from other types of healers, are the methods. The journeying, or shamanic state of consciousness, allows the Shaman to send their soul out beyond the physical confines of their body to obtain information from the spirit world. This information is retrieved and used for further insight or healing.
Studying and practicing shamanism today gives us a great advantage over our Ancestors. Via books, long distance travel and the internet we have at our disposal many ancient techniques that allow us to transcend this physical world and re-member again our connection to the source, to experience again the unity of the universe. Because I am a child of the World, and not one tribe, I can safely teach universal or near-universal shamanic techniques. The term universal or near universal simply means the techniques which are found common amongst many of the cultures.
Most cultures use a form of ecstatic trance. The drum, the rattle and dancing are very common ways of achieving an ecstatic trance. While in ecstatic trance the shaman is able to visit the spiritual realm; the meeting place between human and spirit.
Photo Credits: Traditional Healer by Larry Lamsa, Hamasta Shaman by Edward S. Curtis, Lion by Nelson Robinson
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