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A (Very!) Brief Introduction to Shamanism

Grand CanyonShamanism is a huge subject, and I can't hope to do it justice in a short article, but I will give a brief overview of shamanism and its place in the ancient and modern worlds. Shamanism is the world’s oldest spiritual, practical and healing practice, with evidence for its existence going back tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands of years. It is not a religion but a way of understanding and interacting with the world.


The shamanic philosophy recognises that there is a spiritual world as well as a physical one, and that all physical things have a spirit. It is therefore an example of an animistic philosophy; meaning that within its world view, all things have a consciousness, or animating spirit. So all living beings have a conscious spirit animating them – humans, animals, birds, insects, reptiles, plants, bacteria etc. This is easy for most people to understand, but what may not be so easy to understand is the notion that rocks, the wind, rain, fire, sofas and computers also have a spirit. Although if you've ever sworn at your computer when it's just done that annoying thing yet again, you may just start to believe it has a conscious will!

The word “shaman” and its derivatives come from the Tungusic language of eastern Siberia, meaning “one who sees” or “one who knows,” reflecting the fact that the shaman had access to realms where all knowledge was held. Shamanism was not only found in Siberia – every culture, if you go back far enough, has its own form of shamanism. All the ancient cultures found their way to this method of making sense of, and manipulating, the world they found themselves in. What anthropologists have found is that there are similarities in techniques and understanding in shamanic cultures across the world. Michael Harner distilled many of these techniques into what he called “Core Shamanic Practices” and much of what is taught in the West is based on his work.

Shamanism in its general sense is a system of techniques and practices which allow the practitioner to move beyond the confines of the ordinary world in which we go about our daily lives. The reasons for such journeys out of the ordinary world for ancient shamans included finding information about the weather, migration patterns of animals for hunting, which plants were edible or had healing properties, energetic methods of healing, inspiration and instruction for making practical or sacred objects, and generally finding out how the Universe worked.

Different Realities

What are these different realities, and where are they? Many shamanic cultures have a kind of “reality map” based on the World Tree. The trunk is in the Middle World, the roots in the Lower World, and the branches and leaves in the Upper World.

The Middle World contains all of the physical world that we are familiar with, but there is also a spiritual version of it overlaid on the physical one. The shaman can travel into this spiritual Middle World and there he or she will encounter things and beings that aren't visible in the physical version. Land and structures that look different to the current physical world, land spirits, plant spirits, rock spirits, elementals, faerie folk, spirits of the dead, to name but a few. Here shamans can converse with plants, for example, to find out which herbs are good for physical ailments, find the teacher plants, connect with animals for hunting, or manipulate the weather.

The Upper and Lower Worlds do not have physical counterparts, but contain spirit allies for the shaman – Power Animals and allies with human and other forms. These allies advise, guide and protect the shaman. They inspire sacred arts and crafts, bring about healing, help the shaman to answer the deepest life questions, teach him or her the nature of reality. These allies, once the bond is forged, can travel with the shaman anywhere, including in the physical and spiritual versions of the Middle World

The ancient shamans were the first scientists, doctors, priests, psycho-spiritual advisers, healers, midwives; the first seekers and psychonauts. Out of their work, all modern versions grew.

The Drum – the Shaman's Horse

The shaman leaves the Ordinary World using sound to help him to change consciousness so that he can travel to other worlds. Around the world, one of the most commonly used sounds is that of the drum. The drum is often referred to as the “shaman's horse,” as the sound is said to carry his soul away to other realms. A steady, monotonous beat is used at a frequency of between 4 and 7 beats per second, and a process known to modern scientists as entrainment occurs. That is, the brainwaves start to follow the beat of the drum. We also know that the frequency of 4-7 cycles per second when measuring brainwaves, equates to the theta state of consciousness (seen in meditation and some stages of sleep). So, shamans for tens of thousands of years (at least) have used the drum (or other percussive sound) to shift consciousness. We call this shift in consciousness the shamanic journey.

The drum is not the only instrument that can help us to shift consciousness; rattles, shakers, didgeridoos and singing bowls can all have a similar effect. Also, without the need for tools – by clapping, chanting or toning, you can transport yourself to other realms – completely portable and free of charge! A more high-tech solution is to use one of the specially made shamanic drumming CDs or mp3 tracks. And more high-tech still are the tracks containing binaural beats; these play a different tone in each ear, and by choosing specific frequencies, various different states of consciousness can be induced, including that required for a shamanic journey to take place.

Traditional Shamanic Cultures Today

There are still some shamanic cultures in existence today – in Tibet, Siberia, North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Scandinavia to name but a few. In fact all around the world, there are pockets of communities, some big, some tiny, that live immersed in shamanic knowledge. The West calls these people primitive, but in these communities they understand that there is more to this world than what we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands. They live in balance with their environment; they recognise the spirit in all living things, and respect the rights of all beings to life and a place in the great cycles of nature. In contrast, we in the Westernised world have little or no respect for life other than our own, and take from the Earth constantly, to feed our over-inflated needs and wants with no thought for future human generations, much less any other species on the planet. Unfortunately we, the so-called sophisticated ones, are trampling over the “primitive” shamanic cultures so they are dwindling. We are driving roads through their settlements, chopping down their forests to make way for our agriculture or to get at minerals in their lands, and luring them into our unhealthy Westernised ways. I wonder who, really, are the primitive ones?

Shamanism in the Modern World

Shamanism is enjoying a revival in modern Westernised people today, but why is that?

One of the reasons for the current resurgence of shamanism is that many of us are searching for a spiritual connection. Religion doesn't do it for us any more; the paternalistic dynamic of blind belief and control through fear is no longer appropriate for our level of consciousness. Shamanism offers a direct connection to spirit (God/Goddess) and an experiential relationship with the divine, rather than an indirect relationship, where we have to go through the intermediary of the priest or equivalent.

Shamanism also helps us to reconnect with the Earth and all her rhythms and cycles. We have become very disconnected from the whole, of which we are part – we live in homes that insulate us from the elements so that we no longer feel the nip of autumn, the bite of winter. Consequently, we often don't have much of a sense of the seasons unless we happen to be keen gardeners. We don't always have the time or opportunity to spend time in nature as we go about our increasingly busy lives. Shamanic practises can help us to reconnect with and communicate with nature (of which we are a part, though most of us forget that). Reconnecting with the Earth can help us to be more healthy, as we relearn the energetic cycles of the seasons and the Moon, which have an effect on our energy and our health. It allows us to see our Mother, the Earth as a conscious being who deserves our respect, and helps us to make changes in our lives, and perhaps also in the wider community to reduce or stop the the detrimental impact of our use of the Earth's resources.

We are as insulated from our community – other humans – as we are from nature. How many of your neighbours do you know? At one time, we would have known all the people on our street, in our village or estate, and childcare would have been shared in the community, we would have had a close-knit network of people on whom we could call for help, advice, comfort in times of need. Now, however, it is not unusual to not know who your next door neighbours are, much less be part of a supportive community. We are tribal creatures, and we suffer when we are isolated. The practice of shamanism can also help us to reconnect with our community, so that we can once again, get the benefit of being part of a “tribe”.

Shamanism puts us directly in touch with the divine, and the result of that is that we are in touch with a vast consciousness with an infinite capacity for knowledge, wisdom, healing, creative and artistic inspiration. In practical terms, this means that you have, on tap, help for anything you could conceive of. The following is a list of potential uses of the shamanic journey. It is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive, as the reasons for journeying are as many and varied as there are humans!

  • Healing for any physical, mental, spiritual or emotional ailment (see the article on Health and Disease from the Shamanic Perspective)
  • Psycho-spiritual development
  • Learning about a subject of interest (absolutely anything – astrophysics, maths, ancient architecture, computer programming, herbalism, animal care – whatever you're interested in)
  • Finding lost items
  • Solving problems
  • Connecting with the Earth (or Moon, or any other celestial body)
  • Connecting with the spirit of a creative project for inspiration/direction (e.g. a painting, book, poetry, song, music, wood carving, tapestry, sacred object, sacred garment – the list is endless)
  • Working with land spirits, elementals and so on
  • Healing for the souls of the dead
  • Healing for places

Shamanism, therefore, is a practical, down-to-earth philosophy and collection of spiritual practices that is able to help us on many different levels. Furthermore, unlike some spiritual practices, shamanism is itself very much grounded in two worlds; the spiritual and the physical. I believe that this is an enduring strength of shamanism, and one of the reasons why it is of such interest, and usefulness to modern people.

A couple of books for further reading:

Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman (very readable)

Mercia Eliade: Shamanism (more academic and not quite such an easy read)