Shamanism is the practice and anthropological study of the shaman.
Some say the word shamanism is an academic construct and an umbrella term applying to a wide range of phenomena. And different people do, in fact, use the term for distinct ideas and purposes.
For example, in her forward to Shamanism, Jean Houston hopes that
[the book’s] scope and depth…will cause us to rethink our tendency to label and pathologize that which may be one of the most valuable and courageous forms of our human condition.¹
Michael Harner, at the time of the last update to this entry in 2009, emphasized the healing and creative aspects of shamanism, but didn’t always. In the 1970’s Harner defined the shaman as
A man or woman who is in direct contact with the spirit world through a trance state and has one or more spirits at his command to carry out his bidding for good or evil.²
These days, Harner seems more ambitious. At his website he now seems to be in the same league as a leading Hindu yogi and Japanese scholar:
What Yogananda did for Hinduism and D.T. Suzuki did for Zen, Michael Harner has done for shamanism, namely bring the tradition and its richness to Western awareness.³
The late Terrence McKenna said that shamanic cosmologies surpass current scientific models which, like any hegemonic idea, dogmatically influence our culture and outlook.
However, the word shamanism, extends beyond the realm of academia, self-promotion and New Age book publishing.
Jim Morrison from the The Doors was interested in shamanism, at times envisioning himself as a kind of flower power shaman. The Doors wrote successful songs like “Shaman’s Blues,” “Break on Through” and “Celebration of the Lizard” that evoked shamanic ideas.
Artists like Norval Morrisseau use the words “shaman artist” to describe themselves and promote their work. And graphic artist Heidi Reyes puts an interesting twist on the idea of shamanism with her work “Me at The Shamanism Centre.” Her artwork seems to imply that shamanism can exist in virtual reality without being grounded in any specific earthly location.
Like some magicians and pagans, a few enthusiasts of Shamanism seem unduly impressed by alleged miracles. One student of Shamanism once told me with amazement about a Shaman who (apparently) can create butterflies out of nothing. Big deal, I thought. The whole idea of spirituality is to try to do God’s will, not to amaze and befuddle with paranormal tricks.
But I guess this critique could be leveled against adherents in most paths who fanatically seek the magical or miraculous as a kind of compensation for unresolved psychological complexes. It’s easier to see oneself – or exalt others – as “special,” “unique” and “gifted” in place of dealing with unresolved psychological pain.
¹ Shirley Nicholson ed., Shamanism, Wheaton, Il.: A Quest Book, 1988, p. xiii.
² Michael Harner, Hallicinogens and Shamanism, 1973, cited in Michael C. Howard, Contemporary Cultural Anthropology, 2nd ed., Toronto: Little, Brown and Co. , 1986, p. 448.