A shaman (From Evenki, saman: ecstatic one) is a healer or wise-person, believed to have the ability to perceive spiritual beings and matrices of power, and in some instances perform magic.
Shamans believe that their otherworldly focus may bring tangible results into the mundane world.
Shamanic practice often involves entering into trance states induced by rhythmic music, drumming, dancing, the wearing of animal pelts or paraphernalia such as feathers and horns, and imbibing in naturally occurring psychedelic drugs like peyote.
The visions and journeys of the shaman are said to transcend the usual boundaries of space and time. And some shamans apparently perform unusual feats such as creating a butterfly out of thin air.
Many shamans adhere to a cosmology of three interconnected worlds:
- The underworld of demons and spirits of the unhappy dead
- The middle world of everyday earthly life
- The upper world of helpful spirits
In shamanism mental and physical illness is often seen as a loss or theft of the soul. To heal another person, the shaman apparently embarks on a spiritual voyage to recover a soul to its rightful owner. Alternately, they may remove a spiritual object from a sick person’s soul that is presumably responsible for the illness.
Because it is believed that illness may be brought on by spiritual attack or molestation, the shaman battles negative spiritual forces, beings and objects, which in subtle planes may be tampering with a sick person’s soul.
Most negative forces are said to emerge from the underworld into the middle world, where the shaman battles them by harnessing the helping powers of upper world spirits.
Anthropological research on shamanism suggests that many shamans undergo some form of crisis at a young age, which in contemporary society would likely be viewed as a breakdown or the onset of a mental illness.
This crisis may involve an inner experience of being dismembered, seeing one’s skeleton or being skinned alive.
While some may uncritically accept the enchanting and miraculous truth-claims made by shamans, others would probably say we have no way of knowing whether or not shamanic altered states are genuinely spiritual or mere personal wishes, physiologically induced hallucinations or the activation of memory or primitive brain regions. As for stories about magic, these in large part remain part of an oral tradition, sometimes recorded by anthropologists but clearly not part of the mainstream media or scientific community.
Some traditional Christians see the whole shamanic experience as somewhat egotistic, perhaps compensatory, and spiritually inferior to the Christian light. Some may see it as demonic deception.
Regardless where one stands on this issue, it seems valid to ask the following questions:
- Are some shamans opportunists capitalizing on the vulnerability or gullibility of others?
- Do some shamans deceive themselves and truly believe they’re doing valuable spiritual work when, in fact, unresolved psychological issues contribute to their spiritual deception?
- Or, conversely, might the shaman truly have access to realms, powers and abilities that most of us do not understand nor possess?
- And a fourth option – Do some shamans access actual realms and do real work but, nevertheless, could “graduate,” as it were, to a higher level of spiritual work?
The Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade notes that not all initiated into shamanism emerge as successful shamans. Some fail to regain a sense of psychological balance deemed meaningful by self and society. Others choose to pursue another vocation if being a shaman is not economically viable within their community.¹
¹ Eliade stresses that shamans experience “ecstasy” but some feel that he doesn’t define that term very well. See http://community.davidbowie.com/index.php?app=core&module=search&do=search&fromMainBar=1