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Home: Religion: Shamanism: Shamanic Practice, Tools and Ritual.


Shamanism, The Role of a Shaman

The term 'Shaman' has been used to describe spiritual community leaders and medicine men historically known as the intellectual and spiritual leaders in their community.

Different forms of shamanism are found around the world, and practitioners are also known as medicine men or women, and witch doctors.

The Practice of Shamanism

In some societies shamanic powers are inherited. In others, shamans are "called": Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which they interpret as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shamans are called in their dreams. In yet other societies shamans choose their career: Indians of the Plains would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest"; South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans.


Is its believed that Shamans can communicate with these spirits to diagnose and cure victims of witchcraft. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also witches. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community but may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared. Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may be shamans (in Old Norse culture, as mentioned above, only women; for men to practice shamanism was shameful).

Shamanism Two Spirit

Note: For more on the subject, see: Native American Shamanism and the Medicine Man.

In some societies male shamans exhibit a "two-spirit" identity, assuming the dress and attributes of a woman from a young age, including taking on the role of a wife in an otherwise ordinary marriage; this practice is common, and found among the Chukchee, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Aruacanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navaho, Lakota, and Ute, as well as other Native American tribes. Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful. They are highly respected and sought out by men in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their husbands.

Shamanism Practice Around The World

Not all traditional peoples approve of the use of shaman as a generic term, given that the word comes from a specific place and people. It has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a highly descriptive term which unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and other lore; and the ability to cure a person and mend a situation.

Shamanic practice continues not only in wild areas but in cities, towns, suburbs and shantytowns all over the world, not only in the tundras or the jungles or deserts.

Different forms of shamanism are found around the world, and practitioners are also known as medicine men or women, and witch doctors. It has been especially common among circumpolar peoples; in Old Norse Religion, however, shamanism was seen as un-manly and practiced mainly by women, see Volvas and Wiccas (although in Old Norse mythology, the supreme god Odin was also seen as the foremost shaman). These shamans were seen as a threat by organized religion, and condemned as "witches."

Shamanic Tools and Ritual

In order for shamans to do their work they must effect firstly a change of consciousness in themselves. The shaman enters into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens, during which time they are said to be in contact with the spirit world or enter a separate reality. Some of the methods for effecting this consciousness shift are:
  • Drumming
  • Fasting
  • Sweat lodge
  • Vision quests / vigils
  • Dancing / Spinning
  • Use of "power plants" such as
    • Tobacco
    • Fly Agaric
    • Magic Mushrooms Alluded to euphemistically as "saint children" by Maria Sabina and other Mazatec shamans
    • Peyote
  • San Pedro Named thus (St. Peter) by Andean natives because he's the guardian of Gates of Heaven
  • Ayahuasca Quechua for "Vine of the Dead"
  • Iboga
Shamans often observe special fasts and taboos particular to their vocation. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiars, usually spirits in animal form, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans.

In engaging this work the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, both from the spirits as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can kill, and the out-of-body journey itself can lead to non-returning and physical death.

Parts of the above article licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from Wikipedia. Images courtesy FCIT

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