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By Witchipedia, Magical Religions and Spiritual Paths

What is Shamanism & its Origins

Updated on:

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Written by: Dawn Black (Witchipedia)

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Reviewed by: Tina Caro

Shamanism is a spiritual or mystical practice that is characterized by the use of altered states of consciousness and contact with other worlds and spirit beings, Gods, and ancestors to gather information and/or bring about a result in our physical world.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Shamanism, an ancient spiritual practice, traces its origins back to Paleolithic cultures as far back as 40,000 years ago, making it one of humanity’s oldest belief systems.

A shaman is a revered spiritual intermediary who connects with the spirit world through rituals, often using drumming, chanting, and trance states, to heal, divinate, and navigate the unseen realms.

In contemporary times, shamanism has experienced a resurgence, blending with modern spirituality and psychology, as individuals seek its transformative and healing potential.

Contrary to misconceptions, shamanic practices are not exclusive to indigenous cultures, as people from diverse backgrounds can engage in shamanic journeys and learn the ways of the shaman.

Origins of Shamanism

The word Shamanism originates from the Northern Eurasian Tungusic language group (Siberia, Mongolia, China) and was appropriated by Anthropologists to describe religious practices around the world that are superficially similar to those practiced by the ethnic speakers of these languages.

These practices are characterized by the designation of an individual (the Shaman) to act as an intermediary between the spirit world and the world of humans who would enter a trance state to communicate with the spirits (Gods, ancestors, nature spirits, others) for divination, healing or to gain their assistance in bringing harm to enemies.

In some traditions, a Shaman can communicate with the spirit of a living, physical person directly in order to identify and heal the cause of an ailment.

Shamanism is an ancient tradition which is believed to have always existed for as long as human consciousness has existed, but just as it has evolved, shamanism has also evolved to a certain extent. Being a practice considered pagan, there were times when it was practiced clandestinely.

Among the objects of power that stand out in this practice that are objects that help to relate to the elements is the snail that is linked to the air element, the holy stick to clean spaces, maracas to help enter the desired state of consciousness, and many others.

Shamanism as such is also based on animism, therefore the energy of water, wind, fire, earth and stones is worked on and a link is created with these elements and in rituals in particular, use can also be made of what are considered sacred plants like ayahuasca.

Being a shaman and practicing shamanism are two very different things. It is believed that people are born with positive qualities to become shamans and in some way they feel that call to get involved in that path, however they can choose not to follow it because for that, a great physical and mental spiritual work is required.

People can turn to a shaman for help, healing or guidance without necessarily being shaman practitioners, however, in order to achieve the desired goal they will have to let themselves be guided by the shaman in the changes they must make. Now practicing shamanism is like a way of living life with connection and respect for nature, taking advantage of and acknowledging its energy and wanting to take a spiritual journey for an awakening of consciousness and spiritual growth.

Who is the Shaman?

The term “Shaman” originates from the Tungus populations of Siberia and refers to an individual, male or female, who possesses unique spiritual powers accessed through intentional entry into a non-ordinary state of consciousness known as the shamanic state of consciousness.

The Shaman is often described as the one who can “see in the dark” or “the one who knows,” as they navigate between the visible and non-visible worlds. They have the ability to intentionally cross the threshold between these realms, distinguishing shamanic practice from spontaneous or uncontrolled visions.

Hamatsa emerging from the woods–Koskimo” “Hamatsa shaman, three-quarter length portrait, seated on ground in front of tree, facing front, possessed by supernatural power after having spent several days in the woods as part of an initiation ritual.

In ancient civilizations worldwide, Shamans held the power to ensure food and health for their communities. They provided guidance on hunting locations, treated and advised the entire tribe, and fulfilled various roles such as healers, diviners, herbalists, interpreters of dreams, storytellers, and ceremonial masters.

While some qualities of Shamans can be found in other figures like wizards, witches, sorcerers, or psychics, shamanic activity is characterized by a power bestowed by personal spirit guides through journeys in the spiritual worlds.

The purpose of the Shaman’s travels in the invisible realms is to seek help, guidance, and spiritual healing for themselves and those who seek their aid. Their aim is to restore balance and harmony in people’s lives, focusing on ethical purposes and promoting well-being rather than causing harm.

Shamanic practice involves continuous contact with spirit guides, and the knowledge derived from these intense relationships with the spiritual realms distinguishes it from other types of practices.

Shamanism in the Various Traditions

Shamanism has its roots in ancient animistic practices that were prevalent worldwide when humans lived in deep connection and harmony with nature and all living beings.

In different regions, Shamanism takes on unique characteristics and names:

  • In North Asia, particularly Siberia, Shamanism encompasses three fundamental concepts: the belief that everything is alive and endowed with spirit, the importance of individual responsibility for one’s actions (similar to the concept of karma), and the significance of maintaining balance for harmony.
  • Central Asia had powerful shamans among the nomadic Tuvan people who discovered the healing properties of drumming. These shamans were persecuted during Stalinist repression in the 1930s but resurfaced in the 1990s when the ban on drumming was lifted.
  • Native American cultures in North America practice Shamanism, although they may not use the term “shaman.” Different figures fulfill roles such as healers, ceremonial leaders, mystics, storytellers, and “people of medicine” who diagnose through trance or the use of natural elements. Drumming is prevalent in many tribes. Mayan Shamanism, found in Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico, incorporates astrology and often involves the use of fire in healing and divination ceremonies.
  • In the Amazon rainforest, shamans are known as “curanderos” and primarily use plants for healing. Ayahuasqueros are Peruvian shamans specialized in working with ayahuasca for physical and psychic healing and divination.
  • The Inca spiritual tradition exists among the Q’ero population in Peru. Unlike forest medicine, it does not involve psychotropic substances like ayahuasca. It is based on the principle of reciprocity called Ayni, which recognizes interconnection and supports personal development, growth, and overall well-being.
  • Australian or Aboriginal Shamanism recognizes a special quality within humans that allows them to connect with a deep source within themselves, often achieved through a state of consciousness known as “Dreamtime.”
  • Celtic Shamanism involves seeing and acting within the visible and invisible realms. Celtic shamans, known as “Druids,” had access to the “Other World” and performed rituals in natural locations suchas forests, woods, clearings, trees, rivers, and springs.

Shamanism, with its diverse forms and practices, is the oldest known spiritual tradition in the world. Its survival throughout time testifies to its validity and power.

It is important to note that certain New Age movements have attempted to appropriate elements from Shamanism without understanding or respecting the traditions from which they originated. This kind of appropriation is seen as disrespectful and superficial by traditional cultures.

However, there are anthropologists who have engaged directly with traditional shamanic cultures, experiencing Shamanism firsthand. They have extracted essential concepts and adapted them for Western culture, making them trans-cultural without being tied to a specific tradition.

Shamanism, with its deep connection to nature, spirit guides, and the unseen realms, offers valuable wisdom and practices that can enrich our understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and our place within it.

Shamanism Today

Practicing Shamanism today involves reconnecting with our inner voice, which has often been lost in a society focused on rationalism and materialism. It also entails reestablishing a balanced relationship with nature, recognizing the importance of respecting all living beings and restoring human values that may have been forgotten.

For those who approach traditional native shamanic cultures, it is crucial to do so with an open mind, free from social and religious conditioning, and with a respectful attitude. Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism has made shamanic practices accessible to Westerners, awakening memories and faculties that were already present within us.

While anyone can learn and practice core shamanism through techniques such as shamanic journeying to connect with spirit guides, not everyone is called to become a Shaman. Shamans dedicate their lives to this spiritual practice with intensity, seriousness, and a vocation that surpasses that of others.

In recent times, many Westerners have had spontaneous shamanic experiences but may be disturbed as they lack understanding of what is happening to them. These experiences can involve encounters with talking animals, voices from natural elements delivering clear messages, or visits from spirits of the deceased. It is important for practitioners of shamanism to assist these individuals in understanding the initiatory meaning of these experiences, which may be misinterpreted by modern society.

The Shamanic Journey is a central concept in shamanism, referring to the exploration of invisible realms beyond the physical world. Popular culture has also depicted this idea in stories like Aladdin’s flying carpet and journeys to upper and lower worlds in tales such as Alice in Wonderland, A Journey to the Underworld, and The Wizard of Oz.

Through the shamanic journey, a Shaman can retrieve lost fragments of a person’s soul or power, reintegrating them to restore harmony and well-being. They also use the journey to cleanse heavy energies, remove energy blocks, and enhance vitality, creativity, and overall psychophysical and spiritual well-being.

Practicing Shamanism today offers opportunities for personal growth, reconnection with nature, and a deeper understanding of the invisible realms. It is a path that can bring balance and healing to individuals and the world around them.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is shamanism?

Shamanism is the oldest spiritual practice in the world, characterized by connecting with the spirit world and utilizing special powers for healing and guidance.

Where did shamanism originate?

Shamanism originated from ancient animistic practices that were present worldwide since the earliest human civilizations.

What do shamans do?

Shamans use their unique spiritual abilities to enter non-ordinary states of consciousness and interact with the spirit world. They may perform healing ceremonies, divination, rituals, and act as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual realms.

How do shamans connect with the spirit world?

Shamans connect with the spirit world through altered states of consciousness, achieved through various techniques such as drumming, chanting, dancing, or the use of hallucinogenic plants.

Are shamanic practices only found in indigenous cultures?

No, shamanic practices have been found in cultures around the world, both indigenous and non-indigenous. Although the specific practices and traditions may vary, the core principles of connecting with spirits and utilizing spiritual powers are universal.

Can anyone become a shaman?

No, being a shaman is typically considered to be a calling or innate gift. It involves a deep connection with the spirit world and a willingness to serve the community through healing and spiritual guidance.

What are some common shamanic tools and techniques?

Common shamanic tools and techniques include divination practices (such as reading bones, cards, or other symbolic objects), healing ceremonies (such as energy work or herbal remedies), and cleansing rituals (such as smudging or bathing).

Conclusion

In today’s fast-paced and increasingly virtual world, exploring shamanism can provide an opportunity to reconnect with our ancestral ties to nature, the elements, and our spirituality. By learning about and embracing shamanic principles, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the larger spiritual ecosystem.

About Morningbird (Witchipedia's Founder)

I am a homesteading hearth witch who grew up along the shores of the Hudson River and has lived among the Great Lakes for the past 20 years. Together with my musical husband and youngest child, I steward a one-acre mini homestead with herb, vegetable and flower gardens, chickens, ducks, geese and rabbits, and areas reserved for native plants and wildlife. 

I have three children; two are grown, and I have been practicing magick alone and with family and friends for over 30 years.

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