Shamanism – Overview
This is only a general overview of shamanism. This is only to familiarize you with the some of the guidelines and terms used in the both traditional and contemporary shamanic experiences.
Shaman is one of the few spiritual paths that has remained relatively unchanged through the centuries. While many spiritual paths have evolved into the many practices of neo-pagan groups and Christian frequency religions, Shamanism has outlasted the test of time which leads to its continued popularity. There is no way for any website or book to translate the necessary training nor experience of Shamanism. One must study with a teacher or Master to truly have the shamanic ecstasy referred to.
What is shamanic ecstasy? The word itself comes from a Greek term ekstasis meaning to be placed outside. This is a state of joy that transcends the ability to describe in words. It literally means to enter a form of trance or state of consciousness that allows the shaman to journey to stand outside of themselves. During the state of this Shamanic ecstasy a Shaman is journeying to engage in a soul retrieve, to guide the soul or the dead, to divine answers or to add their personal knowledge by associating with higher beings.
The Shaman may also enter a state that is for pure Prophetical purposes during this journey. This form of Divination is seen many times during the workings of John the Baptist. It is a seer ship that is entered in which they are retrieving certain information in regards to the events of the future.
The last state we will discuss is the state of Mystical journey. This is when the Shaman enters a state of consciousness to become closer with the Divine Masters. This state of trance is usually done through the use of mantras and tends to bring a greater or higher level of spiritual understanding and awareness. Many Shaman use meditation, contemplation, visualization or spiritual concentration as well as mantras to reach this state. This is a state of consciousness that allows the out of body journeys so often referred to by contemporary Shamanic journeys. They invoke physiological, emotional and intuitive responses. On the physiological response the body will exhibit an involuntary response related to being electrically charged. The emotions of the Shaman can run a gauntlet of feelings and emotions that can range from complete overwhelming joy to a shocking fear. The mind and body completely blend together allowing the an expanded state of consciousness for greater awareness.
It is important to note that this is not the same state of consciousness that is referred to as astral projection or transcendental meditation that is so popular in today’s New Age groups.
A traditional Shaman is one who is associated with a group or tribe of gathering or hunting peoples. This can be anything from Native Americans to the aborigine groups of South America. It is not to say that a contemporary Shaman of today that follows traditional practices lives in the middle of the forest by themselves or in a tribe. It does however imply that every Shaman I have met is involved / participates on some level wit a society of traditional nature and engage with training within this tribe. For the most part, these societies will not train one who is not part of their own tribe. In certain cases, this has happened; however, it is the exception not the rule.
There are modern neo-Shamans who practice principles of Shamanism but have not engaged in the traditional initiations and training of Shamanism. Does this make them less of Shaman’s? No. In all Shamanic cultures the basis of a Shaman is a healer and spiritual consultant. Although in many cultures they also have other roles in which they participate such as priest, the primary role of a Shaman always has been the interaction of the people and the Spirit World to enlighten and heal.
By definition, a Shaman is a person who can enter the described state of consciousness at will.
Shamanism is considered by many as the oldest form of spiritual practice. It does predate all known religions. It is important to understand that Shamanism is not a religion in itself. It is simply a set of beliefs, behaviors and guidelines followed by a select few. These beliefs and practices allow the Shaman to obtain information unavailable to others, heal, retrieve souls and seek ancestor guidance. As stated, it is in its traditional form nearly unchanged over the centuries. The best description I have heard is from Tom Cowan’s book Shamanism: As a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life, Shamanism “…draws upon what is best in our society while it reforms those areas harmful to the human spirit and the health of the planet.”
The word Shaman is from the Tungus word to mean “to know”. Tungus are a tribe located in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. In the Tungus language the word means a way of life, experience and belief. There are some who say that the word came from a Tibetan word samana which is the word for Buddhist monk. The word is, in relative comparison, a word. The derivative of the word is insignificant as the definition remains the same in every debate. It has come to represent a variety of persons from Witchdoctors, medicine men, diviners and healers. The Shaman may go by a variety of names in these various traditions, but all practice nearly identical techniques. From the Angakok’s of the Eskimos to the Geilt of the Celtics, they are persons who have the ability to reach the hidden truth accessible only by journey to the Otherworld.
What is Shamanism really? It is not a person, it is not a religious path, it is not a spiritual calling. Shamanism is a avocation. The ability to reach the altered state of consciousness in journey upon stated will is what makes a shaman a shaman. It is what defines the term.
There are two primary ways of becoming a Shaman.
Hereditary. Literally having a Shaman in the family. This never happens in neo-shamans.
The receiving of the Call. This is being appointed by the tribe or choosing to do so of your own free will. The self taught, self made Shaman is never as powerful as the appointed tribal Shaman or the hereditary Shaman.
What is receiving the call? The first is being appointed. The Shaman is selected as an apprentice from an early age because of some difference in personality. A solitude seeker or some sort of fit that causes a mental unbalance. This is not the same thing as a mental disorder that is often confused in modern times with epilepsy. The Call is simply a temporary moment of a shift of consciousness unfamiliar to the person. In many cases it comes with other patterns such as being attacked by an animal, struck by lightening The Lost Book of Herbal or a near death experience. It is common for a hereditary Shaman to receive this call from an ancestral Shaman relative to indicate it is their time.
A personal choice is a conscious decision that a person makes to study the beliefs and practices of the Shaman. For most this self appointed Shaman will remain less powerful and less likely to experience the state of communication with the Otherworld as compared to the appointed or hereditary Shaman. This is the path that most neo-Shamans follow.
The traditional apprentice of the Shaman will follow a oral teachings of their ancestral lineage or from their tribal leader. This training can happen in two different methods. One is an ecstatic method which is training through vision and dream. This training is done by the ancestral guide or spirit guide and involves a definite initiation into the Otherworld. No book or article can exchange this information or even come close to describing the experience. The second method is traditional training by a current Shaman or tribal elder. This is the typical training of today’s Shaman.
The neo-Shaman training of engaging in reading how to books or attending a seminar should only be the journey to lead to a teacher qualified to teach the practice and beliefs.
The initiation of the Shaman is a phenomenon that is so involved that it has been known to cause death or permanent disability. In some traditions organs are actually removed and replaced with a crystal or other object. Many do not survive the initiation process. It is said the reasoning for the physical initiation first is to ensure the readiness and worthiness of the Shaman. This is only the first part of the process. The second is the initiation into the Otherworld. This is a initiatory dream or vision that includes a ritualistic death that last three days. In many cases it has been described as the Shaman being dismembered and reconstructed by the Divine.