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Shamanism

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This article is about the practice of shamanism; for other uses, see Shaman (disambiguation).

A shaman doctor of Kyzyl.
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A shaman doctor of Kyzyl.

Shamanism refers to the traditional healing and religious practices of Northern Asia (Siberia) and Mongolia. By extension, the concept of shamanism has been extended in common language to a range of traditional beliefs and practices that involve the ability to diagnose, cure, and sometimes cause human suffering by traversing the axis mundi and forming a special relationship with, or gaining control over, spirits. Shamans have been credited with the ability to control the weather, divination, the interpretation of dreams, astral projection, and traveling to upper and lower worlds. Shamanistic traditions have existed throughout the world since prehistoric times.

Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. In contrast to animism and animatism, which any and usually all members of a society practice, shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities. It could be said that shamans are the experts employed by animists or animist communities. Shamans are not, however, often organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests. It is questionnable whether there was an -ism called "Shamanism" until such a thing was invented in the West out of the diverse practices of indigenous people in particular locations worldwide.

Etymology

The word "shaman" originated among the Siberian Tungus (Evenks) and literally means "he (or she) who knows"; the belief that the word may be derived from Sanskrit is perhaps due to the relation between the words "shamanism" and "shramanism", from the sanskrit "shramana", Pali and Prakrit "samana"; the samanas were ascetics, not shamans, however.

It has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a 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. However, at the present time this term is generally considered to be pejorative and anthropologically inaccurate. Medicine man is preferred, especially as 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.

History

Native American female shaman of the Clayoquot tribe from Vancouver Island, Canada
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Native American female shaman of the Clayoquot tribe from Vancouver Island, Canada

Shamanistic practices are sometimes claimed to predate all organized religions, and certainly date back to the Neolithic period. Aspects of shamanism are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by shamanism, as reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, and Calypso among others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and other mysteries. Some of the shamanic practices of the Greek religion were later adopted into the Roman religion.

The shamanic practices of many cultures were marginalized with the spread of Christianity. In Europe, starting around 400, the Christian church was instrumental in the collapse of the Greek and Roman religions. Temples were systematically destroyed and key ceremonies were outlawed or appropriated. The Early Modern witch trials may have further eliminated lingering remnants of European shamanism.

The repression of shamanism continued as Christian influence spread with Spanish colonization. In the Caribbean, and Central and South America, Catholic priests followed in the footsteps of the Conquistadors and were instrumental in the destruction of the local traditions, denouncing practitioners as "devil worshippers" and having them executed. In North America, the English Puritans conducted periodic campaigns against individuals perceived as witches. More recently, attacks on shamanic practitioners have been carried out at the hands of Christian missionaries to third world countries and by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) against its own citizens. As recently as the nineteen seventies, historic petroglyphs were being defaced by missionaries in the Amazon. A similarly destructive story can be told of the encounter between Buddhists and shamans, e.g., in MongoliaCitation needed.

It has been postulated that modern state campaigns against the use of entheogenic substances are the offshoot of previous religious campaigns against shamanism.

Today, shamanism, once possibly universal, survives primarily among indigenous peoples. Shamanic practice continues today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and also in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially widespread in Africa as well as South America, where "mestizo shamanism" is widespread.

Many recent efforts have been made trying to link shamanic practice and knowledge with Western, scientific beliefs. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby has proposed that shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level, working with DNA and viruses that they see as the twin serpents or malicious "darts". The holomovement theory proposed by David Bohm is often seen as an approach to create a scientific foundation for concepts such as parallel worlds and alternative ways to traverse time and space.

Asia

There is a strong shamanistic influence in the Bön religion of central Asia, and in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism became popular with shamanic peoples such as the Tibetans, Mongols and Manchu beginning in the eighth century. Forms of shamanistic ritual combined with Tibetan Buddhism became institutionalized as the state religion under the Chinese Yuan dynasty and Qing dynasty. One common element of shamanism and Buddhism is the attainment of spiritual realization, at times mediated by entheogenic (psychedelic) substances.

Americas

In Native American groups, only the shaman had the power to commune with the gods or spirits, to mediate between them and ordinary mortals, to talk with the souls on behalf of the living. The shaman, man or woman, was often an extraordinary character, both in physical appearance and in acting talents. He would be a mystic, poet, sage, healer of the sick, guardian of the tribe, and the repository of stories. Those who did not possess the full range of the shamanistic attributes became simply "medicine men", and functioned as respected healers. To become a shaman, a person had to "receive the call", to suffer a religious experience, and would then be initiated into the mysteries of the art. By symbolic death and resurrection, he acquired a new mode of being; his physical and mental frame underwent a thorough change. During this period of initiation, the novice would see the spirits of the universe and leave his body like a spirit, soaring through the heavens and underworld. There he would be introduced to the different spirits and taught which to address in future trances. According to Mircea Eliade's book "Shamanism", during the initiation, spirits would take the shaman's old bones and replace them with new ones. Since sickness was thought to be caused by an evil spirit entering the victim's body, the shaman would call it out in order to affect a cure. He would do so by a special ritual, beating a rhythm on his drum, swaying and chanting steadily increasing the sound and interspersing it with long drawn out sighs, groans, and hysterical laughter.

Aspects of the practice

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

Initiation and learning

In Shamanic cultures, the shaman plays a priest-like role; however, there is an essential difference between the two, as Joseph Campbell describes:

"The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own." (1969, p. 231)

A shaman may be initiated via a serious illness, by being struck by lightning, or by a near-death experience (e.g., the shaman Black Elk), and there usually is a set of cultural imagery expected to be experienced during shamanic initiation regardless of method. According to Mircea Eliade, such imagery often includes being transported to the spirit world and interacting with beings inhabiting it, meeting a spiritual guide, being devoured by some being and emerging transformed, and/or being "dismantled" and "reassembled" again, often with implanted amulets such as magical crystals. The imagery of initiation generally speaks of transformation and granting powers, and often entails themes of death and rebirth.

In some societies shamanic powers are considered to be inherited, whereas in others shamans are considered to have been "called": Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which Siberian culture interprets 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 other societies shamans choose their career: First Nations 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.

Shamanic illness

Shamanic illness, also called shamanistic inititatory crisis, is a psycho-spiritual crisis, or a rite of passage, observed among those becoming shamans. The episode often marks the beginning of a time-limited episode of confusion or disturbing behavior where the shamanic initiate might sing or dance in an unconventional fashion, or have an experience of being "disturbed by spirits". The symptoms are usually not considered to be signs of mental illness by interpreters in the shamanic culture; rather, they are interpreted as introductory signposts for the individual who is meant to take the office of shaman (Lukoff et.al, 1992).

Practice and method

The shaman plays the role of healer in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens. Even in western society, this ancient practice of healing is referenced by the use of the caduceus as the symbol of medicine. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiar helping entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans. In many shamanic societies, magic, magical force, and knowledge are all denoted by one word, such as the Quechua term "yachay".

While the causes of disease are considered to lie in the spiritual realm, being effected by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman will "enter the body" of the patient to confront the spirit making the patient sick, and heal the patient by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimen is often prescribed as treatment. In many places shamans claim to learn directly from the plants, and to be capable of harnessing their effects and healing properties only after obtaining permission from its abiding or patron spirit. In South America, individual spirits are summoned by the singing of songs called icaros; before a spirit can be summoned the spirit must teach the shaman its song. The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit. Such practices are presumably very ancient; in about 368 BCE, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that everyone who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to "listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth".

The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many shamanic societies. 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 thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, and is renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.

By engaging in this work, the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from any enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can be fatal, and the failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to physical death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.

Shamanic technology

Generally, the shaman traverses the axis mundi and enters the spirit world by effecting a change of consciousness in himself, entering into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens. The methods used are diverse, and often are used in conjunction with each other. Some of the methods for effecting such altered states of consciousness are:

Shamans often observe special diets or fasts and taboos particular to their vocation. Sometimes these have physical purposes beyond effecting a change in brain state or taboo; for example, the diet followed by shamans and apprentices when drinking Ayahuasca includes eating foods rich in tryptophan (which produces serotonin) as well as avoiding foods rich in tyramine, which could cause a hypertensive crisis if ingested with an MAOI such as Ayahuasca.

Gender and sexuality

Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may be shamans. In Old Norse Religion, shamanism was seen as unmanly and was practiced mainly by women (see Völvas and Wiccas). However, in Old Norse mythology, the supreme god Odin was also seen as the foremost shaman. In some societies, shamans exhibit a two-spirit identity, assuming the dress and attributes of the opposite sex from a young age, for example, a man 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, Navajo, Pawnee, Lakota, and Ute, as well as many other Native American tribes. Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful. They are highly respected and sought out in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their mates.

Shamanism and New Age

The New Age movement imported some ideas from shamanism as well as Eastern religions. As in other such imports, the original users of these ideas frequently condemn New Age use as misunderstood and superficial.

At the same time, there is an endeavor in occult and esoteric circles to reinvent shamanism in a modern form, drawing from core shamanism, a set of beliefs and practices synthesized by Michael Harner and often revolving around the use of ritual drumming and dance; various indigenous forms of shamanism, often focusing on the ritual use of entheogens; as well as chaos magic. Much of this is focused upon in Europe, where ancient shamanic traditions were suppressed by the Christian church and where people compelled to be shamans often find it improper to use shamanic systems rooted in other parts of the earth. Various traditional shamans express respect for this endeavor, sharply distinguishing it from "light" New Age shamanism.

Sometimes people from Western cultures claim to be shamans (i.e., Wicca, Neo-Paganism). This is considered offensive by many indigenous medicine men, who view these New Age, western "shamans" as hucksters out for money or affirmation of self. Many shamanistic cultures feel there is a danger that their voices will be drowned out by self-styled "shamans," citing, for example, the fact that Lynn Andrews has sold more books than all Native American authors put together.

See also

Further reading

  • Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. 1959; reprint, New York and London: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0140194436
  • Daniel Pinchbeck, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. ISBN 0767907426
  • Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1964; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0691119422
  • Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman. 1980, new edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, ISBN 0062503731
  • Joan Halifax, ed. Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives. 1979; reprint, New York and London: Penguin, 1991. ISBN 0140193480
  • Graham Harvey, ed. Shamanism: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415253306
  • Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, eds. Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge. 2001; reprint, New York: Tarcher, 2004. ISBN 0500283273
  • Piers Vitebsky, The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul - Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia to the Amazon, Duncan Baird, 2001. ISBN 1903296188
  • Andrei Znamenski, ed. Shamanism: Critical Concepts, 3 vols. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0-415-31192-6
  • Wallis, Robert J. Shamans/neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans. London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 041530203X

External links

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