Shamanism is a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spirit world. A practitioner of shamanism is known as a shaman. There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world. One of the most significant and relevant qualities that separate a shaman from other spiritual leaders is their communications with the supernatural world.
Shaman perform a plethora of functions depending upon the society wherein they practice their art, such as healing, preserving tradition by storytelling and songs, fortune telling, acting as a guide of souls and leading a sacrifice. In some cultures, a shaman may fulfill several functions in one person.
The functions of a shaman may include either guiding to their proper place the souls of the dead, or curing of ailments. The ailments may be purely physical afflictions, such as disease, which may be cured by flattering, threatening, or wrestling the disease spirit, and which may be completed by displaying some extracted token of the disease spirit. Displaying this is supposed to impress the disease spirit that it has been, or is in the process of being, defeated, so that it will retreat and stay out of the patient’s body. Mental afflictions amy also be treated, such as persistent terror on account of some frightening experience, which may be likewise cured by similar methods.
In most languages a different term other than the one translated as shaman is applied to a religious official or priest leading sacrificial rites, or to a reconteur or sage of traditional lore. There may be more of an overlap in functions with than of a shaman in the case of an interpreter of omens or of dreams.
Following are beliefs that are shared by all forms of shamanism:
- Spirits exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
- The shaman can communicate with the spirit world.
- Spirits can be good or evil.
- The shaman can treat sickness caused by evil spirits.
- The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy.
- The shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
- The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message bearers. Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living.
In contrast to organized religions like animism or animatism which are led by priests and which all members of a society practice, shamanism requires individualized knowledge and special abilities. Shaman operate outside established religions, and, traditionally, they operate alone. Shaman can gather into associations, as Indian tantric practitioners have done.
Shaman act as mediators in their culture. The shaman is seen as communicating with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the dead. In some cultures, this mediator function of the shaman may be illustrated well by some of the shaman’s objects and symbols.
Among the Selkups, a report mentions a sea duck as a spirit animal. Ducks are capable of both flying and diving underwater, thus they are regarded as belonging to both the upper world and the world underneath. Similarly, the shaman and the jaguar are identified in some Amazonian cultures. The jaguar is capable of moving freely on the ground, in the water, and climbing trees (like the shaman’s soul). In some Siberian cultures, it is some water fowl species that are associated to the shaman in a similar way, and the shaman is believed to take on its form.
The Shaman’s Tree is an image found in several cultures as a symbol for mediation. The tree is seen as a being whose roots belong to the world underneath. Its trunk belongs to the middle, human inhabited world, and its top is related to the upper world.
In some cultures there may be additional types of shaman, who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nanai people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a guide of souls. Other specialized shaman may be distinguished according to the type of spirits or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts.
There are also neoshamanistic movements which differ from many tradtitional shamanistic practice and beliefs in several points. Neoshamanism is not a single cohesive belief system but many philosophies lumped together. Most neoshamans believe in spirits and pursue self actualization through meditation and the use of entheogens.
Today, shamanism survives primarily among indigenous peoples. Shamanic practices continue today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and even in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially true for Africa and South America, where mestizo shamanism is widespread.