The Elements of Shamanism

>> Sunday, January 18, 2009

a siberian shaman with traditional clothes

Although other societies sometimes have elements of shamanism, we confine our definition to hunter-gatherers and propose ten characteristics of shamanism as it is practised in such societies; elements of shamanism may well appear in other kinds of society, but it is not of them that we speak.

  1. Fundamentally, hunter-gatherer shamanism is posited on a range of altered   states of consciousness, be they induced by ingestion of hallucinogens, rhythmic driving, such as insistent drumming and dancing, hyperventilation, sensory deprivation, pathological conditions, etc. Dreams, too, should be included here. Such states are often termed trance or ecstasy. Of necessity, they are institutionalized, that is, they have social consequences.
  2. Visual, aural and somatic experiences of altered states that are wired into the human nervous system give rise to conceptions of an alternative reality that is frequently tiered. Three tiers are common, but socially complex hunter-gatherers often acknowledge more. It is this sort of cosmology that makes contact with the supernatural realm possible. Cosmology is both enabling and constraining.
  3. People with special powers and skills, shamans, are believed to have access to this alternative reality. In some societies, there is one shaman to a community; in others, there are more. Some shamans are politically powerful; others are not influential outside of their ritual performances. The important point is that shamans are intermediaries between their communities and supernaturals. The mastery of ecstasy therefore has important socio-political implications in shamanistic communities.
  4. The behavior of the human nervous system in certain altered states creates the illusion of dissociation from one's body, sometimes known as spirit loss or extra-corporeal activity. Less commonly in hunter-gatherer societies, this experience is understood as possession by external spirits. Possession and extra-corporeal travel are believers' explanations of trance or ecstasy. Shamans use dissociation and the other experiences of altered states to achieve a variety of ends, such as the following (all four are not universally present):
  5. Contacting spirits and supernatural entities;
  6. Controlling the movements and lives of real animals;
  7. Healing the sick;
  8. Changing the weather.
  9. These functions and entry into an altered state are believed to be facilitated by a variously conceived supernatural power, or energy, that may, in some ways, be likened to electricity.
  10. This power is often associated with spirit-helpers (often in the form of animals) who impart it to shamans and assist them in the performance of their tasks. Commonly, shamans encounter their spirit-helper during a vision quest. Whether some shamans may be said to be possessed by such spirit-helpers is a question to be decided for each community individually, though by no means easily so.
Add: modern practices
Compare: Siberia, Mongolia, pre-classic Anatolia
To do: MIC, extensive; AA?
Source: Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, A Handbook of Ancient Religions, ed. John R. Hinnells, Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007, pp. 32-33


Anonymous January 18, 2009 at 3:55 PM  

Very, very interesting! Thanks.

Shamanic Practitioner January 19, 2009 at 6:24 AM  

Great article. Clearly broken down, and I like point #3 - as many of the shamanic practices do trigger neural structures in the brain that allow you to access different components of one's consciousness.

Archiver January 19, 2009 at 6:43 AM  

Thanks, I like your site about shamanism in native Americans. I will have a detailed look when I have the time as I am sure there will be a lot to cross reference. I am especially interested in linguistic information about natives in addition to their beliefs and practices as seen in North America.

David January 21, 2009 at 4:45 AM  

There is a book written by Graham Hancock called Supernatural that explores the use of mushrooms in human spiritual development. That shrooms first created altered states of consciousness in prehistoric mankind, and sparked our mental development. An interesting theory, if true or not who can say.

Archiver January 21, 2009 at 5:16 AM  

A difficult to prove theory I must say. Nonetheless, evolution alone does not explain the "jump" in the mental abilities of the humans, considering such a progress has not been observed in other species. With that in mind, Hancock's theory is at least worth exploring. I have not read the book but will add it to my reading list.

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