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I. Group Profile

    1. Name:Shamanism
    2. Founder: No individual founder/ Discoverer: Marco Polo and other travelers in Siberia.1.
    3. Date of Birth: As early as the beginning of the New World. 19502.
    4. Birth Place: Siberia and Central Asia. 3.
    5. Year Founded: unknown4.
    6. Sacred or Revered Texts: No text, rather knowledge is gained by the individual through experience
    7. Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.
    8. Size of Group:Shamanism is not a traditionally organized group with a charismatic leader. It's an individualistic religion, therefore, number approximations are extremely difficult to produce

II. History

    "Shamanism is an ecstatic religious complex of particular and fixed elements, with a specified ideology that has persisted through millennia and is found in many different cultural settings..They [the shamans] can be found...wherever hunting-gathering peoples still exist and wherever this ancient sacred tradition has maintained its shape in spite of the shifting of cultural ground." (Joan Halifax)5.

    "The word shaman is in fact loosely used for almost any savage witch-doctor who becomes frenzied and has communication with spirits. In its original form it appears to be a corruption of the Sanskrit Shramana, which, indicating a disciple of Buddha, among the Mongolians became synonymous with magician." (Washburn Hopkins) 6.

    "Quite simply, a shaman is a woman or man who changes his or her state of consciousness, at will, in order to contact and/or travel to another reality to obtain power and knowledge. Mission accomplished, the shaman journeys home to use this power and knowledge to help either himself or others." (Jonathen Horowitz) 7.

    As we see from the quotes above, a comprehensive understanding of Shamanism continues to elude scholars because it is full of complexities yet to be deciphered and details still unknown. We know that Shamanism is derived from ancient teachings, and we also know that it is not confined to any one place.

    "...the ancestor of the god is the shaman himself, both historically, and phychologically. There were shamans before there were gods. The very earliest religious data we know from archeology show the dancing masked sorcerors or shamans of Lascaux, Trois Freres, and other Old Stone Age caves. The worldwide distribution of functionaries recognizable as shamans - in the Americas, north Eurasia, Africa Oceania, and south Asia, as well as ancient east and central Asia - testifies to their antiquity. The basis of all religion in both North and South American is the shaman or medicine man - as Boas long ago observed - so that the aboriginal New World, seen in its common essence, is a kind of ethnographic museum of the late Paleolithic-Mesolithic of Eurasia, whence came the American indian in very ancient times. Indian religious culture is of the same date and orogin as their material culture, and it is copiously documented." 8.

    It is still practiced in many parts of the world, including, Siberia, North America, South America, Indonesia, Oceania and probably many others places. Shamanism almost certainly emerged indigenously in many parts of the world without the benefit of texts. Oral traditions may or may not have been widely disseminated.

    Anthropologists understood that in the simplest of societies, humankind believed that supernatural forces are responsible for many events that impact their lives (Levinson: 207). Researchers generally understand shamanism as one of the earliest efforts of humankind to identify and understand the supernatural world. And from this understanding emerges practices that seek to gain some measure of influence or control of these forces.

    More broadly conceived, Shamanism is concerned with understanding universal enigmas, the origins of the cosmos, the earth, and animals. Essentially, Shamanism is percieved as the existential quest for the meaning and the sense of life and death. Shamans are most likely the first group to persons to engage in the quest to understand the existential meaning of life and the control the forces that impact their daily lives.

    "Shamanism is classified by anthropologists as an archaic magico-religious phenomenon in which the shaman is the great master of ecstasy.4 Shamanism itself, was defined by the late Mircea Eliade as a technique of ecstasy." A shaman may often exhibit a particular magical specialty, which thus enables the shaman to act as that of a healer. (, pg.2) The main focus of shamans has always been to help cure others or themselves through an ecstatic trance state where the soul of the shaman is able to leave the physical body and transcend up to a higher connection with the spirits. This trance state is more recognizably called an 'out-of-body' experience. This practice of ecstatic trance has existed since the beginning of this religion, and is primarily what the religion itself is founded on. 9.

    Although identifying specific individuals who are followers of shamanism is very difficult, traditionally, they were associated with hunting/gathering groups found in agriculturally based societies. Presently, this distinction of followers is now changing. Shamans can be located all over the world, but one thing remains constant, and that is the goal of Shamanism. The goal is to fall into a deep trance or altered state of consciousness allowing one to connect with the spirits and things that are beyond the physical world to help revitalize one's life on earth through healing, guidance, or knowledge.

    In Bahm's book about world religions he tries to further explain common characteristics of a shaman, as compared to a seemingly similar priest of another religion. "The more fearful and needy a person feels, the more he will seek the aid of a priest. The more confident and self-sufficient he feels, the more he experiences himself as a shaman; and the more unperturbed he remains under insult or attack, the more others recognize him as a shaman." A follower of shamanism is an individual who rely on their own use of shamanic practice as a guide in life, as opposed to other religions who rely on a priest or mentor. 10.

III. Beliefs of the Group

    Information about the actual participants of Shamanism is relatively scarce, however knowledge regarding common beliefs and practices can be found easily. The main objectives of Shamanism will be most clearly understood in a list that includes the core beliefs, each follwed by a brief explanation.

    Core Beliefs

    1.)Shamanism is the intentional effort of the participant to communicate and develop relationships with spiritual beings that far exceed any communication usually achieved by physical beings. These relationships offer something to the participant that physical beings simply cannot attain, and that is religious support by way of healing, knowledge or guidance.

    2.)Shamanism is not so much an traditionally religion as it is an individual's perception of the interrelatedness of life, nature and spirit. A follower of shamanism focuses on the invisible world and non-ordinary reality which often includes spirits, ancestors, animals, gods and other entities.

    3.)Shamans traditionally fulfill the role of priest, magician, metaphysician or healer. Such roles are determined primarily by one's personal experience. Knowledge of other realms allows the shaman to serve as a point of connection between the mundane physical world and the other, existential world.

    4.)The relationship formed with an interaction of spirit is a two-sided relationship. Both the physical participant and the spiritual participant learn and gain insight from the other in a mutually respectful manner.

    5.)Although an individuals journey is aimed at self healing and development, the main goal is not self serving, rather to develop an interconnectedness with the rest of life via regular practice. Ultimately, through such regular practice aimed at greater development, one is healed and knows how to heal. Furthermore one shares that knowledge with others, to subsequently help them grow.

    6.)Shamans are most commonly believed to be healers,herbalists, spiritual advisors and dream interpretors. These roles of shamans are particularly distinct because of the relationship that the shaman shares with the spiritual guide in the otherworld. A shaman's reputation is thus largely based on his spiritual practice and the relationships he develops with otherworldly spirits. 11

    Spiritual Relationships

    The most fundamental belief associated with shamanism is communicating with otherworldly spirits. This is accomplished primarily through the use of Shamanic ecstasy. Ecstasy (from the Greek word, 'ekstasis') literally means to be places outside, or to be placed. Thus, shamanic ecstasy is a state in which a person stands outside of his self and enters into an altered states of consciousness. In this state of altered consciousness, one is able to communicate with spirits to gain knowledge, guidance, and healing powers.

    Three types of ecstasy widely known and practiced are:

    1. Shamanic ecstasy
    2. Prophetic ecstasy
    3. Mystical ecstasy

    Only Shamanic ecstasy is of great significance to us. The first phase in reaching shamanic ecstasy is the ascension of the shaman's soul into heavens or its descent into the underworld. One can achieve such a state of exhaltation after great training and initiation. this process is often tiring, demanding, and very rigorous. However, the second phase, is the shaman's ability to contact spirits. They are able to accomplish such tasks as helping the soul of deceased rest properly, heal the sick, and bestow knowledge on those persons existing in the physical world with only a mundane awareness.

    The Shamanic Process

    Achieving shamanism entails much more than just experiencing shamannic ecstasy. One first becomes a shaman through one of three ways.

    1. Hereditary transmission
    2. Spontaneous selection or 'call'
    3. Personal choice and quest

    After this is decided, several more demanding steps must be taken to complete the path to shamanism. First, one must undergo years of training under a mentor. Secondly, he must learn to master the technique of shamanic journeying. Finally he must have the support and trust of the community. Once these steps are completed, one is accepted as a shaman.

    Weston La Barre states that the belief of transformation is perhaps the most dominant component of shamanism. If, and when, one is able to achieve this ecstatic transformation, then the individual is essentially transformed into a god, and in this state of ecstasy, knowledge of the divine can be attained.

    Shamanic Practices

    Once a person has fully come into the role of a shaman, he takes on new meaning in life aimed at the quest towards ancestral communication and contact. He does so through a variety of methods, including the power of animals and the symbolism of masks.


    Shamans are able to communicate with ancestors and spirits through their contact with animals. Different animals represent different spirits, and for that reason, a vast array of animals are included in such shamanic practices. A vivid example given by Mircea Eliade, is an attempt to reach a spirit from with a trance state. "Shamans are reputed to enter into the intestine of a large fish or a whale. A legend tells us that, the son of a shaman woke his father, who had been asleep for three years, with these words, 'Father, wake-up and return from the fish's intestine, return from the third mouth of his intestine!'...this case illustrates an "ecstatic spirit, into the stomach of a marine monster." Animal contact is a vital part of shamanic voyaging which assists the shaman to contact certain spirits, through the intense power of the animal. Eliade continues to say that "in this case, we are dealing with an initiatory adventure undertaken to gain secret knowledge. One descends into the belly of a giant or a monster to learn science, wisdom. It is for this reason that the shaman remains in the fish's belly for three years: to learn the secrets of Nature, to decipher the enigma of life, and to learn the future." 12


    Mask or dress, the function is the same: to proclaim the incarnation of a mythological figure - a god, ancestor, or mystic animal. The mask effects the transubstantiation of the shaman, tranforming him before everyone's eyes into the supernatural being he is impersonating." Just as many animals hold power and strenth within the shamanic tradition, so do the use of masks. The interconnectedness of the animal spirits and mask use is very important. Most commonly, the masks depict certain animals, most often, birds, deer and reindeer antlers. Different shamanic groups give different significance to certain animals and masks. Among them are the "costumes of Altaic and Tungusic shamans which include furs and hides and ribbons and scarves representing serpents. The shaman possesses, among other powers, the ability to identify himself with an animal or magically to transform himself into an animal." 13

    Influence on other Religions

    Lastly, it is important to recognize that shamanism has its basis in antiquity. La Barre states "there were shamans before their were gods." 14 He further identifies the shaman or medicine man as the basis of all religion in both north and south america. There is a documented "world wide distribution of individuals recognizable as shamans in north Eurasia, Africa, Oceania and South Asia." 15 As such an old religion, shamanism has in many ways, lent itself to newer religions. "New Religious Movements" documents the influence that shamanism has had on many other religions including Bon, Buddhism, Taoism and other new Japanese religions. The magico-religious idea is widespread throughout large parts of Asia, thus it is easier to understand how shamanism has influenced great religions of the Orient. Although it is not the foundation of any other religions, some of the basic ideas in the quest towards extraordinary communication through a magico-religious path can be found.

IV. Links to Shamanism Web Sites

Shamanism - General Overview - FAQ
This website will answer many of the most common questions about Shamanism. It is a very basic site for those just beginning their research on shamanism.

This is an introduction to Shamanism that discusses the importance of spirit animals, ecstatic states, the flow of energy and the healing techniques most commonly used by Shamans.

Soc.religion.Shamanism - FAQ
This site on Shamanism gives us general insights to the basics of shamanism as an individualistic religion. It also includes lots of information on variations within the religion (i.e. historical, contemporary, core, etc.).

This is a small site about Shamanism that depicts the religion through the Tlingit Indians. It provides basic information about the Shamanic tradition, because it details the goals, and main methods of attainment

All Life is Connected: The Shaman's Journey
This site focuses on the journey of a shaman, examining everything from the origin of the word "shaman" through the psychological aspect of the shamanic journey.

Shamanism, Indigenous Knowledge, Medical Anthropology, and Borneo
This page honors the shamanic tradition and discusses in detail how it is practiced mainly through the importance of song. "Song can be a salve, a celebration, a lamentation, a bridge to other worlds."

This site is useful for answering questions as well as detailed information on what Celtic Shamanism is and covers an elementary sense of what the religion is founded in, the practices, processes and general lifestyle.

Once you get to this site you should click on Alternative Religions and then click on Shamanism. Then you will be linked to about 30 other sites that all pertain to Shamanism including everything from the role of pharamceutical drugs in shamanism to contemporary shamanic practice. Very comprehensive site, and well worth it for people in an advanced stage of research.

Bibliography of Shamanism
This is a great source to find many different books about details, big and small, pertaining to shamanism. Also includes lots of sources from Mircea Eliade, a leader scholar on religion.

Center for Shamanism and Consciousness Studies
Huge web site including lots of educational material, as well as a plethora of bibliographic sources. Outlines upcoming events, such as the First International Congress on Science and Shamanism which is scheduled to be held in 2001.

  • Bibliography

    Bahm, Archie J. 1964
    "The Worlds Living Religions" New York: Penguin Publishing
    Shamanism Chapter 1; 46-47
    Cairns, Grace E., McCasland, S. Vernon, Yu, David C. 1969.
    "Religions of the World", London: Oxford University Press
    Part I 1-24
    Clottes, Jean / Lewis-Williams, David. 1996.
    "The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves.", New York: Oxford University Press
    Shamanism chapter 1: 11-36 The Shamanic World chapter 5; 101-114
    Cresswell, Jamie. Wilson, Bryan. 1999.
    "New Relgious Movements; Challenge and Response" Chicago: McGraw Hill
    Japanese new religious movements in Brazil; from ethnic to 'universal' religions chapter 10; 199
    Eliade, Mircea. 1964.
    "Shamanism." New York: Oxford University Press
    General Considerations. Recuiting Methods. Shamanism and Mystical Vocation. chapter 1: 5-16.
    Eliade, Mircea. 1985.
    "Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts", New York: Bantam Books
    The Symbolism of Shadows in Archaic Religion Chapter I/1; pages 8-11. Chapter II/2; 65-71
    Hopkins, E. Washburn. 1918.
    "The History of Religions" New York: Oxford University Press,
    Shamanism Chapter 4; 53-58
    Kendall, Laurel. 1985.
    Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits.", London: Oxford University Press.
    The Care and Feeding on Ancestors. . chapter 7: 144-163.
    Levinson, David. 1996.
    Religion: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia, New York: Oxford University Press. 206-212.
    Mahapatra, Sitakant. 1992.
    "The Realm of the Sacred; Verbal Symbolism and Ritual Structure", Chicago: MacMillan USA
    Sacred Centres and Symbolic networks in India Chapter 5; 79-112
    Montgomery, James A., 1918
    "Religions of the Past and Present", New York: Harper Collins
    Primitive Religion Chapter 1; 1-32
    Narby, Jeremy and Francis Huxley. 2001.
    Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge. New York: Tarcher/Putnam. Read review in Book World
    Townsend, Joan B. 1999.
    "Shamanism" in in Stephen D. Glazier, (ed). Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Praeger. pp.429-469.

    • VI. References

    1. Clottes, Jean / Lewis-William, David. "The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves.".
    2. Eliade, Marcia. "Shamanism.".
    3. Clottes, Jean / Lewis-William, David. "The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves.".
    4. "Shamanism".
    5. Halifax, Joan. "Shamanism: Religion or Rite?"
    6. Hopkins, E. Washburn. "The History of Religions" Oxford University Press 1918..
    7. Horowitz, Jonathen. No title. .
    8. LaBarre, Weston.
    10. Bahm, Archie J. "The World's Living Religions" Shamanism, 1964.
    12. Eliade, Mircea. "Shamanism: General Considerations. Recruiting Methods. Shamanism and Mystical Vocation." General Considerations 1964.
    13. IBID.
    14. LaBarre, Weston.
    15. IBID.


      Created by Nikoletta Theodoropoulos
      For Soc 257: New Religious Movements,
      University of Virginia
      Spring 2000
      Last updated: 09/00/01

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