Shamanism, humanity’s most ancient spiritual practice, has undergone a dramatic modern resurgence. The concept of shamanism is widely utilized in contemporary spiritual healing groups and has gained such popularity that traditional healers have adopted the term to tell outsiders about their practices.
Some reject this wider application of the concept of shamanism, suggesting that the term should not be extended outside its origins in Siberia. My cross-cultural research establishes some validity to both perspectives. Cross-cultural studies confirm that shamans and other shamanistic healers are found universally in human cultures—all societies have people who use altered states of consciousness (ASC) to interact with the spirit world on behalf of their communities. Shamans are remarkably similar in hunter-gatherer societies around the world, but differ significantly from healing practitioners of other societies that have agriculture, political hierarchies, and class systems. The articles in this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly address the diversity of practices labeled as shamanism.
My studies have validated Mircae Eliade’s concept of “classic shamanism” and Michael Harner’s concept of “core shamanism.” A remarkable similarity is found worldwide among the spiritual healers of hunter-gather, horticultural, and pastoral societies, who use ASC to interact with the spirit world on behalf of their community. These shamans tend to come from “shaman families,” and were selected by the spirits. Early in life, as part of their training to be shamans, they undertook deliberate activities to enter ASC and develop personal relationships with the spirits. Shamans’ development involves a death-and-rebirth experience and the acquisition of animal allies that provide powers to heal, divine, diagnose and prophesize, assist in hunting, and engage in sorcery to harm others. Charismatic social leaders, shamans hold all-night ceremonies in which the entire community dances, drums, and chants. The central aspect involves the shaman recounting the experiences of an ASC—generally called “soul journey” or “magical flight”—during which an aspect of the shaman departs the body and travels to other places. Shamans are not normally possessed by spirits; rather they control spirits and are believed to be able to fly and transform themselves into animals. Therapeutic processes involve the removal of objects or spirits sent by other shamans through sorcery, and the use of soul journeys to recover lost souls and power animals (aspects of one’s personal powers based on a special relationship with an animal species).
Shaman/healers share many characteristics with shamans, and are found in all types of societies. But they differ from shamans in some important ways. They are subordinated to religious practitioners called priests. They also engage in agricultural rituals and often use mechanical devices such as Tarot cards as means of divination. Shaman/healers tend to have extensive role specialization, in which individual practitioners engage in some tasks, such as divination or healing or agricultural rites, but not others. They are also trained and initiated by professional associations rather than taught by the spirits and validated by the community. Their ASC seldom involve soul journey, but are more like the experiences of meditators and mystics.
Some spiritual healers who are often called “shamans” are quite distinct from core shamans. Mediums are predominantly female and are called to their profession in early adulthood when they are possessed by spirits. Mediums engage in spirit-world interactions and healing through ASC, but rather than traveling to visit spirits, they are possessed by them. Possession is a condition interpreted as a spirit taking over the medium’s personality and will. Possession ASC generally involves tremors, convulsions, seizures, and amnesia. Mediums generally do not commit malevolent acts, but rather act against sorcerers, witches, and evil spirits. They worship and make sacrifices to their possessing spirits and superior deities. Like healers, they specialize in treating people who are possessed. Unlike shamans, mediums do not hold a high leadership role; they are often found in complex societies with political hierarchies and more powerful religious practitioners such as priests and healers.
Healers are almost exclusively male, and generally of high economic status and holding political power. Their professional organizations provide costly training and wield considerable power, enabling healers to be full-time specialists in diagnosis and healing. Healers generally lack the ASC characteristic of shamans, but may nonetheless induce ASC in clients with rituals, spells, and incantations. Exorcism is a principal activity, as are life-cycle activities—naming ceremonies, marriage rituals, and funerals. Healers generally work in collaboration with priests, and have the power to take action against those they determine are sorcerers or witches.
Biology of Shamanism
Shamans, shaman/healers, mediums, and healers—referred to in this issue as “shamanistic healers”—are found worldwide because their activities are based in biological potentials involving ASC, healing, and visual thought processes. ASC is a natural biological response, an “integrative” mode of consciousness involving the synchronization of brain wave patterns across different regions of the brain. I call these ASC conditions integrative because they enhance the merging of processes of lower brain systems (especially the limbic or paleomammalian brain, an “emotional brain”) within the frontal cortex. The synchronized brain wave patterns enhance awareness of lower brain processes—often expressed through visions—heightening awareness of intuitive information and producing a synthesis of emotion and thought.
Shamanism emerged in human evolution because it allowed humans to integrate information from innate brain modules, which allow automatic processing of knowledge of mind, self, others, and the animal world. The experiences of integration occur as out-of-body experiences and through relations with power animals and totems that represent personal and group identity. The responses evoked by shamanic ritual allow humans to integrate a fragmented mind created by the increasing psychological complexity of humans and their increasingly complex social relations.
The biological basis of shamanism makes it a natural paradigm for explaining the mental and behavioral characteristics of the religious experiences and healing resources among traditional and modern peoples.
The contributors to this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly offer diverse representations of shamanistic practices. They discuss topics ranging from the core shamanism still found among groups such as the Ju/’hoan San, to efforts to recover shamanistic traditions among the Buryat people of the former Soviet Union and contemporary Chinese peasants. For most cultures, core shamanic traditions are at best a memory of the past, a practice of ancestors which no longer has the same power. Or, worse, as Roger Lohmann tells us about the Asabano of New Guinea, shamanic traditions are fading memories of practices that have been replaced by new religions.
But all of the articles attest to shamanistic practices’ continuing role in today’s world. Perhaps the most poignant testimony is the article about the Ju/’hoan San. These !Kung-speaking people of the Kalahari Desert are one of the few hunter-gatherer peoples who survived until the end of the second millennium, and anthropological studies of their cultures have provided a wealth of knowledge about aspects of hunter-gatherer lifestyles such as shamanism. But they are also being forced to extinction by more powerful neighbors who encroach upon their traditional territories (see CSQ 26:1). Richard Katz, and Megan Biesele ask insightful questions, pointing to the potential for the Ju/’hoan healing dance to provide a crucible for cultural survival and adaptation. May their optimistic message be heard by others around the planet.
Many cultures have maintained vibrant and vital shamanistic traditions, not merely as remainders the past, but as adaptations of the potentials of ASC and spirit-world relations to address contemporary conditions. Susan Rasmussen conveys the vibrant practices of the Tuareg “friends of the Kel Essuf” who rely on spirit relations for divination, diagnosis, and healing. Luis Eduardo Luna tells us how the shamanic ayahuasca traditions of the Amazon basin have developed into worldwide religious traditions and neo-shamanic practices.
But where shamanistic practices disappeared under the onslaught of colonization, capitalization, religious oppression, communization and demonization, the emerging reinventions of shamanism are often of a different pattern of practice than that associated with the core shamans of hunter-gatherer societies. We see in Armenia, Tibet, China, Japan, and other parts of the world the persistence of practices that depend upon ASC. Yet many of the other aspects of shamanism are gone. Soul journeys are replaced by possession, animal allies by rituals for the spirits, soul loss and recovery by depossession and burnt offerings. Often what remains are the sacred places that have been adopted by modern pilgrims.1 But the shamanic traditions are not lost forever. Their resuscitation is possible because they are based in biological human potentials.
Human nature alone is not sufficient for the assurance that shamanism will survive for current and future generations. As Hong Zhang and Constantine Hriskos point out in their article about China, the resurgence and use of these potentials depend on the social and political climate. The deliberate resuscitation of shamanic traditions on a global scale has a champion in organizations such as the Foundation for Shamanic Studies2, founded by anthropologist Michael Harner. The foundation’s programs have appealed to a wide range of people in healing professions who find shamanic practices applicable to their personal lives and work with clients.
Past, Present, and Future
Shamanism is emerging from a long neglect in religious, psychological, and evolutionary studies and increasingly taking its place as an important pinnacle of human achievement. The ancient roots of shamanic practices have been recognized by a new generation of scholars. Studies of the ancient cave art of Europe3 attest to the origination of shamanism some 40,000 years ago in the midst of the emergence of a cultural capacity for symbolism.4
But this ancient basis should not distract us from recognizing the present relevance of shamanistic potentials. Shamanism has been applied in psychology, counseling, nursing, public health, medicine, and substance-abuse rehabilitation.
Our understanding of the functions of shamanism in the past should alert us to its applications in the future. Shamanism has been used for prophecy, to plan how to deal with the future. And shamanism may still serve as a conduit for information about the futures we will have to manage, as illustrated in Hank Wesselman’s engaging books about his shamanic connections with his descendants in the future and their warnings for humanity.
Shamanism emerged long ago in human pre-history because it provided vital social and psychological functions and integrated human psyche, identity, and social groups. Shamanism’s resurgence today appears to reflect a response to similar needs. But like all human potentials, it must be developed and applied to be useful. The articles in this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly help illustrate some of the ways in which this development is happening.
1. See www.sacredsites.com 2. See www.shamanism.org 3. See Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams’ The Shamans of Prehistory. 4. Michael Winkelman’s article on “Shamanism and Cultural Evolution” in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal explains why shamanism played such a vital role in this crucial period of human development.
Michael Winkelman is director of the Ethnographic Field School in the department of anthropology at Arizona State University. His primary research is in medical anthropology, particularly shamanic healing. Winkelman published his cross-cultural research on shamans and other magico-religious practitioners in his 1992 book Shamans, Priests and Witches. In 2000 he published Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing, in which he developed biological models of shamanism. He is currently working on applications of shamanic practices in substance abuse treatment.
References and further reading
Clottes, J. & Lewis-Williams, D. (1998). The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Harry Abrams.
Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New York: Pantheon Books.
Harner, M. (1990). The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Wesselman, H. (1995). Spirit Walker Messages from the Future. New York: Bantam Books.
Winkelman, M. (1992). Shamans, Priests and Witches: A Cross-cultural Study of Magico-religious Practitioners. Anthropological Research Papers #44. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University.
Winkelman, M. (2000). Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.
Winkelman, M. (2001). Alternative and Traditional Medicine Approaches for Substance Abuse Programs: A Shamanic Perspective. International Journal of Drug Policy 12, pp 337-351
Winkelman, M. (2002). Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12(1), pp 71-101.