World Shamanism

Dean Edwards (
Fri, 7 Apr 1995 19:03:13 GMT

Some thoughts on whether or not shamanism is a worldwide phenomenon.

The question is being raised in discussions in soc.religion.shamanism
as to whether or not shamanism is a world wide phenomenon. Is it
found oonly in Siberia? Or, can practices similar enough to also be
called shamanism be found in the historical and archeological
record and in the field by anthropologists and psychologists today?

In Shamanism-General Overview, I wrote the following as a technical
guideline and overview of shamanism. Given the material examined
in that material about what shamans are and what they do, it
then becomes reasonable to examine similar patterns of
spirituality in regions outside of Siberia and Central Asia. Do we
find such practices? The general consensus among anthropologists and
historians of religion and more recently transpersonal psychologists
is yes.

As a personal note I have found that the best work on shamanism has
been done by people who worked in the field with acutal shamans. They
did their best to set aside their own preconceptions and attempted
to understand and later present the perspectives, beliefs and
statements of those shamans to their readers and students in a manner
that is supportive of the shamans that they worked with. I am not
saying that they endorse or become converts to those belief systems,
but that they respect them and present them in a respectful manner.
Mircea Eliade, for instance, was a master of respecting the beliefs
and dignity of religious and spiritual practices areound thr world
and across the spectrum of history. While his writings are very
technical, they continue to serve as a model for exhamining
systems of shamanic practice. Another example, in a related field, is
the work done by Elaine Pagels, of Princeton University on classical

Is shamanism the oldest or among the oldest techniques of spirituality?
Is it found almost universally areound the world in traditional
cultures? Are there strong indications that the ability to move
between the worlds and to use what is learned there to the benefit or
bane of one's community existed in Europe as well as outside of
Europe? Are the few remaining Lapp (Saami) shamans an isolated
exception or were such religious and spiritual indiduals once found
across Europe. Do the Stone AGe cave paintings of France indicate
shamanic practices among ancient residents of Europe? These are not
easy questions by any means. They deserve serious consideration and

I would say that by examining the myths of various cultures it
becomes pollible to identify certain themes that reflect the
essential experience of shamans. The presence of these myths
together with oteher stories, healing practices, methods of
interrelating with physical forces and with the shifting fortunes
of life, and archeological evidence can be compiled into a
convincing xase for the presence of shamanic traditions on every
continent. Eliade referred to shamanism as archaic techniques of
ecstasy. That word archaic emphasises its ancient prehistoric origins.
This seems to deeply bother some academics and religious types who
do not want to acknowledge that their ancestors may have participated
in such practices. Sometimes this is driven by a strange and
particularly Euro-American rigidity which cannot accept as valid any
type of religous experience. Perhaps, as some surving native shamans
in the Americas and Asia have suggested, this very attitude
determines the depth of their studies and experience. Some are a
bit more generous, allowing for the validity of any experience that
carefully presents itself according to the dictates of a particular
religious belief system. This is where the still emerging field of
transpersonal psychology makes one of its most effective
contributions. The role of attitudes, assumptions and belief systems
that a person brings along in any study or practice does limit the
results and findings.

These ssues should be carefully examined, debated and investigated.
Different people will approach these matters in very different ways.
Over time, the cumulative results of these diverse efforts, some r
esponsible and others fanciful, do provide a broader understanding
of the human experience.

In Shamanism-General Overview, I wrote the following as a technical
guideline and overview of shamanism:

What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is classified by anthropologists as an archaic
magico-religious phenomenon in which the shaman is the great master
of ecstasy. Shamanism itself, was defined by the late Mircea Eliade
as a technique of ecstasy. A shaman may exhibit a particular magical
specialty (such as control over fire, wind or magical flight). When a
specialization is present the most common is as a healer. The
distinguishing characteristic of shamanism is its focus on an
ecstatic trance state in which the soul of the shaman is believed to
leave the body and ascend to the sky (heavens) or descend into the
earth (underworld). The shaman makes use of spirit helpers, with
whom he or she communicates, all the while retaining control over
his or her own consciousness. (Examples of possession occur, but
are the exception, rather than the rule.) It is also important to
note that while most shamans in traditional societies are men,
either women or men may and have become shamans.
(end quote)

There are also some more specific criteria later on in the article
which examine some sommonalities in hwat distinguishes a shaman from
a nonshaman.

4. How does one become a shaman?

Some have wondered if the experience of shamanic ecstasy or flight
makes a person a shaman. Generally speaking, most would say no.
A shaman is more than someone with an experience. First, he or she
is a trained initiate. Usually years of enculturalization and
training under a mentor precede becoming a functioning shaman.
Second, a shaman is not just an initiate who has received inner and
outer training, but is a master of shamanic journeying and techniques
(shamanic ecstasy). This is not a casual acquaintance with such
abilities, there is some degree of mastery of them. Finally, a
shaman is a link or bridge between this world and the next. This
is a sacred trust and a service to the community. Sometimes a
community that a shaman serves in is rather small. In other
instances it may be an entire nation. A lot of that depends on
social and cultural factors.
(end quote)

Thus, a shaman is a bridge between the worlds, is a trained initiate,
a master of shamanic flight or ecstacy, and a shaman carries or maintains
a tradition of such practices.

9. What are the usual roles of a shaman?
In contemporary, historical or traditional shamanic practice the shaman
may at times fill the role of priest, magician, metaphysician or healer.
Personal experience is the prime determinant of the status of a shaman.
Knowledge of other realms of being and consciousness and the cosmology of
those regions is the basis of the shamanic perspective and power. With this
knowledge, the shaman is able to serve as a bridge between the mundane and
the higher and lower states The shaman lives at the edge of reality as most
people would recognize it and most commonly at the edge of society itself.
Few indeed have the stamina to adventure into these realms and endure the
outer hardships and personal crises that have been reported by or
observed of many shamans.
(end quote)

So, we are left with the questions of how useful and religble is
the work of anthropologists, archeologists, psychologists and
historians of religion in the study of shamanismand its
presence in diverse sultural situations? Is shamanism a
worldwide phenomenon? Were Europeans alone in being unable to
experience the sacred in such ways or did they have shamanic
traditions of their own?

Lets talk, that is what soc.religion.shamanism was
created for.

Dean Edwards