Reflections on Shamanism

Historical background – Shamanism becomes used as a broad term –

The term “shamanism” was first applied to the ancient religion of the Turks and Mongols, as well as those of the neighboring Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples. The word “shaman” originates from the Evenk Language (Tungusic) of north Asia and was introduced to the west after Russian forces conquered  the shamanistic Khanate of Kazan in 1552. (A more accurate name for these beliefs is Tengerism. Tengerism means a reverence for the spirits while “Shamanism” seems to mean reverence toward shamans. Shamans are not to be worshiped but merely respected as priests of Tengerism. Calling our beliefs “Shamanism” would like be like calling Christianity “Priestism” or Judaiism “Rabbiism” – from

Upon learning more about religious traditions across the world, western scholars also described similar magico-religious practices found within the indigenous religions of other parts of Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas as shamanism.

The term became used primarily by anthropologists to describe a practice which seemed to be cross cultural, having its fundamental roots in animism. My own personal definition of animism is – “the human perspective that everything is alive and that everything has a spirit.”

Specifically, animism is used in the anthropology of religion as a term for the religion of indigenous tribal peoples, especially prior to the development and/or infiltration of civilisation and organised religion. Although each tribe is unique in its specific mythologies and rituals, the term animism is often used to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous tribespeoples’ spiritual or “supernatural” perspectives – in a word, their worldview, or their “reality.” the currently accepted definition of animism was only developed in the 19th century by Sir Edward Tylor, who created it as “one of anthropology’s earliest concepts, if not the first”.



There is no single agreed upon definition for the word “shamanism” among anthropologists. The English historian Ronald Hutton noted that by the dawn of the 21st century, there were four separate definitions of the term which appeared to be in use. The first of these uses the term to refer to “anybody who contacts a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness.” The second definition limits the term to refer to those who contact a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness at the behest of others. The third definition attempts to distinguish shamans from other magico-religious specialists who are believed to contact spirits, such as “mediums”, “witch doctors”, “spiritual healers” or “prophets”, by claiming that they undertake a particular technique not used by the others. Problematically, scholars advocating this position have failed to agree on what this defining technique should be. The fourth definition identified by Hutton uses “shamanism” to refer to the indigenous religions of Siberia and neighbouring parts of Asia. According to the Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies, the Evenk word ‘shaman’ would more accurately be translated as ‘priest’.

Mircea Eliade a Romanian historian of religion, writes, “A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = ‘technique of religious ecstasy’. In his book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, he concluded that shamanism underlay all the other spiritual traditions on the planet, and that the most distinctive feature of shamanism—but by no means the only one—was the journey to other worlds in an altered state of consciousness.

(Religious ecstasy is an altered state of consciousness characterised by greatly reduced external awareness and expanded interior mental and spiritual awareness which is frequently accompanied by visions and emotional/intuitive euphoria. Although the experience is usually brief in time, there are records of such experiences lasting several days or even more, and of recurring experiences of ecstasy during one’s lifetime. Subjective perception of time, space and/or self may strongly change or disappear during ecstasy.)


Other words with similar meaning or root to “shaman” are –

– Seer – one that sees – one that sees in the dark

– Clairvoyant-  is used to refer to the ability to gain information about an object, person, location or physical event through means other than the known human

– prophet – an individual who is claimed to have been contacted by the supernatural or the divine

Oracle –  a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic predictions 

Diviner – from Latin divinare “to foresee, to be inspired by a god”, related to divinus,- divine)

(also – witch, witch doctor , sorcerer , wizard, priest. )



The age of the process – How old is “shamanism in the broader definition? 


Most writers on the subject, even those who are critical of the use of the term, or of contemporary core practice, accept that shamanism is over 30,000 years old citing the datable cave art of the French and Spanish Paleolithic. The academics say that it is found embedded in the roots of all our oldest religious practices, and that it is based on the psychology, and beyond that, probably the biology, of humanity… and as such is thought (by Eliade and others) to probably be as old as humanity itself.



The Function of a shaman

The key function of a shaman is to help people. Here is as extract taken from Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies –

“The main function of the shaman is to restore and maintain balance in his community. Shamans conduct blessings, rituals of protection, hunting magic, and divination. They also cure sicknesses that have spiritual causes such as spiritual intrusions, spiritual pollution, soul loss, and curses. Shamans are also the caretakers of traditional culture. Because of their knowledge of ancient tradition, their counsel has been sought throughout the ages”


In modern practice today – CORE SHAMANISM – 

In my persepctive, Core Shamanism has it’s roots in the new age movements of the 60’s and 70’s, which in turn had its roots in the rebirth of the modern pagan movement, starting back at the turn of the 20th century.

Dr. Michael Harner, the founder of the Centre for Shamanic Studies writes –

“Over tens of thousands of years, our ancient ancestors all over the world discovered how to maximise human abilities of mind and spirit for healing and problem-solving. The remarkable system of methods they developed is today known as “shamanism,” a term that comes from a Siberian tribal word for its practitioners: “shaman” (pronounced SHAH-mahn). Shamans are a type of medicine man or woman especially distinguished by the use of journeys to hidden worlds otherwise mainly known through myth, dream, and near-death experiences. Our Foundation for Shamanic Studies is a kind of university of shamanism. We train people who are already psychotherapists, physicians, and psychiatrists, and they can take home what they learn and experiment with cases of clinically defined psychosis. It’s not an intention of shamanism to teach people to lead inspiring model daily lives and to be gurus. Shamans are supposed to reduce suffering and pain through the hard work of healing others. That’s their job.” 



The Foundation for Shamanic Studies is a non-profit public charitable and educational organisation dedicated to the preservation, study, and teaching of shamanic knowledge for the welfare of the planet and its inhabitants.

The Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS) was incorporated in 1985 as a non-profit educational organisation dedicated to the preservation, study and teaching of shamanic knowledge. Led by its founder Dr. Michael Harner (author of The Way of the Shaman) and in the UK by Simon Buxton (Founder of The Sacred Trust), it is now generally recognised as the foremost institution in the world engaged in the revival and teaching of practical shamanism and its application to health and other problems of daily life.

“What Yogananda did for Hinduism and D.T. Suzuki did for Zen, Michael Harner has done for shamanism, namely bring the tradition and its richness to Western awareness,” say Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob in their book, Higher Wisdom. “Michael Harner is widely acknowledged as the world’s foremost authority on shamanism and has had an enormous influence on both the academic and lay worlds”


Since the West overwhelmingly lost its shamanic knowledge centuries ago due to religious oppression, the Foundation’s programmes in core shamanism are particularly intended for Westerners to reacquire access to their rightful spiritual heritage through rigorous high quality workshops and training courses. Training in core shamanism includes teaching students to alter their consciousness through classic shamanic non-entheogenic techniques so that they can discover their own hidden spiritual resources, transform their lives, and learn how to help others.

This begins with introducing people a basic framework in the cosmology of non-ordinary reality, and teaching them how to navigate this safely, using the classic journeying technique to do this. As Eliade points out, cross culturally there appears to be a cosmology of at least three worlds. They are the three worlds of the Upper world, Middle world, and Lower world. The Upper and Lower, above and below us, are completely in non-ordinary reality, and beyond pain and suffering. In contrast, the Middle World, in which we live, has both its ordinary and non-ordinary aspects. It is also the World in which pain and suffering can be found, occurring in both realities. The shaman is an empirical pragmatist. The worlds are wherever the shaman sees them. The idea that all this is happening inside us is, in contrast, a theory.

From a basic human centric perspective we experience reality in both an ordinary sense, and a non ordinary sense. Ordinary Reality is like that which we experience in our typical everyday waking life”. Residing in ordinary reality we experience the typical “normal” passing of space and time. Non Ordinary Reality is like a dream reality. Residing in Non ordinary reality, we experience life “non normally”. typically it is outside of our normal way of experiencing time and space. In many ways there is not a defined split between the ordinary way of seeing things and the non-ordinary way. In many ways we experience reality from both a personal reality; how we relate to ourselves and the world, and an ultimate reality; the reality that contains and affects everyone and everything in it.  David Bohm describes reality as  “unbroken wholeness in flowing movement”. Splitting reality into ordinary and non ordinary acts as a starting point, a framework to begin to navigate un-chartered territory, but at some point we leave the shore of the known, and enter the shore of the un known, and everything appears “non ordinary” yet also rich with ” unbroken wholeness in flowing movement”.


Is Shamanism a Religion?

In her book “Journeying: Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet,” Jeannette M. Gagan, PhD writes the following:

“Eliade, no doubt would answer yes to this question. From outward appearances, however, shamanism does not look like a religion. Devoid of conventional trappings of religion as we know it, shamanism has no catalog of doctrines or index of moral declarations, no buildings honouring its deities, no prayer assignments for congregants, and no hierarchy of power. Nor does it impart devotion to a messianic cause

She goes on to quote Hungarian researcher Mihaly Hoppal:

“Shamanism is an overtly altruistic ideology which, in our egoistic and materialist times, contains a decisively positive program for life.”

 Hence, it appears that shamanism both is and is not a religion. It stands apart from institutionalised religion, yet participates in an ancient mystical tradition that author John Lash describes as “perhaps the oldest form of practical spirituality in the world.”



I am aware of the critisisms of Core Shamanism. My personal experience has been that it has offered me tools which have been able to transform my own life, yet I still have my own personal development to do, and the bottom line is that we all have to ultimately be our own guides in life. “no one is an island”…

My feeling with the Core shamanic practitioner trainings offered by the foundation, and by the Sacred Trust, is that they offer authentic genuine teaching and grounding in the shamanic arts. I am immensely grateful for my own training, and thank my guides for calling me to this path. I am aware however that there are lots of people practicing “shamanism” who seem to have sloppy, dodgy and dogmatic practices that are misleading, and in some cases exploitative of people through their vulnerabilities in seeking a spiritual path. (just as in the herbal medicine movement or the organic food growing movement).

In reference to the explosion of new age spiritualities over the past 30 years, One theologist Deloria, concluded that, “ people in this country (america) are so alienated from their own lives and so hungry for some sort of real life that they’ll grasp at any straw to save themselves. But high-tech society has given them a taste for the ‘quick fix.’ They want their spirituality prepackaged in such a way as to provide instant insight, the more sensational and preposterous the better. They’ll pay big bucks to anybody dishonest enough to offer them spiritual salvation after reading the right book or sitting still for the right 15-minute session. And, of course, this opens them up to every kind of mercenary hustler imaginable…”


I am not interested in getting caught up in picking straws as to who is authentic and who is not. I am concerned with being as authentic my self in my own personal practice. This means being as true as I can to my self, my own feelings and experiences. As Anthony DeMello says in his book Awareness, “my job is to dance my dance. If people benefit from it fine, if they don’t thats also fine. I just dance my dance”


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