What is Shamanism

What is Shamanism

 I am often asked about the origins of shamanism – when did it originate, where did it start, and who were the first shamans.

We know that shamanism is a prehistoric tradition dating back to hunter/gatherer (Paleolithic) cultures. Cave art 30,000-years-old shows evidence of shamanic practices, while rattles and other objects used in shamanic rituals have been found in material remains from the Iron Age. The word “shamanism” derives from the Manchu-Tungus (Northern Asia) word šaman, meaning one who knows, or one who sees in the dark.

Shamanism has been termed “humanity’s oldest and universal expression of religiosity,” and its cross-cultural presence among hunter/gatherer societies suggest a connection to the evolution of the brain. In fact, we can safely state that all modern world religions have their origins in long-forgotten shamanic practices.Scholars have documented shamanism throughout Asia, Tibet, Oceania, Hungary, Sweden, North and South America, central Europe and Africa. Shamanic practices have varied extensively around the globe, but the role of the shaman as a healer and spiritual guide is widely shared. They were the first healers, teachers, and scholars. 


 Shamanism is based on animism - the belief that spirits are everywhere, indwelling not only in animals and plants, but objects too. Shamans are tribal spiritual leaders who are believed to be skilled in harnessing animal spirits as allies in order to look after the local community, and to be able to act as "mediator between the human world and the world of the spirits". Shamans work with the spirit or the soul. They heal illness at the soul level using techniques such as soul retrieval (tracking the face of a lost soul) . They gain knowledge and insight from working with the spirits of nature such as rocks and trees, the land, and they gain knowledge from working with spirits of animals and humans such as their ancestors. 

For the shaman, everything is alive and carries information. You can call this spirit, energy, or consciousness. In order to communicate with the spirit or consciousness of these things, the shaman will shift his or her own state of awareness. Shamans can do this through various means, such as meditation, repetitive sounds such as that of the drum or rattle, or through the help of hallucinogenic plants. The shaman will then “see” through a new set of eyes, they will see what is going on with you, on a spiritual level. The shift of consciousness that the shaman makes, which allows the free part of his or her soul to leave the body. The shaman can then go retrieve information for your healing and growth. They can retrieve healing power, or things that you have lost along the way in living your life. During the soul journey the shaman is both in the room, and going on this “journey” so that he or she has an awareness of both at the same time.   

The shaman sees illness as a lack of power because it was lost somewhere in your life. In order to heal you the shaman returns your power to you. She or he may perform a power animal retrieval. A power animal is a protector, similar to a guardian angel, which protects you from harm and helps you with your spiritual growth by lending its power to you.

The shaman also removes misplaced energy. The negative emotions you may feel, or the negative emotions that another can send you are seen by the shaman to be stuck or stored in various parts of you body. An example is how stress causes ulcers or back pains. The shaman will re-empower you by removing the energy that does not belong within your body. This is called a shamanistic extraction, other healing modalities in addition to shamanism practice this in various forms. This energy is not bad, it is just misplaced. Because it does not belong in your body, it is seen as causing illness that then shows itself in a physical way through pain, sickness or emotional difficulties.

In the shamanic system part of the soul is free to leave the body. Therefore the soul parts of each individual will leave the body in order to protect itself from trauma. This is a positive way to protect the soul. For instance, if someone were to be in a car accident, part of the soul would leave the body to protect itself from the trauma of the impact. The soul does not always know how to return, however, and if it has not returned for some reason this is referred to as soul loss. That is when the shaman would become involved, in order to assist with returning this missing piece of yourself. The healer would perform a soul retrieval. In indigenous cultures this was performed quite regularly. In these modern times, a person may go a long time feeling like a part of him or herself has been missing.

Soul loss would be comparable to the psychological concept of disassociation. Traditional healers believe that the beginnings of disease and illness originate from an imbalance or disharmony within ones spirit.

Shaman's role

 Other activities which shamans have traditionally performed include healing the land. For centuries, shamans have been involved with earth healing by using their ability to communicate with the consciousness of land, bodies of water and other such natural features of their landscape. Whether by determining why crops would not grow in a certain location, or the reasons for drought; working with growing things, the weather, and the land has been a traditional activity for the shaman. 

They would also communicate with nature to find plants to heal illness. Many shamans are responsible for discovering the healing property of certain plants, which later formed the basis for specific medicines we use in the western health system today.

In most cultures, even in current times, a particular shamanistic practitioner will be gifted in working with one or another shamanic activity. A shaman may be more called to do soul retrieval, extraction, de-possession, to work with death and dying, or to work with the land to name a few. Some will specialize in one. 

There can be a wide variety of tools and techniques used by shamans, although certain tools/techniques appear frequently. Percussion instruments such as drums or rattles, plants, water, stones, fires, and singing often accompany shamanic work.  What is specifically used will vary with the shaman, who must achieve the shift of consciousness, receive information being communicated, and be able to direct the healing by whatever means are most effective for him or her. The same applies to whether the shaman uses hawk medicine or bear medicine.  Although all of these things may change the texture or feel of the shamanic work, one is not better than another.

There are certain techniques or perhaps skills that are considered essentially different in shamanic work. Shape-shifting, merging, journeying, and seeing are some of the skills a shaman may or may not posses, or the ability to work over long distances..

Different Shamanistic Techniques

Native American Shamanism


 Native American holy men or medicine man have been considered shaman's by many. Although the word "shaman" is not a Native American term (they prefer the term holy man/medicine man) it is easy to see how anthropologist confused the two.

Many native American rituals and ceremonies done for healing, mimic those done by shaman's throughout the world, including their use of the psychoactive cactus, peyote (southwestern tribes). They also had a great connection to mother Earth and practiced animism (belief that everything has a spirit) 

Holy men of North America typically gain their power through inheritance, personal quest, election, or by spiritual power. They often specialize in the removal of intrusive objects – this is often done by sucking out the object, literally or figuratively, to remove maladies or anything that is physically ailing. Other shamanistic practices aim to influence the weather, help with a hunt, or provide future wisdom.

However, the primary focus of North American shamanism is to heal, and both men and women are be considered holy or medicine people. There is very little public information available on Native American shamanism, as the traditions and rituals are kept secret, and only shared within the tribal community. 

The shamanism of arctic North America is more closely related to Siberian shamanism than traditions in the southern part of the continent.

Remember Native American healers are holy men or medicine men, Not Shamans. It is a disrespectful to use this term when speaking of their culture.

South American Shamanism


South American shamans, located primarily in the Amazon, are Chief-like members of the tribe. The South American shaman is associated closely with jaguars and often the word used for a shaman is similar to the word for jaguar. Shamans are thought to be able to transform into jaguars at will and jaguars are thought of as not actual animals, but either a transformed shaman or the soul of a deceased shaman moving through the physical realm. Disparate tribes with little to no interaction have almost universally associated shamans with jaguars and believe in this ability to transform.

Many South American shamans perform Ayahuasca ceremonies in order to invoke the ecstatic state by creating a tea from the Banisteriopsis caapi plant, often referred to as yagé. This plant contains the psychoactive compound DMT, which produces one of the most intense psychedelic experiences known to man.  

One key element used by shamans are the instruments played to activate the ecstatic state. Typically, a drum is used, but in South America rattles are often shook in place or in addition to a drum. For South American shamans, the rattle is very symbolic of the awakened state between our world and the spirit world they connect with. The gourd of the rattle signifies the universe, while the seeds or stones inside represent the souls of ancestors that have passed. The connection between the shaman and our ancestors is seen through the rattle’s handle, representing the world tree as a pathway to connect with the cosmos.

Particularly in Peru, the shaman will sing “icaros,” or songs depicted on tapestries by a meandering pattern resembling a puzzle or maze, but which can be read much like a musician reads sheet music

Siberian Shamanism


Shamanism in Siberia is considered to be the origin of the practice. The culture was found in herding populations in northern Asia, particularly a group speaking a language called Tungus. Throughout Siberia and Mongolia, the shaman was one of the most revered members of a tribe. They would either be initiated by other shamans, or take a solitary, spiritual journey off from the tribe to contact spirits and learn their mystic ways. Shamans would fit into different classes based on what they specialized in. Some would ward off evil spirits, others would act as healers, and some would conjure spells or black magic.

The yurts that are common in the nomadic areas of Siberia and Mongolia are very symbolic in shamanism. The yurt is the connection between the underworld, physical plane, and heaven. The smoke that emanates from the middle of the yurt is the path thought to take the shaman to the cosmic world when conducting ceremonies to contact the dead.

The botanical hallucinogen of choice for  Shaman's in Siberia is the Amanita muscaria,  or fly agaric mushroom. The mushroom is highly poisonous and can be deadly in large doses, therefore the shaman must be able to correctly identify and take the proper amount. Siberian shamans would feed the mushroom to reindeer and then drink its urine in order to inactivate the poison and attain its psychedelic effects.

While shamanism was outlawed under the Soviet Union, it has had a resurgence since the fall of the USSR. 


Are you a shaman?

Initiation/Answering the Call


 A shaman is either born (passed through the bloodline) or chosen by the spirits. It is said when the right time comes, a prospective shaman would start seeing the signs. 

Anthropologists have considered shamans to be “wounded healers” (Grof, 2006) because of the series of trials and tribulations a shaman typically experiences throughout her or his life.  For an individual to become a shaman, he or she must be called by spirit to take on the role. This calling or initiation is typically not blissful, fun, nor healing. The shamanic calling is usually filled with terrifying and nightmarish visions or visits from the spirits. If a person is called to take on the responsibility of a shaman they usually fall very ill, physically and spiritually or have been for some time. The shamanic illnessshamanic disease, or shamanic crisis is a very typical occurrence among future shamans.

The initiation process can start with a spontaneous visionary state which represents a psychospiritual death and rebirth.

It is portrayed as tantamount to initiation by the spirits; that is, a situation when the spirits are deemed to have selected an individual and inflicted pain and prolonged suffering on them in order to force them to become a shaman… In case of shamanic sickness, the shamans’ advice is that the only way the person can be cured is by being initiated as a shaman. 

Although these events are not always spontaneous, a future shaman can be initiated by an elder shaman who believes a person is called to take on the responsibility and lifestyle. This could be because of the family lineage or if another shamans believes the person is being asked to take on the role. During the apprenticeship, the elder shaman can induce visionary states to his student by any sacred technique that provides an extraordinary experience. Many future shamans go through a process of their own psychological and physical illness which can sometimes kill an initiated if not properly guided or trained. From the anthropological or psychological viewpoint, many shamans could be labeled or diagnosed with schizophrenia, borderline psychosis, hysteria, or epilepsy because of the strange or bizarre behavior that they exhibit. Grof (2006) mentions that the shamanic crisis is different than schizophrenia because the crisis involves some sort of mystical dimension. This does not produce a progressive deterioration of personality or functioning within one’s culture. The shaman shows his or her ability to integrate their extraordinary experience back into their lives to help better serve the community at large. 

Modern Shamanism

In modern times, shamanistic healing has become quite popular. Because the world is in such disharmony, many are being called to the world of shamanism. Mother Earth and mankind is in need of healers and light workers, to help restore balance within the spirits of all. Shamanism however is not a course, or degree. It is a life journey; to walk the path of a shaman is to realize there is no going back. Your path has already been laid out for you.

At Modern WitchDoctor we believe shamanism is a profound ancient form of healing, that can heal age old wounds (literally ) to help people live a more happy balanced fulfilling life. For more information on our shamanic ceremonies click here. 


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