Definitions, Terms, Cultural and Cross-Cultural
Patterns and Commonalties, and Historical Origins
According to Michael Harner, shamans "are the keepers of a remarkable body of ancient techniques that they use to achieve and maintain well-being and healing for themselves and members of their communities." (Harner, 1980, xiii) The "nature" of these "keepers", of their "ancient techniques", beliefs, social roles and functions, both historical and modern, will be explored here. Connections will also be drawn among the "mind-sets" of those who participate in the "shamanic complex".
This relatively ubiquitous system of beliefs and practices has ancient roots which are reflected in the many similar forms of shamanic expression. These beliefs and forms are particularly important and relevant to the modern, techno-bureaucratic societies that have developed around older, more enduring cultural matrices. the shamanistic perspective will be seen to be of special interest to those involved with psychotherapy and the alternative healing professions. Finally, artists, musicians, writers and poets may find that the shaman's journey provides inspiration as well as transformation.
Without the figure of the shaman there would be no shamanistic complex, though some would see this inversely. Either way, in order to understand the shaman's function within his or her society, we must create in our minds a picture that reflects the importance of shamans to both traditional and modern worlds, we will then be able to establish links with our own society, and with the forms of shamanic expression that nave been emerging since the second world war and the beginning of the "atomic age".
Since shamans tend to operate in multi-dimensional worlds, let's construct a multi-dimensional image of them and the "realities" in which they live. Åke Hultkrantz, believes that a shaman is "a particular, ecstatic diviner, healer and mediator between humans and the spirit world." (Hultkrantz, 1978, 28) Through states of ecstasy, the "shaman... acquires supernatural power through direct personal experience." (Park, 1938, 10) Only the shaman can go into ecstatic states of consciousness in a controlled, voluntary manner and stay centered during the "journey." Centered enough, in fact, to perform the often elaborate ritual ceremonies to heal and divine information from the spirits.
The ability to enter into controlled ecstatic trance is important to both the shamans and their societies. Among the Kalash Kafir of Chitral, India, the "dehars" of Joshi engage in ecstatic dancing during which they are believed to become possessed by supernatural beings (gods, demons and fairies) from the mountains. Through the "dehar", these beings confer blessings and food fortune, as well as advice and warnings upon the general populace that attends the ceremonies. (Suger, 1967, 73)
Shamans are those with the gift or skill of a "special clear sightedness". They."see such things as normal people do not see, they gain knowledge about secrets of the past, the present, and the future...[from communications with] the dead [who] know more than ordinary, living men." (Karsten, 1955, 57) The Lapp "noide", or medicine-person, experienced spirit-flight", or “soul travel" to the land of the dead where instructions were received from the souls of deceased shamans, and other tutelary agents concerning the development of supernatural powers and stronger connections to the spirit world. (Ibid.)
The ecstatic journey typically involves the perception of leaving one's body while going on a trip to a heavenly upper-world, a frightful underworld or the oceanic depths, but this is not always necessary. The shaman, with or without leaving his body, may enter into an ecstatic state and, with the help of spirits, cure the sick. reveal hidden items or secrets, prophesize and summon the spirits for assistance in other matters. (Hultkrantz, 1967, 32-33) The "Ki ugwa sowi no", or "dreamers" of the Penobscotts were those that.would "search about in dreams." (Speck, 1919, 268) The "dreamers" expressed an "ability to foresee events, to penetrate in a dream vision the barriers which prevent ordinary human beings from seeing the spiritual forces which underlie acts and which animate various creatures. They were shamans of a humbler sort." (Ibid.)
As a healer, a shaman may be considered as a " sick man who has healed himself, who is cured, and who must shamanize in order to remain cured." (McKenna and Mc Kenna, 1975, 10) Though this isn't always the case, it is generally true , and is contradictorily related to La Barre's definition of the shaman. (LaBarre, 1970, 321) His basic theory is that the shaman is a borderline schizoid, paranoid, narcissistic autistic. LaBarre's bias is apparent in the use of outmoded, primarily negative psychiatric terminology, with a reference to Freud as a "Moses in the wilderness of the irrational." (Ibid., 314)
In his 1938 work, Willard Park cites Mac Colloch's functional definition that a shaman performs magico-medical functions, especially healing and divination, through actual communication with the spirit world: "'He has direct intercourse with the spirits and actual (bodily or spiritual) access to the spirit world. All his magical acts are done by virtue of his power or influence with spirits.'" (Park, 1938, 8) This is echoed by Rogers, who notes that a "shaman makes contact with the spirits and works with them. and he uses magic." (Rogers, 1982, viii)
The shaman is an intermediary with the spirit world whose primary task lies in opening the road to the supernatural powers through the medium of ecstasy." (Peters, 1981, 33-34) The shaman is a mediator with the unseen cosmic forces, and s/he is the receptacle of power beyond that available to normal persons. (Rogers, 1982,13-134) The shaman manipulates the invisible forces of the mind which are responsible for one's orientation to life, the environment and other beings, and one's abilities to adapt and survive in the natural world. (Ibid., 43)
By working with such intangible elements, the shaman becomes "a practitioner of mysteries beyond the understanding of most members of his community." (Ibid., ix) In this sense, the shaman is not unlike a modern scientist, as both use empirical evidence and speculations to arrive at answers to their questions, and to formulate new questions about the nature of their experiences.
The term "shaman" is derived from the Siberian Tunguisic "vamen" or "saman", which bears a strong similarity to the Pali "samana". (McKenna and McKenna, 1975, 9) According to Peters ,the term "samana" refers to one who is excited, moved, "raised" or possessed, as in the "shaking trance” of the Tunguisic. (Peters, 1981, 7) "Sram" is a Vedic term meaning to "heat oneself or practice austerities" as in Yogic traditions.(Ibid.) The female version , "shamanka", (Rogers, 1982, ix) compliments the male counterpart in that both refer to the ability to "see". Eliade defines this ability as being expressed in the mastery of "techniques of ecstasy". (Eliade, 1964, 4)
In Malaysia, the shamanic practitioner is referred to as a "pawang", or "one who makes magic." (Winstedt, 1951, 7) Among the Peninsula Malaysians, "pawang" is used to denote general magical practitioners, and "bomor" for those who only practice medicine. In Perak, the "pawang" is a magician of ordinary stature~ and the shaman is referred to as a "belian".(Ibid., 11)
Among the Penobscotts of upper New England, there are two general shamanic figures: the above mentioned "one who searches around in dreams", or "Ki ugwa sowi no", and the "Made olinu", or "drum sound person", being derived from "made" referring to the "sound of drumming". (Speck, 1919, 240, 268) The personage of the "dreamer" is actually closer to the general, cross-cultural understanding of the shaman as a visionary helper than Speck's own analysis of the "drumming conjurer".
Along coastal Southern California, the Chumash referred to their political and spiritual leaders by several titles. The term "wot" denotes a village chief or political leader. "Paxa" refers to a political, ceremonial.leader linked to the "wot". (Blackburn, 1975, 12) An "alcuklas" was an astrologer, diviner and administering official whose responsibilities included the prognostication of a child's future by means of astrological readings, to name the child according to the month of its birth, to administer jimson-weed preparations (called "toloache" or "Momoy"), and to report illnesses and social disharmonies to the "wot". (Ibid., 14) All of these officials were members of the "?antap" cult, a religious and hierarchic ruling social class, members of the "?antap” cult were believed to possess an "?atiswin", or dream-helper, talisman or fetish that guided them through their lives. (Ibid., 12)
The Eskimo term for shaman is "angakoq," and is related to the terms "apseroq" meaning "one who is questioned", and "tuneroq"/"tunralik" for "one who has a helping spirit". (Holtved, 1967, 29) This is not dissimilar to the meaning of the Zinacantecan speaking peoples' name "h?ilol" for "one who sees-seer." (Schweder, 1972, 408) Somewhat north of Mexico, the Paviotso of the Eastern Sierras use the term "Puhágem" to denote one who has "puhá," or the power, to heal with spirits. (Park, 1938, 15, 95)
Among the Spanish speaking, mixed Indian cultures of Mexico and Latin America we find such terms as: "Brujo/Bruja" = witch, "Hechicero/Hechicera" = sorcerer/-ess, "Profeta advino/advina" = prophet, soothsayer, advisor, seer (especially into the future), and "Curandero/Curandera" = healer with herbs, charms and chants. (Rogers, 1982, ix)
Other terms for the shaman denote his/her role as a mediator between human beings and the spirit world. These include the Indonesian "Bomoh", the Malaysian "Hala", the Hawaiian "Kahuna", the Chippewan "Wakeno", the Japanese Shinto "Miko", the classical Greek "Oracle", as of Delphi, (Covell, 1983, 18) the Korean "Manshin" (female), and "Paksu" (male),(Ibid., 20) the Chinese "Sha-men", and the Japanese "Shamon." (Peters, 1981, 7)
Ecstatic practitioners are also known as "shamans" among the Tungus of Eastern Siberia, “Ojuna” for the Yakuts of the same region, "Kami" for the Mongols, "Babalawa" among the Yoruba of West Africa, "Nganga" to the Shona of Southern Rhodesia, "Mori" to the Yemenite Jews, "Bariva" among the Balahi of Central India, "Tahunga" for the Polynesians, "Si-Kerai" to the Menawei of Sumatra, "Mane Kisu" among the Melanesians, "Nung-gara" to the Arunta of Australia, "Angakok" for the Eskimo of Baffin Land, "Diyi" to the Apache, "Hungan" to the Haitians, "Kwisiyai" for the Dregueno of California, and among the Quetchua speakers of South/Central America they are known as the "Kambidura". (Rogers, 1982, xi)
Among all of these peoples, shamanism may be considered as the "religious and magic complex centered on the ecstatic magician, the shaman." (Hultkrantz, 1967, 32) Because of its antiquity and ubiquity, "shamanism appears to be a tenacious and adaptable profession." (Peters, 1981, 7) With origins estimated at 100,000 years, shamanism "may well have been the religion of Neanderthal man" and shaman-curers the first professionals. (Furst, 1972 cited in Peters, 1981, 7)
Shamanism has historically been associated loosely structured gatherer-hunter peoples for whom curing rites were the primary form of religious ceremony. (Lessa, 1972, 380) Rank (1967, 18) delineates two main historical phases of shamanism. The first is associated with so-called "primitive communism", and takes the form of the nature-healer who removes intrusive objects from a sick person. The second is tied to the "feudal society" where shamans recover lost souls and travel to the spirit world. (Ibid.)
Be that as it may, shamanism is an ubiquitous form of religious expression, with its common essence being a "means of contact with the supernatural world by the ecstatic experience of a professional and inspired intermediary: the shaman." (Hultkrantz, 1978, 30) Hultkrantz specifies four basic constituents of shamanism: l) the existence of a contactable spirit-world, 2) the shaman, mediator between spirit-world and society, 3) the existence of tutelary/helping spirits who guide and assist the shaman, the "allies" mentioned by Castaneda, and 4) shamanic ecstasy, spirit-flight, possession and other alternate forms of consciousness. (Ibid.)
As Hultkrantz explains , contact with the spirit world is made possible because of the structure of the shamanic cosmology. (Ibid., 31) Through the interiorization and internalization of the "cosmological ideogram" by the shaman, he experienced it and used it as the itinerary for his ecstatic journeys." (Ibid., 32) This "cosmological ideogram" is most commonly expressed through the symbology of the Cosmic Tree, Eliade's "Axis Mundi" which is seen as connecting the three realms of existence, the Underworld, the Middle/ Terrestrial world, and the Heavens. Through spirit-flight, the shaman ascended to the heavens or descended to the underworld to divine information or to retrieve lost souls. "Evidently, this concept achieved this importance because it provided shamanism with a model of communication with the other World." (Ibid., 33)
According to .Karsten (1955, 55), "shamanism [exists] wherever certain persons, and especially professional sorcerers, believe they are able to enter, in a state of ecstasy, into a mystic relation to an invisible spirit world." He notes a strong similarity in this set of beliefs among the Lapps, Samic, Samoyeds, and South American Indians through their shamanistic activities. (Ibid.)
Rogers also perceives a natural similarity of forms and functions in the trans-cultural overview of shamanism. He observes that "each culture has its own contrivances in response to human needs and in accord with its technology and belief system." (Rogers, 1982, ix) This may include such factors as environment and eco-consumption patterns, such as gathering, hunting, farming, producing manufactured items for exchange, bureaucratic systems, and consumption oriented marketing. This perspective is echoed by Hultkrantz (1978, 54), who asserts that ecological adaptations seem responsible for the multi-varietal forms of shamanism. These many forms, though widespread, are surprisingly similar to the Siberian forms which are believed to be among the oldest, classic developments of shamanistic expression.(Ibid.)
In his book on Malay magicians, Winstedt (1951, 11) sees the extent and sources of Malay shamanistic traditions as being both ancient and pervasive, with roots in Siberia and Northern China. "Shamanism was the primitive religion of peoples from the Bering Straits to Scandinavia, and spreading to China and Tibet it reached the Malays before they left Yunnan. It is still the sole religion of the Sakai Aborigines who entered the Peninsula before them." (Ibid.) Shamanism is still retained among many modernized peoples as a "last recourse in sickness or trouble." (Ibid.)
The Asian connection, through Mongolian forms, also influenced the "Magi" of Iran and the "Sufi dervishes"of Islam. (Kapelrud, 1967) It also reached the "dehars", ecstatic dancers of the Kalash Kafirs of India, (Suger, 1967, 73-74) and the Sherpas of the Himalayan regions of Tibet and Nepal. Among the Sherpas there are two main religions, the newer Lamaistic Buddhism, and the older Shamanic "Bon", for whom the "Bonpo/Bompo" is the principal practitioner. (Schmid, 1967, 82) In Tibet and Nepal, Lamaism and Bonpoism are complimentary, and the populace will attend both types of ceremonies, some of which have both Lama and Bonpo officiating. (Ibid., 83)
The American shamanistic tradition is strikingly similar to Euro-Asiatic beliefs and practices. One difference, however, is seen in Karsten's remark concerning contact with spirits that, "whereas in American shamanism it is the man himself who , in one way or another, selects for himself a guardian spirit, in Asiatic shamanism it is the god who selects the shaman." (Karsten, 1955, 64)
Whether Asian or American, the shamanic complex is derived from primal gatherer-hunter societies. As agrarian sustenance methods evolved, the religious, ritual and visionary connections have remained intact to some extent among such American peoples as the Mexican Huichols of the Western Sierra Nevadas and the Tukano of the Vaupes region of Columbia. (Furst, 1977, 6) The Huichol farmers still maintain symbolic connections to their hunting past in their veneration of the deer as seen in the "Dance of the Deer", a joyous expression of life now being shared with non-Huichols through the dedication of such people as Brandt Secunda.
In pre-Columbian North America, shamanism was the primary religious form, although there was a flourishing priestly class in the Southwest among the Hopi, Dine (Navaho), and Zuni Pueblo. (Eliade, 1964, 297) Shamanism was a relatively organized, hierarchical religion among the Chumash, but still retained its visionary basis in the myths and experiences with Datura. (Blackburn, 1975, 12, 14) In Mexico, the Zinacantecan "h?ilol"-seers were not organized, hut were “part-time specialists" who diagnosed illnesses "by means of divine revelations and by means of pulsing the blood of the infirmed." (Schweder, 1972, 408) The "h?ilol" also performed healings, prepared remedies, and officiated at annual ceremonies and special blessings for community members. (Ibid.)
In the Northeast of the United States, there was to be found a uniformity of cultures. Shamanistic elements were quite similar among such peoples as the Abenoki, Pawenok, Malecite, Passamaquoddy, Algonkians and Penobscotts. (Speck, 1919, 242-243)
Among many Native American peoples there are commonalties in supernatural experiences. The "Vision-Quest" rites of passage represent a common element, as well as a sort of "democratized shamanism." (Lowie cited in Hultkrantz, 1978, 34) Eliade observed that in some societies it is fairly common for adolescent males and females to develop relations with helping spirits during vision-quests, or during experiences of spontaneous ecstasy, or dreams. (Eliade, 1964, 107)
According to Eliade, "every Indian 'shamanizes', even if he does not consciously want to become a shaman." (Ibid., 314) The shaman is distinguished from the average Indian by the intensity of magico-religious experiences, (Ibid., 297) and the quantitatively greater number of spirits within his/her command. (Ibid., 314) On a qualitative basis, however, both may attain states of ecstasy and commune with the spirits, though the shaman tends to do so in a premeditated and volitional manner. (Ibid.)
"Every Indian can obtain a 'tutelary spirit' or a 'power' of some sort that makes him capable of 'visions' and augments his reserves of the sacred; but only the shaman, by virtue of his relations with the spirits is able to enter deeply into the supernatural world; in other words, he alone succeeds in acquiring a technique that enables him to undertake ecstatic journeys at will." (Ibid., 298)