An Introduction to Shamanism
By Charles Hopkins
Published 09/20/2007 | Religion
Shamanism is an ancient spiritual path, which focuses on living in
balance and harmony with the world around us. It cannot be categorized
as a religion or belief system, neither is it a science - whilst, at
the same time, it is all three of these, and more. Shamanism is a way
of life. It is an understanding and acceptance of everything is a
living entity and that true independence comes only through
interdependence of all other things.
The title shaman is derived from the original Tungus word saman,
which although a little difficult to translate directly is generally
defined as working with fire, or heat. So if we use the word to
describe a person, it could be translated as one who transforms energy.
This would be an apt description, as the shaman creates incredible
potential by transformation from the physical world to the spiritual
and vice versa.
In our modern society there are pseudo-derivatives of the original
word, for example shamanka, or shamaness, to describe a female shaman.
However, for the sake of simplicity when I use the word shaman, it
should be taken to mean all shaman - male or female.
It is generally accepted that shamanism is between 10,000 - 25,000
years old. However, shamanic tools and relics have been found which
appear to date as far back as 40,000 years.
It has been written that shamanism originated in Siberia / Central
Asia, but no one knows precisely where or when it started. Perhaps
there was an original nomadic tribe (e.g. the Tungus people from
Siberia), who traveled around with their knowledge and taught it to
others who, in turn passed it again on to others. Or maybe there was
actually a lot of similar ideas that originated from all different
areas and cultures of the world.
How can it be that a man from Australia, a man from Scotland, one
from Russia, one from China, one from Hawaii, another from Denmark all
have conceived such similar ideas and conclusions about life without
communicating with each other? (There were no cell phones or e-mail
25,000 years ago!) And how can it be that shamanism, no matter where or
when it originated, is just as active and powerful today as it has
Shamanism has been used in many different forms throughout the
world for thousands of years. It has developed, together with different
societies, to create even more complex belief systems. Sometimes by
being integrated into an existing faith, or by being used as the
foundation for a new religious movement.
There is no specific philosophy to define shamanism. Although each
form of shamanism utilizes different methods, rituals and techniques,
they are all based on the same fundamental concept that our world - and
everything in it - has life and consciousness.
Shamans understand that everything is alive - plants, rocks, wind,
water, etc. Spirit/Life is contained in all things and there are many
ways to experience this. Being human is only one of them.
The shaman also understands that other life forms - animals, fish,
insects, plants and minerals - experience life for what it actually is
and from their own perspective. The shaman respects therefore all
living things and is interested in learning the spirit of life from
each of them. In an animistic culture everyone would understand this,
but it is the shaman alone who holds the knowledge and expertise in
communication between these things and people. The shaman is the
pathfinder for balance between his fellow human beings and society,
whilst simultaneously supporting the further development and survival
of our planet.
Shamanic harmony is by no means passive - quite the opposite. It is
a dynamic relationship with the living world and recognition of the
connections that exist between the animate and the inanimate.
Through use of a range of rituals, like song, dance, music,
silence, trance and, in some cultures, drugs, the shaman learns to
separate himself from what we might describe as ordinary "reality".
When working in trance - known as journeying - the shaman finds himself
in what shamanic anthropologist Michael Harner calls "non-ordinary
reality", where he communicates with his guides and other spiritual
beings. This work may involve healing, soul-retrieval, path finding,
locating power animals etc.
One of the most common types of work for the modern day shaman is
in his role as psycho pomp, where he helps disincarnated souls
(deceased people), who find themselves trapped between the physical and
spiritual realms, further to the next dimension.
Shamanism has been developed through many, many years primarily as
a tool for survival. Today, people feel relatively safer in their
environment and the concept of pure survival has been replaced with the
desire to live a better life. We do not have to fight constantly just
to survive. For example, most of us have a place to live where we are
protected from rain and cold. When we are hungry we can go to the
kitchen and eat. Life is comparatively easy.
However, could it be that we - for example with our pollution,
greed and indifference - are again on the brink of survival? There are
gaping holes in both the ozone and the rain forests. Would you drink
water directly from the river? When was the last time you plucked an
apple from a tree and just ate it?
It is easy in our modern "safe" technological world to forget our
needs. It is easy to look upon the animistic view of the world as
primitive or superstitious, but it is a matter of record that, in
general, these cultures live longer than ours and are less wasteful and
destructive. Should we measure success in life by what we have or by
what we give?
We all share a responsibility. The responsibility to look after
ourselves, each other and the world we live in - after all it is our
life, our family and our home.