Looking for Regional Information?

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 always been?

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.