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So What Exactly is Shamanism Then?

by Nicholas Breeze Wood (Sacred Hoop)

One of the most well written explanation of Shamanism I have found. ~KP


Defining shamanism is not easy, and you may not agree with the definition I will try to give here.

The word ‘shaman’ is a Western corruption of the word samaan or s’amanthe, from the Siberian Evenk people (previously known as the Tungus people), which got brought into the Russian language by early explorers of Siberia.

The word gradually got established as a general term for a Siberian tribal healer in Russia, and then migrated to the rest of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries via anthropologists.

The word shamanka - meaning a woman shaman - was never used by Siberian people - the ending ka is a Russian way of giving a word a diminutive female form.

Some say the word is of Sanskrit origin, coming from the word s'ramana, which means a Buddhist monk, but the Evenk language is not related to Sanskrit, and the Evenks were not exposed to Tibetan Buddhism in great numbers - with whom, some people say the word was brought from India. So the Sanskrit origin of the word is extremely dubious. Further more Russian explorers first recorded the word in the 16th century and any Tibetan Buddhist contact would have been roughly around the same time.

The word shaman only comes from one tribe, and different tribal peoples have different names, for both male and female shamans.

In Siberia - close to the Evenk people, the Yakut people call male shamans khamma or ayun, whereas the Mongols and Buryats call them buge or bo, the Tartars and Altaians kam and gam, the shamans of Kyrgyzstan baksy, and the Samoyed tadibey.

But a woman shaman in Siberia has a different name, and this name is very much the same, over a very wide geographical area. Among the Mongols, Buryats, Yakuts, Altaians, Turgout, and Kyrgys the word for a woman shaman is udagan (or variations such as utagan, ubakan, utygan or utugun). This word probably originates from the Mongolian word Etugen which is the name of the ancient hearth-goddess.

Because udagan is so universal, language experts know it to be a very old word, older than all the words for a male shaman, which shows that female shamans have been around a lot longer than male ones have.


A shaman has an animistic world view. An animist understands that all parts of Creation are alive in someway, and have spirits. Nothing is dead in the animist’s universe - you and I have souls, and so do all the animals and plants, and likewise the rocks and rivers, mountains and clouds, stars, sun and moon, even an illness, or a concept, or a ceremony, or a ritual object as a soul - everything has a soul, and we live within a vast network of interconnectedness. All shamanic cultures understand this.

All shamanic cultures are animistic - but not all animistic cultures are shamanic.

Shamanic cultures are something special, something rare, something that only occurs in a few places on earth - although there are animistic cultures all over the globe.

An animistic culture is a culture which has a basic world view of animism. Examples of animistic cultures include the Q’ero of Peru and Bolivia, the tribes of North America, the Mayan people of Central America, the Maori of New Zealand, the Aborigines of Australia, tribal groups of Africa, the ancient Celts and Vikings, some groups in India, and many others around the world. None of the above are shamanic cultures.

A shamanic culture is an animistic culture where shamanism is practiced - either within families - where the shaman heals just those immediately close to them - or where ‘professional’ shamans can be found, who heal the wider community.

A shaman is someone who goes into trance, and in that trance, they are either taken over by ancestor spirits - who were shamans before them - or they get taken over by local gods and spirits, such as the spirit of a mountain or a lake, or their soul leaves their body, and travels out to the other spirit worlds which are all around us - unseen - there to meet with spirits, so as to gain knowledge and power. Often all of these things happen within the same shamanic tradition. But not all animistic cultures do that.

Some people within animistic cultures have experiences of trance, for instance when on a vision quest - in the Native American traditions - the quester may fall into a trance and see visions, but that does not make them a shaman, because the trance happens without their volition - they can not call upon it when they wish to enter it.

Animistic cultures can have powerful magic, they can perform powerful healings and they can have great wisdom, but their priests and healers don’t tend to go into controlled voluntary trance and go to the spirits - instead they tend to call the spirits into this world - which although extremely powerful, is subtlety different from shamanism, where the shaman goes to the spirits.

The cultures where shamanism is found most are tribal groups across Siberia, Mongolia, Tuva, Central Asia, China, SE Asia, Tibet and Nepal. Some anthropologists consider some of the tribes from the Amazon Rainforest to be shamanistic, whereas others don’t. Personally, because their medicine people go into trance - albeit with the aid of psychoactive plants - I think they could be called shamanistic too.

As a rule of thumb, if you are working with a culture outside of those geographic areas you are working with an animistic culture rather than a shamanic one. But the edge between what is shamanic and what is animistic is a very blurred one. For example a Siberian shaman performs many practices which had much in common with a Native American medicine person. This can be explained by saying that shamans also perform animistic practice - not everything they do for people is shamanic - shamanism is the extra something they do for people which a medicine person doesn’t.

All animistic cultures have similarities - that is because the world is the way the world is, and spirits are the way that spirits are. You can look upon this as the ‘bones of the sacred.’ All the bones of the world’s animistic spiritual systems are the same, but each culture puts different flesh on the bones. This is why a Zulu medicine person and a Lakota medicine person will look - on the surface - different, but when you understand the bones, you will see they are doing the same basic job.


The Evenk people, from whom the word shaman came, have a saying; ‘A shaman sits on a different branch of the Tree of Souls to a normal person.’

This relates to a story they have that the souls of babies sit like birds on branches of the World Tree waiting to be born. Normal babies sit on branches in the tree, but shamans sit on their own unique branch - shamans are different to other people.

Can you choose to be a shaman? No you can’t. You are either born a shaman, or you are not. If the spirits want you, there is nothing you can do, and if the spirits don’t want you there is likewise nothing you can do. No spirits equals no shamans.

Being a shaman is not a cool life, most tribal people think it’s a curse and often try their hardest to get away from the role. However the spirits always have their way, and the shaman-to-be often gets ill, or may die, if they don’t accept their calling. Native shamans often think people in the West are crazy if they want to become shamans and actually seek it out.

The most important teachers of a shaman are the spirits. Without the spirits a shaman is nothing, and the spirits teach the shaman, who becomes their apprentice. Human teachers are important however, as a human teacher is a bit like a marriage arranger, they introduce the shaman to the spirits and also teach the shaman ways to interact with the spirits.

Some shamanic traditions give their new shamans initiations, others don’t, it depends on the culture. Some cultures say you can not be a shaman in their culture unless you have the DNA of that culture - however far back the DNA came from. Others say you can be a shaman in that culture without the DNA.

Mostly people get the call to be a shaman because they are ‘off with the spirits’ from a young age, and this will often lead to either physical or metal illness in their teenage years - often called ‘shaman sickness.’ They may also have all of these and be hit by lightening as well, or get possessed by spirits and go into involuntary trance.

In traditional shamanic cultures a shaman will be called to diagnose the nature of the illness, and if it is determined that the sick person is to be a shaman and the sickness is shaman-sickness, the shaman treating them will tell the sick person they have to learn to be a shaman, or face the consequences.

However in the west, which is not a shamanic culture, things are, of course, generally not so clear.

In the early 1980s a new, Western style of shamanism came along - generally known as ‘Core-Shamanism.’ This came about mostly through the work of Michael Harner and a few friends of his.

Core shamanism took the basic model of going into trance and journeying out to the Spirit Worlds, but stripped it of all cultural aspects, making it more easily digestible to Westeners.

The basic tenet of Core Shamanism is that anyone can learn to journey and employ ‘shamanic techniques’ in their life in order to help themselves or others. This is no doubt true, and many people derive much benefit from learning Core Shamanic techniques. However the same rule of being chosen by the spirits still applies.

I always think of the spirit world as being like the ocean.

All people can explore the shallows of shamanism; sit on the beach with their toes in the water, or paddle in the breaking waves - in other words almost everyone can learn to do a basic shamanic journey and do some things close to the shore.

Some people will wade out into the ocean up to their chests, or learn to swim a little - they go deeper in.

But only those chosen by the spirits will really learn to swim and dive, and hold their breath underwater, and go to the depths of the spirit world.

Saying this is not elitist - it is simply true. When doing shamanism at this deep level, it can be very physically and psychologically dangerous - some shamans die in ceremony. Not all people are cut out to dive deep, and only those with the spirits blessings and help will learn to go vastly out of their depths, to return safely - if they are lucky.

But everyone can live a rich animistic life and can learn some simple shamanic first aid - and I think the world would be a lot better if more people did.


There are lots of people out there who are really doing good shamanic practice - and their are lots of people who are not doing good shamanic practice at all - the new-age can be a place so full of fluff one can drown very easily, getting choked on all the fairy dust.

I often come across people who think yoga, or reiki, or some other form of therapy is the same as shamanism. It is not - at best it is animistic, at worse it is delusional, but either way it is not shamanism.

I also come across many people who think shamanism is going and sitting out in nature, perhaps with their back against a tree, connecting and becoming ‘one with everything.’ Again that is not shamanism.

Meditating in nature is something to be encouraged - tuning in and feeling your connection with all your relatives is something to be encouraged - but it’s not shamanism. Shamanism is hard disciplined work, meeting the spirits and having actual dialogues with them, negotiating - or at times subduing or fighting them - for the sake of your community.

There are many, many books out there which purport to be about shamanism. Some of them are good, others are not. Many of them are not about shamanism at all, because the word shamanism is a sexy word and book publishers use it to add fairy dust to their titles.

If you want to learn about shamans, I would advise reading about actual tribal shamanism, in good, grounded books about the cultures, Some new age books are good, but most really are best avoided. Likewise some books are often sited as important books about shamanism, which are really fiction. Here I’m especially thinking of the writings of Carlos Castaneda, but there are many others too.

Castaneda was an excellent novelist who wrote some fine story books. He drew from any ancient traditions and his books are a cornucopia of useful metaphors about Spirit and the sacred - only please do not think they are literally true, and especially please don’t think his books describe shamanism.

Shamanism often gets associated with the taking of mind altering plants. In recent years tourism to the Amazon has proliferated and people take such substances as Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Peyote and various types of mind-altering mushrooms.

People often seem to think this is essential when it comes to shamanism, but let me assure you it is not. Most shamanic cultures across the world do not take any mind altering substances at all - instead they rely on the spirits taking them over, aided by a mixture of ceremony, song and drumming.

If you are drawn to working with what are often called ‘teacher plants’ that’s fine, but work with them in such a way that you respect their spirits. Every traditional culture who uses plants like this has ceremonies and songs which are part of the practice. You don’t just grab a plant and ingest it in order to have a cosmic adventure, learn the traditional ways, find traditional teachers and do it properly - for your sake and for the respect and honour of the plant spirits, and the spirit of the linage.

Shamanism is not a path of personal growth or personal healing. Sure both are going to happen to you along the way, but that's a byproduct.

However, Core shamanism can be excellent for those things - and there is nothing wrong with using aspects of Core Shamanism to heal yourself, in fact, again, the world would be a much better place if people worked on ‘their stuff’ and got some healing, and the much more therapy-like model of Core Shamanism can be excellent for this.

But primarily a shamans job is to help their community - however you define that term.

Your community can be your family - as I said, in a lot of traditional Siberian cultures, a shaman worked only for their family - or it could be for your friends and people you know in your real world life, or it could be your internet family, or even nationally or globally. We mostly no longer live in rural, agriculturally based, small villages, our concept of community has changed dramatically in the last few hundred years. You will have to work out what the word means to you now.

Because we are not a shamanic culture - or even an animistic culture - we, in the West need to find ways to build an animistic worldview ourselves.

Because of this, we have tended to look towards other cultures who have held their animistic worldview - such as the Native Americans or Africans - despite the West’s often determined efforts to ‘educate the savages’ out of their primitive ideas.

So, you are likely to tread on the toes of tribal peoples who have been marginalised, and seen genocide and cultural annihilation happen to their ancestors. They might welcome you and wish to share sacred teachings with you, or they might not. That will be on a tribe by tribe, person by person basis.

So tread carefully and respectfully. Learn with humility and pay attention to what is being taught to you. Treat it preciously as you carry it - like a fragile baby - into your life and culture, as the chances are, the people you are being taught by, held on to those traditions through times of absolute horror and desperation - so act well.

You might feel drawn to follow an animistic path from your ancestors - perhaps you have Celtic or European blood, perhaps you have African blood or Central Asian blood - and the pull of the blood on you is strong.

That’s a wonderful blood line to explore, but be aware, if you come from a European culture the traditions are broken, and paths’ such as Wicca or the Druids, are modern inventions, and bare little in common with their ancient ancestors.

Our ancestors were not following their spiritual path for recreation or self improvement, they held to their spirituality because it was there to save their lives, to help heal their sick, and to help bring crops and animals to their table.

It is very easy to ‘get off’ on fantasy in the West, because we are divorced from the natural world, and we don’t need our ancient ways to help us survive. In the olden days, if things didn't work, people would die, now it is not like that, and the essential pragmatic point of spirituality is no longer there. We seek it to find balance in our urban world, and because we do that it is far to easy to get seduced by the romance of it and entranced by the fantasy. Don’t become so spiritual that you are no earthly good.

You may indeed be called to walk a true shamanic path - but if you are, it’s no big deal, you are not special, you are just chosen by the spirits to bare a heavier load on your back than many of your fellows - remember only an idiot actively wants to be a shaman.

But walking an animistic life-path, seeing the beauty in all of your relations, seeing it in every being you meet, from a raven to a rainbow, a starfish to a star, will make your life richer, and make you feel more connected - because we truly are all related.

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