Shamanism is a religion and cultural element dating back thousands of years. Within shamanism, practitioners often look into spiritual realms for guidance, wisdom, assistance, or healing. This is an ancient practice that hasn’t translated well into the modern-day, but it’s sometimes referenced in fiction and video games.
Despite being ancient, the practice of shamanism is quite fascinating. Its legitimacy, how it works, and how cultures are built around it have fascinated researchers for years.
While shamanism remains a bit of an enigma even today, in the remainder of this article, we’ll give you an introduction to shamanism, where and how it is seen today, and what the practice can mean in your own daily life.
The exciting thing about shamanism – and the detail that sets it apart from other cultures and religions – is that shamanism spans across countless cultures and races across the world. Shamanism isn’t native to one geographical area, culture, race, or era. Shamanism is a remnant of aboriginal cultures that, despite persecution, depopulation, and genocide, remains to this day.
It says something about the strength of shamanism that it still exists today despite its age. The origins of the term “shamanism” are a bit unclear, but it’s thought to originate from the word šaman, which means “one who knows.”
The word “shaman,” however, doesn’t have a standardized definition. A “shaman” can be many different things depending on which culture is being scrutinized. However, it’s generally agreed upon that a shaman works through spirits to achieve some sort of end.
Shamanism has no set rules, commandments, or dogmas to follow. As such, shamanism can be practiced in conjunction with many modern religions, too.
What is a Shaman?
Like the priests and ministers of modern religions, not everyone who practices shamanism is considered a shaman. The shaman, or “shamanic practitioner,” is the one who has learned the ways of communicating with spirits, usually by apprenticing under a teacher. Traditionally, only one shaman is present in a given group of people, and the apprentice would take over upon the passing of the teacher.
Typically, when we use the term “shamanic practitioner,” we’re referring to someone that’s studied shamanism and practices it in the modern world but who didn’t necessarily apprentice under a real shaman. While a shamanic practitioner can still do great things, they’re fundamentally different than a true shaman.
A shaman is someone who honors and prays to the spirits. Shamanism claims that spirits exist in everything around us, and honoring those spirits plays an enormous role in its practice. Some examples of the spirits that shamans might communicate with include:
- Ancestral spirits
- Nature spirits
- Spirits of the Earth
- Spirits of living people
- Spirits of animals
What Does a Shaman Do?
Most ancient shamans had several responsibilities to their tribe or settlement. These responsibilities extend to today for modern-day shamans, too.
Connecting with Nature
Shamanism is based on finding connections with nature, spirits, and the world around us. As such, one of the shaman’s roles was to keep connected with nature. A shaman in tune with nature would be able to tell when diseases were on the way, when seasons were due to change, and where to find bounty in times of famine.
Shamanism has endured for thousands of years, and its roots are inexplicably tied with those of ancient humans who both hunted and farmed their own food. Without someone who was in-tune with the spirits nature, a group of humans would be at a severe disadvantage.
Of course, part of the role of the shaman is to use the power of nature for the benefit of their community, too. Shamanism is all about balance; a shaman wouldn’t be able to disrupt nature with the help of the spirits, but they could do things like pray for rain on dry crops, conduct rituals, pray to the spirits for food and water, and work to protect nature’s endless cycle.
The source of a shaman’s power is the balance between the needs of the human world and the needs of the spiritual (and natural) world. As such, a shaman doesn’t have the power to do anything that would throw one side significantly out of sync with the other. Praying for bounty at the expense of nearby animal populations, for example, would be unlikely to be answered by the spirits.
However, if the same shaman were to pray for bounty for the sake of both animal and human populations – more food for the animals so that their populations grow, and as such, more animals for the humans to eat – this would be something that they could influence by their own power.
One of the shaman’s foremost responsibilities is healing. The shaman needs to keep their people healthy, of course, but they have just as much obligation to the world around them. If a shaman were to neglect the spirits of nature around them in favor of their people alone, they would likely lose much of their sway with the spirits.
According to the shamanism, most ailments come about when a spirit’s energy isn’t flowing correctly. This means that most of their treatments focus on restoring the flow of energy within an individual. For example, if someone were having issues with their heart, a shaman would likely try to correct a blocked flow around the heart area.
The same principle applies to the spirits of the world around them, too. If the flow of the natural spirits is blocked, it can manifest in disease, strange weather patterns, and even natural disasters if affairs become severe enough. It’s the shaman’s role to return things to normal when this flow inevitably becomes blocked.
Sometimes, rather than energies becoming blocked, they can be affected in other ways. If evil energy makes its way into someone, for example, it can manifest in all sorts of unpleasant ways, such as:
- Mental and physical illness
- Not acting like oneself
- Performing evil deeds
Sometimes, instead of evil energy being present, it’s the individual’s natural energy being lost instead. This is called “disharmony.” When a spirit is systematically sapped of its life force, it can become ill, apathetic, or even just waste away. It’s the shaman’s job to return the lost energies to the individual or spirit so they can recover and thrive.
Unfortunately, disharmony can sometimes come about because an individual loses their strongest tie to this life. Imagine, for example, how a loyal canine companion feels when their master dies unexpectedly.
They might lose their will to go on without their master, or they might return to the place where they last saw them, unable to move on with their life. There are several stories of companions like this throughout history, notably dogs like Hachiko and Greyfriars Bobby.
However, a more extreme form of disharmony is called “soul loss.” this is when a person loses part of their spirit because of some kind of trauma. Soul loss is common in the modern world, and it’s often paired with life-changing events that alter the individual. An individual who fought in a war and came home a changed man, for example, most likely experienced soul loss from the things they saw.
Soul-loss can be jarring and, in some cases, permanent. In many cases, the fragments of the soul that are lost can make their way back to the owner as they recover. However, in extreme cases, the soul fragments become too lost to return; in some cases, the soul of the owner changes so much that the pieces are no longer compatible with the new soul.
Besides drastic changes in personality, soul loss can cause many other strange symptoms, too. Some of these include:
- Unreachable memories
- Desire to end one’s life
Fortunately, the help of a shaman can return the soul fragments that get lost in this way. Indeed, returning these lost soul fragments is one of the many duties of a shaman. However, there are so few practicing shamans in modern-day society that this can still become a persistent issue.
Essentially, a shaman is one who has the power to reroute the energies of the spirit. A shaman can’t fundamentally change a person’s soul or personality, but they can return their soul to a more natural state if it isn’t flowing correctly.
Shamanism uses some other healing techniques, too. Herbal remedies, for example, are an essential part of shamanistic healing, especially for wounds of the flesh. Herbalism lends itself well to shamanism since the shaman’s unique ability to see and influence spirits helps to assist in the shaman’s medicine-making.
Healing songs, chants, and rituals play an essential role in shamanistic healing, too. Typically, these are used to assist the shaman as they work with spiritual energy.
As we’ve mentioned, the shaman is tasked with maintaining spiritual harmony with everything around them. Part of this involves practicing their spiritual purifications and rituals often. By working with the spirits, the shaman serves to build their own spiritual reserves over time. This, in turn, helps to increase the shaman’s power as they grow.
The shaman must get stronger so that they can restore spiritual harmony whenever it falls out of balance. If a shaman isn’t strong enough to restore a spiritual imbalance when it happens, there could be grave consequences.
At best, their people might just need to deal with a weak harvest or hunting season, but at worst, an energetic spiritual imbalance could result in disasters of apocalyptic proportions for a small group of people. If there was a spiritual imbalance in the community’s primary water source, for example, that source could run dry or become contaminated by disease.
The other purpose of the shaman’s spiritual growth has to do with fine-tuning their own harmony with the spirits around them. As the shaman’s spirit becomes more in-tune with those of the world, so too will their powers grow. In the same way, if a shaman loses touch with the spirits around them, they could end up losing their skills over time.
Part of the shaman’s duty is to keep the spiritual world balanced and healthy. As such, pilgrimages to different areas are inevitable. However, a shaman’s pilgrimage is not just to heal spirits that aren’t flowing correctly. The shaman should pilgrimage to active spiritual regions for their own benefit, too.
By adventuring to sacred areas of intense power, the shaman can gain and store some energy of their own for later use. Visiting these spiritual areas can help bring the shaman further into harmony with these powerful spirits, too. The passing of the shaman through new regions works to invigorate the land around them, as well.
A pilgrimage is also an opportunity for the shaman to collect healing and spiritual items that they might not otherwise have access to. Trading with different communities, for example, might open up access to different healing herbs, as well as new rituals and information. A pilgrimage to different geographical areas might expose the shaman to different nature spirits, as well.
Exposure to different spirits doesn’t just increase the power of the shaman. Spirits are great carriers of messages for the shaman, as well, and a spirit in one area might have a very different story to tell from the ones the shaman is used to. By carrying out sacred pilgrimages to various places, the shaman gains experience and power, all while spreading harmony along the way.
However, shamans don’t just pilgrimage physically to different places. Sometimes, when the shaman conducts healing or rituals, the shaman’s spirit itself goes on a journey. The shaman can join with the spirits of nature and with others, learning about what might be wrong with them this way.
Ceremony and Ritual
Of course, since the role of the shaman is to keep the spirits in balance, conducting rituals and ceremonies to help preserve that balance is one of the shaman’s duties, as well. Shamans have many different rituals they can turn to, and each can be used for a different purpose.
Many shamanic ceremonies are passed down from master to apprentice, but this isn’t necessary to have a successful ritual. With the spiritual insight they possess, a shaman can create a ceremony for whatever they might need.
However, ceremonies that have been in practice for generations tend to be inherently more robust. This is because the more a ceremony or ritual is performed, the more power it holds. As such, a shaman can create as many of them as they want, but they will only gain power after being performed many times.
Many shamans see the details of rituals through visions granted to them by the spirits. Because of this, a shaman can learn an old ceremony that was lost to time through the spirits’ wisdom. A ritual that’s entirely new to the shaman might have centuries of power behind it, simply because their ancestors used it long before.
This is one potential explanation as to why shamanism exists across so many years, cultures, and continents. Over time, the discoveries of shamans the world over have been shared with each other by the spirits themselves, resulting in a widespread set of beliefs that are eerily similar.
One of the core beliefs of shamanism is that as long as there are shamans to keep the spirits in harmony, the world will continue to exist. As long as the shamans keep the spirits in harmony, the spirits will continue to care for and teach the shamans to do so. The shamans can use that spiritual power to care for their own people, too. In the end, this creates a grand cycle that benefits nature, the world, and the people all in one.
The Spirit World
A shaman works by acting as a bridge between the physical world that they live in and the spiritual world that they work in. A shaman needs to be able to interpret what’s wrong with the physical world and translate that to the spirit world, and vice versa. If the shaman can’t act in both worlds, they can’t adequately fulfill their duties.
Often, a shaman goes into a trance as their spirit makes the journey to the spiritual world. This spiritual trance can be conducted using various techniques, but the most common methods include:
- Rhythm or percussion
- Hallucinogenic plants
When the shaman reaches the spirit world, however, they are not alone. This is where many of the more dominant plant and animal spirits of the world come into play. These spirits help the shaman, guiding them through the spirit world, and communicating what problems they might be facing.
Human and humanoid spirit guides, such as passed ancestors or even deities, can also help guide the shaman through their spiritual journey. These spirit gues can be more than just helpers, too – some shamans take them as companions or more as a result of their many adventures together.
The Three Realms
While the many different interpretations of shamanism tend to differ, they tend to agree on one thing: there are three “realms” that a shaman must navigate through to do their work.
You can think of these worlds as being something like a cosmic tree. In the roots of the tree form the “lower world.” The trunk of the tree is the “middle world.” The branches of the tree create the “upper world.”
The Shamanistic idea of the three worlds conforms reasonably well to modern concepts of reality. The “upper world” is comparable to heaven. The upper world is where the shaman goes to receive enlightenment from pure spirits and spirit guides. This is where angels, gods, and deities exist, and it’s a place of absolute power and beauty.
The “lower world,” on the other hand, is not a direct parallel to our idea of hell. Instead, the lower world is much more like our physical world, but it’s a place where the spiritual energy of the Earth flows freely. The lower world is where animals spirits and the spirits of the Earth reside. You can think of the lower world as being similar to a lucid dream – anything is possible, but it still resembles the Earth we know.
The “middle world” is a shade of our waking reality. Usually, we live and breathe in the middle world, but a shaman can access the middle world through a trance, too. The middle world is where the spirits of the living reside, and it’s where departed souls temporarily live before they pass on.
Each realm has a different purpose and a distinct benefit to the shaman. Generally, the lower world is where the shaman goes to heal any spiritual blockages that have happened in the world around them. The middle world is where the shaman must go to influence the spirits of any living people or creatures.
The upper world is somewhat unique, however. When the shaman goes to the upper world, they mainly do so to receive instruction from the spirits there. The upper world is considered by shamans to be perfect, so there’s no reason (and most likely no way) for the shaman to influence it.
When a shaman is working to solve a spiritual issue, they will generally consult all three of the realms to determine the scope of the problem. Once they’ve figured out what is wrong, the shaman acts as the bridge between the subject and the three realms so that the spiritual disturbance can be fixed.
Shamanic Healing and Modern Medicine
Modern people tend to discredit the usefulness of shamanic medicine and other similar techniques because of the emergence of modern medicine. However, what contemporary people fail to understand is that shamanic healing and modern medicine work incredibly well together! Shamanism believes that problems with the spirit are what cause problems with the flesh, after all.
For example, if a person were to fall prey to cancer, modern medicine might be able to send that cancer into remission. However, modern medicine cannot heal the abnormality of the spirit that caused cancer in the first place. If it doesn’t heal on its own, this could result in a resurgence of the disease in the same individual who’d previously undergone modern treatment.
On the other hand, shamanism is capable of healing the spiritual issue which brought about cancer initially, but it isn’t quite as adept at treating the cancer itself. Any further side effects of the spiritual abnormality would fade, but the same disease could continue to grow and fester.
In this way, modern medicine and shamanic medicine actually work best when used together. Each uses techniques that the other can’t to attain a healthy end result.
Using spiritual energy, shamans can boost the body’s own ability to heal. However, this may not be enough to overcome a progressed or aggressive disease on its own. With the help of shamanism, however, a person can be made more receptive to modern treatments, further helping them to make a full, healthy recovery.
Just like modern medicine, shamanic medicine doesn’t end after the spiritual journey is over. The working shaman will give the patient a prescription just as a doctor does. A shaman will also discuss ways to prevent a spiritual disturbance from happening in their patient again in the future.
How did the person’s spiritual energy fall our of harmony in the first place? Was it too many unhealthy foods that threw it out of wack? Was it a traumatic event that injured the person’s soul? After the spiritual issue is fixed, it’s up to the patient and the shaman to discuss this and figure out what to do differently from then on.
Shamanism in the Modern World
Unfortunately, shamans are a dying breed. While the teachings of shamanism are available to anyone who wants to learn them, real shamans are few and far between. Not only that, but our use of the world’s more valuable resources has left the Earth in a state of unbalance. No single shaman could restore today’s world to balance even if they worked their entire life at it.
As such, even if shamans existed plentifully today, they might not be able to carry out their duties as effectively as they could long ago. How could a shaman restore balance to a single human being when the life force of the world is already tipped so far towards humanity?
Shamanism and the modern world don’t mesh well in this way. It’s unclear whether shamans today could still practice as they always have or whether they’d be powerless. It’s unclear whether the animal spirits and deities they depend on so much would even exist in our modern world.
However, there still is hope. If you go to a powerful, natural place such as the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, you can still feel the command that the spirits of the Earth still have. These places of power still exist, and while the Earth and humanity might not be in balance, there is always spiritual power in the world.