Shamanism

Shamanism

Shamanism is a primordial form of religion found in many tribal cultures. The term “shaman” is said to be derived from the Manchu-Tungus word “šaman” meaning “one who knows.”[1] Specifically, the shaman is one who knows the world of spirit and the techniques by which to travel and operate within it. Published in 1951, Mircea Eliade’s classical study Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy still remains a benchmark account of the phenomenon. Eliade argues that though shamans engage in magical and healing practices, they are distinguished from other sorcerers and magicians by the fact that they are also psychopomps (guides of the soul), priests, mystics, and poets.[2] Indeed, in tribal societies, the shaman is the center of the “magico-religious life” of the community.[3]

The shaman holds such cultural preeminence in virtue of his mastery of ecstatic experience. “Through this whole region in which the ecstatic experience is considered the religious experience par excellence, the shaman, and he alone, is the great master of ecstasy.”[4] This observation allows Eliade to offer a provisional definition of shamanism as the “technique of ecstasy.”[5] The word “Ecstasy” is rooted in the Greek term εκστασις, meaning to stand out from. The shaman, then, is one who has mastered techniques by which to step out of ordinary consciousness and into the realm of spirit. He “specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.”[6] In this manner, shamanism can be seen as a form of mysticism. Yet tribal cultures, unlike more formalized religions, treat these mystical experiences as the very core of their religious life.

“In contrast to the state of affairs in Christianity (at least during its recent history), peoples who profess to be shamanists accord considerable importance to the ecstatic experiences of their shamans; these experiences concern them personally and immediately; for it is the shamans who, by their trances, cure them, accompany their dead to the ‘realm of the shades,’ and serve as mediators between them and their gods, celestial or infernal, greater or lesser. This small mystical elite not only directs the community’s religious life but, as it were, guards its ‘soul’. The shaman is the great specialist in the human soul; he alone ‘sees’ it, for he knows its ‘form’ and its destiny.”[7]

Calling

Shamans are selected either by heredity or by divine election. The latter can be evinced as early as childhood in nervousness and seizures,[8] frenzy, loss of consciousness, or wandering into the forest, feeding on tree bark and throwing oneself into water.[9] The gods may even “choose the future shaman by striking him with lightening or showing him their will through stones fallen from the sky.”[10] Yet such a calling would remain mere psychosis if it were not informed by a didactic component. This teaching is conferred either by an older shaman or by the spirits themselves in visionary experience.[11] In this manner, the new shaman learns various ecstatic techniques, the names and natures of spirits, tribal myth, and the secret language of nature.[12] In the process, the shaman gains exceptional mental acuity and physical power. Shamans “show proof of a more than normal nervous constitution; they achieve a degree of concentration beyond the capacity of the profane; they sustain exhausting efforts; they control their ecstatic movements, etc.”[13] Likewise, “the Vogul shaman displays a keen intelligence, a perfectly supple body, and an energy that appears unbounded. His very preparation for his future work leads the neophyte to strengthen his body and perfect his intellectual properties.”[14] Eliade notes that the capaciousness of the shamanic mind can be measured quantitatively in terms of vocabulary. While the average Yakut knows about four thousand words, the shaman knows twelve thousand.[15] Shamans need this verbal dexterity, since they are the keepers of mythology and speculative thought for their tribes.[16] Thus, rather than discounting shamanism as psychotic as other scholars do, Eliade claims that it is instead psychosis which is a failed form of mysticism:

“Regarded in the horizon of the homo religious—the only horizon with which we are concerned in the present study—the mentally ill patient proves to be an unsuccessful mystic or, better, the caricature of a mystic. His experience is without religious content, even if it appears to resemble a religious experience.”[17]

Initiation

Shamanic initiation is structured mythologically: the shaman suffers, dies, and is reborn. Suffering can take the form of physical sickness, but it also includes spiritual horrors such as ritual dismemberment. In Yakut mythology, evil spirits ferry the shaman’s soul to the underworld.[18] There they cut off his head and set it down so it can watch the rest of his ordeal. His body is then cut into pieces which are given to the spirits of different diseases.[19] For “only by undergoing such an ordeal will the future shaman gain the power to cure. His bones are then covered with new flesh, and in some cases he is also given new blood.”[20]

Similarly, according to the Avam Samoyed, there is a myth of a shaman who falls ill with smallpox. He is then carried into the sea where his sickness cries out “from the Lords of Water you will receive the gift of shamanizing.”[21] The shaman emerges from the sea and climbs a mountain where he suckles at the breast of the Lady of the Water who declares “you are my child; that is why I let you suckle at my breast. You will meet many hardships and be greatly wearied.”[22] Her husband, the Lord of the Underworld, then sends him into the realm of the dead accompanied by two guides. There he meets the men of great sickness who pull out his heart and put it in a pot. Afterwards he meets the Lord of Madness, the spirits of nervous disorders, and evil shamans, thereby becoming acquainted with all illnesses that plague mankind.[23] Later in the story, he is brought to a desert mountain where he sees a naked man working a bellows who then catches him with his tongs.

“The novice had time to think, ‘I am dead!’ The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything in the caldron. There were also three anvils, and the naked man forged the candidate’s head on the third, which was the one on which the best shamans were forged. Then he threw the head into one of three pots that stood there…

            The blacksmith then fished the candidate’s bones out of a river, in which they were floating, put them together, and covered them with flesh again.… He forged his head and taught him how to read the letters that are inside it. He changed his eyes; and that is why, when he shamanizes, he does not see with his bodily eyes but with these mystical eyes. He pierced his ears, making him able to understand the language of plants. Then the candidate found himself on the summit of a mountain, and finally he woke in the yurt, among his family. Now he can sing and shamanize indefinitely, without ever growing tired.”[24]

            The Tungus have a similar story in which “a future shaman must fall ill and have his body cut in pieces and his blood drunk by the evil spirits.”[25] Among many tribes this dismemberment comes via an animal spirit. The Eskimo “speak of an animal (bear, walrus, etc.) that wounds the candidate, tears him to pieces or devours him; then new flesh grows around his bones. Sometimes the animal that tortures him becomes the future shaman’s helping spirit.”[26]

            After being torn apart, the shaman is given new organs and a new body, and sometimes magical objects or crystals are inserted inside him. For example, among the Wotojobaluk, a supernatural being consecrates the shaman by opening “his belly” and inserting “rock crystals that confer magical power.”[27] And again, among the Euahlayi, the potential shaman is carried to the cemetery and tied up. “As soon as he is alone, several animals appear and touch and lick him. Then comes a man with a stick; he thrusts the stick into the neophyte’s head and puts a magical stone the size of a lemon into the wound. Then the spirits appear and intone magical and initiatory songs to teach him the art of healing.”[28] And among the Warburton Ranges aborigines “the aspirant enters a cave, and two totemic heroes (wildcat and emu) kill him, open his body, remove the organs, and replace them with magical substances.”[29] Likewise, the Warramunga, tell a story in which while the shaman “was lying dead they cut him open and took all his insides out, providing him, however, with a new set, and, finally, they put a little snake inside his body, which endowed him with the powers of a medicine man.”[30] And again, for the Eskimo, “Then the bear of the lake or the inland glacier will come out, he will devour all your flesh and make you a skeleton and you will die. But you will recover your flesh, you will awaken, and your clothes will come rushing to you.”[31]

Powers and Function

Theses ordeals result in great spiritual powers for the shaman. By dying and being reborn, he can see and interact with the world of spirit in ways that others cannot. For example, after his initiation, the shaman can feel himself permeated by a supernatural light. The Iglulik Eskimo speak of receiving angakoq.

“The master obtains the angakoq for him, also called qaumaneq, that is, the disciple’s ‘lightening’ or ‘enlightenment,’ for the angakoq consists ‘of a mysterious light which the shaman suddenly feels in his body, inside his head, within the brain, an inexplicable searchlight, a luminous fire, which enables him to see in the dark, both literally and metaphorically speaking, for he can now, even with closed eyes, see through darkness and perceive things and coming events which are hidden from others; thus they look into the future and into the secrets of others.

            The candidate obtains this magical light after long hours of waiting, sitting on a bench in his hut and invoking the spirits. When he experiences it for the first time ‘it is as if the house in which he is suddenly rises; he sees far ahead of him, through mountains, exactly as if the earth were one great plain, and his eyes could reach to the end of the earth. Nothing is hidden from him any longer; not only can he see things far, far away, but he can also discover souls, stolen souls, which are either kept concealed in the far, strange lands or have been taken up or down to the Land of the Dead.”[32]

            Likewise, after his initiation and through meditation and ascetic practice, the shaman learns to see his own skeleton, a practice which allows him to operate in the world of spirit.

“Though no shaman explain to himself how and why, he can, by the power his brain derives from the supernatural, as it were by thought alone, divest his body of its flesh and blood, so that nothing remains but his bones….By thus seeing himself naked, altogether freed from the perishable and transient flesh and blood, he consecrates himself, in the sacred tongue of the shamans, to his great tasks, through that part of his body which will longest withstand the action of the sun, wind and weather, after he is dead.”[33]

This reduction to the bones has a twofold function. First, it indicates that the shaman is one of the dead. He has passed “beyond the profane human condition” and has thereby been delivered from it.[34] Because bones are the most enduring part of the body, they signify that in man which can transcend time and death. [35] But, second, the reduction to bones also signifies new birth, since, in many tribal cultures life was thought to be generated by the bones. The shaman as skeleton would be akin to the cosmic egg carrying new life in embryonic form. [36] 

By being permeated with spiritual light and gaining the power to reduce himself to a skeleton, the shaman gains the power to see the world of spirits. Because he is dead himself, the shaman belongs to the world of the dead and can operate within it. [37] This is perhaps the most important gift that the shaman brings to the tribe.  For, in being able to see and influence the spiritual world, the shaman can heal diseases and offer guidance. “This explains the importance of ‘spirit visions’ in all varieties of shamanic initiations. ‘Seeing’ a spirit, either in dream or awake, is a certain sign that one has in some sort obtained a ‘spiritual condition’, that is, that one has transcended the profane condition of humanity.”[38]

Though the shaman sees many spirits, some in particular will offer to be his helpers. Sometimes shamans even marry their spirit helpers, who increases their power and instruct them.[39] Such celestial marriages further substantiate the shaman’s spiritual nature for the tribe. “The fact that the shaman has a celestial wife who prepares meals for him in the seventh heaven and sleeps with him is another proof that he shares to some extent in the condition of semidivine beings, that he is a hero who has experienced death and resurrection and who therefore enjoys a second life, in the heavens.”[40] Yet the shaman does not always marry his helping spirits. These spirits often come to him in animal forms such as “bears, wolves, stags, hares, all kinds of birds (especially the goose, eagle, owl, crow, etc.) of great worms, but also as phantoms, wood spirits, earth spirits, hearth spirits, and so on.”[41] They help the shaman in his work, bringing back the soul of the sick from the realm of the dead.[42]

In the process the shaman also gains the power to speak the hidden language of nature, often conceived as an the language of animals, and can even transform into animals himself. In so doing, the shaman represents a return to the mythical state of man before estrangement from the world of nature. “Each time a shaman succeeds in sharing in the animal being, he is a manner re-establishes the situation that existed in illo tempore, in mythical times, when the divorce between man and the animal world had not yet occurred.”[43] Sometimes this language is taught by the animal spirits themselves,[44] since “very often this secret language is actually the ‘animal language’ or originates in animal cries.”[45]

In virtue of these spiritual gifts, the shaman can heal the sick and guide souls. In fact, these two tasks end up being equivalent for the shaman, since illness is conceived of as soul sickness in tribal cultures. “Disease is attributed to the soul’s having strayed away or been stolen, and treatment is in principle reduced to finding it, capturing it, and obliging it to resume its place in the patient’s body.”[46] Because the shaman can travel to the realm of the dead and call on the aid of his spirit helpers, he is able to locate lost souls and bring them back. He is also able to defend men from the abuse of evil spirits. Indeed, “only the shaman can undertake a cure of this kind. For only he ‘sees’ the spirits and knows how to exorcise them; only he recognizes that the soul has fled, and is able to overtake it in ecstasy and return it to its body.”[47] In his ecstatic state, the shaman feels that he is more truly himself (“the mystical experience is necessary to him as a constituent of his true personality” [48]), and he can travel both through the realm of the dead and the heavens. There are even stories of shamans flying to the moon and visiting other planets. [49]

Shamanism Today

Though the Western world in general and modernity in particular seem far removed from the world of the shaman, its echoes can nonetheless be heard today. For instance, if we look to the tradition of Ancient Greece, we can see shamanic influences in the cult of Apollo. The worship of Apollo was said to originate in the North, the land of the Hyperboreans, who then brought it to Greece.[50] These priests of Apollo appear to engage in shamanic rites. For example, Abaris, is said to have “passed through many lands dispelling sickness and pestilence by sacrifices of a magic kind, giving warning of earthquakes and disasters.”[51] He is also said to have carried a golden arrow, a symbol of magical flight, which allowed him to levitate through the air.[52] Similarly, Aristeas of Proconnesus, another Apollonian priest, was known to go into fits of ecstasy when Apollo seized his soul. He could manifest himself to people in different locations at the same time and was said to be able to transform into a crow to accompany Apollo on his journeys.[53] Or again, “Hermotimos of Clazomenae had the power of leaving his body ‘for many years’; during this long ecstasy he journeyed to great distances and brought back ‘much mantic lore and knowledge of the future.”[54]

            Eliade also sees shamanic roots in Plato’s myth of Er recounted in the Republic.

“We might… cite the ecstatic experience of Er the Pamphylian, son of Armenios, recorded by Plato. ‘Killed’ on the battlefield, Er returns to life on the twelfth day, when his body is already on the pyre, and relates what he was shown in the other world…. Er’s cataleptic trance resembles that of the shamans and his ecstatic journey in the beyond suggests… numerous ‘shamanic’ experiences. Er sees, among other things, the colors of heaven and the central axis, as well as the fates of men decreed by the stars….”[55]

            “We see to what an extent an archaic myth or symbol can be reinterpreted: in Er’s version, the Cosmic Axis becomes the ‘spindle of necessity’…. Yet we may note that the ‘situation of man’ remains constant; it is still by an ecstatic journey, exactly as among the shamans and mystics of rudimentary civilizations, that Er the Pamphylian receives the revelation of the laws that govern the cosmos and life; it is by an ecstatic vision that he is brought to understand the mystery of destiny and the existence of death. The enormous gap that separates a shaman’s ecstasy from Plato’s contemplation, all the difference deepened by history and culture, changes nothing in this gaining consciousness of ultimate reality; it is through ecstasy that man fully realizes his situation in the world and his final destiny. We could almost speak of an archetype of ‘gaining existential consciousness’, present both in the ecstasy of a shaman or a primitive mystic and in the experience of Er the Pamphylian and of all the other visionaries of the ancient world, who, even here below, learned the fate of man beyond the grave.”[56]

            So we see that the shamanistic impulse is present even in the refined philosophical works of Plato. Indeed, Eliade even takes shamanism to be the root of epic and lyric poetry. The shaman’s journey to the underworld and ascents through the heavens provide the groundwork for later epics. “Probably a large number of epic ‘subjects’ or motifs, as well as many characteristics, images, and clichés of epic literature, are, finally, of ecstatic origin, in the sense that they were borrowed from the narratives of shamans describing their journeys and adventures in the superhuman worlds.”[57] Eliade also believes that shamanic ecstasy and the secret language of nature is also the ground of lyric poetry. “Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom. Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that, like the ecstasy or the religious inspiration of ‘primitives,’ reveals the essence of things.”[58] Eliade even suggests that the dramatic arts have their roots in shamanic practice. “Every genuinely shamanic séance ends as a spectacle unequaled in the world of daily experience. The fire tricks, the ‘miracles’ of the rope-trick or mango-trick type, the exhibition of magical feats, reveal another world—the fabulous world of the gods and magicians, the world in which everything seems possible, where the dead return to life and the living die only to live again, where one can disappear and reappear instantaneously, where the ‘laws of nature’ are abolished, and a certain superhuman ‘freedom’ is exemplified and made dazzlingly present.”[59]

            We not only see shamanism in the roots of our culture, but perhaps it may be discerned in our future as well . In an age where institutional religion and political ideologies have rotted into decadence, the shamanic path may present a way out of our contemporary spiritual malaise. For this spiritual path rests on personal skill and discipline, rather than institutional authority. “Priests work for the entire tribe or nation, or in any case for a society of some sort, while the authority of shamans depends entirely on their personal skill.”[60] Yet, though this route would begin at a personal level, it could nonetheless offer hope for the broader culture. The shaman’s authority may be grounded in his personal skill, but he still offers support to his tribe. “Shamans have played an essential role in the defense of the psychic integrity of the community,”[61] defending “life, health, fertility, the world of ‘light,’ against death, diseases, sterility, disaster, and the world of ‘darkness.’”[62] The shaman thus comes to have a preeminent value in tribal societies.

“It is hard for us to imagine what such a shamanism can represent for an archaic society. In the first place, it is the assurance that human beings are not alone in a foreign world, surrounded by demons and the ‘forces of evil.’ In addition to the gods and supernatural beings to whom prayers and sacrifices are addressed, there are ‘specialists in the sacred,’ men able to ‘see’ the spirits, to go up into the sky and meet the gods, to descend to the underworld and fight the demons, sickness, and death. The shaman’s essential role in the defense of the psychic integrity of the community depends above all on this: men are sure that one of them is able to help them in the critical circumstances produced by the inhabitants of the invisible world. It is consoling and comforting to know that a member of the community is able to see what is hidden and invisible to the rest and to bring back direct and reliable information from the supernatural worlds.”[63]

Perhaps, if people today were to achieve similar mastery of the ecstatic, they could likewise prove to be a beacon to the rest of the world.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Diózegi and Eliade, “Shamanism” in Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/topic/shamanism

[2] Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy trans. Trask (New York: Penguin, 1989), 4

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 19

[11] Ibid., 13.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 29

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 30

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 27.

[18] Ibid., 36.

[19] Ibid., 37.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 39.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 42

[25] Ibid., 43.

[26] Ibid., 44.

[27] Ibid., 45.

[28] Ibid., 45-46.

[29] Ibid., 46.

[30] Ibid., 48.

[31] Ibid., 60. These accounts of being dissected by spirits, given new organs, and having magical objects implanted in one’s body, bear interesting similarities to the stories of those who claim to have experienced alien intelligences.

[32] Ibid., 60-61.

[33] Ibid., 62.

[34] Ibid., 63.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 84.

[38] Ibid., 85.

[39] Ibid., 72-73. Again, there seems to be parallels here to people who claim to have experienced alien intelligences.

[40] Ibid., 77.

[41] Ibid., 89.

[42] Ibid., 87.

[43] Ibid., 94.

[44] Ibid., 96.

[45] Ibid., 97.

[46] Ibid., 215.

[47] Ibid., 216.

[48] Ibid., 293.

[49] Ibid., 292.

[50] Ibid., 388.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., 388-389.

[55] Ibid., 393.

[56] Ibid., 394.

[57] Ibid., 510.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 511.

[60] Ibid., 298.

[61] Ibid., 508.

[62] Ibid., 509.

[63] Ibid.

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