On Shamans

(Compiled by Dee Finney)

The most distinctive spiritual specialists among indigenous peoples are the shamans. They are called by many names, but the Siberian word "shaman" is used as a generic term by scholars for those who offer themselves as mystical intermediaries between the physical and the non-physical world for specific purposes, such as healing. According to archaeological research, shamanic methods are extremely ancient- at least twenty to thirty thousand years old.

Ways of becoming a shaman and practicing shamanic arts are remarkably similar around the globe. Shamans may be helpers to society, using their skills to benefit others. (very very important). Spiritual power is neutral; its use depends on the practitioner. A shaman may thus be either a causer or healer of sickness. In either case, what Native Americans call "medicine power" does not originate in the medicine person.  Shamanism is not Native American at all.  The word derived from Siberia, and was used by Carlos Castenada to explain what Mexican magical people did because they had no word for magic.

Black Elk explains.......

"Of course it was not I who cured. It was the power from the outer world, and the visions and ceremonies had only made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two-legged. If I thought that I was doing it myself, the hole would close up and no power could come through"

There are many kinds of medicine. One is the ability to heal physical, psychological and spiritual problems. Techniques used include physical approaches to illness such as therapeutic herbs, dietary recommendations, sweatbathing, massage, cauterization and sucking out of toxins. But the treatments are given to the whole person --body, mind and spirit, with special emphasis on healing relationships within the group - so there may also be metaphysical divination, prayer, chanting,and ceremonies in which group power is built up and spirit helpers are called in. If an intrusion of harmful power, such as angry energy or another person, seems to be causing the problem, the medicine person may attempt to suck it out with the aid of spirit helpers, and then dry vomit the invisible intrusion into a receptacle.

These shamanic healing methods, once dismissed as quackery, are now beginning to earn respect from the scientific medical establishment. Medicine people are permitted to attend indigenous patients in some hospitals.

In addition to healing, certain shamans are thought to have gifts such as talking with plants and animals, controlling weather, seeing and communicating with the spirit world and prophesying. A gift highly developed in Africa is that of divination, using techniques such as reading patterns revealed by a casting of cowrie shells.

The role of shaman may be hereditary or it may be recognized as a special gift. Either way, training is rigorous. In order to work in a mystical state of ecstasy, moving between ordinary and non-ordinary realities, shamans may experience physical death and rebirth. Some have spontaneous near-death experiences. Uvavnuk, an Inuit shaman, was spiritually initiated when she was struck by a lightning ball. After she revived, she had great power, which she dedicated to serving her people.

"The great sea has set me in motion set me adrift,
Moving me as a the weed moves in a river
the arch of sky and mightiness of storms
have moved the spirit within me till I am carried away
trembling with joy"

Uvavnuk, Netsilik Inuit shaman

Other potential shamans undergo rituals of purification, isolation and bodily torment until they make contact with the spirit world. Igjugarjuk from northern Hudson Bay chose to suffer from cold, starvation, and thirst for a month in a tiny snow hut in order to draw the attention of Pinga, a helping female spirit.

"My novitiate took place in the middle of the coldest winter, and I, who never got anything to warm me, and must not move, was very cold, and it was so tiring having to sit without daring to lie down, that sometimes it was as if I died a little. Only towards the end of the thirty days did a helping spirit come to me, a lovely and beautiful helping spirit, whom I had never thought of; it was a white woman; she came to me whilst I had collapsed, exhausted, and was sleeping. But still I saw her lifelike, hovering over me, and from that day I could not close my eyes or dream without seeing her.... She came to me from Pinga and was a sign that Pinga had now noticed me and would give me powers that would make me a shaman."

The helping spirits that contact would-be shamans during the death and re-birth crisis become essential partners in the shamans's sacred work. Often it is a spirit animal who becomes the shaman's guardian spirit, giving him or her special powers. The shaman may even take on the persona of the animal while working. Many tribes feel that healing shamans need the power of the bear; Lapp shamans metamorphosed into wolves, reindeer, bears, or fish.

Not only do shamans often posses a power animal as an alter-ego, they also have the ability to enter parallel, spiritual realities at will in order to bring back knowledge, power or help for those who need it. An altered state of consciousness is needed. Techniques for entering this state are the same around the world: drumming, rattling, singing, dancing and in some cases hallucinogenic drugs. The effect of these influences is to open what the Huichol shamans of Mexico call the Narieka- the doorway of the heart, the channel for divine power, the point where human and spirit worlds meet. It is often experienced and represented artistically as a pattern of concentric circles.

The "journey" then experienced by shamans is typically into the Upperworld or the Lowerworld. To enter the latter, they descend mentally through an actual hole in the ground, such as a spring, a hollow tree, cave, animal burrow, or a special ceremonial hole regarded as a navel of the earth. These entrances typically lead into tunnels which if followed open into bright landscapes. Reports of such experiences include not only what the journeyer saw but also realistic physical sensations, such as how the walls of the tunnel felt during the descent.

The shaman enters into the Lowerworld landscape, encounters beings there, and may bring something back if it is needed by the client. This may be a lost guardian spirit or a lost soul, brought back to revive a person in a coma. The shaman may be temporarily possessed by the spirits of departed relatives so that an afflicted patient may finally clear up unresolved tensions with them that are seen as causing illness. Often a river must be crossed as the boundary between the of the living and the world of the dead. In West African tradition, there are three rivers separating these worlds and one must cross them by canoe. In another common variant, the journeyer crosses the underworld river on a bridge guarded by some anima. Often a kindly old man or woman appears to assist this passage through the underworld. This global shamanic process is retained only in myths, such as the Orpheus story, in cultures that have subdued the indigenous ways.


Freud believed that all dreams are significant. The less remembered or less significant the dream may seem, the more repressed the material that initiated the dream must be. All dreams use only the material from the life experiences of the dreamer. Jung, however, believed that some dreams are much more significant than others. These significant dreams may be important, not only to the dreamer, but for all human beings. And, these dreams express ideas that seem to be beyond the experience of the dreamer. They tie into what Jung called the "collective unconscious." Ideas from the collective unconscious are the materials by which myths are made and believed in. The idea that the myths come from the collective unconscious would imply the reasons for the similarities of myths in different cultures. The characters of these myths are called "archetypes."

The Archetype of the Magician 

by John Granrose, Ph.D.

Diploma Thesis - C.G. Jung Institute, Zürich 1996 Thesis Advisor: Mario Jacoby Shaman 

A standard definition of "shaman" begins: "among tribal peoples, a magician, medium, or healer who owes his powers to mystical communion with the spirit world." The term has been used by generations of anthropologists, especially in their descriptions of certain Siberian and native American tribes. More recently, the use of shamanistic techniques for self-discovery, personal growth and healing has been popularized by Michael Harner and others.

Clearly, a better understanding of the shaman will aid us in understanding the magician. But the exact relationship between the two is not always clear. Mircea Eliade, for example, begins his classic study of shamanism as follows: 

Since the beginning of the century, ethnologists have fallen into the habit of using the terms "shaman," "medicine man," "sorcerer," and "magician" interchangeably to designate certain individuals possessing magico-religious powers and found in all "primitive" societies. ...

[But] If the word "shaman" is taken to mean any magician, sorcerer, medicine man, or ecstatic found throughout the history of religions and religious ethnology, we arrive at a notion at once extremely complex and extremely vague; it seems, furthermore, to serve no purpose, for we already have the terms "magician" or "sorcerer" ....

So it seems that the shaman is one type of magician. Or, to put in another way, the shaman expresses one aspect of the magician. How so? 

Eliade continues: 

Magic and magicians are to be found more or less all over the world, whereas shamanism exhibits a particular magical specialty, on which we shall later dwell at length: "mastery over fire," "magical flight," and so on. By virtue of this fact, though the shaman is, among other things, a magician, not every magician can properly be termed a shaman.

Central to shamanism as such is a belief in spirits who can help or harm human beings. The shaman typically has a special relationship to one or more such spirits (which may have singled him out in some manner which he could not refuse, usually involving an illness or psychic crisis of some kind). With the aid of his spirit "guide" or "helper," the shaman is able heal other members of his tribe by removing destructive spirits or rendering them harmless. This process usually involves the shaman

entering a trance, a special form of the abaissement du niveau mental which Jung so often mentioned. Trance as such is important in many forms of magic and is currently the subject of investigation in many branches of science.

In its simplest form, the world view of shamanistic tribes is one of a universe with three levels or "layers" our "middle-world" of ordinary reality plus an "upper-world" and an "under-world" of divinities and spirits. The shaman is one who has learned the techniques for journeying between these different worlds and his power to help and to heal is based on this. 

But most important of all, the shaman has not learned about the spiritual world from books but through his own experience, through his own body. So when he acts or speaks he is one who "speaks with authority. As Marie-Louise von Franz writes, 

In civilized societies the priest is primarily the guardian of existing collective ritual and tradition; among primitive peoples, however, the figure of the shaman is characterized by individual experience of the world of spirits (which today we call the unconscious) ...

And here we find our first intimation that this world of "spirits" and "powers" which the shaman (and magician) know and use is what we also call "the unconscious. This insight is the basis for the parallel between shaman and analyst.  The magician in general is a person of power in the spiritual world (as contrasted with the power of the king or tribal chief in secular affairs). The special features of the shamanic magician is that he has undergone a certain kind of initiation into the multi-layered world of

spirits, has learned the methods of trance and soul retrieval, and has thus become, in Eliade's recurring phrase, a "technician of the sacred.  Many shamanistic techniques are very widespread, for example, the shaman's use of the drum to create the rhythmic beat conducive to trance or the practice of dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex to foster contrasexual powers.  While not all magicians are of this shamanistic type, we clearly see one aspect of the magician here. Moreover, the special characteristics of the shaman are related to the approach which Jung took to his own analytic work: 

... the main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neurosis, but rather with the approach to the numinous. But the fact is that the approach to the numinous is the real therapy, and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experience, you are released from the curse of pathology. Even the very disease takes on a numinous character.

Jung himself has been described as "a modern shaman if I have ever met one. And another writer on shamanism said of Jung: "All he lacked was the drum." Finally, there is a story that when Marie-Louise von Franz once remarked to Jung that he was like a shaman, he replied, "Well, that's nothing to be ashamed of. It is an honour."

I quote from Shamanic Voices by Joan Halifax, PH.D

Shamans are healers, seers, and visionaries who have mastered death. They are in communication with the world of gods and spirits. Their bodes are left behind while they fly to unearthly realms. They are poets and singers. They dance and create works of art. They are not only spiritual leaders but also judges and politicians, the repositories of the knowledge of the culture's history, both sacred and secular. They are familiar with cosmic as well as physical geography, the ways of plants, animals, and the elements are known to them. They are psychologists, entertainers, and food finders. Above all, however, shamans are technicians of the sacred and masters of ecstasy.

The shaman's voice, whether raised in song or chant, echoing the ancient stories of a mythological past, or narrating a personal account of trance, initiation, or healing, is the carrying frequency for the timeless symbols that characterize this most archaic of sacred manifestations. In the voice of the shaman-narrator, other voices can frequently be heard, the voices of gods and ancestors or the shadowy spirits of the dead, the voice of the mushrooms, the songs of creatures and the elements, the numinous sounds of the far-off stars, or echoes of the underworld. It is only these visionaries who can transmit to us the totality of their ecstatic lifeway.

Ultimately, to understand shamanism in even the most rudimentary way, it is necessary to listen closely to shamans as they communicate about their lives. It is the shaman who weaves together the ordinary world that is lived in and the philosophical image of the cosmos that is thought of. Human existence, suffering, and death are rendered by shamans into a system of philosophical, psychological, spiritual, and sociological symbols that institutes a moral order by resolving ontological paradoxes and dissolving existential barriers, thus eliminating the most painful and unpleasant aspects of human life. The perfection of the timeless past, the paradise of a mythological era, is an existential potential in the present. And the shaman, through sacred action, communicates this potential to all.

Links to Other Shamanic Sites


Dance of the Deer Foundation

Joseph Bearwalker Wilson's Shamanic Homepage
Shamanic how to articles, advice, information, and links to other sites.

Shamanism in Europe - events - courses - workshops Shamanism in Europe & the UK. This site details workshops and events,on shamanism and shamanic healing. Also courses working with the traditional Medicine Wheel teachings.

Shamanism Working With Animal Spirits
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Trance - Action Consultants
A Training Center offering courses in Personal & Spiritual growth, NLP, Hypnotherapy, Hawaiian Shamanic Traditions. Transformation Through Personal Growth.

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