Shamanism Frequently Asked Questions
NOTE: The following general overview of shamanism is not intended to be the last word or the definitive work on this subject. Rather it is, as its title implies, intended to provide the participant or reader with a set of guidelines that will familiarize them with the general use of the terms shamanism, shaman and shamanic in the trends, study and practice of historic, traditional and contemporary shamanic experience. The word 'shaman comes to English from the Tungus language via Russian. Among the Tungus of Siberia it is both a noun and a verb. While the Tungus have no word for shamanism, it has come into usage by anthropologists, historians of religion and others in contemporary society to designate the experience and the practices of the shaman. Its usage has grown to include similar experiences and practices in cultures outside of the original Siberian cultures from which the term shaman originated. Thus shamanism is not the name of a religion or group of religions. Particular attention should be paid to the use of qualifying words such as "may" or "usually". They indicate examples or tendencies and are not, in any way, intended to represent rigid standards. (Dean Edwards).
Shamanism-General Overview-Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
1. Why were the terms used in this FAQ selected and do they have special meanings. There is an extensive literature about shamanism that has been compiled since the late Eighteenth Century. Like any field of study and religious practice, shamanism has developed a specialized vocabulary. Please note that some of the words used in the material that follows are drawn from scholars who have a solid background in shamanic studies and may have meanings that are specific and less general than is often the case in popular usage. Consulting a good dictionary should clear up any points of confusion.
2. What is Shamanism? - Shamanism is classified by anthropologists as an archaic magico-religious phenomenon in which the shaman is the great master of ecstasy. Shamanism itself, was defined by the late Mircea Eliade as a technique of ecstasy. A shaman may exhibit a particular magical specialty (such as control over fire, wind or magical flight). When a specialization is present the most common is as a healer. The distinguishing characteristic of shamanism is its focus on an ecstatic trance state in which the soul of the shaman is believed to leave the body and ascend to the sky (heavens) or descend into the earth (underworld). The shaman makes use of spirit helpers, with whom he or she communicates, all the while retaining control over his or her own consciousness. (Examples of possession occur, but are the exception, rather than the rule.) It is also important to note that while most shamans in traditional societies are men, either women or men may and have become shamans.
There are a number of relatively common practices and experiences in traditional shamanism which are being investigated by modern researchers. While the older traditional practices are ignored by some researchers, others have begun to explore these older techniques. The emergence of the new field of the 'anthropology of consciousness' and the establishment of Transpersonal Psychology as a "Fourth Force" in psychology have opened up the investigation of research into the nature and history of consciousness in ways not previously possible. Outside of academic circles a growing number of people have begun to make serious inquiries into ancient shamanic techniques for entering into altered states of consciousness.
Traditional shamans developed techniques for lucid dreaming and what is today called the out-of-the-body experience (oobe). These methods for exploring the inner landscape are being investigated by a wide range of people. Some are academics, some come from traditional societies and others are modern practitioners of non-traditional shamanism or neo-shamanism. Along with these techniques, the NDE or near-death-experience have played a significant role in shamanic practice and initiation for millennia. There is extensive documentation of this in ethnographic studies of traditional shamanism. With this renewed interest in these older traditions these shamanic methods of working with dreams and being conscious and awake while dreaming are receiving increased attention. (Additional information about the out-of-body experience may be found in Jouni Smed's faq alt.out-of-body FAQ.)
The ability to consciously move beyond the physical body is the particular specialty of the traditional shaman. These journeys of Soul may take the shaman into the nether realms, higher levels of existence or to parallel physical worlds or other regions of this world. Shamanic Flight, is in most instances, an experience not of an inner imaginary landscape, but is reported to be the shamans flight beyond the limitations of the physical body.
As noted in this article, the Call to shamanize is often directly related to a near death experience by the prospective shaman. Among the traditional examples are being struck by lightening, a fall from a height, a serious life-threatening illness or lucid dream experiences in which the candidate dies or has some organs consumed and replaced and is thus reborn. Survival of these initial inner and outer brushes with death provides the shaman with personal experiences which strengthen his or her ability to work effectively with others. Having experienced something, a shaman is more likely to understand what must be done to correct a condition or situation.
Post-Shamanic: While shamanism may be readily identified among many hunting and gathering peoples and in some traditional herding societies, identifying specific groups of individuals who might be called shamans is a difficult task in more stratified agricultural and manufacturing based societies. A society may be said to be Post- Shamanic when there are the presence of shamanic motifs in its traditional folklore or spiritual practices indicate a clear pattern of traditions of ascent into the heavens, descent into the nether- worlds, movement between this world and a parallel Otherworld, are present in its history. Such a society or tradition may have become very specialized and recombined aspects of mysticism, prophecy and shamanism into more specialized or more 'fully developed' practices and may have assigned those to highly specialized functionaries. When such practices and functionaries are present or have replaced the traditional shamans found in historical or traditional shamanism the use of Post-shamanic is appropriate. Dean Edwards (firstname.lastname@example.org) (August, 1995)
More specifically, a society may be said to be Post-Shamanic when at least 6 of the following 8 conditions have been met: -
a. Shamanic ecstasy is still present, but light trance techniques are also used to access the Otherworld.
b. Agriculture and some forms of manufacturing/crafts have replaced hunting and gathering as the primary basis for the economic life of the community.
c. The society has developed a highly stratified social structure and very specialized occupations.
d. Religion and spiritual methodology has become more fully developed and can no longer be properly referred to as 'archaic'. This is especially important for rituals, ceremonies and ecstatic techniques which had traditionally been the domain of the shamans.
e. Mystical ecstasy and unitive visions have become at least as important esoteric experiences and doctrines as shamanic ecstasy, ascension and descent in the religious and spiritual life of the community.
f. The shaman is no longer the primary escort for the souls of the dead into their place in the next world (psychopomp). This role generally either passes onto the priest craft or clergy to perform through ritual, is an object of individual or group prayer, or is believed to be done by gods of guardian spirits, angels or demons.
g. A professional clergy is present which regulates the religious life of the community.
h. Other forms of healing, divining and counseling are present have replaced shamans as the primary source of such services. - Post-shamanic motifs are found among many Indo-European, Asian, African and some native peoples of North America. The use of Post-Shamanic as a term makes examination of these parallel traditions and possible survivals of earlier shamanic traditions easier.
From the Greek 'ekstasis', ecstasy literally means to be placed outside, or to be placed. This is a state of exaltation in which a person stands outside of or transcends his or herself. Ecstasy may range from the seizure of the body by a spirit or the seizure of a person by the divine, from the magical transformation or flight of consciousness to psychiatric remedies of distress.
Three types of Ecstasy are specified in the literature on the subject:
a. Shamanic Ecstasy
b. Prophetic Ecstasy
c. Mystical Ecstasy
Shamanic ecstasy is provoked by the ascension of the soul of the shaman into the heavens or its descent into the underworld. These states of ecstatic exaltation are usually achieved after great and strenuous training and initiation, often under distressing circumstances. The resulting contact by the shaman with the higher or lower regions and their inhabitants, and also with nature spirits enables him or her to accomplish such tasks as accompanying the soul of a deceased into its proper place in the next world, affect the well-being of the sick and to convey the story of their inner travels upon their return to the mundane awareness.
The utterances of the shaman are in contrast with those of prophetic and mystical ecstasy. The prophet literally speaks for God, while the mystic reports an overwhelming divine presence. In mysticism, the direct knowledge or experience of the divine ultimate reality, is perceptible in two ways, emotional and intuitive. While these three varieties of ecstatic experience are useful for the purposes of analysis and discussion, it is not unusual for more than one form of ecstasy to be present in an individual's experience.
However, it can be argued that, generally speaking, there are three perceptive levels of ecstasy.
a) The physiological response, in which the mind becomes absorbed in and focused on a dominant idea, the attention is withdrawn and the nervous system itself is in part cut off from physical sensory input. The body exhibits reflex inertia, involuntary nervous responses, frenzy.
b) Emotional perception of ecstasy refers to overwhelming feelings of awe, anxiety, joy, sadness, fear, astonishment, passion, etc.
c) Intuitive perception communicates a direct experience and understanding of the transpersonal experience of expanded states of awareness or consciousness.
While the physiological response is always present, the emotional response may or may not be significant when intuition is the principal means of ecstatic perception. Some have argued that beyond the intuitive state there is a fourth condition in which the holistic perception exceeds mental and emotional limitations and understanding.
The ecstatic experience of the shaman goes beyond a feeling or perception of the sacred, the demonic or of natural spirits. It involves the shaman directly and actively in transcendent realities or lower realms of being. These experiences may occur in either the dream state, the awakened state, or both. Dreams, and in particular, lucid dreams, often play a significant role in the life of a shaman or shamanic candidate. -------------------------------------------------------------------- TRANCE STATES (or whatever title you want to give it)
(The following edited extracts from a paper written by Joseph Bearwalker Wilson in 1978.It describes some theory of the trance state as it applies to shamanism.) copyright, 1978, 1995 by Joseph Bearwalker Wilson (email@example.com) (Reprinted by permission of the author.)
In order to journey to the other dimensions of existence a shaman induces an altered state of consciousness in himself similar to a state of self-hypnosis. While in this shamanic trance he is in complete control; able to take his consciousness and subtle bodies into nonphysical reality where he visits the heavens and hells of existence, communicates with and controls spirits, gains information, retrieves souls, and makes subtle changes in reality which may affect the physical world.
A classical, and fairly accurate descriptive definition of hypnosis is "a condition or state of selective hyper suggestibility brought about in an individual through the use of certain specific psychological or physical manipulations of the individual." The key words here are "selective hyper suggestibility." A Hypnotherapist uses that selective hyper suggestibility in order to help bring about desired changes in an individual. On the other hand a person practicing shamanic techniques uses that state in order to fine tune his or her senses in order to see, feel, hear, and smell more vividly while traveling in the other worlds.
The lighter trance states feel like those times when you are reading a book, or watching television or a movie, and are so engrossed that you are not aware of your surroundings. The deeper trances feel similar to how you feel when you are first waking up in the morning. You are aware that you are awake, your imagery is vivid and dreamlike, and you feel relaxed, calm, and good.
The ability to attain a and control a trance is the result of cumulative conditioning and mental training.
A weight lifter trains himself by practicing daily. He begins by lifting relatively light weights and progresses to heavier and heavier ones. Eventually he is able to lift a 200 pound weight above his head with relative ease. By working in this manner he has trained his muscles to respond according to his will. After he has reached his goal he can maintain the ability by practicing only two or three times per week. If he stops practicing entirely his muscles will gradually loose their conditioning and strength and, after a time, he will no longer be able to lift the weight. By reestablishing a routine of practice he will bring his ability back to where it was.
This same principle applies to the trance state. You train your mind to respond in accordance with your will in order to produce the ability to develop a deep trance. This is done by daily practice. It may take some time and effort to establish that ability, but once you have it you will be able to maintain it by practicing only once or twice per week. If you stop practicing entirely your ability will gradually lessen. Like the weight lifter you will need to begin a more regular practice in order to reestablish your abilities.
When you go into any trance you gradually progress from ordinary consciousness into deeper levels. It's convenient to have a means of measuring the depth of your trance, so the paragraphs that follow outline some of the symptoms found at various depths. For convenience sake I've divided the depths of trance into four major sections, and, using terms borrowed from the hypnotic sciences, called them the Hypnodial, Light, Medium, and Deep trance states. In the Hypnodial Trance you progress from ordinary consciousness through the following steps: feeling physically relaxed, drowsy, your mind becomes relaxed and you may feel apathetic or indifferent, your arms and legs start to feel heavy, you may have a tendency to stare blankly, and have a disinclination to move your limbs. As you border this and the Light Trance your breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your pulse rate slows.
In the Light Trance you progress to a reluctance to move, speak, think or act. You may experience some involuntary twitching of your mouth or jaw, and sometimes of the eyes. You will feel a heaviness throughout your entire body and a partial feeling of detachment. You may also experience visual illusions. As you border this and the Medium Trance you recognize that you are in a trance, but may find that feeling hard to describe.
In the Medium Trance you definitely recognize that you are in a trance and may experience partial amnesia unless you consciously choose not to. By giving yourself the proper suggestions you can make any part of your body insensitive to pain, and can experience the illusions of touching, tasting, and smelling. You will be more sensitive to variations in atmospheric pressure and temperature changes. As you border this and the Deep Trance you may experience complete catalepsy of your limbs or body. In other words, if your limbs or body positions are changed you will leave them in the new position until they are changed again.
In the Deep Trance you can have the ability to open your eyes without affecting the trance. You will also have the ability to control such body functions as heart beat, blood pressure, digestion, and body temperature. You can make your body and limbs completely rigid. You will be able to recall lost memories and experience age regression. Here you can vividly experience the sensation of lightness, floating, or flying. You can also experience both positive and negative visual and auditory hallucinations both while in the trance, and, if given the proper suggestions, after awakening from the trance state. (A positive hallucination is when you are told that you see something that is not there, and you see it. A negative hallucination is when you are told that you do not see something that is there, and you do not.) In this state you can also stimulate dreams and visions, both during the trance state and (upon proper suggestion) later in your natural sleep.
Each depth of trance has valuable uses. For example, in the Light and Medium Trances you can learn to begin practical shamanic journeying so that you can see, hear, touch and smell experiences in the worlds which border ours. In those trance states these journeys will feel similar to a fantasy or daydream and you may wonder if it is real, or just your imagination. As you train yourself to deepen the trance the journeys become more vivid, until, in the Deep Trance, they look and feel as though they are taking place in physical reality.
Copyright (c) 1978, 1995 Joseph B. Wilson Joseph Bearwalker Wilson (Bearwalker@aol.com) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Some have wondered if the experience of shamanic ecstasy or flight makes a person a shaman. Generally speaking, most would say no. A shaman is more than someone with an experience. First, he or she is a trained initiate. Usually years of enculturalization and training under a mentor precede becoming a functioning shaman. Second, a shaman is not just an initiate who has received inner and outer training, but is a master of shamanic journeying and techniques (shamanic ecstasy). This is not a casual acquaintance with such abilities, there is some degree of mastery of them. Finally, a shaman is a link or bridge between this world and the next. This is a sacred trust and a service to the community. Sometimes a community that a shaman serves in is rather small. In other instances it may be an entire nation. A lot of that depends on social and cultural factors.
One becomes a shaman by one of three methods: a) Hereditary transmission; b) Spontaneous selection or "call" or "election"; c) personal choice and quest. (This latter method is less frequent and traditionally such a shaman is considered less powerful than one selected by one of the two preceding methods.) The shaman is not recognized as legitimate without having undergone two types of training: a) Ecstatic (dreams, trances, etc.) b) Traditional ("shamanic techniques, names and functions of spirits, mythology and genealogy of the clan, secret language, etc.) The two-fold course of instruction, given by the spirits and the old master shamans is equivalent to an initiation." (Mircea Eliade, The Encyclopedia of Religion, v. 13 , p. 202; Mcmillian, N.Y., 1987.) It is also possible for the entire process to take place in the dream state or in ecstatic experience. Thus, there is more to becoming a shaman than a single experience. It requires training, perseverance and service.
5. What is the role of personal crisis or trauma or crisis in the selection or development of a shaman? A common experience of the call to shamanism is a psychic or spiritual crisis, which often accompanies a physical or even a medical crisis, and is cured by the shaman him or herself. This is a common occurrence for all three types of shamanic candidates described above. The shaman is often marked by eccentric behavior such as periods of melancholy, solitude, visions, singing in his or her sleep, etc. The inability of the traditional remedies to cure the condition of the shamanic candidate and the eventual self cure by the new shaman is a significant episode in development of the shaman. The underlying significant aspect of this experience, when it is present, is the ability of the shaman to manage and resolve periods of distress.
6. Does the presence of an active shamanic tradition necessarily mean that the society itself should be deemed "shamanic"? No, not at all. The presence of shamanism in a nation or a community does not mean that shamanism is central to the spiritual or religious life of the community or region. Shamanism often exists alongside and even in cooperation with the religious or healing practices of the community.
7. What is meant by shamanic ecstasy and what role does it actually play in shamanism? The ecstatic technique of shamanism does not involve itself in the broad range of ecstasy reported in the history of religion. It is specifically focused on the transpersonal movement of the consciousness of the shaman into higher or lower realms of consciousness and existence. Another aspect of shamanism is that compared to other spiritual traditions, it is a path that the individual walks alone. While much of the focus of shamanic studies has been on the shamanic complexes of north and central Asia, shamanism is a universal phenomenon, not confined to any particular region or culture.
9. What are the usual roles of a shaman? In contemporary, historical or traditional shamanic practice the shaman may at times fill the role of priest, magician, metaphysician or healer. Personal experience is the prime determinant of the status of a shaman. Knowledge of other realms of being and consciousness and the cosmology of those regions is the basis of the shamanic perspective and power. With this knowledge, the shaman is able to serve as a bridge between the mundane and the higher and lower states The shaman lives at the edge of reality as most people would recognize it and most commonly at the edge of society itself. Few indeed have the stamina to adventure into these realms and endure the outer hardships and personal crises that have been reported by or observed of many shamans.
10. Why was this FAQ written? This FAQ was originally written to support a new Usenet newsgroup, 'soc.religion.shamanism'. The purpose of this newsgroup is to provide a forum for discussion and exchange of ideas, views and information about historic, traditional, tribal and contemporary shamanism. This FAQ is intended to provide a useful general overview of what 'shamanism' actually means and what it is in practice. In doing so, it has focused on shamanic ecstasy as being at the heart of shamanic experience and practice. Many other aspects of shamanic experience are encountered in the journey toward that center. Likewise, much is also experienced in the journey out from that core experience.