| Profile | History
| Beliefs | Links
| Bibliography |
I. Group Profile
- Founder: No individual founder/ Discoverer: Marco
Polo and other travelers in Siberia.1.
- Date of Birth: As early as the beginning of the New
- Birth Place: Siberia and Central Asia. 3.
- Year Founded: unknown4.
- Sacred or Revered Texts: No text, rather knowledge
is gained by the individual through experience
- Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied
when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed
in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage
seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the
positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human
cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do
not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed
discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts
"cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing
"Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will
find additional links to related issues.
- Size of Group:Shamanism is not a traditionally organized
group with a charismatic leader. It's an individualistic religion,
therefore, number approximations are extremely difficult to produce
- II. History
"Shamanism is an ecstatic religious complex of particular
and fixed elements, with a specified ideology that has persisted
through millennia and is found in many different cultural settings..They
[the shamans] can be found...wherever hunting-gathering peoples
still exist and wherever this ancient sacred tradition has maintained
its shape in spite of the shifting of cultural ground."
"The word shaman is in fact loosely used for almost any
savage witch-doctor who becomes frenzied and has communication
with spirits. In its original form it appears to be a corruption
of the Sanskrit Shramana, which, indicating a disciple of Buddha,
among the Mongolians became synonymous with magician." (Washburn
"Quite simply, a shaman is a woman or man who changes
his or her state of consciousness, at will, in order to contact
and/or travel to another reality to obtain power and knowledge.
Mission accomplished, the shaman journeys home to use this power
and knowledge to help either himself or others." (Jonathen
As we see from the quotes above, a comprehensive understanding
of Shamanism continues to elude scholars because it is full of
complexities yet to be deciphered and details still unknown.
We know that Shamanism is derived from ancient teachings, and
we also know that it is not confined to any one place.
"...the ancestor of the god is the shaman himself, both
historically, and phychologically. There were shamans before
there were gods. The very earliest religious data we know from
archeology show the dancing masked sorcerors or shamans of Lascaux,
Trois Freres, and other Old Stone Age caves. The worldwide distribution
of functionaries recognizable as shamans - in the Americas, north
Eurasia, Africa Oceania, and south Asia, as well as ancient east
and central Asia - testifies to their antiquity. The basis of
all religion in both North and South American is the shaman or
medicine man - as Boas long ago observed - so that the aboriginal
New World, seen in its common essence, is a kind of ethnographic
museum of the late Paleolithic-Mesolithic of Eurasia, whence
came the American indian in very ancient times. Indian religious
culture is of the same date and orogin as their material culture,
and it is copiously documented." 8.
It is still practiced in many parts of the world, including,
Siberia, North America, South America, Indonesia, Oceania and
probably many others places. Shamanism almost certainly emerged
indigenously in many parts of the world without the benefit of
texts. Oral traditions may or may not have been widely disseminated.
Anthropologists understood that in the simplest of societies,
humankind believed that supernatural forces are responsible for
many events that impact their lives (Levinson: 207). Researchers
generally understand shamanism as one of the earliest efforts
of humankind to identify and understand the supernatural world.
And from this understanding emerges practices that seek to gain
some measure of influence or control of these forces.
More broadly conceived, Shamanism is concerned with understanding
universal enigmas, the origins of the cosmos, the earth, and
animals. Essentially, Shamanism is percieved as the existential
quest for the meaning and the sense of life and death. Shamans
are most likely the first group to persons to engage in the quest
to understand the existential meaning of life and the control
the forces that impact their daily lives.
"Shamanism is classified by anthropologists as an archaic
magico-religious phenomenon in which the shaman is the great
master of ecstasy.4 Shamanism itself, was defined by the late
Mircea Eliade as a technique of ecstasy." A shaman may often
exhibit a particular magical specialty, which thus enables the
shaman to act as that of a healer. (deoxy.org/shaover.htm, pg.2)
The main focus of shamans has always been to help cure others
or themselves through an ecstatic trance state where the soul
of the shaman is able to leave the physical body and transcend
up to a higher connection with the spirits. This trance state
is more recognizably called an 'out-of-body' experience. This
practice of ecstatic trance has existed since the beginning of
this religion, and is primarily what the religion itself is founded
Although identifying specific individuals who are followers
of shamanism is very difficult, traditionally, they were associated
with hunting/gathering groups found in agriculturally based societies.
Presently, this distinction of followers is now changing. Shamans
can be located all over the world, but one thing remains constant,
and that is the goal of Shamanism. The goal is to fall into a
deep trance or altered state of consciousness allowing one to
connect with the spirits and things that are beyond the physical
world to help revitalize one's life on earth through healing,
guidance, or knowledge.
In Bahm's book about world religions he tries to further explain
common characteristics of a shaman, as compared to a seemingly
similar priest of another religion. "The more fearful and
needy a person feels, the more he will seek the aid of a priest.
The more confident and self-sufficient he feels, the more he
experiences himself as a shaman; and the more unperturbed he
remains under insult or attack, the more others recognize him
as a shaman." A follower of shamanism is an individual who
rely on their own use of shamanic practice as a guide in life,
as opposed to other religions who rely on a priest or mentor.
- III. Beliefs of the Group
Information about the actual participants of Shamanism is
relatively scarce, however knowledge regarding common beliefs
and practices can be found easily. The main objectives of Shamanism
will be most clearly understood in a list that includes the core
beliefs, each follwed by a brief explanation.
1.)Shamanism is the intentional effort of the participant
to communicate and develop relationships with spiritual beings
that far exceed any communication usually achieved by physical
beings. These relationships offer something to the participant
that physical beings simply cannot attain, and that is religious
support by way of healing, knowledge or guidance.
2.)Shamanism is not so much an traditionally religion as it
is an individual's perception of the interrelatedness of life,
nature and spirit. A follower of shamanism focuses on the invisible
world and non-ordinary reality which often includes spirits,
ancestors, animals, gods and other entities.
3.)Shamans traditionally fulfill the role of priest, magician,
metaphysician or healer. Such roles are determined primarily
by one's personal experience. Knowledge of other realms allows
the shaman to serve as a point of connection between the mundane
physical world and the other, existential world.
4.)The relationship formed with an interaction of spirit is
a two-sided relationship. Both the physical participant and the
spiritual participant learn and gain insight from the other in
a mutually respectful manner.
5.)Although an individuals journey is aimed at self healing
and development, the main goal is not self serving, rather to
develop an interconnectedness with the rest of life via regular
practice. Ultimately, through such regular practice aimed at
greater development, one is healed and knows how to heal. Furthermore
one shares that knowledge with others, to subsequently help them
6.)Shamans are most commonly believed to be healers,herbalists,
spiritual advisors and dream interpretors. These roles of shamans
are particularly distinct because of the relationship that the
shaman shares with the spiritual guide in the otherworld. A shaman's
reputation is thus largely based on his spiritual practice and
the relationships he develops with otherworldly spirits. 11
The most fundamental belief associated with shamanism is communicating
with otherworldly spirits. This is accomplished primarily through
the use of Shamanic ecstasy. Ecstasy (from the Greek word, 'ekstasis')
literally means to be places outside, or to be placed. Thus,
shamanic ecstasy is a state in which a person stands outside
of his self and enters into an altered states of consciousness.
In this state of altered consciousness, one is able to communicate
with spirits to gain knowledge, guidance, and healing powers.
Three types of ecstasy widely known and practiced are:
- Shamanic ecstasy
- Prophetic ecstasy
- Mystical ecstasy
Only Shamanic ecstasy is of great significance to us. The
first phase in reaching shamanic ecstasy is the ascension of
the shaman's soul into heavens or its descent into the underworld.
One can achieve such a state of exhaltation after great training
and initiation. this process is often tiring, demanding, and
very rigorous. However, the second phase, is the shaman's ability
to contact spirits. They are able to accomplish such tasks as
helping the soul of deceased rest properly, heal the sick, and
bestow knowledge on those persons existing in the physical world
with only a mundane awareness.
The Shamanic Process
Achieving shamanism entails much more than just experiencing
shamannic ecstasy. One first becomes a shaman through one of
- Hereditary transmission
- Spontaneous selection or 'call'
- Personal choice and quest
After this is decided, several more demanding steps must be
taken to complete the path to shamanism. First, one must undergo
years of training under a mentor. Secondly, he must learn to
master the technique of shamanic journeying. Finally he must
have the support and trust of the community. Once these steps
are completed, one is accepted as a shaman.
Weston La Barre states that the belief of transformation is
perhaps the most dominant component of shamanism. If, and when,
one is able to achieve this ecstatic transformation, then the
individual is essentially transformed into a god, and in this
state of ecstasy, knowledge of the divine can be attained.
Once a person has fully come into the role of a shaman, he
takes on new meaning in life aimed at the quest towards ancestral
communication and contact. He does so through a variety of methods,
including the power of animals and the symbolism of masks.
Shamans are able to communicate with ancestors and spirits
through their contact with animals. Different animals represent
different spirits, and for that reason, a vast array of animals
are included in such shamanic practices. A vivid example given
by Mircea Eliade, is an attempt to reach a spirit from with a
trance state. "Shamans are reputed to enter into the intestine
of a large fish or a whale. A legend tells us that, the son of
a shaman woke his father, who had been asleep for three years,
with these words, 'Father, wake-up and return from the fish's
intestine, return from the third mouth of his intestine!'...this
case illustrates an "ecstatic voyage...in spirit, into the
stomach of a marine monster." Animal contact is a vital
part of shamanic voyaging which assists the shaman to contact
certain spirits, through the intense power of the animal. Eliade
continues to say that "in this case, we are dealing with
an initiatory adventure undertaken to gain secret knowledge.
One descends into the belly of a giant or a monster to learn
science, wisdom. It is for this reason that the shaman remains
in the fish's belly for three years: to learn the secrets of
Nature, to decipher the enigma of life, and to learn the future."
Mask or dress, the function is the same: to proclaim the incarnation
of a mythological figure - a god, ancestor, or mystic animal.
The mask effects the transubstantiation of the shaman, tranforming
him before everyone's eyes into the supernatural being he is
impersonating." Just as many animals hold power and strenth
within the shamanic tradition, so do the use of masks. The interconnectedness
of the animal spirits and mask use is very important. Most commonly,
the masks depict certain animals, most often, birds, deer and
reindeer antlers. Different shamanic groups give different significance
to certain animals and masks. Among them are the "costumes
of Altaic and Tungusic shamans which include furs and hides and
ribbons and scarves representing serpents. The shaman possesses,
among other powers, the ability to identify himself with an animal
or magically to transform himself into an animal." 13
Influence on other Religions
Lastly, it is important to recognize that shamanism has its
basis in antiquity. La Barre states "there were shamans
before their were gods." 14
He further identifies the shaman or medicine man as the basis
of all religion in both north and south america. There is a documented
"world wide distribution of individuals recognizable as
shamans in north Eurasia, Africa, Oceania and South Asia."
15 As such an old religion,
shamanism has in many ways, lent itself to newer religions. "New
Religious Movements" documents the influence that shamanism
has had on many other religions including Bon, Buddhism, Taoism
and other new Japanese religions. The magico-religious idea is
widespread throughout large parts of Asia, thus it is easier
to understand how shamanism has influenced great religions of
the Orient. Although it is not the foundation of any other religions,
some of the basic ideas in the quest towards extraordinary communication
through a magico-religious path can be found.
- IV. Links to Shamanism Web Sites
Shamanism - General
Overview - FAQ
This website will answer many of the most common questions about
Shamanism. It is a very basic site for those just beginning their
research on shamanism.
This is an introduction to Shamanism that discusses the importance
of spirit animals, ecstatic states, the flow of energy and the
healing techniques most commonly used by Shamans.
This site on Shamanism gives us general insights to the basics
of shamanism as an individualistic religion. It also includes
lots of information on variations within the religion (i.e. historical,
contemporary, core, etc.).
This is a small site about Shamanism that depicts the religion
through the Tlingit Indians. It provides basic information about
the Shamanic tradition, because it details the goals, and main
methods of attainment
Life is Connected: The Shaman's Journey
This site focuses on the journey of a shaman, examining everything
from the origin of the word "shaman" through the psychological
aspect of the shamanic journey.
Indigenous Knowledge, Medical Anthropology, and Borneo
This page honors the shamanic tradition and discusses in detail
how it is practiced mainly through the importance of song. "Song
can be a salve, a celebration, a lamentation, a bridge to other
This site is useful for answering questions as well as detailed
information on what Celtic Shamanism is and covers an elementary
sense of what the religion is founded in, the practices, processes
and general lifestyle.
Once you get to this site you should click on Alternative Religions
and then click on Shamanism. Then you will be linked to about
30 other sites that all pertain to Shamanism including everything
from the role of pharamceutical drugs in shamanism to contemporary
shamanic practice. Very comprehensive site, and well worth it
for people in an advanced stage of research.
This is a great source to find many different books about details,
big and small, pertaining to shamanism. Also includes lots of
sources from Mircea Eliade, a leader scholar on religion.
Center for Shamanism and Consciousness
Huge web site including lots of educational material, as well
as a plethora of bibliographic sources. Outlines upcoming events,
such as the First International Congress on Science and Shamanism
which is scheduled to be held in 2001.
- Bahm, Archie J. 1964
- "The Worlds Living Religions" New York:
- Shamanism Chapter 1; 46-47
- Cairns, Grace E., McCasland, S. Vernon, Yu, David C. 1969.
- "Religions of the World", London: Oxford
- Part I 1-24
- Clottes, Jean / Lewis-Williams, David. 1996.
- "The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the
Painted Caves.", New York: Oxford University Press
- Shamanism chapter 1: 11-36 The Shamanic World
chapter 5; 101-114
- Cresswell, Jamie. Wilson, Bryan. 1999.
- "New Relgious Movements; Challenge and Response"
Chicago: McGraw Hill
- Japanese new religious movements in Brazil; from ethnic
to 'universal' religions chapter 10; 199
- Eliade, Mircea. 1964.
- "Shamanism." New York: Oxford University
- General Considerations. Recuiting Methods. Shamanism and
Mystical Vocation. chapter 1: 5-16.
- Eliade, Mircea. 1985.
- "Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts", New
York: Bantam Books
- The Symbolism of Shadows in Archaic Religion Chapter
I/1; pages 8-11. Chapter II/2; 65-71
- Hopkins, E. Washburn. 1918.
- "The History of Religions" New York: Oxford
- Shamanism Chapter 4; 53-58
- Kendall, Laurel. 1985.
- Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits.",
London: Oxford University Press.
- The Care and Feeding on Ancestors. . chapter 7: 144-163.
- Levinson, David. 1996.
- Religion: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia, New York:
Oxford University Press. 206-212.
- Mahapatra, Sitakant. 1992.
- "The Realm of the Sacred; Verbal Symbolism and Ritual
Structure", Chicago: MacMillan USA
- Sacred Centres and Symbolic networks in India Chapter
- Montgomery, James A., 1918
- "Religions of the Past and Present", New
York: Harper Collins
- Primitive Religion Chapter 1; 1-32
- Narby, Jeremy and Francis Huxley. 2001.
- Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge.
New York: Tarcher/Putnam. Read review in Book World
- Townsend, Joan B. 1999.
- "Shamanism" in in Stephen D. Glazier, (ed). Anthropology
of Religion: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Praeger. pp.429-469.
- Clottes, Jean / Lewis-William, David. "The Shamans of
Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves.".
- Eliade, Marcia. "Shamanism.".
- Clottes, Jean / Lewis-William, David. "The Shamans of
Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves.".
- Halifax, Joan. "Shamanism: Religion or Rite?" http://www.shamanicdimensions.com/pubncat/region.htm.
- Hopkins, E. Washburn. "The History of Religions"
Oxford University Press 1918..
- Horowitz, Jonathen. No title. http://www.users.dircon.co.uk/~snail/SCSS/Articles/All%20Life.htm
- LaBarre, Weston. http://www.Shamanicdimensions.com/pubncat/region.htm.
- Bahm, Archie J. "The World's Living Religions"
- Eliade, Mircea. "Shamanism: General Considerations.
Recruiting Methods. Shamanism and Mystical Vocation." General
- LaBarre, Weston. http://www.Shanamicdimensions.com/pubncat/region.htm.
Created by Nikoletta Theodoropoulos
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements,
University of Virginia
Last updated: 09/00/01