Shamanism Research Paper

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Shamanism is an ideology and a set of techniques or rituals that deal with communication among spirits. Shamanistic practices are attached to a system of beliefs, and therefore they are always considered in the context of the religion or society in which they are found. The shaman, the person who performs the rituals, often serves as a healer, diviner, clairvoyant, or a possessor of magic or spiritual power.

Shamanism is a distinctive complex of social roles, psychospiritual activities, and religio-ecological ideation embodied in the person of a ritual specialist, called a shaman. The term shaman comes from the Siberian Tungus (Evenk) word aman via Russian sources. Shamanism has been intensely studied in Eurasia and the Americas, and extends from the Saami (Lapps) of Finland to the Yamana (Yaghan) of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. Scholars have also identified shamanism in Aboriginal Australia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania and more sparsely in Africa, where spirit possession and spirit mediumship seem to be more prevalent.

There are many different approaches to the study of shamanism, including anthropology, archaeology, comparative religion, ethnomedicine, history, linguistics, prehistory, psychology, and folklore studies.

History and Distribution

Some scholars claim shamanism displays an ancient heritage discernible in the cave paintings of Paleolithic (foraging) era and hunting cultures found in southern France and northern Spain. For example, the upper Paleolithic Les Trois Freres cave (c. 14,000 BCE) contains the Sorcerer of Les Trois Freres, a famous black-painted figure overlooking a gallery of engraved game animals, and interpreted to be a master of animals, a shaman.

Siberia is the locus classicus of shamanism and there is considerable variation from the northwestern Saami (Lapp) shamanism, known only through historical sources first written down in 1180 CE, through to the Turkic Central Asian language group (e.g., Yakut [Sakha], Tuvins, and Khakass), the Mongolian languages (e.g., Mongolian and Buryat), the Tungusic group (e.g., Evenki [Tungus], Even, Manchu), the Paleo-Asiatic (e.g., Chukchi and Koryak) group, and the Eskimo-Aleut group. Shamanism is also found in southern Eurasia in Nepal and India, and throughout Southeast Asia. The Northern and Southern Aslian shamanism of Peninsular Malaysia (Bateg, Temoq, Semelai, and Semaq Bri) is remarkably similar to forms found throughout Siberia. Polynesian mythology also amply attests to shamanic themes and cosmological images.

The distribution of shamanism throughout the Americas also suggests not only great antiquity but also Eurasian origins. Shamanism was brought in several waves to the Americas by hunting peoples who crossed the Bering land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. In the far south of Chilean Patagonia artifacts dating between 11,000 and 8000 BCE have been excavated by archaeologists at Fell’s Cave. Here too we find shamanism, extinguished by the genocidal wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, among guanaco hunting Ona (Selk’nam) and the marine hunting and littoral foraging Yamana (Yaghan). Farther north in central Chile we find Mapuche shamanism displaying an almost Siberian character. Although there is no evidence of cultural continuity between the original settlers circa 10,000 BCE and historically known cultures in this region, the pervasiveness of shamanism throughout the cultures of North and South America certainly indicates a very early introduction. Perhaps the penultimate migration into North America is revealed by linguistic evidence linking the Yeniseian family of languages spoken today only by the Ket of central Siberia with the Na-Dene languages of North America, two culture areas steeped in shamanism. This recent finding further deepens our understanding of the circumpolar or circumboreal cultural continuum long recognized by scholars.

Shamans and the Shamanic Complex

The shaman is a visionary, healer, singer and poet, ecstatic soul traveler, psychopomp (capable of escorting the soul of the deceased to the domain of the dead), a mediator between his or her social group and the spirit world, a diviner, and a sacrificer. Shamans are specialists in the life and fate of the soul, the travails of their own soul during initiation, and their patient’s afflicted soul in a ritual healing performance. These features constitute a complex that frequently lies at the psychospiritual core of a society, and can thus be identified as the religion of many Siberian and circumpolar peoples, as well as the religion of peninsular Malaysia’s Temoq, Semelai, and Semaq Bri Orang Asli (“aboriginal”) cultures. However, in many other cultures shamanism is just one dimension of a more inclusive religious worldview and in this instance may be more appropriately identified as a belief subsystem as among the Mapuche of Chile and the Uzbeks of Central Asia.

The shaman is a person who is able to break through the planes of ordinary day-to-day life by acquiring a deep and profound knowledge of the supramundane world. Shamanism has been defined as a “technique of ecstasy” involving the magical flight of the shaman’s soul to the sky or to the underworld (Eliade 1964, 4ff.). The shaman is empowered to enter into this world through the acquisition of visionary capabilities, most usually during initiation. These powers are renewed and strengthened with every ritual performance directed toward healing, divination, sacrifice, and various other rites important to the welfare of the group. The powers are embodied in the shaman’s cosmographic experience and in the control of familiar and guardian spirits who provide knowledge and direction, and protect the shaman’s highly labile and vulnerable soul during a visionary rite. The shaman’s altered state of consciousness ranges from intense ecstasy as with some Siberian shamans, to quiet reverie as the Malaysian Temoq shaman contemplates the overpowering beauty of the visionary world. At the age of nine the Lakota holy man Black Elk, during an episode of acute illness, gained his visionary powers by ascending into the cloud-mountain abode of the powerful Grandfathers, who he realized were the “Powers of the World,” the powers of the four directions, the heavens, and the earth below.

Shamanic seances are almost always performed at night, and in many shamanistic societies nighttime is not the absence of daylight, but a qualitatively different type of reality. In almost all societies the shaman is a nocturnal being, a specialist in the existential realities that emerge after nightfall. For the Temoq even seasonality is suspended at night, and the identities that differentiate the diurnal mundane world transform into another dimension at sunset.

Initiation into the shamanic vocation takes many forms throughout the world. In some Siberian societies, the shaman involuntarily experiences a frightening dismemberment by demons or evil spirits. The shaman’s reconstitution into a new, spiritually reborn body empowers the shaman to perform supernormal feats. The death and resurrection theme also occurs in the Americas. In contrast, the Temoq shaman knows he is chosen when he has a waking daylight encounter with the spirit of a beautiful young woman dressed in red. The Temoq mountain journey shaman is then initiated by a master shaman who, during a nighttime ritual performance, places a cermin, a “visionary mirror”, into the unawakened third eye of the initiand, thus giving the new shaman’s soul the power to see and visit all the cosmic regions necessary for healing, and for maintaining the fertility and fecundity of the tropical rain forest.

Throughout tropical South America tobacco intoxication and hallucinogens, such as the Banisteriopsis caapi plant (ayahuasca), are used to engender visionary experiences. Although only introduced several centuries ago, tobacco is also used by Siberians and some Temoq shamans to induce an altered state of consciousness. The induction of ecstatic trance states by ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms is also widespread in Siberia.

Drumming is used throughout Eurasia and in many cultures of the Americas to embrace the suprasensible world of the spirits. In Temoq shamanism intense drumming over several hours, as the author has experienced, induces a soporific state of consciousness, a drowsy state experienced by ritual participants as the temporary loss of their astral body as it travels with the shaman’s celestial entourage.

The raison d’etre of nearly all shamans is healing. The shaman uses his or her visionary powers to either search out the location of a lost soul or to extract disease-spirits from the body of the afflicted. The retrieval of a lost soul implies that either the shaman or the shaman’s spirit allies journey out into the upper or lower worlds. Although the shaman’s expertise is at the center of the therapeutic field, healing is almost always a communal event and often an intense social drama.

Shamans are preeminently singers and poets. Whether ecstatic cries of a Siberian Sakha shaman, the long spirit-journey epics of Malaysian Semaq Bri, Semelai, and Temoq shamans, or the low murmuring of Yamana shamans in Tierra del Fuego, almost all shamans vocally express their experience through singing. In some societies such as the Temoq and the Siona of South America, the song is the primary expression of the shaman’s power. Indeed, for the Temoq, the term “song” is a misnomer, for only powerless shamans sing “songs,” while powerful shamans give fresh and clear voice to visionary experience. The Temoq shaman’s singing is replete with the calls of animal and bird familiar and guardian spirits. A beautiful example is the Tuvan shaman’s song in Shu-De.

The Shamanic Worldview

Shamanic activity is couched within a cosmological structure that facilitates the movement of the shaman’s soul or spirit from the middle world of human society and the natural world to the upper and lower worlds inhabited by ancestors, guardian and familiar spirits, deities, animal masters, the land of the dead, and frequently the soul of a patient. A multi-tiered world, often three-tiered, is integrated by an axis mundi—a vertical structure lying at the center of the world and imaged as a tree, a mountain, a pillar, a rainbow, or even a river that flows from the upper world, through the middle world of day-to-day life, to the lower world of the dead as with the hunting and reindeer-herding Evenki of the Siberian taiga.

In a ritual performance the shamanic cosmos is symbolically represented in the structure and function of the shaman’s venue and in the shaman’s costume and musical instrument, such as a drum or rattle. This ritual microcosmos, projected to the “center of the world,” embodies core symbolic forms that, variously empowered, enable the shaman to engage spirits and supernatural beings and visit the far-off places necessary for the success of the ritual.

The shaman’s costume itself constitutes a religious hierophany and cosmography; it discloses not only a sacred presence but also cosmic symbols and metapsychic itineraries. Properly studied, it reveals the system of shamanism as clearly as do the shamanic myths and techniques. (Eliade 1964, 145)

The Evenki (Tungus) shaman’s kamlanye performance demonstrates the relation between their shamanic worldview and the structure of the ritual venue. The tepee-shaped tent is either a modified domestic tent or one specially constructed by clan kinsmen several days before the performance. The ordinary tent is used for rites directed at finding lost reindeer or foretelling the future and as a preparatory venue for major rites where the shaman fasts, smokes heavily, and encourages visionary dreams.

Major kamlanye performances were held for guiding the soul of a dead person to the underworld, for feeding ancestral souls, and for the expulsion of disease- spirits. The ritual tent, containing a larch sapling positioned next to the hearth and emerging through the smoke hole, is surrounded by a small fenced-off enclosure containing platforms and carvings representing the structure of the world and designed to assist the journey of the shaman’s animal-double spirit—his khargu—to the lower world. From inside the tent the east-facing shaman sees a double row of wooden knives and bear spears, and wooden images of salmon and pike familiar and guardian spirits. The shaman’s drum (made of larch wood) and drumstick are often imaged as the canoe and paddle by which the shaman travels the shamanistic clan river. In front of the tent entrance is the darpe, a gallery of fresh larch saplings with roots skyward, and carved shamanic figures representing the upper world. To the west of the tent the onang structure, representing the lower world of the dead, constructed from dead fallen timbers, displays carved larch trees with roots facing downward. In the upper world larch trees grow downward from the soil of the sky vault, whereas they grow upward in the lower world. The larch tree protruding through the smoke vent signifies the world tree integrating the three levels or planes of existence. During a performance the shaman’s spirit climbs the cosmic larch tree in his ascent to the upper world.

Similarly, while singing and drumming a Chilean Mapuche machi or shaman climbs her rewe, a large pole often displaying carvings of her familiar spirits, during a machitan or healing rite. Aboriginal shamans in central Australia climb a pole to signify ascent, and in Malaysia the Temoq shaman, traveling the rainbow shadow snake, signifies his ascent by dancing over the patient with a model of the world tree bedecked with miniature birds and fruit. The vision of Black Elk the Lakota shaman also strongly embodied the image of a life-giving world tree intimately connected to the welfare of his people.

Shamanism Today

Siberian shamans were persecuted and imprisoned and thousands died during the Soviet era. Since the establishment of the Russian Federation shamanism has shown a remarkable resurgence along with reemergent ethnicities in such places as Tuva. A clinic has been opened by shamans in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuvan Republic, south Russia, where shamanism and Buddhism amicably coexist. Folk groups travel with shamanically inspired repertoires to international venues, and many documentaries have been made on shamanism over the past few years. Native American shamans travel to Mongolia to deepen their calling under the tutelage of Mongolian shamans. In other places shamanism is under pressure not only from missionary activities, but also from globalization, which is seriously threatening the languages and cultures of minority peoples.

In the West, shamanism has captured the imagination of many, and this new form, called neoshamanism, attempts to selectively integrate aspects of indigenous shamanism with a range of concerns from New Age spirituality to transpersonal psychology. Neoshamanism aspires to go beyond modernity by grounding identity within a more inclusive spiritual, psychological, and ecological vision of personal, social, and planetary well-being.


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