AskDefine | Define shamanism

Dictionary Definition



1 any animistic religion similar to Asian shamanism (especially as practiced by certain Native American tribes)
2 an animistic religion of northern Asia having the belief that the mediation between the visible and the spirit worlds is effected by shamans [syn: Asian shamanism]

User Contributed Dictionary



shaman + -ism

Proper noun

  1. a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spirit world


  • Croatian: šamanizam
  • German: Schamanismus

Extensive Definition

Shamanism refers to a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spirit world. There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world, though there are some beliefs that are shared by all forms of shamanism:
  • The spirits can play important roles in human lives.
  • The shaman can control and/or cooperate with the spirits for the community's benefit.
  • The spirits can be either good or bad.
  • Shamans engage various processes and techniques to incite trance; such as: singing, dancing, taking entheogens, meditating and drumming.
  • Animals play an important role, acting as omens and message-bearers, as well as representations of animal spirit guides.
  • The shaman's spirit leaves the body and enters into the supernatural world during certain tasks.
  • The shamans can treat illnesses or sickness; they are healers.
Shamans have the ability to diagnose and cure human suffering and, in some societies, the ability to cause suffering. This is believed to be accomplished by traversing the axis mundi and forming a special relationship with, or gaining control over, spirits. Shamans have been credited with the ability to control the weather, divination, the interpretation of dreams, astral projection, and traveling to upper and lower worlds. Shamanistic traditions have existed throughout the world since prehistoric times.
Some anthropologists and religious scholars define a shaman as an intermediary between the natural and spiritual world, who travels between worlds in a state of trance. Once in the spirit world, the shaman would commune with the spirits for assistance in healing, hunting or weather management. Ripinsky-Naxon describes shamans as, “People who have a strong interest in their surrounding environment and the society of which they are a part.”
Other anthropologists critique the term "shamanism", arguing that it is a culturally specific word and institution and that by expanding it to fit any healer from any traditional society it produces a false unity between these cultures and creates a false idea of an initial human religion predating all others. However, some others say that these anthropologists simply fail to recognize the commonalities between otherwise diverse traditional societies.
Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. In contrast to animism and animatism, which any and usually all members of a society practice, shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities. It could be said that shamans are the experts employed by animists and animist communities. Shamans are often organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations, like priests. In Indian culture as well there are those who are called tantrics and are said to have the power to control spirits and force them to do their bidding. People often visit them for many reasons but most often it is to ensure the spirit's aid in their work or to curse someone who they feel is an enemy of theirs or opposes them.


Shaman , (|ˈshämən; ˈshā-|) noun (pl. -man(s)) originally referred to the traditional healers of Turkic-Mongol areas such as Northern Asia (Siberia) and Mongolia, a "shaman" being the Turkic-Tungus word for such a practitioner and literally meaning "he or she who knows." The words in Turkic languages which refer to shamans are kam, and sometimes baksı.
Some say the Tungusic word šamán is from Chinese sha men (Chinese: 沙门,沙弥), "Buddhist monk," borrowed from Pali śamana, ultimately from Sanskrit śramana "ascetic," from śramati "he fatigues" (see shramana). "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.". Other scholars assert that the word comes directly from the Manchu language, and indeed is "the only commonly used English word that is a loan from this language".
Another explanation analyzes this Tungusic word as containing root “sa-”, this means “to know”. “Shaman” is “one who knows”: a person who is an expert in keeping together the multiple codes through which this complex belief system appears, and has a comprehensive view of them in their mind with certainty of knowledge.
The word passed through Russian and German before it was adopted into English.
In any case, the proper plural form of the word is "shaman" and not "shamans" or "shamen", as it is unrelated to the English word "man". Like English, Tungus does not apply gender to words. Therefore, shaman is correct for both a male and female shaman. The word shamanka would be correct for one speaking Russian as it is the Russian variation for the feminine gender, a Russian language requirement.
In its common usage, it has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a term which unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and other lore, and the ability to cure a person and mend a situation. However, this term is generally considered to be pejorative and anthropologically inaccurate. Objections to the use of shaman as a generic term have been raised as well, by both academics and traditional healers themselves, given that the word comes from a specific place, people, and set of practices.
The shaman is referred to in Greek mythology as a necromancer and could raise spirits and corpses to use as slaves, soldiers and tools for divination.


Shamans (in all cultures that are recorded as having shamans), can perform a plethora of functions: healing; leading a sacrifice; preserving the tradition by storytelling and songs; fortune-telling; acting as a psychopomp (literal meaning, “guide of souls”). In some cultures, a shaman may fulfill several functions in one person.
As a psychopomp, the shaman may accompany the incarnating soul of a newborn baby, or inversely, the departing soul of the newly-dead. The shaman is seen as communicating with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the dead. In some cultures, this mediator function of the shaman may be illustrated well by some of the shaman's objects and symbols. E.g. among the Selkups, a report mentions sea duck as a spirit-animal: ducks are capable of both flying, and diving underwater, thus they are regarded as belonging to both the upper world and the world underneath. Similarly, the shaman and the jaguar are identified in some Amazonian cultures: the jaguar is capable of moving freely on the ground, in the water, and climbing trees (like the shaman's soul). In some Siberian cultures, it is some water fowl species that are associated to the shaman in a similar way, and the shaman is believed to take on its form.
“The Shaman's Tree” is an image found in several cultures (Yakuts, Dolgans, Evenks), Celts, as a symbol for mediation. The tree is seen as a being whose roots belong to the world underneath; its trunk belongs to the middle, human-inhabited word; and its top is related to the upper world.

Distinct types of shamans

In some cultures there may be additional types of shamans, who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nanai people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp. Other specialized shamans may be distinguished according to the type of spirits, or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts. These roles vary among the Nenets, Enets, and Selkup shamans (paper; online). Among Huichol, there are two categories of shamans. This demonstrates the differences of shamans even within a single tribe.

Ecological Aspect

In tropical rainforests, resources for human consumption are easily depletable. In some rainforest cultures, such as the Tucano, a sophisticated system exists for the management of resources, and for avoiding the depletion of these resources through overhunting. This system is conceptualized in a mythological context, involving symbolism and, in some cases, the belief that the breaking of hunting restrictions may cause illness. As the primary teacher of tribal symbolism, the shaman may have a leading role in this ecological management, actively restricting hunting and fishing. The shaman is able to “release” game animals (or their souls) from their hidden abodes, The Desana shaman has to negotiate with a mythological being for souls of game. Not only Tucanos, but also some other rainforest Indians have such ecological concerns related to their shamanism, for example Piaroa. or undertake a soul travel in order to promote hunting luck, e.g. by asking for game from mythological beings (Sea Woman).

Soul concept, spirits

The plethora of functions described in the above section may seem to be rather distinct tasks, but some important underlying concepts join them.

Soul concept

In some cases, at some cultures, the soul concept can explain more, seemingly unassociated phenomena::may be based closely on the soul concepts of the belief system of the people served by the shaman (online See also the soul dualism concept.:can be solved by “releasing” the souls of the animals from their hidden abodes. Besides that, many taboos may prescribe the behavior of people towards game, so that the souls of the animals do not feel angry or hurt, or the pleased soul of the already killed prey can tell the other, still living animals, that they can let themselves to be caught and killed. The ecological aspect of shamanistic practice (and the related beliefs) has already been mentioned above in the article.:can be cured by obtaining the soul of the expected child to be born.


The beliefs related to spirits can explain many phenomena too, for example, the importance of storytelling, or acting as a singer, can be understood better if we examine the whole belief system: a person who is able to memorize long texts or songs (and play an instrument) may be regarded as having achieved this ability through contact with the spirits (for example among Khanty people).


As mentioned, a (debated) approach explains the etymology of word “shaman” as meaning “one who knows”. Really, the shaman is a person who is an expert in keeping together the multiple codes through which this complex belief system appears, and has a comprehensive view on it in their mind with certainty of knowledge. The shaman uses (and the audience understands) multiple codes. Shamans express meanings in many ways: verbally, musically, artistically, and in dance. Meanings may be manifested in objects, such as amulets.
The shaman knows the culture of their community well, and acts accordingly. Thus, their audience knows the used symbols and meanings — that's why shamanism can be efficient: people in the audience trust it.
There are semiotic theoretical approaches to shamanism, and also ones that regard it as a cognitive map, see also Juha Pentikäinen's “grammar of mind” approach: .
Some approaches refer to hermeneutics (“ethnohermeneutics”).
According to Vladimir Basilov and his work Chosen By the Spirits, a shaman is to be in the utmost healthy conditions to perform their duties to the fullest. The belief of the shaman is most popular through the people located in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The traditions of the shamanism is also imbedded in the Tadzhiks and Uzbeks regions. The shaman’s bodies are to be formed in a strong manner, someone having a small build would be turned away at once. Age is a requirement as well, definitely being over the age of fifty would disqualify those that want to be involved in serving the spirits. The shamans are always of the higher intellect and are looked at in a different perspective, they have a way that makes them quick on their feet and at ill will curing those in need.
One of the most significant and relevant qualities that separate a shaman from other spiritual leaders is their communications with the supernatural world. As early as the beginning of the century self-hypnosis was very highly thought of by those who worship. Another characteristic of the shaman is the talent to locate objects and discover thieves, shocking those of their tribe and those others also around to witness. The belief in the spirits or the supernatural is what attracts those to believe in the shamans. Those who have ill children or are in failing health of their own is what draws them to the shaman spiritual healings. Although the shamans are still in existence, the population is surely declining.


Initiation and learning

In the world's shamanic cultures, the shaman plays a priest-like role; however, there is an essential difference between the two, as Joseph Campbell describes:
"The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own." (1969, p. 231)
A shaman may be initiated via a serious illness, by being struck by lightning and dreaming of thunder to become a Heyoka, or by a near-death experience (e.g., the shaman Black Elk), or one might follow a "calling" to become a shaman. There is usually a set of cultural imagery expected to be experienced during shamanic initiation regardless of the method of induction. According to Mircea Eliade, such imagery often includes being transported to the spirit world and interacting with beings inhabiting the distant world of spirits, meeting a spiritual guide, being devoured by some being and emerging transformed, and/or being "dismantled" and "reassembled" again, often with implanted amulets such as magical crystals. The imagery of initiation generally speaks of transformation and the granting powers to transcend death and rebirth.
In some societies shamanic powers are considered to be inherited, whereas in other places of the world shamans are considered to have been "called" and require lengthy training. Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that "Western" bio-medical clinicians would perhaps characterize as psychotic, but which Siberian peoples may interpret as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shamans are called in their dreams. In other societies shamans choose their career. In North America, First Nations peoples would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest"; whereas South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans. Similarly the Urarina of Peruvian Amazonia have an elaborate cosmological system predicated on the ritual consumption of ayahuasca. Coupled with millenarian impulses, Urarina ayahuasca shamanism is a key feature of this poorly documented society.
Putatively customary shamanic "traditions" can also be noted among indigenous Kuna peoples of Panama, who rely on shamanic powers and sacred talismans to heal. As such, they enjoy a popular position among local peoples.
Note: Some feel that the Lakota tradition (which includes the Heyoka and Black Elk, mentioned above) are not really shamanic. There is a big difference between the Lakota culture and shamanic cultures. In many South American shamanic cultures there is the use of psycho-active substances (peyote, fly agaric, psilocybin, etc.) In the Lakota culture pain is often used instead of psychoactive plants. While a Siberian shaman would use fly agaric, a Lakota medicine man would do a sun dance. The Lakota medicine people have some bias against the use of psychoactive plants. The majority of shamanic cultures use repetitive sound to enter the shamanic state versus the use of psycho-active plants or pain.

Shamanic illness

Shamanic illness, also called shamanistic inititatory crisis, is a psycho-spiritual crisis, usually involuntary, or a rite of passage, observed among those becoming shamans. The episode often marks the beginning of a time-limited episode of confusion or disturbing behavior where the shamanic initiate might sing or dance in an unconventional fashion, or have an experience of being "disturbed by spirits". The symptoms are usually not considered to be signs of mental illness by interpreters in the shamanic culture; rather, they are interpreted as introductory signposts for the individual who is meant to take the office of shaman (Lukoff, 1992). Similarities of some shamanic illness symptoms to the kundalini process have been often noted The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China.


Underlying beliefs of practice

The shaman plays the role of healer in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens. Even in western society, this ancient practice of healing is referenced by the use of the caduceus as the symbol of medicine. Often the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiar helping entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans. In many shamanic societies, magic, magical force, and knowledge are all denoted by one word, such as the Quechua term "yachay".
While the causes of disease are considered to lie in the spiritual realm, being effected by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman will "enter the body" of the patient to confront the spirit making the patient sick, and heal the patient by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimen is often prescribed as treatment. In many places shamans claim to learn directly from the plants, and to be capable of harnessing their effects and healing properties only after obtaining permission from its abiding or patron spirit. In South America, individual spirits are summoned by the singing of songs called icaros; before a spirit can be summoned the spirit must teach the shaman its song. The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit. Such practices are presumably very ancient; in about 368 BCE, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that everyone who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to "listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth".
The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many shamanic societies. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, and is renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.
By engaging in this work, the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from any enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can be fatal, and the failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to physical death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.


Generally, the shaman traverses the axis mundi and enters the spirit world by effecting a transition of consciousness, entering into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens. The methods employed are diverse, and are often used together. Some of the methods for effecting such trances:
Shamans will often observe dietary or customary restrictions particular to their tradition. Sometimes these restrictions are more than just cultural. For example, the diet followed by shamans and apprentices prior to participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony includes foods rich in tryptophan (a biosynthetic precursor to serotonin) as well as avoiding foods rich in tyramine, which could induce hypertensive crisis if ingested with MAOIs such as are found in Ayahuasca brews.

Music, songs

Just like shamanism itself,
Of course, in several cultures, imitation of natural sounds may serve other functions, not necessarily related to shamanism: practical goals as luring game in the hunt; or entertainment (katajjaqs of Inuit).


As mentioned above, cultures termed as shaministic can be very different. Thus, shamans may have various kinds of paraphernalia.


Drum is used by shamans of several peoples in Siberia; same holds for many Eskimo groups, although its usage for shamanistic seances may be lacking among the Inuit of Canada.
The beating of the drum allows the shaman to achieve an altered state of consciousness or to travel on a journey. The drum is for example referred to as, “‘horse’ or ‘rainbow-bridge’ between the physical and spiritual worlds”. The journey mentioned is one in which the shaman establishes a connection with one or two of the spirit worlds. With the beating of the drum come neurophysiological effects. Much fascination surround the role that the acoustics of the drum play to the shaman.
There are two different worlds, the upper and the lower. In the upper world, images such as “climbing a mountain, tree, cliff, rainbow, or ladder; ascending into the sky on smoke; flying on an animal, carpet, or broom and meeting a teacher or guide”,are typically seen. The lower world consists of images including, “entering into the earth through a cave, hollow tree stump, a water hole, a tunnel, or a tube”. By being able to interact with a different world at an altered and aware state, the Shaman can then exchange information between the world in which he lives and that in which he has traveled to.

Eagle Feather

These feathers have been seen used as a kind of spiritual scalpel. One example of such use would be Rolling Thunder, an inter-tribal medicine-man/shaman.


Found mostly among South American and African peoples. Also used in ceremonies among the Navajo and in traditional ways in their blessings and ceremonies.


Often found through South East Asia, Far Eastern peoples.

Didgeridoo & Clap Stick

Found mainly among the various aboriginal peoples of Australia.

Gender and sexuality

While some cultures have had higher numbers of male shamans, others such as native Korean cultures have had a preference for females. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest known shamans—dating to the Upper Paleolithic era in what is now the Czech Republic—were women.
In some societies, shamans exhibit a two-spirit identity, assuming the dress, attributes, role or function of the opposite sex, gender fluidity and/or same-sex sexual orientation. This practice is common, and found among the Chukchi, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Araucanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navajo, Pawnee, Lakota, and Ute, as well as many other Native American tribes. Indeed, these two spirited shamans were so widespread as to suggest a very ancient origin of the practice. See, for example, Joseph Campbell's map in his The Historical Atlas of World Mythology: [Vol I: The Way of the Animal Powers: Part 2: pg 174] Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful, and Shamanism so important to ancestral populations that it may have contributed to the maintenance of genes for transgendered individuals in breeding populations over evolutionary time through the mechanism of "kin selection." [see final chapter of E.O. Wilson's "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis] They are highly respected and sought out in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their mates.
Duality and bisexuality are also found in the shamans of the Dogon people of Mali (Africa). References to this can be found in several works of Malidoma Somé, a writer who was born and initiated there.


In some cultures, the border between the shaman and the lay person is not sharp: The difference is that the shaman knows more myths and understands their meaning better, but the majority of adult men knows many myths, too.
Similar can be observed among some Eskimo peoples. Many laic people have felt experiences that are usually attributed to the shamans of those Eskimo groups: experiencing daydreaming, reverie, trance is not restricted to shamans. In Greenland among some Inuit, there are laic people who may have the capability to have closer relationships with beings of the belief system than others. These people are apprentice shamans who failed to accomplish their learning process.
The assistant of an Oroqen shaman (called jardalanin, i.e. "second spirit") knows many things about the associated beliefs: he/she accompanies the rituals, interprets the behavior of the shaman. Despite of this, the jardalanin is not a shaman. For his/her interpretative, accompanying role, it would be even unwelcome to fall into trance.
The way shamans get sustenance and take part in everyday life varies among cultures. In many Eskimo groups, they provide services for the community and get a “due payment” (some cultures believe the payment is given to the helping spirits


Hypotheses on origins

Shamanistic practices are sometimes claimed to predate all organized religions, dating back to the Paleolithic , and certainly to the Neolithic period .

Historical times

Aspects of shamanism are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by shamanism, as reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, and Calypso among others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and other mysteries. Some of the shamanic practices of the Greek religion later merged into the Roman religion.
The shamanic practices of many cultures were marginalized with the spread of monotheism in Europe and the Middle East. In Europe, starting around 400, institutional Christianity was instrumental in the collapse of the Greek and Roman religions. Temples were systematically destroyed and key ceremonies were outlawed or appropriated. The Early Modern witch trials may have further eliminated lingering remnants of European shamanism (if in fact "shamanism" can even be used to accurately describe the beliefs and practices of those cultures).
The repression of shamanism continued as Catholic influence spread with Spanish colonization. In the Caribbean, and Central and South America, Catholic priests followed in the footsteps of the Conquistadors and were instrumental in the destruction of the local traditions, denouncing practitioners as "devil worshippers" and having them executed. In North America, the English Puritans conducted periodic campaigns against individuals perceived as witches. As recently as the nineteen seventies, historic petroglyphs were being defaced by missionaries in the Amazon. A similarly destructive story can be told of the encounter between Buddhists and shamans, e.g., in Mongolia (See Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon, 1996).

Decline and revitalization / tradition-preserving movements

In many areas, former shamans ceased to fill the functions in the community they used to, as they felt mocked by their own community, or regarded their own past as a deprecated thing, sometimes even unwilling to talk about it to an ethnographer. Moreover, besides personal communications of former shamans, even some folklore texts narrate directly about a deterioration process: a Buryat epic text laments that shamans of older times were stronger, possessing capabilities like omnividence, fortune-telling even for decades in the future, moving as fast as bullet; the texts contrast them to the recent heartless, unknowing, greedy shamans.
As for reality, in most affected areas, shamanistic practices ceased to exist, with authentic shamans died and their personal experiences following. The loss of memories is not always lessened by the fact the shaman is not always the only person in a community who knows the beliefs and motifs related to the local shamanhood (laics know myths as well, among Barasana, even though less; thus, these are lost with his/her death. Besides of this, in many cultures, the entire traditional belief system has become endangered (often together with a partial or total language shift), the other people of the community remembering the associated beliefs and practices (or the language at all) became old or died, many folklore memories (songs, texts) went forgotten — this may threaten even such peoples which could preserve their isolation until the middle of the 20th centrury, like the Nganasan.
Some areas could enjoy a prolonged resistance due to their remoteness.
  • Variants of shamanism among Eskimo peoples were once a widespread (and very diverse) phenomenon, but today are rarely practiced, and they were already in the decline among many groups even in the times when the first major ethnological researches were done, e.g. among Polar Eskimos, in the end of 19th century, Sagloq died, the last shaman who was believed to be able to travel to the sky and under the sea — and many other former shamanic capacities were lost in that time as well, like ventriloquism and sleight-of-hand.
  • The isolated location of Nganasan people allowed shamanism to be a living phenomenon among them even in the beginning of 20th century, the last notable Nganasan shaman's séances could be recorded on film in the 1970s.
After exemplifying the general decline even in the most remote areas, let us mention that there are some revitalization or tradition-preserving efforts as a response. Besides collecting the memories, there are also some tradition-preserving and even revitalization efforts, sometimes lead by authentic former shamans (for example among Cherokee, Sakha people and Tuvans Admittedly, several traditional beliefs systems indeed have ecological considerations (for example, many Eskimo peoples), and among Tukano people, the shaman indeed has directly resource-protecting roles, see details in section Ecological aspect.
Today, shamanism survives primarily among indigenous peoples. Shamanic practices continue today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and even in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially true for Africa and South America, where "mestizo shamanism" is widespread.

Areal variations


While shamanism had a strong tradition in Europe before the rise of monotheism, shamanism remains as a traditional, organized religion in Uralic , Altaic people and Huns; and also in Mari-El and Udmurtia, two semi-autonomous provinces of Russia with large Finno-Ugric minority populations. It was widespread in Europe during the Stone Age, and continued to be practiced throughout the Iron Age by the various Teutonic tribes and the Fino-Baltic peoples.
Some peoples, which used to live in Siberia, have wandered to their present locations since then. For example, many Uralic peoples live now outside Siberia. The original location of the Proto-Uralic peoples (and its extent) is debated. Combined phytogeographical and linguistic considerations (distribution of various tree species and the presence of their names in various Uralic languages) suggest that this area was north of Central Ural Mountains and on lower and middle parts of Ob River. The ancestors of Hungarian people or Magyars have wandered from their ancestral proto-Uralic area to the Pannonian Basin. Shamanism is no more a living practice among Hungarians, but some remnants have been reserved as fragments of folklore, in folktales, customs. See shamanistic remnants in Hungarian folklore.
Tuva is the only region in the world to have shamanism as an official religion.



Siberia is regarded as the locus classicus of shamanism. It is inhabited by many different ethnic groups. Many of its Uralic, Altaic, and Paleosiberian peoples observe shamanistic practices even in modern times. Many classical ethnographic sources of “shamanism” were recorded among Siberian peoples.
Among several Samoyedic peoples shamanism was a living tradition also in modern times, especially at groups living in isolation until recent times (Nganasans). The last notable Nganasan shaman's seances could be recorded on film in the 1970s.
When the People's Republic of China was formed in 1949 and the border with Russian Siberia was formally sealed, many nomadic Tungus groups that practiced shamanism were confined in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. These include the Ewenki and the Oroqen. The last shaman of the Oroqen, Chuonnasuan (Meng Jin Fu), died in October 2000.
In many other cases, shamanism was in decline even at the beginning of 20th century (Selkups).


Shamanism is still practiced in South Korea, where the role of a shaman is most frequently taken by women known as mudangs, while male shamans (rare)are called baksoo mudangs. Korean shamans are considered to be from a low class.
A person can become a shaman through hereditary title or through natural ability. Shamans are consulted in contemporary society for financial and marital decisions.
The Korean shamans' use of the Amanita Muscaria .. in traditional practice is thought to have been suppressed as early as the Choseon dynasty. Another mushroom of the Russula genus was renamed as the Shaman's mushroom, "Mu-dang-beo-seot무당버섯". Korean shamans are also reputed to use spiders over the subject's skin. Colorful robes, dancing, drums and ritual weapons are also features.

Other Asian areas

There is a strong shamanistic influence in the Bön religion of some Central Asians, and in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism became popular with shamanic peoples such as the Tibetans, Mongols, and Manchu beginning in the eighth century. Forms of shamanistic ritual combined with Tibetan Buddhism became institutionalized as the state religion under the Mongolian Yuan dynasty and the Manchurian Qing dynasty. However, in the shamanic cultures still practiced by various ethnic groups in areas such as Nepal and northern India, shamans are not necessarily considered enlightened, and often are even feared for their ability to use their power to carry out malicious intent.
In Tibet, the Nyingma schools in particular, had a Tantric tradition that had married "priests" known as Ngakpas or Ngakmas/mos (fem.). The Ngakpas were often employed or commissioned to rid the villages of demons or disease, creations of protective amulets, the carrying out of religious rites etc. The Ngakpas should however, been grounded in Buddhist philosophy and not simply another form of shaman, but sadly, this was most often not the case. There have always been, however, highly realised and accomplished ngakpas. They were in their own right great lamas who were of equal status as lamas with monastic backgrounds. The monasteries, as in many conventional religious institutions, wished to preserve their own traditions, sometimes at the expense of others. The monasteries depended upon the excesses of patrons for support. This situation often led to a clash between the more grassroots and shamanic character of the travelling Chödpa and Ngakpa culture and the more conservative religious monastic system.
Shamanism is still widely practiced in the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa), where shamans are known as 'Nuru' (all women) and 'Yuta'. 'Nuru' generally administrates public or communal ceremonies while 'Yuta' focuses on the civil or private matters. Shamanism is also practiced in a few rural areas in Japan proper. It is commonly believed that the Shinto religion is the result of the transformation of a shamanistic tradition into a religion.
Shamanistic practices also seem to have been preserved in the Catholic religious traditions of aborigenes in Taiwan

Eskimo cultures

Eskimo groups comprise a huge area stretching from Eastern Siberia through Alaska and Northern Canada (including Labrador Peninsula) to Greenland. Shamanistic practice and beliefs have been recorded at several parts of this vast area crosscutting continental borders. but sometimes it is regarded as belonging to the Yupik languages.) [[Aleut language#Comparison to Eskimo grammar|The languages of the Eskimo branch have certain common characteristics (compared to Aleut) which justifies "splitting off" the Eskimo branch inside the Eskimo-Aleut family]].

Shamanistic features

When speaking of “shamanism” in various Eskimo groups, we must remember that (as mentioned above) the term “shamanism” can cover certain characteristics of various different cultures. Mediation is regarded often as an important aspect of shamanism in general. Also in most Eskimo groups, the role of mediator is known well: the person filling it in is actually believed to be able to contact the beings who populate the belief system. Term “shaman” is used in several English-language publications also in relation to Eskimos. Also the /aˈliɣnalʁi/ of the Asian Eskimos is translated as “shaman” in the Russian and English The soul concepts of several groups are specific examples of soul dualism (showing variability in details in the various cultures).
Like most cultures labelled as “shamanistic”, the Eskimo groups have several special features, or at least ones that are not present in all shamanistic cultures. Unlike in many Siberian cultures, the careers of most Eskimo shamans lack the motivation of force: becoming a shaman is usually a result of deliberate consideration, not a necessity forced by the spirits.

Diversity, with some similarities

Another possible concern: do the belief systems of various Eskimo groups have such common features at all, that would justify any mentioning them together? There was no political structure above the groups, their languages were relative, but differed more or less, often forming language continuums (online).
There are some similarities in the cultures of the Eskimo groups together with diversity, far from homogeneity.
The Russian linguist Меновщиков, an expert of Siberian Yupik and Sireniki Eskimo languages (while admitting that he is not a specialist in ethnology) mentions, that the shamanistic seances of those Siberian Yupik and Sireniki groups he has seen have many similarities to those of Greenland Inuit groups described by Fridtjof Nansen, although a large distance separates Siberia and Greenland. There may be certain similarities also in Asiatic groups with some North American ones. Also the usage of a specific shaman's language is documented among several Eskimo groups, used mostly for talking to spirits. Also the Ungazigmit (belonging to Siberian Yupiks) had a special allegoric usage of some expressions.
The local cultures showed great diversity. The myths concerning the role of shaman had several variants, and also the name of their protagonists varied from culture to culture. For example, a mythological figure, usually referred to in the literature by the collective term Sea Woman, has factually many local names: Nerrivik “meat dish” among Polar Inuit, Nuliayuk “lubricous” among Netsilingmiut, Sedna “the nether one” among Baffin Land Inuit. Also the soul conceptions, e.g. the details of the soul dualism showed great variability, ranging from guardianship to a kind of reincarnation. Conceptions of spirits or other beings had also many variants (see e.g. the tupilaq concept).
In the early 19th century traditional healers in parts of Africa were often referred to in a derogatory manner as "witch doctors" practising Juju by early European settlers and explorers.The San or Bushmen ancestors who were primarily scattered in Southern Africa before the 19th century, are reported to have practiced a practice similar to shamanism. In areas in Eastern Free State and Lesotho, where they co-existed with the early Sotho tribes, local folklore describes them to have lived in caves where they drew pictures on cave walls during a trance and were also reputed to be good rain makers.


Native American and First Nations cultures have diverse religious beliefs. There was never one universal Native American religion or spiritual system. Though many Native American cultures have traditional healers, ritualists, singers, mystics, lore-keepers and "Medicine People", none of them ever used, or use, the term "shaman" to describe these religious leaders. Rather, like other indigenous cultures the world over, their spiritual functionaries are described by words in their own languages, and in many cases are not taught to outsiders.
Many of these indigenous religions have been grossly misrepresented by outside observers and anthropologists, even to the extent of superficial or seriously mistaken anthropological accounts being taken as more authentic than the accounts of actual members of the cultures and religions in question. Often these accounts suffer from "Noble Savage"-type romanticism and racism. Some contribute to the fallacy that Native American cultures and religions are something that only existed in the past, and which can be mined for data despite the opinions of Native communities.
Not all Indigenous communities have roles for specific individuals who mediate with the spirit world on behalf of the community. Among those that do have this sort of religious structure, spiritual methods and beliefs may have some commonalities, though many of these commonalities are due to some nations being closely-related, from the same region, or through post-Colonial governmental policies leading to the combining of formerly-independent nations on reservations. This can sometimes lead to the impression that there is more unity among belief systems than there was in antiquity.
Navajo medicine men, known as "Hatałii", use several methods to diagnose the patient's ailments. These may include using special tools such as crystal rocks, and abilities such as hand-trembling and trances, sometimes accompanied by chanting. The Hatałii will select a specific healing chant for that type of ailment. Navajo healers must be able to correctly perform a healing ceremony from beginning to end. If they don't, the ceremony will not work. Training a Hatałii to perform ceremonies is extensive, arduous, and takes many years, and is not unlike priesthood. The apprentice learns everything by watching his teacher, and memorizes the words to all the chants. Many times, a medicine man cannot learn all sixty of the traditional ceremonies, so he will opt to specialize in a select few.
Santo Daime is a syncretic religion with elements of shamanism.


In the Peruvian Amazon Basin and north coastal regions of the country, the healer shamans are known as curanderos. In addition to Peruvian shaman’s (curanderos) use of rattles, and their ritualized ingestion of mescaline-bearing San Pedro cactuses (Trichocereus pachanoi) for the divinization and diagnosis of sorcery, north-coastal shamans are famous throughout the region for their intricately complex and symbolically dense healing altars called mesas (tables). Sharon (1993) has argued that the mesas symbolize the dualistic ideology underpinning the practice and experience of north-coastal shamanism. For Sharon, the mesas are the, "physical embodiment of the supernatural opposition between benevolent and malevolent energies” (Dean 1998:61).
In the Amazon Rainforest, at several Indian groups the shaman acts also as a manager of scare ecological resources (paper; online even in the last decades of the 20th century.
The yaskomo of the Waiwai is believed to be able to perform a soul flight. The soul flight can serve several functions:
  • healing
  • flying to the sky to consult cosmological beings (the moon or the brother of the moon) to get a name for a new-born baby
  • flying to the cave of peccaries' mountains to ask the father of peccaries for abundance of game
  • flying deep down in a river, to achieve the help of other beings.
Thus, a yaskomo is believed to be able to reach sky, erth, water, in short, every element.
Among literature on South American tropical forest shamanism are :-


Among the Mapuche people of South America, the community "shaman", usually a woman, is known as the Machi, and serves the community by performing ceremonies to cure diseases, ward off evil, influence the weather and harvest, and by practicing other forms of healing such as herbalism.


Although Fuegians (the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego) were all hunter-gatherers, they did not share a common culture. The material culture was not homogenous, either: the big island and the archipelago made two different adaptations possible. Some of the cultures were coast-dwelling, others were land-oriented.
Both Selk'nam and Yámana had persons filling in shaman-like roles. The Selk'nams believed their /xon/s to have supernatural capabilities, e.g. to control weather. The figure of /xon/ appeared in myths, too. The Yámana /jekamuʃ/ corresponds to the Selknam /xon/.
In Australia various aboriginal groups refer to their "shamans" as "clever men" and "clever women" also as kadji. These Aboriginal shamans use maban or mabain, the material that is believed to give them their purported magical powers. Besides healing, contact with spiritual beings, involvement in initiation and other secret ceremonies, they are also enforcers of tribal laws, keepers of special knowledge and may "hex" to death one who breaks a social taboo by singing a song only known to the "clever men".

Criticism of the term “shaman” or “shamanism”

Certain anthropologists, most notably Alice Kehoe in her book Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking, are highly critical of the term. Part of this criticism involves the notion of cultural appropriation. This includes criticism of New Age and modern Western forms of Shamanism, which may not only misrepresent or 'dilute' genuine indigenous practices but do so in a way that, according to Kehoe, reinforces racist ideas such as the Noble Savage.
Kehoe is highly critical of Mircea Eliade's work. Eliade, being a philosopher and historian of religions rather than an anthropologist, had never done any field work or made any direct contact with 'shamans' or cultures practicing 'shamanism', though he did spend four years studying at the University of Calcutta in India where he received his doctorate based on his Yoga thesis and was acquainted with Mahatma Gandhi. According to Kehoe, Eliade's 'shamanism' is an invention synthesized from various sources unsupported by more direct research. To Kehoe, what some scholars of shamanism treat as being definitive of shamanism, most notably drumming, trance, chanting, entheogens and hallucinogenics, spirit communication and healing, are practices that
  • exist outside of what is defined as shamanism and play similar roles even in non-shamanic cultures (such as the role of chanting in Judeo-Christian rituals)
  • in their expression are unique to each culture that uses them and cannot be generalized easily, accurately or usefully into a global ‘religion’ such as shamanism.
Because of this, Kehoe is also highly critical of the notion that shamanism is an ancient, unchanged, and surviving religion from the Paleolithic period.
Mihály Hoppál also discusses whether the term “shamanism” is appropriate. He recommends using the term “shamanhood” for stressing the diversity and the specific features of the discussed cultures. This is a term used in old Russian and German ethnographic reports at the beginning of the 20th century. He believes that this term is less general and places more stress on the local variations, and it emphasizes also that shamanism is not a religion of sacred dogmas, but linked to the everyday life in a practical way. Following similar thoughts, he also conjectures a contemporary paradigm shift. Also Piers Vitebsky mentions, that despite really astonishing similarities, there is no unity in shamanism. The various, fragmented shamanistic practices and beliefs coexist with other beliefs everywhere. There is no record of pure shamanistic societies (although, as for the past, their existence is not impossible).
See books and small online materials on this topic.

Shamanism and New Age movement

The New Age movement has appropriated some ideas from shamanism as well as beliefs and practices from Eastern religions and Native American cultures. As with other such appropriations, the original practitioners of these traditions frequently condemn New Age use as misunderstood, sensationalized, or superficially understood and/or applied. Some Nanai shamans experienced performances on the stage as dangerous: inappropriate (untimely, superfluous) invocation of the helping spirits can raise their anger.
There is an endeavor in some occult and esoteric circles to reinvent shamanism in a modern form, drawing from core shamanism - a set of beliefs and practices synthesized by the controversial Michael Harner - often revolving around the use of ritual drumming and dance, and Harner's interpretations of various indigenous religions. Harner has faced much criticism for implying that pieces of diverse religions can be taken out of context to form some sort of "universal" shamanic tradition. Some of these neoshamans also focus on the ritual use of entheogens, as well as chaos magic. Allegedly, European-based Neoshamanic traditions are focused upon the researched or imagined traditions of ancient Europe, where they believe many mystical practices and belief systems were suppressed by the Christian church. Some of these practitioners express a desire to practice a system that is based upon their own ancestral traditions. Some anthropologists and practitioners have discussed the impact of such "neoshamanism" as 'giving extra pay' (Harvey, 1997 and elsewhere) to indigenous American traditions, particularly as many Pagan- or Heathen-'shamanic practitioners' of legitimate cultural traditions do not call themselves shamans, but instead use specific names derived from the older European traditions - the völva or seidkona (seid-woman) of the sagas being an example (see Blain 2002, Wallis 2003). Shamanism has also been used in New Age therapies which use enactment and association with other realities as an intervention
(see also Plastic shaman)


  • Eskimo Märchen The title means: “Eskimo tales”, the series means: “The tales of world literature”.
  • A kultúra arcai. Mozaikok a kulturális antropológia köreiből The title means “The faces of culture. Mosaics fom the area of cultural anthropology”.
  • Shamanism in Siberia. Aboriginal Siberia. A study in social anthropology
  • Sámánok nyomában Szibéria földjén. Egy néprajzi kutatóút története ">}} The book has been translated to English: Tracing shamans in Siberia. The story of an ethnographical research expedition
  • Samanizmus The title means: “Shamanism”.
  • A sámánhit emlékei a magyar népi műveltségben The title means: “Remnants of shamanistic beliefs in Hungarian folklore”.
  • Boundaries and Passages: Rule and Ritual in Yup'ik Eskimo Oral Tradition
  • Waiwai. Religion and society of an Amazonian tribe
  • Book of the Eskimos
  • Nordwind—Südwind. Mythen und Märchen der Feuerlandindianer. The title means: “Northern wind, southern wind. Myths and tales of Fuegians”.
  • Uráli népek. Nyelvrokonaink kultúrája és hagyományai The title means: “Uralic peoples. Culture and traditions of our linguistic relatives”; the chapter means “Linguistical background of the relationship”.
  • Sámánok, lelkek és jelképek The title means “Shamans, souls and symbols”.
  • Folklór és közösség The title means “The belief system of Hungarians when they entered the Pannonian Basin, and their shamanism”.
  • Sámánok Eurázsiában The title means “Shamans in Eurasia”, the book is published also in German, Estonian and Finnish. Site of publisher with short description on the book (in Hungarian).
  • Sámánok és kultúrák The chapter title means “Shamans, cultures and researchers in the millenary”, the book title means “Shamans and cultures”.
  • Sámánok és kultúrák The chapter title means “Shamanhood among the Nenets”, the book title means “Shamans and cultures”.
  • Macht Musik. Musik als Glück und Nutzen für das Leben ">}}
  • From the Milk River: Spatial and Temporal Processes in Northwest Amazonia
  • The Palm and the Pleiades. Initiation and Cosmology in Northwest Amazonia
  • Eskimos: Greenland and Canada
  • Lawlor, Robert (1991). Voices Of The First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal dreamtime. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Ltd. ISBN 0-89281-355-5
  • Popular beliefs and folklore tradition in Siberia
  • Becoming Half Hidden: Shamanism and Initiation among the Inuit
  • Finnugor kalauz The chapter means “Northern Samoyedic peoples”, the title means Finno-Ugric guide.
  • Inuit Games and Songs • Chants et Jeux des Inuit . The songs are online available from the ethnopoetics website curated by Jerome Rothenberg.
  • It describes the life of Chuonnasuan, the last shaman of the Oroqen of Northeast China.
  • Rainforest Shamans: Essays on the Tukano Indians of the Northwest Amazon
  • A sámán Translation of the original: The Shaman (Living Wisdom)
  • A varázsdob és a látó asszonyok. Lapp népmesék The title means: “The magic drum and the clairvoyant women. Sami folktales”, the series means: “Tales of folks”.
  • Világnak kezdetétől fogva. Történeti folklorisztikai tanulmányok The chapter discusses the etymology and meaning of word “shaman”.


  • Материалы по языку и фольклору эскимосов (чаплинский диалект) Rendering in English: Materials on the Language and Folklore of the Eskimoes (Vol. I, Chaplino Dialect)

Further reading

  • Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. 1959; reprint, New York and London: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0-14-019443-6
  • Richard de Mille, ed. The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1980.
  • George Devereux, "Shamans as Neurotics", American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 63, No. 5, Part 1. (Oct., 1961), pp. 1088-1090.
  • Nevill Drury, The Shaman and the Magician: Journeys Between the Worlds, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982. ISBN 0-7100-0910-0
  • Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1964; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-691-11942-2
  • Jay Courtney Fikes, Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties, Millennia Press, Canada, 1993ISBN 0-9696960-0-0
  • Joan Halifax, ed. Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives. 1979; reprint, New York and London: Penguin, 1991. ISBN 0-14-019348-0
  • Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman. 1980, new edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, ISBN 0-06-250373-1
  • Graham Harvey, ed. Shamanism: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-25330-6.
  • Åke Hultkrantz (Honorary Editor in Chief): Shaman. Journal of the International Society for Shamanistic Research
  • Philip Jenkins, Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-516115-7
  • Alice Kehoe, Shamans and Religion: An Anthropoligical Exploration in Critical Thinking. 2000. London: Waveland Press. ISBN 1-57766-162-1
  • Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, eds. Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge. 2001; reprint, New York: Tarcher, 2004. ISBN 0-500-28327-3
  • Daniel C. Noel. Soul Of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities.Continuum, 1997. ISBN 0-8264-1081-2
  • Åke Ohlmarks 1939: Studien zum Problem des Schamanismus. Gleerup, Lund.
  • Jordan Paper. The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion, SUNY Press, 1995. ISBN 0-7914-2315-8
  • John Perkins. The World Is As You Dream It: Shamanic Teachings from the Amazon and Andes. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street, 1994. ISBN 0-89281-459-4
  • John Perkins. Spirit of the Shuar: Wisdom from the Last Unconquered People of the Amazon. Destiny Books, 2001. ISBN 0-89-281865-4
  • Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya,U. of New Mexico Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8263-1358-2
  • Alberto Villoldo, PhD, Erik Jendresen: Dance of the Four Winds - Secrets of the Inca Medicine Wheel. Destiny Books ISBN 978-0892815142
  • Piers Vitebsky, The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul - Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia to the Amazon, Duncan Baird, 2001. ISBN 1-903296-18-8
  • Michael Winkelman, (2000) Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
  • Andrei Znamenski, ed. Shamanism: Critical Concepts, 3 vols. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0-415-31192-6
  • Andrei Znamenski, Shamanism in Siberia: Russian Records of Siberian Spirituality. Dordrech and Boston: Kluwer/Springer, 2003. ISBN 1-4020-1740-5
  • Andrei Znamenski, The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination.Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 0195172310

External links

shamanism in Arabic: شامانية
shamanism in Azerbaijani: Şamanizm
shamanism in Bulgarian: Шаманизъм
shamanism in Catalan: Xamanisme
shamanism in Welsh: Siamanaeth
shamanism in Danish: Shamanisme
shamanism in German: Schamanismus
shamanism in Estonian: Šamanism
shamanism in Modern Greek (1453-): Σαμανισμός
shamanism in Spanish: Chamanismo
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shamanism in Persian: شمن‌باوری
shamanism in French: Chamanisme
shamanism in Korean: 샤머니즘
shamanism in Indonesian: Dukun
shamanism in Italian: Sciamanesimo
shamanism in Hebrew: שמאניזם
shamanism in Lithuanian: Šamanizmas
shamanism in Hungarian: Samanizmus
shamanism in Dutch: Sjamanisme
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shamanism in Polish: Szamanizm
shamanism in Portuguese: Xamanismo
shamanism in Quechua: Paqu yachaq
shamanism in Russian: Шаманизм
shamanism in Simple English: Shaman
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shamanism in Thai: ชาแมน
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shamanism in Contenese: 薩滿教
shamanism in Chinese: 萨满教
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