Updated: Jan 16
Shamanism, religious phenomenon centred on the shaman, a person believed to achieve various powers through trance or ecstatic religious experience. Although shamans’ repertoires vary from one culture to the next, they are typically thought to have the ability to heal the sick, to communicate with the otherworld, and often to escort the souls of the dead to that otherworld.
The term shamanism comes from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman. The noun is formed from the verb ša- ‘to know’; thus, a shaman is literally “one who knows.” The shamans recorded in historical ethnographies have included women, men, and transgender individuals of every age from middle childhood onward.
Korean shamans petitioning the spirits to protect the community's fishermen.
As its etymology implies, the term applies in the strictest sense only to the religious systems and phenomena of the peoples of northern Asia and the Ural-Altaic, such as the Khanty and Mansi, Samoyed, Tungus, Yukaghir, Chukchi, and Koryak. However, shamanism is also used more generally to describe indigenous groups in which roles such as healer, religious leader, counselor, and councillor are combined. In this sense, shamans are particularly common among other Arctic peoples, American Indians, Australian Aborigines, and those African groups, such as the San, that retained their traditional cultures well into the 20th century.
It is generally agreed that shamanism originated among hunting-and-gathering cultures, and that it persisted within some herding and farming societies after the origins of agriculture. It is often found in conjunction with animism, a belief system in which the world is home to a plethora of spirit-beings that may help or hinder human endeavours.
Opinions differ as to whether the term shamanism may be applied to all religious systems in which a central personage is believed to have direct intercourse with the transcendent world that permits him to act as healer, diviner, and the like. Since such interaction is generally reached through an ecstatic or trance state, and because these are psychosomatic phenomena that may be brought about at any time by persons with the ability to do so, the essence of shamanism lies not in the general phenomenon but in specific notions, actions, and objects connected with trance (see also hallucination).
Shamanism as practiced in northern Asia is distinguished by its special clothing, accessories, and rites as well as by the specific worldview connected with them. North Asiatic shamanism in the 19th century, which is generally taken as the classical form, was characterized by the following traits:
Tungus shaman, detail of an engraving from Witsen's Noord en Oost Tartarye, 1785.
Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co. Ltd.
A society accepts that there are specialists who are able to communicate directly with the transcendent world and who are thereby also possessed of the ability to heal and to divine; such individuals, or shamans, are held to be of great use to society in dealing with the spirit world.
A given shaman is usually known for certain mental characteristics, such as an intuitive, sensitive, mercurial, or eccentric personality, which may be accompanied by some physical defect, such as lameness, an extra finger or toe, or more than the normal complement of teeth.
Shamans are believed to be assisted by an active spirit-being or group thereof; they may also have a passive guardian spirit present in the form of an animal or a person of another sex—possibly as a sexual partner.
The exceptional abilities and the consequent social role of the shaman are believed to result from a choice made by one or more supernatural beings. The one who is chosen—often an adolescent—may resist this calling, sometimes for years. Torture by the spirits, appearing in the form of physical or mental illness, breaks the resistance of the shaman candidate and he (or she) has to accept the vocation.
The initiation of the shaman, depending on the belief system, may happen on a transcendent level or on a realistic level—or sometimes on both, one after the other. While the candidate lies as if dead, in a trance state, the body is cut into pieces by the spirits of the Yonder World or is submitted to a similar trial. The spirits’ reason for cutting up the shaman’s body is to see whether it has more bones than the average person. After awakening, a rite of symbolic initiation, such as climbing the World Tree, is occasionally performed.
By attaining a trance state at will, the shaman is believed to be able to communicate directly with the spirits. This is accomplished by allowing the soul to leave the body to enter the spirit realm or by acting as a mouthpiece for the spirit-being, somewhat like a medium.
One of the distinguishing traits of shamanism is the combat of two shamans in the form of animals, often reindeer or horned cattle. The combat rarely has a stated purpose but is a deed the shaman is compelled to do. The outcome of the combat means well-being for the victor and destruction for the loser.
In going into trance, as well as in mystical combat and healing ceremonies, the shaman uses certain objects such as a drum, drumstick, headgear, gown, metal rattler, mirror, and staff. The specific materials and shapes of these instruments are useful for identifying the types and species of shamanism and following their development.
Characteristic folklore (oral and textual) and shaman songs have come into being as improvisations on traditional formulas used to lure or imitate animals.
Some selection of these or similar traits may be found among traditional cultures everywhere in the world. Such detached traits, however, do not necessarily indicate that a culture is shamanistic, as the central personalities in such systems—sorcerers, medicine men or healers, and the like—may, unlike the shaman, have attained their position through deliberate study and the application of rational knowledge. Although they perform ceremonies, hold positions of authority, and possess magical abilities, the structure and quality of their transcendental activities are entirely different from that of the shaman.
Among the peoples of northern Asia, the universe is full of heavenly bodies peopled by spiritual beings. The world is disk-shaped—saucerlike—and includes several planes of existence. The Earth, or Central World, stands in water held on the back of a colossal creature that may be a turtle, a huge fish, a bull, or a mammoth. The movement of this animal causes earthquakes. The Central World is surrounded by an immense belt that connects it to the Lower World through an umbilicus of sorts; it connects to the Upper World by the Pillar of the World. The Upper World consists of three or more strata. On the navel of the Earth stands the Cosmic Tree, which reaches up to the dwelling of the upper gods.
The Lower World, Central World, and Upper World are all inhabited by spirit-beings. Among the Mongolian and Turkish peoples, Ülgen, a benevolent deity and the god of the Upper World, has seven sons and nine daughters. Among the Buryat of southern Siberia, Tengri (often identified with Ülgen) also has children—the western ones being good and the eastern ones wicked. The gods of the Buryats number 99 and fall into two categories: the 55 good gods of the west whose attribute is “white,” and the 44 wicked gods of the east whose attribute is “black.” The leader of the latter is Erlen khan, a figure equivalent to Erlik khan of the Altai Kizhi people, who is the ruler of the Underworld. Besides gods and the progeny of gods—both sons and daughters—other spirits also inhabit all three worlds. Fire is also personified, as is the Earth itself. Such personifications are represented in idols as well. Humans are thought to have a body, a soul, or even several souls. Among these may be a mirror soul, which can be seen when looking into water, and a shadow soul, which is visible when the sun is shining.
The extraordinary profession of the shaman naturally distinguishes him socially. The belief that he communicates with the spirits gives him authority. Furthermore, the belief that his actions may not only bring benefit but also harm makes him feared. Even a good shaman may do inadvertent harm, and a wicked shaman, who is in contact with the spirits of the Lower World, is very alarming.
In consequence of his profession, the shaman cannot go hunting and fishing and cannot participate in productive work; therefore, he must be supported by the community, which considers his professional activity necessary. Some shamans make use of their special position for economic gain. Among the reindeer-raising Evenk of northern Siberia, poor families traditionally paid yearly one animal, and rich ones two, three, or even four animals, to the shaman for his activities. A saying of the Altai Kizhi illustrates this situation: “If the beast becomes ill, the dogs fatten; if man becomes ill, the shaman fattens.”
Among the Evenk, it was the duty of every member of the clan to aid the shaman economically. When distributing the fishing spots in the spring and summer, the part of the river most abundant in fish was given to the shaman. He was aided in grazing and herding his reindeer in autumn, and in winter the members of the clan went hunting in his stead. Even furs were presented to the shaman occasionally. The social authority of the shaman was shown through the honours bestowed on him and the practice of always giving him the best food. Generally, the shaman was never contradicted, nor was any unfavourable opinion expressed about him behind his back.
Such an economic and social position resulted in the shaman attaining political power. As early as 1752, for instance, it was noted that the Tungus shaman was also the leader of his clan. Along the Yenisey River, shamans led armed groups of the Evenk on the left and the right banks who fought against each other. In the northern forest regions of Mongolia the shamans stood at the head of the tribes and clans. When the Buryat resisted Russian colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries, the shaman always led the fight. The ruler of one domain among the Vadeyev Samoyed in northern Siberia was a shaman as well as a reigning prince.
Scholars generally agree that the shaman acquires his profession through inheritance, instruction, or an inner calling or vocation, but each of these terms requires some qualification. In this context, “inheritance” means that the soul of a dead shaman, or alternatively the so-called shaman illness, is inherited. “Instruction” here does not usually mean the study of exact knowledge and explicit dogma, for it is believed that the shaman is taught by the spirits. The inner “calling” is in reality not the call of the person but of the spirit who has chosen him and who forces him to accept this vocation. This compulsion is unavoidable. “Had I not become shaman, I would have died,” said a Nivkh (southeastern Siberia). The future shaman of the Altai Kizhi was subjected to terrible torture until, finally, he grasped the drum and began to act as a shaman.
According to the abundant literature on the subject and the experience of investigators in the field, no one voluntarily ventures into the shaman role, nor does a candidate have time to study the role. Such study, however, is not necessary, because those born into a culture with shamanistic beliefs know them thoroughly, and when the call arrives, the future shaman can learn specific practices by close observation of active shamans, including the techniques of trance.
The various qualitative categories by which shamans are distinguished—small, intermediate, and great—are explained by the category of the spirit who chose the shaman. It is evident, however, that the level of professional expertise shown by the shaman depends on the personal abilities of the shaman himself, including his mental capacities, dramatic talent, and power to make his will effective. All these elements add to the quality of the shaman’s performance and the art expressed therein.
Shamans are said to be born to their role, as is evident in certain marks distinguishing them from ordinary people. For instance, a shaman may be born with more bones in his body—e.g., teeth or fingers—than other people. He does not become a shaman simply by willing it, for it is not the shaman who summons up the spirits but they, the supernatural beings, who choose him. Adolescence typically marks the point when the spirits begin to take an overt role in the shaman’s life, although variations in the age of onset do occur. The spirits may cause the chosen one to fall into hysterics, to faint repeatedly, to have visions, or to have similar symptoms, with these events sometimes persisting for weeks.
Eventually, in a vision or a dream, the being or beings who have chosen the shaman appear and announce their intentions. This call is necessary for the shaman to acquire his powers. The spirits first lavish the unwilling shaman-to-be with all sorts of promises and, if they do not win his consent, go on to torment him. Known as “shaman illness,” these torments will anguish him for months, and in some cases for years—that is, for as long as the human does not accept the profession of shaman. When the candidate finally gives way, he typically falls asleep and sleeps for a long time—generally three days, seven days, or thrice three days. During this “long sleep” the candidate, according to belief, is cut into pieces by the spirits, who count his bones, determining whether he truly has an “extra bone.” If so, he has become a shaman. Some people, such as the Mongols and the Manchu-Tungus, initiate the shaman formally and publicly. They introduce him to the supernatural beings, and he symbolically ascends the “tree-up-to-the-heavens”—that is, the pole representing it.
A perspective that was once widespread but has since been discredited held that shamanism results from psychosis. According to this view, a person would become a shaman at puberty when, especially in subarctic and Arctic climatic conditions, changes in his constitution and nervous system resulted in the onset of mental illness. Social and ethnic factors were seen to increase the likelihood of a psychotic break, as when a person who was born with certain marks felt he must therefore be destined to the vocation. His fears of becoming a shaman, according to this theory, created the hallucinations associated with trance, and the hallucinations reinforced the belief that he would inevitably become a shaman. While popular in the mid-20th century, a myriad of analyses have since discounted this view. Although they do not completely deny the role of personal crisis in shaman initiation, such analyses have postulated that the initiate’s revelation owes more to broad cultural influences (such as the status shamans have in a given culture), specific historical circumstances (such as an invasion, epidemic, or flood), or population growth (the number and age of current shamans relative to the rest of the community) than by the mental health of the individual.
Degrees of proficiency
Shamans differ greatly in quality and in degree of expertise or adeptness. Difference of quality is manifest in the kind of spirits the shaman communicates with. “White” shamans, for example, apply to a benevolent deity and the good spirits, while “black” shamans call on a wicked deity and the wicked spirits. The difference in degree is exemplified in the belief, of the Sakha (Yakut) people of northeastern Siberia, that the souls of the future shamans are reared upon an immensely high tree in the Upper World, in nests at various heights. The greatest shamans are brought up close to the top of the tree, the intermediate ones toward the middle, and the lesser ones on the lower branches. Hence, shamans may be classified into three groups: great, intermediate, and least, according to their powers.
It is the obligation of the shaman to know all matters that human beings need to know in everyday life but are unable to learn through their own capacities. A shaman foresees events distant in time and space, discovers the place of a lost animal, forecasts prospects for fishing and hunting, and assists in increasing the gain. He is also a healer and a psychopomp, one who accompanies the dead to their otherworldly domain. He fulfills all these obligations by communicating directly with the spirits whenever he pleases.
The shaman’s assistance is necessary at the three great life passages: birth, marriage, and death. If a woman has not borne a child, for instance, then, according to the belief of the Nanai (Golds), in the Amur region of northeastern Asia, the shaman ascends to heaven and sends her an embryo soul (omija) from the tree of embryos (omija muoni). Among the Buryat, the shaman performs libations after birth to keep the infant from crying and to help it develop more quickly. Among the Nanai, when death occurs the shaman is necessary to catch the soul of the deceased floating in the universe and to escort it to the Yonder World.
Illness is believed to be caused by the spirits, who must be appeased for a cure to be effected. Among the Khanty of northern Siberia, the shaman decides how many reindeer should be sacrificed to appease the spirit who causes an illness. Among the Altai Kizhi, he states which körmös (soul of the dead) caused the disaster and what to do to conciliate it. Alternatively, illness might be caused by soul loss, in which the soul leaves the patient’s body and falls into the hands of spirits who are angry with it and therefore torment it; the shaman liberates the strayed soul. Illness also may be caused by spirits entering into a person’s body; the shaman cures the patient by driving the spirits out.
Forms of revelation
The shaman may fulfill his obligations either by communicating with the spirits at will or through trance. The latter has two forms: trances of possession, in which the body of the shaman is possessed by the spirit, and wandering trances, in which his soul departs into the realm of spirits. In the former the possessed gets into an intense mental state and shows superhuman strength and knowledge: he quivers, rages, struggles, and finally falls into a condition similar to unconsciousness. After accepting the spirit, the shaman regains a degree of consciousness and becomes its mouthpiece — “he becomes him who entered him.”
In active, or wandering, trances the shaman’s life functions decrease to an abnormal minimum. The soul of the shaman, it is believed, then leaves his body and seeks one of the world strata. After awakening, he relates his experiences, where he wandered, and with whom he spoke. There are also cases in which possession and wandering combine, as when the spirit first enters the shaman and then leads his soul to the world of supernatural beings.
Dress and equipment
A shaman wears regalia, some part of which usually imitates an animal—most often a deer, a bird, or a bear. It may include a headdress made of antlers or a band into which feathers of birds have been pierced. The footwear is also symbolic—iron deer hooves, birds’ claws, or bears’ paws. The clothing of the shamans among the Tofalar (Karagasy), Soyet, and Darhat are decorated with representations of human bones—ribs, arm, and finger bones. The shamans of the Goldi-Ude tribe perform the ceremony in a singular shirt and in a front and back apron on which there are representations of snakes, lizards, frogs, and other animals.
Mongol shaman wearing a ritual gown and holding a drum with the image of a spirit helper, c. 1909.
National Museum of Finland
An important device of the shaman is the drum, which always has only one membrane. It is usually oval but sometimes round. The outer side of the membrane, and the inside as well among some peoples, is decorated with drawings; e.g., the Tatars of Abakan mark the membrane with images of the Upper and Lower Worlds. The handle is usually in the shape of a cross, but sometimes there is only one handle. The drumstick is made of wood or horn, and the beating surface is covered with fur. In some cases the drumstick is decorated with human and animal figures, and rattling rings often hang down from it.
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During the trance brought on by the sound of the drum, the spirits move to the shaman—into him or into the drum—or the soul of the shaman travels to the realm of the spirits. In the latter case the shaman makes the journey on the drum as if riding on an animal, the drumstick being his lash. Sometimes the shaman makes the journey on a river and the drum is his boat, the drumstick his oar. All this is revealed in the shaman song. Besides the drum, the Buryat shaman sometimes makes the journey with sticks ending in the figure of a horse’s head. The shaman of the Tungus people, who raise reindeer, makes the journey on a stick ending in the figure of a reindeer’s head. Among some people, the shaman wears a metal disk known as a shaman-mirror.
Drama and dance
Shamanic symbolism is presented through dramatic enactment and dance. The shaman, garbed in regalia, lifts his voice in song to the spirits. This song is improvised but contains certain obligatory images and similes, dialogue, and refrains. The performance always takes place in the evening. The theatre is a conical tent or a yurt; the stage is the space around the fire where the spirits are invoked. The audience consists of the invited members of the clan, awaiting the spirits in awe. A stage lighter and decorator, the shaman’s assistant, tends the fire so as to throw fantastic shadows onto the wall. All these effects help those present to visualize everything that the recited action of the shaman narrates.
The shaman is simultaneously an actor, dancer, singer, and, indeed, a whole orchestra. This restless figure is a fascinating sight, with his cloak floating in the light of a fire in which anything might be imagined. The ribbons of his regalia flit around him, his round mirror reflects the flames, and his accoutrements jingle. The sound of his drum excites not only the shaman but also his audience. An integral characteristic of this drama is that those who are present are not mere objective spectators but rather faithful believers, and their belief enables the shaman to achieve results, as in healing physical or mental illnesses.
Among some people—the Altai Kizhi, for instance—a tall tree is set into the smoke opening at the top of the tent, symbolizing the Tree of the World. The shaman ascends the tree to the height of the Upper World, which is announced to his audience through the text of his song.
Persistence of shamanism
Traces of shamanism may be found among peoples who have been converted to other religions, as in the Finno-Ugric peoples who became Christians (see Finno-Ugric religion), Turkic peoples in Central Asia and Asia Minor who became Muslim, and Mongols who became Buddhists. Among the Finns, the tietäjä, a figure equivalent to the shaman, also is born with one more tooth than normal. Among the Osmanlı Turks of Asia Minor, the horned headwear of the shaman is remembered in popular belief. Among groups that have converted to Christianity, Islam, or another world religion, former shamanistic practices may be revealed through an analysis of folklore and folk beliefs. An example of such a case is the discovery of shamanism in early Hungarian cultures. In contrast, shamanism was excluded among the Khalkha-Mongolian and eastern Buryat, who became Buddhists, and among the Kazakh and Kyrgyz who adopted Islam, and it was greatly changed and developed into an atypical form by the Manchurians.
In northern Asia shamanism appears in various forms. In the most northern parts, among the Chukchi, Koryak, and Itelmen, the shaman does not exist as a member of a special profession; instead, the role is fulfilled by a suitable member of the family—often an old woman. Elsewhere, many shamans are transgender persons who have adopted feminine (if male) or masculine (if female) clothing and behaviour. Among the Yukaghir of Arctic Siberia, shamanism is part of the cult of the clan; so also among pockets in the Ob-Ugrian peoples and among all three Altaic peoples: Turkic, Mongol, and Manchu-Tungus. These groups all rely on professional shamans.
Certain scholars have investigated ecstatic actions that may be adjudged outside the area of shamanism in the strictest sense. Mircea Eliade studied these phenomena in North and South America, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Tibet, and China (see below Shamans outside of northern Asia), and S.P. Tokarev studied them in Africa. Some scholars suppose that the phenomena of shamanism spread to the two American continents when the first settlers migrated from Asia. The shamanistic phenomena in the Shintō religion of Japan are attributed to the migration of nomadic peoples from the territory bordering northern Korea.
Those who oppose this broad usage of the term shamanism argue that an apparent structural similarity among phenomena in widely separated areas does not justify an assertion of a common source or that typological similarity must be distinguished from a genetic connection. For them, shamanism may be attributed only to a precise pattern of cultural phenomena in a specific, well-defined territory, one that forms a concrete, systematic whole, such as the religious systems of the peoples mentioned at the beginning of this section.
Shamans outside of northern Asia
Although the classic model and most complete expression of shamanism is found in the Arctic and Central Asian regions, the phenomenon must not be considered as limited to those countries. It is encountered, for example, in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and among many American aboriginal tribes, although it does not play a role of the first order in Africa except among those few groups that have remained hunters and gatherers, such as the San. A distinction is to be made, however, between the religions dominated by a shamanistic ideology and by shamanistic techniques (as is the case with Siberian and Indonesian religions) and those in which shamanism constitutes instead a secondary phenomenon.
The American Arctic
Shamanism predominates in the religious life of the Inuit and Yupik (Eskimo) peoples. In these cultures the chief prerogatives of the shaman (angakok; plural angákut) are healing and trance-based underwater journeys to the Mother of Animals for the purpose of assuring an abundance of game and aiding childless women in conception. Sickness is brought on by the violation of a taboo or results from the capture of the soul by a ghost. In the first case the shaman strives to drive out the impurity by collective confessions; in the second case the shaman undertakes a journey to heaven or to the depths of the sea to retrieve the sick person’s soul and restore it to its body. The angakok is also a specialist in magic flight. Some are reputed to have visited the Moon; others claim to have flown around the Earth. They also know the future, make prophecies, predict changes in the weather, and excel at magic feats.
Among many American Indian peoples shamanism constitutes the most important aspect of the religious life. The shaman is characterized by supernatural power acquired as the result of a direct personal experience. Whether this power is obtained spontaneously or after a voluntary vision quest, the future shaman has to undergo certain initiatory trials. In general, shamans in these groups utilize their power in such a way as to affect the whole society. The shaman’s principal function is healing, but important roles may also exist in other magico-religious rites related to communal hunting, secret societies, or mystical movements such as the Ghost Dance.
North and South American shamans, like all their fellows, claim to control the weather, know the future, be able to expose the perpetrators of thefts, and so on. A shaman enjoys considerable prestige and authority as a healer, as the intermediary between humans and the gods or spirits, and, in certain regions, as the guide of souls of the dead to their new abode. They also guarantee that ritual observances are properly conducted, defend the tribe against evil spirits and sorcery, point out places for fruitful hunting and fishing, increase wildlife, and ease childbirth. South American shamans can also fill the role of sorcerer; they can, for example, become animals and drink the blood of their enemies.
It is probable that a certain form of shamanism was diffused on the two American continents with the first waves of immigrants from Asia; later contacts between northern Asia and North America made Asian influence possible well after the penetration of the first immigrants.
Southeast Asia and Oceania
Shamanism is prevalent in the Malay Peninsula and in Oceania. Among the peoples of the Malay Peninsula, the shaman heals with the help of celestial spirits or by using crystals of quartz. But the influence of Indo-Malayan beliefs is noticeable, too, as when shamans are said to change into tigers or to achieve trance by dancing. In the Andaman Islands the shaman gets his power from contact with spirits. The most common method is to “die” and return to life, the traditional pattern of shamanic initiation. The shamans gain their reputation through their acts of healing and the quality of the weather they create through meteorological magic.
The distinctive marks of Malayan shamanism are the calling forth of the tiger’s spirit and the achievement of the trance (lupa), during which the spirits seize the shaman, possess him, and reply to questions asked by the audience. Mediumistic qualities also are characteristic of different forms of shamanism in Sumatra, Borneo, and Celebes. Among the Ngadju-Dayak of Borneo there exists a special class of shamans, the basirs (literally, “incapable of procreation”). These intersex individuals (hermaphrodites) are considered to be intermediaries between heaven and earth because they unite in their own person the feminine element (earth) and the masculine element (heaven).
Possession by gods or spirits is a peculiarity of Polynesian ecstatic religion. The extreme frequency of possession in that region has made possible a proliferation of priests, inspired persons, healers, and sorcerers, any of whom may perform magical cures. For this reason it is not possible to speak of shamanism stricto sensu in Polynesia.
Among Australian Aborigines, a person becomes a shaman through a ritual of initiatory death, followed by a resurrection to a new and superhuman condition. This initiatory death, like that of the Siberian shaman, has two specific marks not found elsewhere in combination: first, a series of operations performed on the candidate’s body (opening of the abdomen, renewal of the organs, washing and drying of the bones, insertion of magical substances); second, an ascent to heaven, sometimes followed by trance journeys into the otherworld. The revelations concerning the secret techniques of the medicine men are obtained in trance, a dream, or in the waking state before, during, or after the initiatory ritual proper.