What is Shamanism?

Shamanism is humanity's original spiritual practice. Before there were religions, or priestesses and priests, there were tribal shamans. Shamans undertake a trance journey into mythic realms to directly experience revelations from the Divine, in the form of compassionate helping spirits.

Some anthropologists date shamanism back to humanity’s Stone Age. Other anthropologists believe shamanism arose before the end of human evolution. There is archaeological evidence of shamanism beginning around 40,000 years ago. Certainly the cave paintings and petroglyphs of the Stone Age speak of the same mysteries of ecstasy, empowerment and healing shamans experience today.

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We also know that shamanism is extremely ancient because it is found in tribal societies on all the continents. This hints that shamanism developed as a cultural practice before the global diaspora of the human family. Shamanism has been documented in cultures throughout Native America, particularly in the Amazon River basin, in Asia, especially in Korea, throughout Siberia, in the Arctic among the Inuit, or Eskimos, among the Australian Aborigines and other Pacific peoples, in many parts of Africa, in ancient Scandinavia and the Baltic nations, and even today among the last remaining tribal culture in Europe, the Saami or Laplanders.

Shamanism has survived every cultural shift from the Neolithic through the Industrial Revolution and into the post-Modern era for one reason: shamanism works. The healing methods used by shamans are amazingly, miraculously, mysteriously effective. Shamanic healing methods are also astoundingly similar throughout all of these widely separated regions.

The unique aspect of shamanism, found among all of these diverse people, is the shamanic journey. Shamans experience a journey out of their bodies and into the mystic realms of spirit. In these magical realms, wise animals, deities and ancestors in spirit form empower the shaman, and assist the shaman to help and heal other people as well. Most people enter these realms only through myths or dreams. But shamans enter the realms of spirit at will, going into shamanic trance by listening to rapid drumming, rattling or song.

Shamans experience a layered cosmology, in which our everyday world, our realm, is in the middle, with worlds below us, and worlds above us. These other realities transcend the limitations of space and time. The lower worlds are generally the realm of spirit animals and plants, embodied oversouls of entire species, compassionate allies and helpers. The worlds above us are the realm of wise spirit teachers, ancestors and deities. Both worlds, upper and lower, are places shamans go for lessons in healing, wholeness and power.

Only in our world, the physical realm, is there suffering. In both the upper world and the lower world, the spirits are compassionate and loving towards people. The upper and lower world spirits are motivated to heal those who suffer here in the middle.

In addition to the upper worlds and the lower worlds, there is a hidden dimension of this middle realm, where the hidden folk such as Elves, Faeries, Dwarves and other spiritual beings known from folklore live. And this hidden dimension of our middle world is also home to the individual spirits of rocks, plants, trees, rivers and other natural features of our world. Shamans believe that all beings are alive with consciousness, and all beings have spirit. Shamans will often speak to the spirits of trees, or fire, or rocks and hills, to consult them and learn wisdom from them.

People in America often think of Carlos Castaneda when they hear the word "shaman", but the shamanism described in Castaneda's books is hardly typical. Most tribal shamans are healers, more like physicians than magicians or sorcerers. Since modern medicine is not easily available in tribal societies even today, many tribal people still depend on the local shamans to heal their ills. In addition to their spiritual methods, many tribal shamans also know a great deal about plants and herbal remedies, often learned from the plant spirits themselves.

Shamanism remained quietly nurtured in tribal societies until well into the 20th century. Early anthropologists misunderstood shamanism, and often thought the local shamans were foolish, eccentric or even mentally ill. In the mid 20th century, a Romanian scholar of comparative religion, Mircea Eliade, published Shamanism, a classic overview of shamanism around the world. Eliade’s work influenced anthropologists to study tribal shamans more closely during their fieldwork. Some anthropologists were even initiated into tribal shamanic practices.

Chief among these is Michael Harner, educated at University of California at Berkeley, and author of The Way of the Shaman. Michael Harner began studying shamanism in 1961, during anthropological fieldwork among the Jivaro or Shuar tribe on the border of Ecuador and Peru in the Amazon rainforest. When he came back to America, Harner taught anthropology at Columbia, Yale and the New School for Social Research. But in the late 1970s, Harner did something no anthropologist had ever done before: he began teaching shamanism to a few of his students, modern people here in America.

Over time, Michael Harner developed the idea of core shamanism. Core shamanism reduces shamanism to a series of techniques while eliminating the cultural matrix that originally surrounded the shamanic technique. Michael Harner found that deducing shamanic training techniques known from tribal cultures using first principles reasoning resulted in spirit initiations for many if not most of his students. Harner had discovered an effective way of training shamanic healers in North American culture. By 1985, Harner had created the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, now an international organization with a large faculty. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies runs the most comprehensive training program for shamanic healers currently available.

I am a 2001 graduate of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies' Three Year Program in Advanced Shamanism and Shamanic Healing. I have also studied other types of shamanism, such as psychopomp work, extraction healing and weather working. Most recently, I graduated in 2006 from Sandra Ingerman’s Two Year Shamanic Teacher Training program, as well as Sandra’s Medicine for the Earth Training, the Medicine for the Earth Teacher Training, and Healing with Spiritual Light. Besides Michael Harner and Sandra Ingerman, my shamanic teachers are Larry Peters, Nan Moss and David Corbin and Myron Eshowsky.

My own healing through soul retrieval set me on the shamanic path in 1989. I am very grateful to Fred Tietjen for my healing, and also for teaching me how to journey. However, I began studying armchair shamanism all the way back in 1976, as an undergraduate in anthropology at Bryn Mawr College. Like most of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies graduates, I practice core shamanism.

Core shamanism allows shamanism to be born anew, appropriate for a new cultural matrix in our diverse modern world. Modern life is substantially different from life in a Stone Age tribe. We rarely need shamanism for hunting magic these days, for example. The traditional shamanic technique of remote viewing has been superseded by the telephone and the internet. But many of the shamanic healing techniques found in tribal societies are just as applicable to modern life as they were to tribal life, especially extraction, depossession, soul retrieval, power animal retrieval and psychopomp work. And those techniques form the core of my work as a professional shamanic healer.

Also, in modern times, it is unrealistic to think that students could apprentice to a professional shaman for a period of many years. Modern shamanic training takes place during retreats lasting only a week or a weekend, with most of the work done at home, individually, guided by the spirits themselves. However, one thing has remained constant in shamanism: the compassionate healing spirits continue to teach the same methods of shamanic healing that have stood the test of time for millennia, methods discovered and rediscovered by shamanic practitioners over the ages, taught by the spirits themselves.

© Caroline Kenner, 2002