Shamanism Research Paper

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Shamanism has commanded scholarly and intellectual attention in Western academia since the 18th century. Current anthropologists discredit much of the historic literature as methodologically unscientific, revealing more about the biases and fascinations of Western writers than about their subjects. Nevertheless, the ethnographic record on shamanism is rich and has informed scholars from numerous disciplines, including religious studies, history, and psychology.

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Anthropologists use shaman in several different ways. Most narrowly, and arguably most appropriately, it denotes magico-religious specialists of the Siberian Tungus people. The word saman comes from the Tungus verb sa—“to know.” Noting similarities and cultural diffusion, scholars expanded the term to indicate similar practitioners in other circumboreal cultures and central Asia. Most commonly, shaman refers to a theoretical category of magico-religious specialists in cultures all over the world and across time. Scholars debate vigorously about what constitutes shamanism in this broader sense. Indeed, they argue about whether such a global phenomenon really exists, or is just a construction of the modern Western imagination.

This research paper provides an overview of shamanism, first reviewing theories that advance core characteristics of shamanism, and then summarizing the critiques of the category of shamanism. Next is a discussion of several major topics: the shamanistic worldview; the call and training of the shaman; the shaman and altered states of consciousness; the work of the shaman in the community; and neoshamanism, a recent form of shamanic practice developed in Western urban areas. The paper concludes with suggestions for future lines of inquiry and a select list of core works on the topic for further reading. Discussion of specific cultures is beyond the scope of this research paper.

Definitions of Shamanism

By the 1930s, the term shamanism was applied indiscriminately to almost anything “supernatural” outside the “world religions” and became virtually meaningless. To discover their essential characteristics, Shirokogoroff (1935) returned to the Tungus shamans. Acknowledging that shamanic methods differ from culture to culture, he perceived a complex that extends beyond cultural boundaries that would be recognizable to the shamans themselves. He reported that the Tungus shamans and the Manchu shamans recognize each other’s power without knowing each other’s methods.

Shirokogoroff’s Definition

Shirokogoroff proposed six formal characteristics of shamanism. First and putatively most important, shamans are masters of spirits. Shamans control the spirits and their interactions with them in sharp contrast to those controlled or possessed by the spirits.

Second, the shaman masters numerous spirits. The spirits in the shaman’s arsenal have various qualities under the shaman’s command. Typically, the shaman begins with one or a few spirits, and then learns to master others with their help. In many cultures, the assessment of a shaman’s power is directly proportionate to the number of spirits mastered.

Third, there are culturally recognized methods for working with spirits. The techniques include means of contact and breaking contact, and ways of attracting and caring for spirits and maintaining right relations with them. These practices vary from culture to culture and continually develop and change, yet they exist in some form wherever there is shamanism.

Fourth, except perhaps where shamanism has been outlawed, shamans in every culture use paraphernalia, costumes, or special equipment to enhance their power.

Fifth, for shamanism to exist, there must be some accepted theoretical basis. A belief in spirits and an understanding of their characteristics and modes of operation is essential. Moreover, people must believe that humans can interact with spirits and “master” them. The level of theoretical sophistication varies from shaman to shaman, but shamanism is always rooted in a theoretical foundation.

Finally, shamans play a recognized and integral role in their culture. A shaman does not master spirits for the sake of mastering spirits, but to serve the community.

Eliade’s Theory of Shamanism

Shirokogoroff’s work strongly influenced the Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1951/1964). Eliade was not an anthropologist. He was the quintessential armchair scholar, fluent in several European languages (but not native languages) and well versed in the literature. Philosophically, Eliade believed in a core human nature and therefore common types of experiences. However, he acknowledged the variety of ways the core experiences can be expressed and interpreted in different cultures. One type of core experience is what he called a hierophany, a direct experience of the sacred. In the ethnographic record of shamanism, Eliade believed he had discovered archaic techniques that enable direct perception of the Divine. He called shamanism “techniques of ecstasy,” from the Greek ekstasis of the Dionysiac mysteries, “to stand outside oneself.”

Eliade built on Shirokogoroff’s definition of shamanism, enunciating a more general pattern of shamanism that he claimed is universal, justifying his theory in a tour de force review of the literature. One emphasis added to the definition was a focus on the shamanic sickness as initiation. This sickness is ecstatic and often contains experiences in which the shaman-to-be is dismembered, descends to the underworld, and ascends to the celestial world. During these experiences, a spirit being—usually a tutelary spirit—informs the future shaman of his calling. The training from the tutelary spirit operates simultaneously with that provided by elder shamans.

In Eliade’s conception, the soul journey, or magical flight, is the quintessential shamanic experience. The soul of the shaman can go into the spirit world, including down into the underworld, elsewhere in the middle world in an “out of body” state, or up into the celestial world. All of these are linked by the Axis Mundi, often understood as the cosmic or world tree. The ecstatic flight or journey is highly visual and strongly geographic. The shaman also experiences the other senses in trance. Like Shirokogoroff, Eliade excluded trance states in which the individual is possessed by spirits. Eliade’s work emphasized the psychological and mystical state of the shaman, touching upon, but not deeply analyzing, the role of the shaman in the community.

Other Definitions

Shirokogoroff and Eliade remain powerful influences in the continuing debate about shamanism. This section will summarize some of the major directions of the debate.

One of the most significant points of contention is whether categorically excluding possession trances is correct. In numerous cultures, shamans call the spirits and are possessed by them rather than going on a soul journey to the spirit realm. In many of these rites, the shaman maintains full consciousness and control. The exclusion of possession trances, then, is related to the concept of mastery. At first glance, it seems as though those who are possessed by spirits are mastered by them rather than being the master. A closer look reveals that often both soul-journey trances and possession trances are practiced in a single culture, and sometimes by the same individual. The medium often deliberately invokes and concludes the trance, rather than being controlled by the spirits. There is not agreement among scholars about whether possession-type trances should be considered as a type of shamanism. Some researchers refer to such practices as “shamanism of the possession type,” whereas others exclude it. Hultkrantz (1973) presents a phenomenological definition that accepts the emic view. In this definition, the shaman is a professional, inspired intermediary who has direct contact with the spiritual world through ecstatic experiences and uses this contact on behalf of the shaman’s society. What, therefore, separates a shaman from a different type of professional intermediary is the use of ecstatic experiences.

Another key issue in shamanic studies is the tendency to emphasize ecstasy to the neglect of investigating the role of shamans in relation to their societies. Porterfield (1987) advanced a definition of shamanism that emphasized the role of the shaman’s body as the locus of symbolic activity. Shamans embody symbols in performance on behalf of their community, and the meaning ultimately resides not with the shaman but with the audience’s interpretation of the performance. Porterfield’s attention to the interactive and social nature of shamanism is a corrective to theories that neglect this aspect. However, this and similar theories are criticized by some scholars for being materialistic and reductionist, the spirits being defined as “disguised representations of human desire” (p. 736).

Problems With the Category of Shamanism

Generating a clear, agreed-upon definition for shamanism is a difficult undertaking. Anthropologists worry that classifications across cultures may overgeneralize from the particular cultural data. As a result, such universalized, conceptual categories may reveal more about the culture of the scholars than the cultures they study. Therefore the construction of the exotic “other” is not and has never been politically neutral. In addition, contemporary anthropologists are gravely concerned not to harm the subjects of their studies. Shamanism is a particularly worrisome category because of how closely it is bound to Western attitudes toward indigenous peoples.

The history of shamanic studies is problematic from the beginning. Cultural anthropology began with evolutionary notions that the so-called “primitive” societies were vestiges of earlier developmental stages and represented the “past” of modern, Western industrialized man. All societies deemed primitive were non-Western and nonindustrialized, and they were not state-based societies. Shamanism was, therefore, considered a more primitive form of religion and was often mentioned in the company of words like superstition and delusion. The category was applied fairly indiscriminately to specialists who had some dealing with the supernatural. Eventually, the field of anthropology changed and smaller-scale and nonindustrialized cultures were no longer interpreted as being vestigial.

The next significant phase in interpreting shamanism focused on the putative insanity of the shaman. Now a new Western norm, derived from the modern field of psychology, determined the understanding of shamanism. The shaman was typically diagnosed as neurotic or schizophrenic. In some studies, especially prominently in Soviet studies, the shaman was portrayed as a huckster, manipulating the naive and credulous populous for personal gain. Either way, these interpretations undermined indigenous epistemologies and served an agenda of acculturation. Shirokogoroff (1935) and others challenged the view that shamans were insane, demonstrating the integrity of the worldview of the Tungus and the shaman’s place within it.

Eliade’s tome, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951/1964), marked a significant shift. Suddenly, shamanism was idealized rather than pathologized. However, critics of Eliade’s work have argued that he was careless in generalizing from particulars, overstating the case in support of his larger philosophical project. Eliade relied on numerous sources, but not all were of high quality, and he did not spend any time in field studies. Instead Eliade spent his life trying to uncover the nature of religious consciousness. In shamanism, he saw direct apprehension of the sacred. He believed the pure and continual revelation of the sacred had been dissipated and removed from direct experience by the institutionalization of the historical world religions. In shamanism, it had not. For this reason, Eliade and some scholars who have used his theories in their own works are criticized for romantic primitivism, the projection of an idealized simpler and more sacred way of life onto a people deemed more pure and primitive.

Some scholars, like Kehoe (2000), question whether the concept of shamanism is anything but a Western construction of a stereotyped “other.” This school of thought limits the study of shamanism to the Siberian practitioners from whom the term was derived. More commonly, scholars replace a universalist concept with the idea of shamanisms or use the adjective shamanistic. But the category of shamanism is still widely used.

The Shamanic Worldview

Most contemporary scholars of shamanism acknowledge that while there is considerable variation in practices and beliefs among cultures that contain shamanism, there are several core theoretical elements in the shamanic complex that are shared. First and foremost is a belief in the spiritual, or noncorporeal, worlds. Not only are the spiritual worlds real—they are populated. Human beings can communicate and interact with these spirit beings.

There is also a particular understanding of the composition of a human being. All people have at least one free or separable soul; that is, a person is not contained within her body but has an aspect that can travel in the noncorporeal worlds. This ability to travel in the spiritual worlds enables shamans to be mediators between the spirits and their communities. This understanding of the body as a host for a separable soul or souls is also behind the theories of the illnesses that shamans cure.

Other beings, including animals, plants, and natural phenomena, also have separable souls. Therefore, all beings are conscious or are linked to a spirit in the spirit world; it is important for communities to maintain harmonious relations with these other beings so that the spirits are not motivated to harm them.

Societies with shamanism often observe an annual rite of renewal. Frequently, a pole or tree symbol unites the upper, middle, and lower worlds. Sometimes rivers flow into the spirit worlds, or special holes with ladders make the connection. Regardless of these differences, there is some symbolism linking the physical world and the spiritual worlds, and this “geography” is used by shamans to move between the worlds. For the shaman, this geography is not metaphoric but experiential.

The relationship of the shaman to his spirits is central to this worldview. The shaman demonstrates mastery in relation to the spirit helpers. Typically, one spirit plays a special role with the shaman. Often it is the first spirit the shaman works with and is sometimes called a tutelary, guardian, or familiar spirit. This spirit teaches the shaman-to-be about the spiritual worlds and helps her master other spirits. Spirits often have areas of expertise or particular personality traits, and the shaman’s powers are related to the number and qualities of the spirits mastered. These spirits may take on multiple forms, including animal forms.

The shaman’s relationship with the tutelary or familiar spirit is different from the relationship with other spirits, sometimes a type of marriage. This main spirit may be an ancestor who was a shaman or the spirit of a recently deceased shaman. In some traditions, the shaman may merge with this spirit, enabling the shaman to shape-shift in the spiritual worlds and enabling the spirit to act through a corporeal body.

Spirits perform numerous roles for the shaman. They teach. They deliver messages and inspire. They travel and gather information. They assist the shaman in journeys in the spiritual worlds. They may possess the shaman in order to act in the physical world. They assist with healing.

The Shamanic Vocation

The shamanic call, or vocation, is one of the most analyzed aspects of shamanism. The literature usually discusses the spontaneous call, but in various cultures people choose the vocation.

In Siberian shamanism and elsewhere, the calling is involuntary and spontaneous. The shaman-to-be experiences uncontrolled altered states of consciousness in which he is possessed or tormented by spirits demanding that the candidate learn to shamanize. This state, sometimes called the shamanic sickness, was widely analyzed in terms of a type of hysterical psychopathology that, through the process of learning to shamanize, does not lead to mental illness. Common symptoms include lethargy, erratic behavior, shaking, uncontrollable weeping, or significant physical illness. Seeking solitude in culturally abnormal ways (e.g., running away to live in the wild with animals for a period of time) may be a symptom. The spontaneous calling frequently occurs at the transition to sexual maturity, although for women it may be as they are passing out of their child-bearing years.

The psychological state of the candidate includes unsolicited and often unpleasant or frightening contact with spirits. The shaman-to-be may have visions and dreams, but these are fragmented and not controlled. Although not universal, experiences of being killed and resurrected by spirits while in an altered state of consciousness are common. At some point, the candidate accepts the call to become a shaman and starts learning to shamanize. Often this acceptance is accompanied by a belief that it would be fatal to resist.

From the emic perspective, the candidate receives training from two sources. First, the shaman is trained in an altered state of consciousness by the spirits who called the candidate. Second, the candidate begins training with an elder shaman, learning techniques and culturally specific aspects of the worldview. Through this process, the new shaman gains control over the altered states of consciousness, entering and leaving them at will. The new shaman also masters the knowledge and techniques essential for the societal role. Through this training and communal service, the shaman is recognized by the community as being a shaman. The assessment of whether an individual is a real shaman and the strength of the shaman’s reputation is in the hands of those served, based on whether the work is deemed effective. The community, including other shamans, also judges whether the shaman’s work is benevolent or malevolent. The initiatory levels or structures vary, but the ability of shamans to continue to gain supernatural power and corresponding prestige continues throughout their career.

The classic model of shamanic vocation is involuntary and spontaneous. This does not necessarily conflict with the fact that it is quasihereditary in many cultures. Often families are known to produce shamans. In those families, specific individuals are not predetermined to be shamans, but it is likely that someone will have the shamanic illness. More unusually, there are cultures in which candidates wishing to be shamans seek apprenticeship with experienced shamans without a spontaneous vocation.

The Shaman and Altered States of Consciousness

The aspect of shamanism that has generated the most discussion concerns the shaman’s ability to enter a normal state of consciousness. This section explores the characteristics of these altered states, the techniques used to induce them, and the significant explanatory theories. The terms in the literature vary. Early studies often used words that pathologized these states of consciousness— hallucination or fantasy. Eliade used the term ecstasy, which many others adopted. Unfortunately, ecstasy has a connotation of emotional excess in contemporary English. Later, to be more objective, scholars used trance or altered state of consciousness (ASC). Michael Harner (1980) postulated a specific shamanic state of consciousness, yet for the purposes of this research paper, ASC and trance refer to the state of consciousness experienced by shamans during their work.

Characteristics of Shamanic Altered States of Consciousness

There are two types of ASC in shamanism. The first, sometimes called the soul journey, is most often referred to as magical flight. The second is spirit possession.

Magical Flight

From the emic perspective, the magical flight is the travel of the shaman to the world of the spirits. The magical flight is a controlled visionary state and is strongly lucid and powerfully multisensory. The shaman in this state of consciousness believes these experiences to be as real as those experienced in the physical world during ordinary consciousness. The shaman is in control throughout. The magical flight has three phases: the journey to the spirit world, the experiences within the spirit world, and the return to the physical world. The shaman believes the experiences to be objectively real. However, shamans can distinguish between the spirit world and the physical world.

The shamanic spirit flights, from the perspective of the audience, appear very active. Shamans may speak as or embody the spirits, or make reference to them in dance or through the use of culturally shared symbols. They may describe what is happening on the journey or enact it. There is communicative interplay between the shaman and the audience during the séance. At the end, the shaman may give a fuller account of her adventures in the spirit world.

Spirit Possession

Although some scholars believe that spirit possession is not shamanic, many do identify a possession type of shamanism. In reality, shamans in most cultures perform both types of ASC. A shamanic-possession ASC may be distinguished from a mediumistic ASC by the fact that the shaman controls his possession. In this type of ASC, the shaman initiates the possession, allowing a spirit to use his body, and determines the duration of the possession. Sometimes a spirit may speak through the shaman, although in some cases the spirits enlighten the shaman who then conveys the information to the audience.

One area of inconsistency is whether the shaman remembers the possession trance. This seems to be largely a function of cultural expectations concerning the nature of possession. If the cultural theory is that the soul of a possessed shaman is no longer in the body, then the legitimacy of the possession is partly established by the fact that the shaman does not remember the trance. Numerous studies attest that in such societies, if pushed, the shamans usually remember. Possession type trances are more common among shamans who occupy oppressed positions within a society, particularly among women shamans in male-dominated societies. The putative amnesia functions to protect the female mediums from retribution. This calls into question whether or not the memory loss is feigned. In cases of spirit possession, as with magical flight, there is interactive communication between the shaman and the audience during the séance.

Depth of the Altered State of Consciousness

In both types of ASC, the shaman may be in a deep or a light trance. In the deeper state, she may appear to be comatose, even if full memory is retained afterward. In a lighter state of trance, the shaman may appear to be in an ordinary state of consciousness, but believes she is communicating with spirits. In the course of a séance, there is often a rhythm in which the shaman moves into deeper and lighter states of the ASC. It is usually not a steady state.

Techniques for Inducing Altered States of Consciousness

Although the methods for inducing the shamanic ASC are culturally specific, there are some common means by which these states are achieved. A particular culture may use multiple methods in combination, even within the context of a single séance.


Many cultures employ types of music, and sometimes dancing, to induce trance. The instruments are often believed to be independent beings. Siberian shamans speak of riding the spirit of their drum to the other worlds. Rouget (1980/1990), a musicologist, studied the types of music in various cultures that lead to an ASC. Musically, there were no common elements that could explain the trance-inducing properties. He concluded that in each culture the specific type of music that induces trance is identified as such and used within those contexts, and there is an expectation that it will produce an ASC. He proposed that the expectation creates the ASC.

Psychopharmacological Methods of Trance Induction

Some cultures use hallucinogenic substances to induce the ASC. The use of hallucinogens is most prominent among shamans in Central and South America but is found in other traditions. For example, Siberian shamans sometimes use the fly agaric mushroom to induce an ASC.

In many traditions using hallucinogenic plants, the plant ingested is understood as the body of a being that exists in the spirit world. This being is frequently met in the ASC and may act as a spirit helper. For example, the serpents encountered in ASC induced by ayahuasca are believed to be the spirit of the vine itself. These plants may be interpreted as “teachers.”

Meditative Techniques

Not all techniques for entering an ASC are as externally obvious or performative as those that use music or hallucinogens. Some shamans enter an ASC by quietly using internal imagery and contemplation. These methods may utilize sensory deprivation. As with all forms of shamanic trance, the shaman remains in control of the state of consciousness. These techniques are common in many North American tribes and, because of the quiet internal nature of the induction and the degree of lucidity, have sometimes been overlooked by researchers who did not realize the shaman was in an ASC. The significant difference between a shamanic trance induced by meditative techniques and one induced by meditation is that shamanic ASC is intended to enable shamanic work, which requires interaction with others. The goal of meditation is usually to achieve a state of absorption in which awareness of the outer world ceases.

Explanatory Theories

Scholars have advanced numerous theories about the shamanic ASC. There is no consensus about any of the theories.

Acceptance of the Emic Theories

Anthropology uses participant observation. In the course of research, some scholars have both undergone shamanic initiations and arrived at the conclusion that the emic theories about the shamanic ASC are correct. The most influential is Michael Harner (1980). From the emic perspective, there are legitimate, nonrational epistemologies that reveal the real, although noncorporeal, spirits and spirit worlds. Scholars convinced of the reality of the emic perspective believe that the other scholarly explanations are reductionistic and are modern Western overlays that reinforce the hegemony of Western materialism. Critics of those who accept the emic perspective call attention to the requirement in the scientific method that anyone be able to replicate the experiment. They are unwilling to accept the testimony of the anthropologists who had shamanic experiences in the course of their fieldwork. The rejoinder is that anyone who is willing to take the time and go through the arduous training to become a shaman can have such experiences. If, upon doing so, their testimony is automatically discounted by those who have not done the training, then the argument is circular and biased. If, on the other hand, a candidate who goes through the training and does not have shamanic experiences is always interpreted as being insufficiently prepared, then the argument becomes circular on the other side.


Although not currently accepted, the theory that the shamanic ASC is the result of insanity has a long history. Most commonly, the shaman’s claim to see and talk to spirits that others could not see was interpreted as a type of schizophrenia.

Drug-Induced Visions

The use of hallucinogenic substances yields a variety of explanatory theories. For some, the use of hallucinogens is interpreted through a purely materialist lens involving delusions that arise from manipulations in brain chemistry. On the other side of the spectrum, some of the strongest advocates of the emic perspective come out of traditions that used psychoactive substances to induce the ASC and see the physical changes as only one part of the experience.

Cultivation of the Imaginative Faculties

Noll (1985) analyzed shamanic training in terms of cultivating both the vividness and controlledness of visions. In the training process, the master shaman helps the apprentice develop high-imaginative vividness by systematically reinforcing those aspects of the apprentice’s experiential reports that are highly sensory. In this theory, the contact with spirits is understood as an increase in the vividness of the imaginative faculties, and mastery of the spirits is an increase in how well the visions are controlled. This theory is ontologically neutral. It does explain the shamanic ASC through the active use imagination, but it makes no claim about whether or not imaginative experiences are also real.

Role-Taking Techniques

This theory emphasizes the shaman’s understanding of his or her role, the expectations that go with it, and the community’s understanding and expectations of the shaman’s role. The ASC is interpreted symbolically and is determined by the cultural construction of the nature of the spirits and appropriate relationships with them. The shaman embodies this cultural script. This theory does not deny that there are psychological effects on the performer, but the emphasis is on the social role. What is particularly significant is the importance of the shaman’s body as a symbol. The shaman embodies, through his performance, the interaction with the spirits or the struggle of a sick person toward healing. Shamanic experiences are a type of performance art. It is not to be inferred that the shaman is performing without belief. In this way, it is different than theater. Much as with selfhypnosis, the expectation of what should happen allows the expectations to be met. This theory can be combined with other theories.

The Work of the Shaman in the Community

The shaman’s ASC is not an end in itself. The purpose is to work on behalf of the community. Shamans may have specialties and may not perform every function, but generally shamans work as healers, perform divination, serve as psychopomps, and facilitate hunting. The shaman maintains harmonious relations between the community and the spirit world and may fulfill other duties to this end, such as serving as a sacrificial priest.

The Shaman as Healer

Arguably the most central and universal role of the shaman is as a healer. Within the shamanic worldview, disease has two origins, both related to the separable soul. The first is when the soul or a part of the soul is separated from the body, creating soul loss. The second occurs when some foreign element from the spirit world is introduced into the body. This object is typically conceived as having a consciousness of its own and an independent existence in the spirit world. This type of sickness is called intrusion. Sometimes the two combine in a form of possession in which an entity from the spirit world occupies the body to the extent that the separable soul of the patient is forced out.

During the course of the cure, the shaman may use either magical flight or lucid possession. In many instances, the shaman may move back and forth between modalities in the course of a séance.

Soul Loss

The possibility of soul loss is implied in the separable soul theory. Causes are often attributed to psychological reasons, such as fright, grief, social stress, difficulties in adjusting to life transitions such as puberty, and so forth. In these cases, the psychological tension of the patient is strong enough that a part of the soul becomes severed from the body. In other cases, the putative cause of soul loss is supernatural. The patient’s soul was stolen and often imprisoned by a spirit. The soul might be taken by a lonely ghost, or it might be in retribution for either some ill the patient has caused in the spirit world, such as violating an ancestral taboo or trespassing into forbidden territory, or in response to something the whole community did that disrupted right relations with the spirit world.

The shaman’s work in healing a patient of soul loss is twofold. First, the shaman diagnoses the cause of illness and locates the missing part of the soul. The shaman may journey into the spirit world or send spirit allies to investigate. Once the soul is located, the shaman and spirit allies travel to retrieve the patient’s soul, often engaging in supernatural battles to win it back. The healing séance is typically a highly dramatic affair, attended by the shaman, the patient, family, friends, and other members of the community. It is extremely interactive, with the shaman acting out what is happening in the spirit world and showing, through her body, the struggle for the soul of the patient. The shaman employs many of the methods of theater, including special costumes, lighting, sound effects, and what could be considered “special effects.” Sometimes there are physical interactions with the patient’s body, including blowing part of the soul back in, or touching the body with special objects to call the soul back. The audience—including the patient—participates, supporting the shaman and actively demonstrating their concern for the patient’s well-being. These theatrical healing sessions powerfully dramatize the community support for the patient’s healing and are emotionally stirring events.


In sicknesses caused by intrusion, the explanation is that something has become lodged in the patient’s body that does not belong there. This foreign entity also exists in the spirit world and must be removed from there as well. There are similarities between this type of healing séance and the type used for soul loss. Both are theatrical and involve not only the healer and patient, but also an audience. Both call on the spirits and use dramatic effects. In curing intrusion, the shaman identifies what is in the patient that should not be, where it is located, and how it got there. The latter is particularly important if the intrusion was sent by a magical practitioner using baneful magic, or from a spirit in retribution for some slight.

Once the intrusion is identified, it is removed. Methods vary, but some frequent motifs include sucking the intrusion out, blowing it away, sweeping it away, cutting it out in the spirit world, or convincing it to leave the patient’s body. The séance is interactive. In some cultures, it is common for the shaman to produce some physical object at the end of the séance that is claimed to come from the patient’s body. Early scholars used these sleight-of-hand performances in which the shaman produces an object as evidence of their charlatanry. Later scholars who asked shamans about this use of special effects discovered that, from an emic perspective, the shaman understands the real object to have been removed in the spirit world and does not see a conflict between that and theatrically producing an object to reassure the patient.

Support for the Cure

Once the séance is over, there is usually a dramatic change in the state of the patient, who soon recovers or dies. During the séance, the shaman may receive guidance about activities to perform afterward. These may include prescriptions for native medications. These remedies, especially if they are from particular plants, are often understood as spirit allies who assist the healing. The patient, the family, or the whole community may perform propitiation or protection rites, especially if the illness was diagnosed as spirit-inflicted. Increasingly, there may be a referral to Western medicine for a particular treatment.

Explanations for Efficacy

The efficacy of shamanic healing has been demonstrated repeatedly. Medical anthropologists and ethnobotanists have evaluated some native remedies. Most explanatory theories focus on similarities between shamanistic cures and psychotherapy, prompting some scholars to call shamans psychologists. In the course of the cure, the patient’s state is externalized through the drama of the séance within a context of overt social support and care, and catharsis is achieved. The patient, by virtue of his belief in the cure, has an expectation of full recovery.

Scholars have suggested that this creates a placebo effect. The difficulty is that, far from being truly explanatory, this takes us into domains that remain inexplicable. The placebo effect is one of the greatest mysteries of medicine. Why should a powerful conviction that one is cured produce a cure? Why is catharsis healing? How do mental states cause disease and why can changing a mental state eliminate disease? Why does the demonstration of communal support affect an individual’s physical health? These are all questions that deserve further research, and the dynamics of shamanistic healing is one arena in which they can be approached.

The Shaman as Divine Solicitor

Shamans may use their skills to gather information, for example, to find lost or stolen objects, find lost people, locate game, investigate conditions in a distant location, or uncover the causes of some ill that an individual or the community faces. Again, shamans may go into the spirit world to find answers, send spirit helpers to find answers, or allow a spirit to use their body to communicate the answer in a possession-style séance. The etic explanations for the shaman’s success in divination typically posit that shamans are skilled observers of both individuals and nature, that the séances are interactive with the shamans soliciting answers to questions, and that the shamans make wise guesses based on their deep knowledge. Depending on the nature of what is discovered, the shamans may prescribe certain activities to restore right relations with the spirit world.

The Shaman as Psychopomp

A psychopomp is a guide for the souls of the dead. This role arises from the separable soul theory. If a soul can exist and travel outside the body, then at death it enters the spirit world. However, since a soul can get lost, the soul of the dead may not know where to go. In many cultures with the separable soul theory, there is fear that the soul of the dead will remain around what is familiar to it, causing problems for the soul of the dead person and danger for the living.

Shamans play a unique role because they can move in and out of the spirit world at will and know its terrain. Therefore, shamans have the responsibility of ensuring the right relationship between the spirits and the community. The shaman must lead the soul of the newly dead person to where it is supposed to be. Through the dramatic enactment of the psychopomp journey, the shaman reassures the community of its safety from the dead and provides comfort to the grieving who witness, through the performance, that their loved one, although dead, is fine.

The Shaman as Facilitator for Hunting

Some scholars restrict the use of the term shaman to hunting societies. Facilitating hunting is an important role. Shamans often divine the location of herds. The animals are conceptualized as being under the protection of spirit beings who must be consulted and propitiated. Part of the shaman’s work is to contact the game-giving spirits and convince them to agree to sacrifice the animals without threat of retribution.

The Shaman as Keeper of Harmonious Relations With the Spirit World

Virtually all the shaman’s work involves maintaining or restoring harmonious relations with the spirit world. In the course of uncovering the cause of illness or some other blight upon the community, the shaman may recommend rites to restore harmonious relations. If this is the case, then the shaman may preside as a sacrificial priest. The shaman may also proactively ensure right relations through regular rites of care, feeding, and direct contact with the spirits on behalf of the community.


Neoshamanism has a unique, and sometimes uncomfortable, relationship with anthropology. Neoshamanism is a spiritual movement in the contemporary West in which practitioners—typically belonging to a network of likeminded people—believe they are practicing shamanism. Neoshamanism can be considered a subset of neopaganism, both of which are flourishing in the cultures where they are found.

A significant inspiration for neoshamanism is the ethnographic record. Some anthropologists, such as Michael Harner, actively contribute to the development of neoshamanism. Harner’s Way of the Shaman (1980) posits the theory of “core shamanism,” derived from his research. The idea is that the culturally specific content in shamanic practices can be stripped away to reveal a culturally neutral “core” that can be learned by any person in any culture from any religious background. His book, his workshops, and the method that is taught by his Foundation for Shamanic Studies are intended to help modern Westerners become shamans. The proponents of core shamanism emphasize presumably safe methods and eschew the use of hallucinogens.

Additionally, some groups teach neoshamanic traditions borrowed from existing cultures. Cultural insensitivity and gross commercialization of the sacred traditions of oppressed peoples is a decided risk. Many anthropologists are concerned that their ethnographic work may be used in ways that violate their professional ethics. Other groups attempt to reconstruct cultural traditions of the past, such as Celtic shamanism. Although these groups are not ethically problematic like some that borrow from existing cultures, the popular authors and teachers often make historical claims that are insufficiently rigorous to satisfy most academics.

Among the few ethnographic studies of neoshamanism, Jakobsen’s (1999) work is a stellar exception. This study explores the similarities and differences between traditional shamans of Greenland and contemporary neoshamans from Denmark and England. A significant difference is that neoshamanism is primarily individualistic. The neoshaman’s relationship with the spirits typically concerns the spiritual path of the individual, rather than functioning within a particular role for the sake of the community. Another distinction is that the spirits are not mastered in neoshamanism and they are not threatening. They are transformed into benevolent spiritual guides. Neoshamanism democratizes shamanism, in that every person can become a shaman by putting forth effort; this is quite different from traditional shamanism, where the shaman-to-be is chosen, often unwillingly, by the spirits. Jakobsen concludes that neoshamanism responds to stress caused by having spiritual experiences in an increasingly materialistic and desacralized society that provides no basis for understanding these experiences.

Future Directions

This research paper discussed shamanism in broad strokes. While most material on shamanism is part of the ethnographic record, the ethnographies that cover shamanic practices often are old and the communities have changed dramatically. It would then be worthwhile to repeat the studies from the past, track any changes, and investigate reasons for them. More thorough explorations of shamanism’s interactions with gender, social hierarchy, and other categories of difference would be useful.

Another future possibility is to explore syncretism between shamanic and other traditions. An intriguing syncretism exists between shamanic healing techniques and modern Western medicine, both in the West, where shamanic-style healing has become a form of complementary medicine, and in traditional societies that now have access to Western medicine.

Ethnographic studies of neoshamans should yield interesting insights into the construction of meaning in Western societies. It might be particularly enlightening to investigate how practitioners reconcile the epistemologies of shamanism with the epistemologies of the dominant society in which they live.

The placebo effect and the mind-body connection in health and healing are among the greatest unsolved medical mysteries. Shamanic healing séances provide a context where these topics can be investigated. Continued research in medical anthropology and ethnobotany is also needed, especially in endangered ecosystems.

Finally, an exploration of shamanic epistemologies from a philosophical perspective would be fascinating. The shamanic worldview claims that there are nonrational ways of knowing that yield true information, yet there has not been a systematic attempt to uncover the rules of shamanic epistemologies. Shamanic traditions provide potentially powerful case studies for exploring nonrational epistemologies.


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