Field Guide Friday – Traditional Shamanism

The following excerpt is from Colleen Deatsman’s The Hollow Bone … is that not the best title?

Happy weekend all!

Traditional Indigenous Shamans

The God Saub spoke from the sky
He threw down the sacred bamboo wood
We call that “bamboo shaman”
Whoever lifts it up
Will lead the life of the shaman
And will have power to heal . . .
Sometimes an old man gets weaker and weaker and dies
His soul climbs the steps to the sky
You must follow the soul to the sky when you shake
You follow the path to the sick one
If the weak soul goes to the sky
Maybe it just wants to die
It goes to the ancestral family in the sky
The soul goes to the place where it can get release
And power to be born againAnd passage to another life . . .
Saub gives you power to help the soul
To catch and protect the soul
If you follow this way
Truly you can catch the soul
And the sick one will feel better
You go to catch the soul with your two hands
And with your heart
And you grip the soulA
fter that, the sick one feels better to . . .
Paja Thao, “The Shaman,” from I Am a Shaman

Traditional shamans in most parts of the world, throughout history, have been misunderstood, misinterpreted, ridiculed, disenfranchised, removed from the people, and exterminated. In his Pocket Guide to Shamanism, teacher and author Tom Cowan tells us,

“When Western travelers and explorers first encountered shamans in tribal cultures, they did not know what to make of them . . . Usually the shaman’s helping spirits were misinterpreted by Christian observers as ‘evil spirits’ or ‘demons.’ When viewed in modern mental-health terms, shamans seemed sick, delusional, or outright crazy. A shaman talks to trees, rocks, and other supposedly ‘nonintelligent’ entities and claims to have magical powers to shapeshift into other forms, to visit invisible realms, and to consort with the dead.”

Traditional shamans are men and women of indigenous heritage who have answered the calling from Spirit to become a shaman, satisfactorily completed the training requirements determined by their culture, and are practicing their shamanic work with consistent results. In 1944, anthropologist Alfred Metraux defined shamans as “any individual who maintains by profession and in the interest of the community an intermittent commerce with spirits, or who is possessed by them.”

Beliefs about shamans and their abilities are diverse and vary from culture to culture. Many cultures believe their shamans have supernatural powers that can heal or harm, as well as extraordinary abilities and individualized knowledge. Shamans are often considered to be spiritual leaders or priests or priestesses. They can enter into a trance state at will, allowing their souls to leave their body and enter the invisible worlds. Shamans view animal images as power animals, spirit protectors, guides, and message-bearers.

The role of shaman can also encompass a wide range of services and duties, which, like beliefs about shamans, vary from shaman to shaman and culture to culture. Roles and functions the traditional shaman may assume include:

  • divining information, wisdom, and knowledge from the ordinary and nonordinary worlds leading ceremonies
  • acting as an intermediary between the invisible spirit world and the people to restore health, drive out evil spirits, and ensure success in the hunting, gathering, and agricultural endeavors
  • preparing the people for hunting, gathering, and agriculturalefforts
  • communicating with the spirits and divining guidance about hunting, gathering, and agricultural matters,• foreseeing the future,• recognizing and reading signs and omens
  • officiating rites of passage, training, and ceremonies,• locating and bringing back wandering souls
  •  retrieving lost power and soul parts
  • communicating with the dead
  • influencing the weather
  • removing possessing spirits, evil spirits, and souls who have not crossed over from a person, family, group of people or place
  • performing sacrifices to appease the spirits and the gods
  •  using plants, plant energies, and plant spirits for healing purposes
  • talking to nature spirits, such as the helping spirits of plants, animals, rocks, water, and weather elements
  • singing songs to invoke, connect with, and honor helping spirits
  • singing healing songs
  • diagnosing illnesses
  • learning and exploring universal laws and the ways of energy and power
  • teaching apprentices and the people certain spiritual ways
  • setting bones, pulling teeth, treating wounds
  • adjusting the physical body using techniques such as massage and manipulation (similar to adjustments done by an osteopath or chiropractor)
  • channeling life-force, spiritual, elemental, and personal energy through their hands-on healing
  • interpreting dreams
  • delivering babies
  • performing energy work
  • conducting soul-crossings to the spirit world (psychopomp)
  • counseling, advising, and mediating for individuals, couples,families, and groups when guidance or conflict resolutionis needed
  • invoking helping spirits to protect them from the rigors of their craft and risks taken during arduous training and when working with clients or the community, enemy shamans or sorcerers, the spirit world, transient energies, and toxins from entheogens (psychoactive substances).

Parts three and four describe many of these activities in more detail.

The people of traditional shamanic cultures look to their shamans to help them navigate the omnipresent challenges and ambiguities of nature, life, and relationships by communicating with the spirits of the ordinary and nonordinary realities. Because of the shamans much valued and unique role in the community, and because of the power shamans hold, people often fear, honor, and protect them.

While the shaman plays an essential role in the life of the people, shamans in traditional shamanic cultures may live separate from the people, such as in a nearby forest or at the far edge of the village, but shamans may also live in among the people, within villages, towns, and cities. As in all things shamanic, where a shaman chooses to live depends on the individual shaman and the needs of the people.

In many cultures, shamans may absent themselves from the people for periods of time. The shamans’ need to maintain high levels of connection with spirit and openness to the forces of nature and the universe may pull them into seclusion or solitude from time to time. Shamans are specialists at walking between the ordinary and nonordinary worlds and, in most cases, can just as easily walk between the worlds of solitude and human busyness. In some instances, though, their need for solitude makes it difficult for shamans to live among the people, which is why shamans may live near, but not among, the people and come and go as guided by spirit and needed by the people.

In some traditional shamanic cultures, one or several primary shamans do all of the different kinds of shamanic work the people need, including healing, ceremonies, counseling, death rites, escorting souls to the spirit realms. In other cultures, specific types of shamans fulfill specific roles and perform specialized functions. For example, among the Nanai people of Siberia, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp, or person who guides souls to the afterlife. Other shamans may be distinguished by the type of spirits or realms of the spirit world with which they most commonly interact.

In traditional shamanism, it is believed that different types of shamans view the world in very different ways, and those views Traditional shamans are men and women of indigenous heritage who have answered the calling from spirit, satisfactorily completed the training requirements of their culture, and are practicing their shamanic work with consistent results determine their roles in society. José Stevens tells us in Awakening to the Spirit World, “[A]ll of these societies have five distinct classes of shamans . . .”  He explains that the first class is the shamans who practice the dark arts and harmful acts, such as sending intrusions and curses, causing illnesses, and invoking spirit to bring injury or bad luck to others.

Beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery also thrive in many traditional shamanic cultures. Some cultures differentiate shamans that heal and serve the good of the people from sorcerers who harm or serve only themselves, while others claim that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill. Often there is some debate about whether someone is a shaman or a type of sorcerer.

A good example of this debate is Carlos Castaneda. Though his books appear in the genre of shamanism and many cultures would call Castaneda a shaman, many others would not consider him a shaman because he trained with a man of knowledge to be a man of knowledge, instead of becoming a healer or helper to the people. A man of knowledge seeks wisdom and understanding of the spirit realms and mysteries of life so that he can ultimately transcend the cycle of living, dying, and rebirth, rather than using this knowledge for healing and being of service to others. Some would say he was a sorcerer, not in a black-magic way (unless others were hurt), but in the sense that he “sourced” the spirit world for knowledge to help him with his own self-fulfilling or selfish purpose. Others would say, yes, Castaneda practiced shamanism.

The second class of shamans, says Stevens, are those who never innovate because they believe they must do everything in strict accordance with their training. The third class comprises the shamans who demand to be all powerful; these shamans can be more innovative, but only if innovation boosts their reputation and rewards. In the fourth class are the shamans dedicated to the service of others. Their ability to help and connect with others is of utmost importance to them. The fifth class consists of the shamans dedicated to their relationships with helping spirits and to being of assistance to others, but who are also innovative, individualized, exploration minded, and able to wield great powers.

Additionally, traditional shamans experience different callings, which determine the services they perform and roles they fulfill. Their purpose and their services may shift over their lifetime. Some shamans are called to work with all issues and concerns—individual, community, and global—that face their people. Some shamans may be called to focus on helping individual people with emotional discord, unhealthy patterns and imprints, energy imbalances and intrusions, or soul and power loss. Other shamans may be called to doctor people with physical health issues, illness, injury, and disease. Some shamans are called to focus on the community, tribe, clan, family, neighborhood, or friends; the work of these shamans might be more counseling and mediation oriented, or they may attend to the rites of passage and ceremonial needs of the community.

The community-focused shaman may use “seeing” and divination to ensure safe and successful journeys and hunts, or to garner protection for the community at specific times, such as when it’s facing hostilities or moving to a different location. The community-focused shaman may use dreaming to gain guidance and insight about what innovations the community can implement to ensure harmony and balance within the community, between it and other communities, and between the people and nature.

For many shamans, especially in modern times, their community has become the world. Shamans have always regarded the world as part of the community they serve, but their connection to the greater world is much more obvious. And it’s easier for shamans to come together now, due to technology. As global communication becomes increasingly easy, traditional shamans around the world can work together to address healing, community, and world issues. Internet groups and forums have become places where shamans and shamanic practitioners around the globe can share healing techniques, insights, stories, prayer, and solutions to global and community issues.

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3 thoughts on “Field Guide Friday – Traditional Shamanism

  1. I love that he separated the levels of the shaman by the willingness to serve others – and why we only take on apprentices instead of giving classes to anyone who will sign up as the mark of a good witch is the same! – the complete willingness to serve others! Love this excerpt – wish I could read more! Many blessings for posting!

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