Shamanism is a word that you may have heard mentioned alongside concepts such as paganism, tarot, crystal healing, and other alternative spiritualities or healing methods. However, when you probe a little deeper, you’ll probably realize that the general public knows less about what a true shaman actually does than about any of these other types of spiritual paths.
What is a shaman?
Shamanism is not a particular religion or spiritual path, but rather a practice that can be found across many different cultures and spiritual groups. Ancient texts refer to shamans as healers and leaders, who imparted wisdom and cared for the sick or injured. Nearly every ancient belief system, from pagan Celts to the Native Americans or Australian Aborigines had shamans.
To understand what shamanism is and how it is practiced, it’s important to understand a few key ideas or goals that most, if not all, shamans share:
- Shamans believe that their spirit should have a relationship with the spirits of all living things around them.
- Shamans believe that guidance comes from being in-tune with another level or plane of reality. Meditation or conscious-altering stimuli are often used to achieve this state.
- Shamans use their relationship with the unseen world of spirits and higher reality to heal and find wisdom to share.
These three understandings offer a basic idea of what shamanism is about at its core.
Other Aspects of Shamanism
In addition to the three ideas above, these are some aspects that define shamanism. Remember that all shamans are different, and may practice a different type of shamanism. The shaman whose roots and teaching was connected to ancient Gaelic paganism will likely be very different from the shaman whose practice is connected to the Haitian Vodou faith.
- An intense connection with nature. Most shamans believe that everything has a spirit, much like the beliefs of Native Americans.
- A duty to the health of the community at large. Shamans were servants of the tribe or community, and still are today.
- A daily spiritual practice. While shamanism is found in all different faiths or spiritual practices, it cannot be totally divorced from any spiritual belief. A daily practice is usually an important aspect of shamanism.
- A reliance on ceremony and the idea of sacred places. Many shamans go on pilgrimage to sacred places, and ceremony is thought to help create harmony and balance during a healing.
- A belief in visions and the importance of entering an altered state of consciousness. It turns out that the Hollywood picture of a mystical shaman in a smoke-filled room, partaking in a mind-altering drug, is at least slightly based on the truth. Using meditation or some sort of stimuli, shamans do alter their consciousness to connect to other planes of reality.
The Shamanic Journey and Power Animals
In order to become a shaman, a person must go through a ritual known as the shamanic journey. This process allows the person to connect to the unseen world of spirits and higher reality. This may or may not be an actual physical journey. Usually, it involves an extended period of being in an altered state of consciousness, through intense and prolonged meditation.
During these journeys, a shaman could experience any number of things, likely related to the spiritual or religious practice that their shamanism is a part of. Typically, this is the time when they would develop or strengthen their relationship with the spirits of the world around them, establishing themselves as a shaman who will be returning to this plane to seek guidance and healing.
One thing that is present in many types of shamanism is the idea of a power animal. Often discovered or met on the shamanic journey, a power animal is a type of spiritual guide similar to a totem. They offer power, wisdom, support, and protection to the shaman while they are in the spirit realm. These are unique guides to the shaman, and could be absolutely any kind of animal, reptile, insect, or other creature.
When Christianity was introduced to Europe, many of the pagan traditions of the shaman were nearly destroyed for good. However, thanks to the prevalence of shamanism in other religions and faiths around the world, we are now able to continue this tradition today. While modern shamans may not replace medical doctors the way they did in ancient times, they may still be called upon, similar to a priest or other spiritual leader, to offer alternative healing or guidance to their community in times of need.