Throughout human history and in virtually every culture on the planet, people have sought to exceed the boundaries of the physical realm. Although our human brains limit our perceptual abilities, there have always been people who are able to see beyond their physical senses. In many cultures, the ability to interact with the unseen world is considered sacred and there is a blurring of the lines between the sacred and the mundane. The terms we use to describe “psychic” phenomenon are thus less meaningful in these contexts. The phenomena are simply contributing elements in a continuum of life’s available experiences.
While there are many, many types of cultural psychic practices, we will focus on a few broad categories.
The term “shamanism” refers in an academic sense to an animistic belief system practiced largely by indigenous peoples. There is no one definable shamanistic practice as it varies from culture to culture, but there are common traits among various groups. In general, a shaman is someone who is able to communicate with energies and beings in the spirit world.
Often called “medicine people” or “holy people,” shamans are intermediaries between the known world and the unknown. Characteristics of shamanism include going into trance states in order to receive and communicate information meant for an individual or an entire group and the use of other techniques for physical and spiritual healing.
Curanderos (Spanish for “healer”) are similar to shamans and are found in Latin American indigenous and folk cultures. They often blend indigenous healing methods with Christian belief systems and practices and appeal to spirits and other unseen entities. They also use plants and rituals to heal and guide their patients. Curanderos are sometimes called witches because they have the ability to remove or apply curses or spells when their patients ask them to.
Similar to shamans, oracles are people who possess the ability to interact with the gods or deities on behalf of a community or individual person. But it can also be an agency of another sort such as a system or even a text that is used for divination. The term “oracle” is associated with many cultures both ancient and contemporary, and dates back to ancient Greece and Egypt.
An example of an oracle as a system is the Chinese I Ching. With the I Ching, coins are cast and the patterns (called hexagrams) they display are referenced in the I Ching text known as “The Book of Changes.” Astrology is another form of an oracle in China.
Among ancient oracular traditions that are still practiced today is the Nechung Oracle. The Nechung Oracle plays an important role in religious and even governmental decision making (historically, Tibet is a theocracy with its roots in Buddhism). In Tibetan Buddhism the oracle refers to a spirit or deity who is consulted through a channel who accesses the oracle while in a trance state to gain guidance and wisdom.
Santeria is a religion that originates from the Yoruba people of Western Africa and migrated with the slave trade to the New World. It has taken numerous forms and names in various countries, but has gained most of its notoriety in the Caribbean and present day Cuba (where it is sometimes known as Vodun, and where “voodoo” comes from, although voodoo in its popular articulation as witchcraft is a common misnomer).
The name “Santeria” derives from the encounter between African slaves and Catholicism in which the spirits – known as Orisha—became known as saints, or “santeros” in Spanish. In Santeria, the Orishas are spirits or manifestations of the god Oludumare that are contacted for help with human life. Priests and priestesses contact the Orishas through elaborate drumming and trance dancing rituals where the Orishas enter the bodies of the dancers.