Shamanism

One of the earliest depictions of a shaman was found in France, in the cave of Les Trois Freres. Estimated to be at least 15,000 years old, it shows a sorcerer disguised as a bison and armed with a bow. Originally, the term shaman referred to a Siberian medicine man, but it can apply to anyone who engages in shamanistic practices, regardless of the era and society in which the person lives. In simple terms, a shaman is someone who understands both the spirit world and the natural world and who uses that knowledge of these worlds to provide healing, guidance, and protection to his people.

In Elements of Shamanism, Neville Drury writes, “The sorcerer was a master of wild animals — able to control their fate through his hunting magic, an adept at disguises, and a practitioner of animal sacrifice … the Paleolithic hunter-sorcerer was a precursor of the archetypal native shaman with his animal familiars, his clan totems, and his belief that he could transform his consciousness into an animal form.”

In the 1970s, the bestselling books of Carlos Castaneda introduced readers to the concepts of shamanism. Castaneda wrote about his five-year apprenticeship with a teacher whom he called Don Juan, and described his experiences in what he termed “nonordinary states of reality.” He also discussed shapeshifting, a shamanic practice that involved projecting his own consciousness into animals and plants.

English anthropologist Sir Edward Taylor termed this kind of belief system animism, from the Latin word anima, which means soul. It fits the world of prehistoric humans, who believed everything — not just humans, but animals, plants, stones, clothing, weapons, and the Earth itself — had souls. According to this philosophy, the human spirit was as malleable as air, capable of entering other people, animals, and even objects.

Other Realities

From the shamanic perspective, the physical world is only one facet of reality. Many other realms exist, and it's possible to travel to these other realities at will. Shamans have learned to erase the barriers that ordinarily separate the physical and nonphysical realms in order to “walk between the worlds.”

Often this is accomplished via astral projection, a technique that allows the spirit to journey freely while the physical body remains in a trance-like state. The spirit is also able to temporarily leave the body during sleep and to explore the nonphysical planes. In these other levels of reality, the shaman might meet entities that once occupied human bodies as well as gods, goddesses, and other beings that have never incarnated. When journeying in this way, shamans may seek the assistance of spirit animals or other guides to provide protection and direction.

Native American Shamanism

Among the indigenous people of North, Central, and South America, shamans have long served as medicine men, midwives, visionaries, and healers. These shamans worked with the forces of nature, the deities and ancestors in the spirit realms, and totem animals to ensure the well being of their tribes. Their close connection with the Earth and their understanding of celestial patterns underpinned their magical practices.

Traditionally, each tribe established special affinities with certain animals, which became the tribe's totems or sacred animals. These animal guardians conveyed protection, guidance, healing, and insight, and they assisted the shamans' personal spirit guides in magical work. Shamans can also reach across the worlds into the spirit realm to seek the aid of the ancestors — entities no longer in the physical realm — in matters concerning their people.

As seers and diviners, Native American shamans use drumming, dancing, herbs and botanical substances, fasting, and other practices to induce altered states of consciousness. While in these trance states, the shamans journey beyond the limitations of matter and space to pursue knowledge, communicate with entities in the spirit world, effect healing, and observe the future. Dreams, too, provide access into other levels of reality. Shamans also confront harmful energies operating in the etheric or spirit realm in order to diminish their powers in the earthly sphere or to exorcise them from the bodies of human beings.

You, too, can employ drumming, dancing, visualization, and other shamanic techniques to journey into the spirit world. The beings you meet there — your own relatives now deceased, spirit guides, animal guardians, and others — are usually willing to provide advice and insights. Treat them with respect and, perhaps, bring them gifts when you go to meet them. In time, you can develop special relationships with congenial entities that will serve as your teachers.

Celtic Shamanism

Although the Celts themselves didn't use the word shamanism, their spiritual paths encompassed many of the practices and perceptions of shamans the world over. Instead, the Celts referred to their wise men and women as filidh (vision poets), taibhsear (vision seers), and awenydd (inspired ones).

Caitlin and John Matthews, two British authors who have written extensively about Celtic spiritual traditions, explain that shamans are individuals who “act as walkers between the worlds, interpreters of the spirit realms.” These individuals, known as the aes dana, journey to what might be considered parallel universes and converse with spirit beings residing there in order to gain wisdom, healing advice, and other knowledge that can benefit people on Earth.

Celtic shamans explore what's known as the Otherworld, which is essentially a place of wisdom, creativity, and imagination, similar to what C. G. Jung called the collective unconscious. Dreams, visions, poetry, music, and other forms of creative inspiration derive from the Otherworld. Shamans may also visit the faery realm, the image world or etheric template from which life on Earth evolves.

Spirit Animals, Guides, and Guardians

Shamans consider all creatures great and small to be teachers and guides. Animals, birds, reptiles, and insects — both in the physical world and in the spirit realm — possess certain powers and qualities that they willingly lend human beings. Bears, for instance, are known for their strength, protectiveness, and loyalty. Swans embody grace and beauty.

According to shamanic tradition, all human beings have a spirit or totem animal that serves as a guardian and helper throughout their lives. Some say the characteristics of your spirit animal live within you. For example, if your spirit animal is a cat, you may be clever, quick, and curious. You can call upon your animal guardian whenever you need help, and it will lend its unique abilities to you.

Pay attention whenever you see an animal, bird, reptile, or insect, especially if the sighting happens at a time or in a place that seems out of the ordinary. It may be a message that you need to integrate that animal's innate characteristics into your own life.

One concept suggests that animal guardians are the spirit forms of creatures that once lived on earth and that after death moved into the spirit realm, where they now act as teachers and guides. At times, they may appear to you as physical beings. Other times, they show up in your dreams to convey messages. Spirit animals often accompany shamans when they journey into nonphysical realms of experience. In certain situations, a shaman might assume the form of an animal, bird, reptile, or insect in order to perform a specific task or role. This is called shape shifting.

Power Objects

According to anthropologist Michael Harner, founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley, California, power objects are ordinary objects that can be used in a medicine bundle. Many people collect power objects — a special memento from a trip, a pretty feather found in a field, a smooth stone taken from a riverbed — without realizing it. In a sense, a power object is a mnemonic tool for the shaman. When he handles it, he is able to recall his magical experiences.

Power objects may be displayed on your altar or in another special place in your home. Shamans often put them in a medicine bundle, a packet or pouch that contains a number of treasured items that evoke spiritual connections. Quartz crystals have been prized as power objects among shamans of nearly every culture and geographic location. Because quartz crystals are considered living rock — actual life forms — they possess special abilities that can assist the shaman's work and should be treated with respect.

“When you start your own medicine bundle, it is desirable to acquire at least one quartz crystal to put into it,” Harner advises. “Such crystals are the center of power in many shamans' medicine bundles or kits. Their power diffuses through the bundle and helps to energize and maintain the living aspect of the power objects.”

“If you have a visionary experience or sense power at a particular location, look about you and see if something distinctive is lying there for you to put into your bundle.” — Dr. Michael Harner

Crane bags serve a similar purpose for Celtic shamans. The items gathered in a crane bag represent otherworldly powers. Usually, these are encountered during a shamanic journey; however, objects with special significance might be given as gifts or acquired in other ways. A medicine bundle or crane bag should not be opened, nor should the objects contained within it be idly shown to anyone else. Shamans guard these treasures carefully and may pass them down to subsequent generations of magic workers.

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