A shaman is a man or woman of any age who can be benevolent or harmful. Because of their supposed contact with supernatural spirits, shamans have gained a reputation mainly for healing and curing (and even causing) illnesses, including mental illnesses, which are the result of evil spirits. Whether they are medicine men or witch doctors, shamans usually occupy a position of high respect and even power in a village.
It is almost certain that the history of shamanism goes back to prehistory. Even though the practice has strong elements of sorcery and magic, most scholars agree that it also has religious characteristics in that a shaman deals in identification with the supernatural, particularly as it relates to calling up and working with spirits.
The word “shaman” is said to have originated in Siberia. It is a name and sometimes a verb. It is not a religion as such, but is frequently part of or an adjunct to a religion, especially in Eastern religions and developing countries. In fact, shamans can be found virtually anywhere in the world. With the popularity of the New Age movements in the 1960s, shamanism gained considerable attraction and gave birth to a growing number of western shamans.
The Shaman's Position in the Tribe
Like doctors, shamans tend to specialize. As one would consult a doctor whose specialty treats one's particular ailment, the same goes for the shaman of choice. In both professions, there are also general practitioners. However, shamans have absolutely no medical qualifications, although they would no doubt proffer their spiritual power as the absolute qualification. Their specialized knowledge or powers are a result of heredity or supernatural calling.
The diagnoses of shamans, too, will be vastly different. For instance, a doctor might prescribe an analgesic for consistent headaches; a shaman would find out what possessed the patient, perhaps an evil spirit that needs to be cast out.
Though shamans are often members of a tribe, they rarely hold a position that could be considered prophetic. The tribal chief could occupy such a position, but the shaman — or medicine man in some regions — does hold a position of authority, and if consistently successful, awe. Historically, shamans may have been itinerant, going from village to village, particularly if they had built up a good reputation.
Shamans use their power to cure illnesses; they do not typically cause harm. The power of a shaman will be directly related to the power of his spirits. Some shamans may also be consulted to influence the weather, getting the rain to start or stop depending on the agricultural needs of the client.
The supernatural is the domain of shamans. While they may inherit the position, they must train to become one. Once the decision or “call” has been made, the supplicant has to embark on a period of intensive training that leads to initiation. Many myths describe the process. One claims that in order to become a great healer, the supplicant has to journey to the underground, suffer, and nearly die. He would often have an out-of-body experience and ascend to the sky. Essentially, this is accomplished by going into a trance. The shaman thus masters the ability to go beyond the physical body. Shamans may enter into the trance state through autohypnosis, the ingestion of hallucinogens, fasting, or self-mortification, during which they are said to be in contact with the spirit world.
The initiated shaman will display the appropriate accouterments, including masks, drums, and rattles, all of which are important elements of his image for the patients. Similarly, a modern-day doctor wears a white coat with a stethoscope hanging out of a pocket.
Shamans are able to move outside their physical bodies and into other spheres. Such journeys, as they are called, may take the shaman to other levels of existence. A shaman is the link between this world and other worlds and between the past and the future. This ability is considered a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of all. Shamans frequently fulfill the role of priest, magician, healer, and guide. A shaman lives on the edge of other realities; it takes a person of exceptional strength and courage, and one willing to undergo personal deprivations, to accomplish these duties.
Shamanism forms a major part of the religious life of Eskimos. Healing is a predominant part of the shaman's way of life in the Arctic. The shaman is called an angakok in the Arctic, and it is said that their journeys have taken them to the moon in magic flight. Some angakok claim to have flown around the earth.
While believers hold to the power of the shaman, skeptics attribute any healing success to the placebo effect, even though they agree that altered states of consciousness exist. However, the placebo effect accounts for 30 percent of responses to all medication and suggestion.
Shamanism has grown considerably in the Western world, particularly in the United States, due in part to the growth of the New Age movements based in California.