Shaman or saman is a term which originates from the Tungusian languages, first heard from explorers in the seventeenth century who spent time among the Tungusian tribes of eastern Siberia (Laufer, 1917, p.361). The term itself means “one who is excited, moved, raised” (Walsh, 1989, p.2), commonly used by anthropologists to refer to those individuals of a particular society who use ecstatic and visionary states of consciousness in order to ascertain and extract knowledge and information from so-called spirit realms for the good (and sometimes ill) of their own and neighbouring communities. The practice of shamanism has been defined by 20th century religious scholar Mircea Eliade when he says “A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy” (Eliade, 1964, p.4).
Shirokogoroff, who spent time amongst the Siberian Tungus people, claimed that “In all Tungus languages this term (saman) refers to persons of both sexes who have mastered spirits, who at their will call introduce these spirits into themselves and use their power over the spirits in their own interests, particularly helping other people, who suffer from the spirits” (Shirokogoroff, 1935, p.269). These spirits are called upon for guidance and knowledge; and shamans are able to command, commune, and intercede with them for the benefit of the tribe (Walsh, 1989, p.2). These spirits can be ancestors, animal guides, and plant spirits which all hold many different types of knowledge that the shaman can receive and bring back for the benefit of the community; “the source of shaman-derived information is attributed to such disincarnate entities and forces as spirits, ancestors, animal guides, and energetic fields” (Krippner, 2007).
Holger Kalweit in his book Dreamtime and Inner Space makes a good example of how shamanic activity and the journey to other planes of consciousness can be perceived to be a knowledge-seeking endeavour, he says that the shaman “experiences existential unity – the samadhi of the Hindus or what Western spiritualists and mystics call enlightenment, illumination, unio mystica” (Kalweit, 1988, p.236); this is also echoed by Gary Doore who claims that “shamans, yogis and Buddhists alike are accessing the same state of consciousness” (Doore, 1988, p.223). “Observations of Westerners in shamanic workshops suggest that most people are readily able to enter shamanic states to some degree.” (Walsh, 1989, p.7); these states are induced by such conditions as isolation, fatigue, hunger, rhythmic sound, or ingestion of hallucinogens (Walsh, 1989, p.7). Shamans are masters at voluntarily stimulating and navigating these altered states and can require many years of training (Krippner, 2007). The skills possessed by a shaman varies from culture to culture however they usually include: diagnosis and treatment of illness, contacting spirits, supervising rituals, interpreting dreams, predicting the weather, gathering herbs, prophecy, and mastering the self-regulation of bodily functions and attentional states (Krippner, 2007).
The myriad skills a shaman possesses demonstrates the value that they hold within their respective societies. The many dimensions, realities, and states of consciousness they have traversed on their spiritual journeys provide them with a rich source of information and the ability to bring this knowledge back for the benefit of their community, ultimately being seen as the primary link to a source of ancestral and timeless wisdom.
Doore, G. (Ed.). (1988). Shaman’s path. Boston: Shambhala.
Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kalweit, H. (1988). Dreamtime and Inner Space. Boston: Shambhala.
Krippner, S. (2007). Humanity’s first healers: psychological and psychiatric stances on shamans and shamanism.. Rev Psiquiatr Clin. 34 (1).
Laufer, B. (1917). Origin of the Word Shaman. American Anthropologist. 19 (3), pp. 361-371.
Shirokogoroff, S. (1935). Psychomental complex of the Tungus. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubnor.
Walsh, R. (1989). What is a Shaman? Definition, Origin and Distribution. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 21 (1), pp. 1-11.