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3.3.5 Shamanism

Shamanism is a pseudo-religious phenomenon centred on the shaman, an ecstatic figure believed to possess the power to heal the sick, and to communicate with the world beyond. The term shamanism comes from the Manchu-Tungus word “saman” formed from the verb sa- (“to know”); thus, “shaman” literally means “he who knows.” It is generally agreed that shamanism evolved before the development of class society in the Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age, that it was practiced among peoples living in the hunting-and-gathering stage, and that it continued to exist among the animal-raising and horticultural people. There is no general agreement whether the term shamanism may be applied to all religious systems in which the central personage is believed to have direct contact, while in an ecstatic state, with the transcendent world, contact that allows him to act as healer, diviner, and escort of souls of the dead to the other world.

Practices and Conceptions
Shamanism is a complex system of practices and conceptions; characteristic among these are the use of ecstasy, the belief in guardian spirits, and beliefs concerning metamorphosis (change of form), and travelling to the beyond. Prehistorical objects have been found that belonged to the practice of shamanism such as noisemaking objects (to drive away evil spirits) of the Iron Age. Recent studies stress the religious character of shamanism, though in practice it is related to sorcery and magic. However, Shamanism is not to be identified with sorcery and magic if they are understood as attempts to manipulate the supernatural through certain human techniques. Magic and sorcery are the opposite of true religion, and they gain importance when religion declines or is overwhelmed. Sometime magic and sorcery take over some cults and rob them of their religious meaning. For these reasons, it is often difficult to decide whether prehistoric phenomena were religious or magical. Magic also can be practiced without the use of material objects, and does not, therefore, leaves archaeological traces as true religion.

Shamanism and Religion
Some forms of shamanism may be found among peoples who have been converted to religions at a later stage of culture. Among people who formerly believed in shamanism, but later were converted to various world religions (e.g., Christianity or Islam), former shamanism may be revealed through an analysis of their folklore and folk beliefs. In northern Asia shamanism appears in various forms that may be attributed to differences in cultural phases. Often the shamans are of “changed sex”, effeminate men who have adopted feminine clothing and behaviour at the command of their “spirit. Certain scholars have investigated ecstatic actions that may be thought to be outside the area of shamanism in the strictest sense. Some scholars suppose that the phenomena of shamanism spread to the two American continents when the first settlers migrated from Asia. The shamanic phenomena in the Shinto religion of Japan are attributed to the migration of nomadic peoples from the territory bordering northern Korea. No such theory of migration has yet been developed to explain the “shamanism” of Southeast Asia and Oceania. Those who oppose this broad usage of the term shamanism argue that an apparent structural similarity among phenomena in widely separated areas does not justify an assertion of a common source. For them, shamanism may be attributed only to a precise pattern of cultural phenomena in a specific, well-defined territory

Shamanism in the World
Although the classic model and most complete expression of shamanism are found in the Arctic and central Asian regions, the phenomenon is not limited to those countries. It exists in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and among many North American aboriginal tribes. A distinction is to be made between the religions dominated by a shamanistic ideology and by shamanic techniques, and those in which shamanism constitutes rather a secondary phenomenon. Eskimo Shamanism predominates in the religious life of the Eskimos. The chief prerogatives of the Eskimo shaman are healing, assuring an abundance of game, and aid to barren women. Sickness is brought on by the violation of taboos, or results from the capture of the soul by a ghost. In the first case the shaman strives to drive out the impurity by collective confessions; in the second case he undertakes the ecstatic journey to heaven, or to the depths of the sea, to retrieve the sick person’s soul and restore it to his body. Some shamans are reputed to have visited the moon; others claim to have flown around the earth. They also know the future, make prophecies, predict changes in the weather, and excel at magic feats. For many North American tribes shamanism constitutes the most important aspect of their religious life. The shaman is characterized by the supernatural power he acquires as the result of a direct personal experience. His power is natural or acquired, but in either case the future shaman has to undergo some form of initiation. The shaman’s principal function is healing, but he also plays an important role in other magico-religious rites such as communal hunting and, where they exist, secret societies or mystical movements. North American Shamans, like all their fellows, claim to control the weather, know future events, expose the perpetrators of thefts, defend against sorcerers, etc. There is good reason to suppose that modern secret societies and mystical movements among the Indians have appropriated in large part the ecstatic activity that once characterized shamanism. In the tribes of South America the shaman enjoys considerable prestige and authority. Not only is he the healer par excellence, and the guide of the souls of the dead to their new home, he is also the intermediary between men and the gods, or spirits. He guarantees the respect of the ritual observances, defends the tribe against evil spirits, points out places for fruitful hunting and fishing, increases the wildlife, controls the weather, eases childbirth pain, reveals future events, etc. Of course, the South American shaman can also fill the role of sorcerer who can, for example, change himself into an animal and drink the blood of his enemies. Yet it is due to his ecstatic abilities that the South American shaman owes his magico-religious position and social authority.

White and Black Shamans
Difference of quality in shamans is shown in the kind of spirits the shaman communicates with. “White” shamans rely on benevolent deities and the good spirits, while “black” shamans call on wicked deities and spirits. The difference in degree is exemplified in the Yakut belief (in north-eastern Siberia) that the souls of the future shamans are reared upon an immensely high tree in the Upper World, in nests at various heights. The greatest shamans are brought up close to the top of the tree, the intermediate ones toward the middle, and the smaller ones on the lower branches. Hence, shamans may be classified into three groups: great, intermediate, and last, according to their powers.

Shamans and Communication
The shaman may fulfil his obligations either by communicating with the spirits at will, or through ecstasy. The latter has two forms:

  • Possession ecstasy, in which the spirit possesses the body of the shaman
  • Wandering ecstasy, in which his soul departs into the realm of spirits

In passive ecstasy the shaman gets into an intense mental state and shows great strength and knowledge: he quivers, rages, struggles, and finally falls into an unconscious trancelike condition. After accepting the spirit, the shaman becomes its mouthpiece. In active ecstasy the shaman’s life functions decrease to a minimum, and he falls into a trancelike condition. After awakening, he relates his experiences, where he wandered, and with whom he spoke. There are cases of possession ecstasy and wandering ecstasy combined, when the spirit first enters the shaman and then leads his soul to the world of supernatural beings. The shaman attains the ecstasy necessary for communicating with the spirits through the performance of certain rites.

The Shaman’s Dress Code
The way they dress is also well defined:

  • Some wears a ritual gown, which usually imitates an animal such as a deer, a bird, or a bear
  • Their headdress is often a crown made of antlers, or a band into which feathers of birds have been pierced
  • The footwear is also symbolic (iron deer hooves, birds’ claws, or bears’ paws)
  • The clothing of the shamans among the Tofalar (Karagasy), Soyet, and Darhat are decorated with representations of human bones (ribs, arm and finger bones)
  • The shamans of the Goldi-Ude tribe perform the ceremony in a singular shirt and in a front and back apron on which there are representations of snakes, lizards, frogs, and other animals.

Shamanism Against Religions and Mysticism
Shamanism has to be distinguished from prophetic religions as well as from mysticism since Shamanism is a technique of ecstasy. The closeness to paranormal, or supernatural, phenomena seems more pronounced in shamanism than in mysticism. Both the shaman and the mystic, as communicants with a world beyond normal experience, reveal an identity of goal, if not of practice and content.

The Shaman as a Social Being
The profession of the shaman distinguishes him socially. The belief that he communicates with the spirits gives him authority. Furthermore, the belief that his actions may not only bring benefit but also harm, makes him feared. Even a good (white) shaman may do harm, and a wicked (black) shaman, who is in contact with the spirits of the Lower World, is very alarming. In consequence of his profession, the shaman cannot go hunting and fishing and cannot participate in productive work; therefore, he must be supported by the community, which considers his professional activity necessary. The social authority of the shaman was shown through the honours bestowed on him, and the practice of always giving him the best food. Generally, the shaman was never contradicted, nor was any unfavourable opinion expressed about him behind his back. Such an economic and social position resulted in the shaman attaining political power.