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What is a Shaman?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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A shaman is a person who interacts with both the normal world and the world of spirits, usually acting as a sort of intermediary between the two. They are common in many tribal cultures, although shamanism may also exist in other types of culture. This person is often responsible for both the physical and spiritual health of people, and he or she may also be called upon to invoke spirits for aid or to predict the future and interpret omens.

Central to the idea is the concept of a focal point where the natural and supernatural worlds connect. This node is often viewed as the center of the world and may be associated with an archetypal feature — such as the World Tree. A shaman crosses over from the natural world into the supernatural world, and he or she often must overcome certain trials there to exert some power over the world of the spirits. When the person then returns to the natural world, he or she has been imbued with special powers or knowledge, which can be used either for good or ill.

The path a shaman takes varies widely, depending on the cultural context he or she comes from. Many people have pointed out that generalizing all tribal belief systems to a single term — shaman — fails to take into consideration the diversity these paths may take. The individual may use force to gain his or her power, literally trapping or enslaving spirits to do his or her bidding. These people may also use a more peaceful form of communion, becoming attuned with spirits in order to learn from them or request their help. Some may view what they do as a literal movement, with their physical body accompanying them into the world of the spirits, while others may embark on their spirit journey while in a trance, using a form of astral projection to visit the spirit realm.

The powers that such a person possesses also depend on the cultural context, his or her skill, and his or her level of knowledge. A shaman may be able to see into the future and the past, foretelling events and warning against certain courses of action. He or she may be able to heal sicknesses, often thought to be brought about by malevolent spirits, or even to heal more pronounced physical wounds by calling upon the aid of benevolent spirits. This person may exert control over the weather, calling rain to water crops, or storms to punish enemies. He or she may fly or teleport instantly, cause plants to grow or wither, make women fertile or barren, or exert total control over the body by stopping his or her heart, cutting himself or herself without bleeding, or holding burning hot coals in the hands.

The term is used in such a broad context that it covers many traditional healers or miracle workers in tribal societies. Any belief system that is predicated upon the idea of unseen spirits that interact constantly with this world — spirits that can be contacted or controlled by one with proper training and power — is essentially shamanistic. Unlike priests, shamans operate independently, perhaps learning their art from another person who interacts with the spirit orld or a spirit guide.

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Discussion Comments
By anon996554 — On Sep 12, 2016

It's most definitely for real.

By anon325259 — On Mar 15, 2013

I see animals behind people's heads. Not always, only when I concentrate and ask to see their totem. I have seen Mother Spider, insects, birds, etc. Energies/entities many times, in healing work, morph into an animal - sometimes to scare me away or sometimes to impart information about the client that I should know.

Insects play a large part. Sometimes they appear in the body running in circles around a certain area, thus revealing a particular spot that needs medical attention or in one instance, a hole in a person's heart. No trance is needed, and no exacting ritual, but prayers for my own protection and for the other person are, to me, essential.

From my own experience, I feel that a Shaman is a person who works directly with animals and nature which impart information to better help in a healing or enlightenment. --Sara

By anon162093 — On Mar 22, 2011

I named my child Shaman but I was not aware of its deep meaning. can there be a relationship to the meaning of the name? I'm clueless about these things. i came across the name on a book, "Broken Open," and the writer was describing a shaman lover, hence I fell in love with the name.

By chas46 — On Mar 12, 2011

I would say Shamans have been around since forever. In my lifetime, have seen many. Read about more. Many become and have been heads of or inspired the creation of new religions and advancement of existing religions, politics, you name it.

By googie98 — On Oct 22, 2010

@stormyknight: I can understand your skepticism. I have also had many questions over the years and have come to have a high regard for the shamans.

Shamans can be either male or female. Their rituals are fascinating. They usually include some sort of séance or ritual leading to the altered state of consciousness, sometimes being just the shaman. To achieve this “state of being”, there are different tactics. Some fast for days, expose their bodies to extreme temperatures (frigid cold, sweat lodges), psychotropic venoms or herbs, or extreme physical activity.

Some think of the shaman conducting the ritual to be possessed in some way. The shaman will summons the helper spirits using a drum, baton, shaman’s post, sacred place, shaman’s chum, or other ritual objects.

By StormyKnight — On Oct 22, 2010

I am not 100% sure if I believe a lot of what I hear about shamans. I can certainly respect other people and their beliefs. I have researched it a bit and found some very interesting articles. I read that many forms of alternative health care, especially energy healing, stem from shamanism.

By GardenTurtle — On Oct 22, 2010

@dega2010: Shaman is the most widespread and oldest method of healing. Archaeological evidence suggests that shaman techniques date back 20,000 years.

Carvings found on reindeer bones from the Paleolithic period show a shaman garbed in an animal mask. This was found in Pin Hole Cave in England. Another reindeer bone carving that sparked great interest showed a pregnant woman lying underneath a deer, presumably to gain strength through her ordeal.

By dega2010 — On Oct 22, 2010

How long have shamans been around? I have often heard of shaman healing but I don't really know anything about it. I find it very interesting.

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