The origins of shamanism are found in indigenous practices centered on the shaman, a ceremonial leader who is sought out to heal and bring harmony to all of creation.
Shamanism, a prehistoric tradition, originated in indigenous practices of a variety of communities across Asia, North and South America, Australia, and Africa. Its history dates back to hunter/gatherer (Paleolithic) cultures. The goal of classic shamanism within indigenous tribes is to create an internal and external balance between nature and the individual, often using trance and altered state of consciousness to achieve spirit communication. Shamans are believed to see dead spirits and spiritual energies, and often transmit messages and escort them between the physical and the “other” world.
Today shamanism maintains its relevance in the field of medicine, especially psychotherapy, as doctors and clinicians integrate shamanic principles in their medical practices. As explained by Dr. Will Meecham, “hospitals and clinics—with their instrumentation and interventions—summon the same psychological energies as shamanic healers with their masks, chants, drums, and dances.” By incorporating traditional shamanic practices, health care providers are better able to engage the human psyche in the recovery process and help patients to understand their illness’ in a communal context while finding deeper meaning in their medical experiences.
Origins of the word “Shaman”
While shamanism has been retained in several cultures on different continents, the word “shaman” itself applies in the strictest sense to the Tungus tribe of Siberia, who are among the earliest known humans to practice this spirituality. The word “shaman” comes from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman. The noun is formed from the verb ša- ‘to know’; thus, a literal definition of shaman is “one who knows.” This word was picked up by Russian explorers (mostly Cossack) and conquerors of eastern Siberia in the late 1600s, who heard and recorded the term among Tungusian tribes. It was first brought to Europe by the Hollander, E. Ysbrants Ides, and by Adam Brand, who from 1692 to 1695 accompanied a Russian embassy sent by Peter the Great to China.
Now, the word “shamanism” may be applied to all belief systems under animism, in which a central person is believed to have direct communication with the spirit world that permits him to act as a healer, diviner, and the like. By understanding the emotional power of biomedical interventions, notions of the “shaman” may come into focus for doctors and clinicians. In the medical field, doctors take on the positions of healer, community leader, counselor, and councilor within the microcosm of hospitals and clinics. The implications of shamanic techniques in the modern practical world are apparent, as health care providers learn to reshape their medical encounters to enhance the psycho-spiritual value of their patients’ experiences.
Traditional Shamanic Practices in Indigenous Cultures
Although there is a rich contemporary history of shamanism dating back to the 20th century, the notion that doctors, clinicians, and other modern healers are the original practitioners would be false. It is considered, for example, amongst Native North Americans, Siberians, and South Koreans to play a part in the practices and beliefs of several groups that have both evolved from and remain hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic) societies.
To answer the question, “Where Does shamanism come from?”, we must look at the most classic and complete expressions of shamanism. In exploring the classic characteristics of humankind’s first shamans, modern healers can recognize and embrace their own gifts which have persisted and been passed on through generations. Understanding the path of those who came before you will help you gain confidence in your knowing, to claim your unique gifts, and begin to share them.
The shamanic practices of South Korea are easily distinguishable by their special rituals, accessories, and clothing, in addition to a certain worldview connected with the culture. Northern Asiatic shamanism of the late 1800s is generally accepted as the way to practice the belief system, in its classical form. Classic shamanism in South Korea is defined by the following characteristics:
- Members of the society accept that certain specialists transcend their physical state to communicate with souls in different spirit worlds.
- Improvisations that are based on oral and textual traditions to lure in a game animal.
- The shaman is known for having traits that most humans may consider eccentric or might have inherited some birth defect such as paralyzation or an unordinary amount of bones.
- Depending on the belief system, one might perform the climbing of the “World Tree” to provide evidence of their having more bones than the average person.
Native North America
According to Encyclopedia Britannica contributor Mircea Eliade, one definition of Native North American shamanism might be a family of traditions and ceremonies, whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering these supernatural experiences to obtain supernatural powers. The supernatural powers of a shaman come after a direct experience, which can occur randomly or after sought-after vision quests. The term “vision quest”
applies to a supernatural interaction between an individual and a guardian spirit. The term “guardian spirit” typically applies to anthropomorphized animals–or supernatural animals–to provide guidance and to share advice and songs. The spirits serve as selection “staff” that distinguish those who are born into these roles from ordinary people, then call them to venture into the shaman role. In some religious rites of shamanism, the shaman’s main duty is healing, but in North Native American culture, other important roles may also exist such as communal hunting, secret societies, or mystical music and movements such as the Ghost Dance.
Siberia, located in Northern Asia, is arguably the heartland of classic shamanism. While religions such as Christianity have taken root in Northern Asia, the vast majority of Siberians follow shamanism as either religious or cultural practice. With dozens of ethnic groups spread out across this region, definitions of shamanism and its history vary within linguistic groups. For instance, the history of shamanism in the Saami people stretches back until the 18th century, while the isolated location of Nganasan people enabled shamanism as a living phenomenon among them even up to one hundred years ago. The last notable Nganasan shaman’s seances could be recorded on film in the 1970s. Nganasan healing seances were grounds for conducting spirit journeys, a reenacting of the dreams of Siberian shamans wherein they had rescued the soul of a client.
Siberian Shamanism has origins in animal hunting, similar to most shamanic cultures.
Has Shamanism persisted in this day and age?
While, in many regions, shamanism faded away as more bureaucratic religious techniques took over the millennia, shamanism itself never truly disappeared; rather, it took on new forms over time. Influences of the shaman can be traced among people such as the Finno-Ugric peoples who became Muslim, the Turkic peoples who became Muslims, and Mongols who became Buddhists.
In a practical sense, key goals of shamanism such as empathy, self-mastery, and community building have been introduced to modern peoples via shamanic training in secular settings such as universities and workplaces.
Now in the 21st century, the frameworks of clinical shamanism and core shamanism allow for shamanic techniques to enhance the therapeutic goals of patients in both medical and alternative settings, by enabling clients to enter into an altered state of consciousness that eases their resistance.
If you are interested in uncovering your shamanic potential, Clinical Shaman is helping people step into their calling as a healer, overcome the stigma associated with shamanism, and integrate Shamanistic practices into their everyday life. Learn how in their Mentorship Program.