Shamanism

Shamanism refers to a variety of traditional beliefs and practices, that involve the ability to diagnose, cure, and sometimes cause illness because of a special relationship with, or control over, spirits. The word shaman originated among the Siberian Tungus and literally means he who knows; the belief that it may be derived from Sanskrit may be due to a confusion of shamanism and shamanism, from sanskrit shramana, Pali and Prakrit samana; but the samanas were ascetics, not shamans. Shamanism is thought to predate all organized religions, and certainly was practiced in the neolithic. Aspects of it are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by it, reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, Calypso and many others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries. The transsubstantiation of bread and wine in the Catholic religion can be seen as a shamanic relic, suggestive of the use of entheogenic (psychedelic) substances to attain spiritual realization.

First let us note that not all traditional peoples approve of the use of shaman as a generic term, given that the word comes from a specific place and people. It has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a highly descriptive term which unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and other lore; and the ability to cure a person and mend a situation.

Second, shamanic practice continues not only in wild areas but in cities, towns, suburbs and shantytowns all over the world, not only in the tundras or the jungles or deserts.

Different forms of shamanism are found around the world, and are also known as medicine men and witch doctors. It has been especially common among circumpolar peoples; in Old Norse Religion, however, shamanism was seen as un-manly and practiced mainly by women (although in Old Norse mythology, the supreme god Odin was also seen as the foremost shaman).

Shamanism is based on the belief that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. In contrast to animism and animatism, which any and usually all members of a society practice, shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities. Shamans are not, however, organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests.

Shamans enter into trances, either autohypnotically or through the use of hallucinogens, during which time they are said to be in contact with the spirit world. In some societies shamanic powers are inherited. In others, shamans are "called:" Among the Siberian Chukchee one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which they interpret as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shamans are called in their dreams. In yet other societies shamans choose their career: Indians of the Plains would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest;" South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans. Shamans often observe special fasts and taboos particular to their vocation. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiars, usually spirits in animal form, or (sometimes) of departed shamans.

Shamans can manipulate these spirits to diagnose and cure victims of witchcraft. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also witches. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community but may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared. Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may be shamans (in Old Norse culture, as mentioned above, only women; for men to practice shamanism was shameful). In some societies male shamans exhibit a "two-spirit" identity, assuming the dress and attributes of a woman from a young age, including taking on the role of a wife in an otherwise ordinary marriage; this practice is common, and found among the Chukchee, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Aruacanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navaho, Lakota, and Ute, as well as other Native American tribes. Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful. They are highly respected and sought out by men in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their husbands.

Core Shamanism

Michael Harner synthesized shamanic beliefs and practices from all over the world into a system now known as core shamanism or neoshamanism. It does not hold a fixed belief system, but focuses on the practice of trance travel and may on an individual basis integrate indigenous shamanism, the teachings of Carlos Castaneda and other spiritualities. It is popular within the New Age movement and often confused with indigenous shamanism by its followers.

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