Shamanism FAQ


Overview-Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Summary: This FAQ contains a general overview on shamanism. It should be
read by anyone interested in understanding what is meant by shamanism and
what differentiates shamanism form other forms of ecstatic experience
Keywords: shaman, anthropology, ethnography, consciousness, spirit, oobe
Organization: La Casa del Paese Lontano
Date: Wed, 9 Mar 1994 02:37:55 GMT
Lines: 227
Archive-name: shamanism/overview
Last-modified: 8 March 1994
Version: 1.1

NOTE: The following general overview of shamanism is not intended to be the
last word or the definitive work on this subject. Rather it is, as its title implies,
intended to provide the participant or reader with a set of guidelines that will
familiarize them with the general use of the terms shamanism, shaman and
shamanic in the trends, study and practice of historic, traditional and
contemporary shamanic experience. The word ‘shaman comes to English from
the Tungus language via Russian. Among the Tungus of Siberia it is both a noun
and a verb. While the Tungus have no word for shamanism, it has come into
usage by anthropologists, historians of religion and others in contemporary
society to designate the experience and the practices of the shaman. Its usage
has grown to include similar experiences and practices in cultures outside of the
original Siberian cultures from which the term shaman originated. Thus
shamanism is not the name of a religion or group of religions. Particular attention
should be paid to the use of qualifying words such as “may” or “usually”. They
indicate examples or tendencies and are not, in any way, intended to represent
rigid standards Please send comments to (Dean Edwards).

Table of Contents:

1. Terms used in this FAQ
2. What is shamanism?
3. What is Shamanic Ecstasy?
4. Becoming a shaman
5. The role of trauma in the development of a shaman
6. The relationship between shamanic traditions and culture
7. The role of Shamanic Ecstasy
8. The origin of the term “shamanism”
9. Roles of the shaman
10. Reasons for this FAQ

1. Why were the terms used in this FAQ selected and do they have special

There is an extensive literature about shamanism that has been compiled since
the late Eighteenth Century. Like any field of study and religious practice, shama-
nism has developed a specialized vocabulary. Please note that some of the
words used in the material that follows are drawn from scholars who have a solid
background in shamanic studies and may have meanings that are specific and
less general than is often the case in popular usage. Consulting a good
dictionary should clear up any points of confusion.

2. What is Shamanism?

Shamanism is classified by anthropologists as an archaic magico-religious
phenomenon in which the shaman is the great master of ecstasy. Shamanism
itself, was defined by the late Mircea Eliade as a technique of ecstasy. A shaman
may exhibit a particular magical specialty (such as control over fire, wind or
magical flight). When a specialization is present the most common is as a healer.
The distinguishing characteristic of shamanism is its focus on an ecstatic trance
state in which the soul of the shaman is believed to leave the body and ascend to
the sky (heavens) or descend into the earth (underworld). The shaman makes
use of spirit helpers, which he or she communicates with, all the while retaining
control over his or her own consciousness. (Examples of possession occur, but
are the exception, rather than the rule.) It is also important to note that while most
shamans in traditional societies are men, either women or men may and have
become shamans.

3. What is Shamanic Ecstasy and how does it compare with other forms of

From the Greek ‘ekstasis’, ecstasy literally means to be placed outside, or to be
placed. This is a state of exaltation in which a person stands outside of or
transcends his or herself. Ecstasy may range from the seizure of the body by a
spirit or the seizure of a person by the divine, from the magical transformation or
flight of consciousness to psychiatric remedies of distress.

Three types of Ecstasy are specified in the literature on the subject:
1. Shamanic Ecstasy
2. Prophetic Ecstasy
3. Mystical Ecstasy

Shamanic ecstasy is provoked by the ascension of the soul of the shaman into
the heavens or its descent into the underworld. These states of ecstatic
exaltation are usually achieved after great and strenuous training and initiation,
often under distressing circumstances. The resulting contact by the shaman with
the higher or lower regions and their inhabitants, and also with nature spirits
enables him or her to accomplish such tasks as accompanying the soul of a
deceased into its proper place in the next world, affect the well-being of the sick
and to convey the story of their inner travels upon their return to the mundane

The utterances of the shaman are in contrast with those of prophetic and
mystical ecstasy. The prophet literally speaks for God, while the mystic reports
an overwhelming divine presence. In mysticism, the direct knowledge or
experience of the divine ultimate reality, which is perceptible in two ways,
emotional and intuitive. While these three varieties of ecstatic experience are
useful for the purposes of analysis and discussion, it is not unusual for more than
one form of ecstasy to be present in an individual’s experience.

However, it can be argued that, generally speaking, there are three perceptive
levels of ecstasy.
1) The physiological response, in which the mind becomes absorbed in and
focused on a dominant idea, the attention is withdrawn and the nervous system
itself is in part cut off from physical sensory input. The body exhibits reflex inertia,
involuntary nervous responses, frenzy.
2) Emotional perception of ecstasy refers to overwhelming feelings of awe,
anxiety, joy, sadness, fear, astonishment, passion, etc.
3) Intuitive perception communicates a direct experience and understanding of
the transpersonal experience of expanded states of awareness or

While the physiological response is always present, the emotional response may
or may not be significant when intuition is the principal means of ecstatic
perception. Some have argued that beyond the intuitive state there is a fourth
condition in which the holistic perception exceeds mental and emotional
limitations and understanding.

The ecstatic experience of the shaman goes beyond a feeling or perception of
the sacred, the demonic or of natural spirits. It involves the shaman directly and
actively in transcendent realities or lower realms of being.

4. How does one become a shaman?

Some have wondered if the experience of shamanic ecstasy or flight makes a
person a shaman. Generally speaking, most would say no. A shaman is more
than someone with an experience. First, he or she is a trained initiate. Usually
years of trenculturalization and under a mentor precede becoming a functioning
shaman. Second, a shaman is not just an initiate who has received inner and
outer training, but is a master of shamanic journeying and techniques (shamanic
ecstasy). This is not a casual acquaintance with such abilities; there is some
degree of mastery of them. Finally, a shaman is a link or bridge between this
world and the next. This is a sacred trust and a service to the community.
Sometimes a community that a shaman serves in is rather small. In other
instances it may be an entire nation. A lot of that depends on social and cultural

One becomes a shaman by one of three methods:
a) Hereditary transmission;
b) Spontaneous selection or “call” or “election”;
c) personal choice and quest. (This latter method is less frequent and traditionally
such a shaman is considered less powerful than one selected by one of the two
preceding methods.) The shaman is not recognized as legitimate without having
undergone two types of training:
1) Ecstatic (dreams, trances, etc.)
2) Traditional (“shamanic techniques, names and functions of spirits, mythology
and genealogy of the clan, secret language, etc.) The two-fold course of
instruction, given by the spirits and the old master shamans is equivalent to an
initiation.” (Mircea Eliade, The Encyclopedia of Religion, v. 13 , p. 202; Mcmillian,
N.Y., 1987.) It is also possible for the entire process to take place in the dream
state or in ecstatic experience. Thus, there is more to becoming a shaman than
a single experience. It requires training, perseverance and service.

5. What is the role of personal trauma or crisis in the selection or
development of a shaman?

A common experience of the call to shamanism is a psychic or spiritual crisis,
which often accompanies a physical or even a medical crisis, and is cured by the
shaman him or herself. This is a common occurrence for all three types of
shamanic candidates described above. The shaman is often marked by eccentric
behavior such as periods of melancholy, solitude, visions, singing in his or her
sleep, etc. The inability of the traditional remedies to cure the condition of the
shamanic candidate and the eventual self cure by the new shaman is a
significant episode in development of the shaman. The underlying significant
aspect of this experience, when it is present, is the ability of the shaman to
manage and resolve periods of distress.

6. Does the presence of an active shamanic tradition necessarily mean
that the society itself should be deemed “shamanic”?

No, not at all. The presence of shamanism in a nation or a community does not
mean that shamanism is central to the spiritual or religious life of the community
or region. Shamanism often exists alongside and even in cooperation with the
religious or healing practices of the community.

7. What is meant by shamanic ecstasy and what role does it actually play in

The ecstatic technique of shamanism does not involve itself in the broad range of
ecstasy reported in the history of religion. It is specifically focused on the
transpersonal movement of the consciousness of the shaman into higher or
lower realms of consciousness and existence. Another aspect of shamanism is
that compared to other spiritual traditions, it is a path that the individual walks
alone. While much of the focus of shamanic studies has been on the shamanic
complexes of north and central Asia, shamanism is a universal phenomenon, not
confined to any particular region or culture.

8. What is the origin of the word “shaman”?

Shaman comes from the language of the Tungus of North-Central Asia. It came
into use in English via Russian.

9. What are the usual roles of a shaman?

In contemporary, historical or traditional shamanic practice the shaman may at
times fill the role of priest, magician, metaphysician or healer. Personal
experience is the prime determinant of the status of a shaman. Knowledge of
other realms of being and consciousness and the cosmology of those regions is
the basis of the shamanic perspective and power. With this knowledge, the
shaman is able to serve as a bridge between the mundane and the higher and
lower states. The shaman lives at the edge of reality as most people would
recognize it and most commonly at the edge of society itself. Few indeed have
the stamina to adventure into these realms and endure the outer hardships and
personal crises that have been reported by or observed of many shamans.

10. Why was this FAQ written?

This FAQ was originally written to support a new Usenet newsgroup,
‘soc.religion.sham-anism’. The purpose of this newsgroup is to provide a forum
for discussion and exchan-ge of ideas, views and information about historic,
traditional, tribal and contemporary shamanism. This FAQ is intended to provide
a useful general overview of what ‘shama-nism’ actually means and what it is in