What is shamanism?


Since the term “shamanism” has been used in a number of ways during the
discussions here I thought it might be helpful to present some basic information
on shamanism as the inter-disicplinary subject that it has become since Mircea
Eliade wrote _Shamanism_.

The following is from the Foreward, which explains the approach that Eliade took
to study Shamanism as a magico-religious phenomena, and which has been the
foundation that shamanism as a spiritual tradition, as well as explaining how
other academic disciplines approach the subject.

Mircea Eliade
_Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy_
Princeton University, Bollingen Series LXXVI 1964

Originally published in French as _Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaiques
de l’extase_, Librairie Payot, Paris, 1951. Revised and enlarged for the Bollinger

ISBN 0-691-01779-4 pbk 0-691-09827-1 hdbk

To the best of our knowledge the present book is the first to cover the entire
phenomenon of shamanism and at the same time to situate it in the general
history of religions. To say this is to imply its liability to imperfection and
approximation and the risks that it takes. Today the student has at his
disposition a considerable quantity of documents for the various shamanisms–
Siberian, North American, South American, Indonesian, Oceanian, and so on.
Then too, a number of works, important in their several ways have broken ground
for the ethnological, sociological, and psychological study of shamanism (or
rather, of a particular type of shamanism). But with a few notable exceptions–we
refer especially to the studies of Altaic shamanism by Holmberg (Harva)–the
immense shamanic bibliography has neglected to interpret this extremely
complex phenomenon in the framework of the history of religion. It is as a
historian of religions that we, in our turn, have attempted to approach,
understand, and present shamanism. Far be it from us to think of belittling the
admirable studies undertaken from the viewpoints of psychology, sociology, or
ethnology; we consider them indispensable to understanding the various aspects
of shamanism. But we believe that there is room for another approach–that
which we have sought to implement in the following pages.

The writer who approaches shamanism as a psychologist will be led to regard it
as primarily the manifestation of a psyche in crisis or even in retrogression; he
will not fail to compare it with certain aberrant psychic behavior patterns or to
class it among mental diseases of the hysteroid or epileptoid type.

We shall explain why we consider it unacceptable to assimilate shamanism to
any kind of mental disease. But one point remains (and it is an important one), to
which the psychologist will always be justified in drawing attention: like any other
religious vocation, the shamanic vocation is manifested by a crisis, a temporary
derangement of the future shaman’s spiritual equilibrium. All the observations
and analyses that have been made on this point are particularly valuable. They
show us, in actual process as it were, the repercussions, within the psyche, of
what we have called the “dialectic of hierophanies”–the radical separation
between profane and sacred and the resulting splitting of the world. To say this
is to indicate all the importance that we attribute to such studies in religious

The sociologist, for his part, is concerned with the social function of the shaman,
the priest, the magician. He will study prestige originating from magical powers,
its role in the structure of society, the relations between religious and political
leaders and so on. A sociological analysis of the myths of the First Shaman will
elicit revealing indications concerning the exceptional position of the earliest
shamans in certain archaic societies. The sociology of shamanism remains to be
written, and it will be among the most important chapters in general sociology of
religion. The historian of religions must take all these studies and their
conclusions into account. Added to the psychological conditions brought out by
the psychologist, the social conditions, in the broadest sense of the term,
reinforce the element of human and historical concreteness in the documents
that he is called upon to handle.

The concreteness will be accented by the studies of the ehtnologist. It will be the
task of ethnological monographs to situate the shaman in his cultural milieu.
There is danger of misunderstanding the true personality of a Chukchee shaman,
for example, if one reads of his exploits without knowing anything about the life
and traditions of the Chukchee. Again, it will be for the ehtnologist to make
exhaustive studies of the shaman’s costume and drum, to describe the séances,
to record texts and melodies, and so on. By undertaking to establish the “history”
of one or another constituent element of shaman-ism (the drum, for example, or
the use of narcotics during seances), the ethnologist–joined when circumstances
demand it, by a comparatist and historian–will suceed in showing the circulation
of the particular motif in time and space; so far as possible, he will define its
center of expansion and the stages and the chronology of its dissemination. In
short, the ethnolgist will also become a “historian,” whether or not he adopts the
Graebner-Schmidt-Koppers method of cultural cycles. In any case, in addition to
an admirable purely descriptive ethnographical literature, there are now available
numer-ous works of historical ethnology: in the overwhelming “gray mass” of
cultural data stemming from the so-called “ahistorical” peoples, we now begin to
see certain lines of force appearing; we begin to distinguish “history” where we
were in the habit of finding only “Naturvolker,” “primitives,” or “savages.”

It is unnecessary to dwell here on the great services that historical ethnology has
already rendered to the histroy of religions. But we do not believe that it can take
the place of the history of religions. The latter’s mission is to integrate the results
of ethnology, psychology, and sociology. Yet in doing so, it will not renounce its
own method of investigation or the viewpoint that specifically defines it. Cultural
ethnology may have demonstrated the relation of shamanism to certain cultural
cycles, for example, or the dissemination of one or another shamanic complex;
yet its object is not to reveal the deeper meaning of all these religious
phenomena, to illuminate their symbolism, and to place them in the general
history of religions. In the last analysis, it is for the historian of religions to
synthesize all the studies of particular aspects of shamanism and to present a
comprehensive view which shall be at once a morphology and a history of this
complex religious phenomena.

pg. xi-xiii

Chapter One, General considerations. REcruiting Methods. Shamanism and
Mystical Vocation.

Since the beginning of the century, ehtnologists have fallen into the habit of using
the terms, “shaman,” “medicine man,” “sorcerer,” and “magician”
interchangeably to designate certain individuals possessing magico-religious
powers and found in all “primitive” societies. By extension, the same terminology
has been applied in studying the religious history of “civilized” peoples, and there
have been discussions, for example, of an Indian, an Iranian, a Germanic, a
Chinese, and even a Babylonian “shamanism” with reference to the “primitive”
elements attested in the corresponding religions. For many reasons this
confusion can only militate against any understanding of the shamanic
phenomenon. If the word “shaman” is taken to mean any magician, sorcerer,
medicine man, or ecstatic found throughout the history of religions and religious
ethnology, we arrive at a notion at once extremely complex and extremely vague;
it seems, furthermore, to serve no purpose, for we already have the terms
“magician” or “sorcerer” to express notions as unlike and as ill-defined as
“primitive magic” or “primitive mysticism.”

We consider it advantageous to restrict the use of the words “shaman” and
“shaman-ism” precisely to avoid misunderstandings and to cast a clearer light on
the history of “magic” and “sorcery.” For of course, the shaman is also a
magician and medicine man; he is believed to cure, like all doctors, and to
perform miracles of the fakir type, like all magicians, whether primitive or modern.
But beyond this, he is a psychopomp, and he may also be priest, mystic and
power. In the dim, “confusionistic” mass of the religious life of archaic societies
considered as a whole, shamanism–taken in its strict and exact sense–already
shows a structure of its own and implies a “history” that there is every reason to

Shamanism in the strict sense is pre-eminently a religious phenomenon of
Siberia and Central Asia. The word comes to us, through the Russian, from the
Tungusic _saman_. In the other languages of Centeral and North Asia the
corresponding terms are Yakut _ojuna_ (_oyuna_), Mongolian _buga_, _boga_
(_buge_, _bu_) and _udagan_ (cf. also Buryat _udayan_, Yukut _udoyan_:
“shamaness”)_, Turko-Tartar _kam_ (Altaic _kam_, _gam_, Mongolian _kami_,
etc.) It has been sought to explain the Tungusic term by the Pali _samana_, and
we shall return to this possible etymology (which is part of the great problem of
Indian influences on Siberian religions) in the last chapter of this book.

Throughout the immense area comprising Central and North Asia, the magico-
religious life of society centers on the shaman. This, of course, does not mean
that he is the one and only manipulator of the sacred, nor that religious activity
is completely usurped by him. IN many tribes the sacrificing priest coexists with
the shaman, not to mention the fact that every head of a family is also the head
of the domestic cult. Nevertheless the shaman remains the dominating figure; for
through the whole region in which the ecstatic experience is considered the
religious experience par excellence, the shaman, and he alone, is the great
master of ecstasy. A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps
the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = _technique of ecstasy_.

pgs 3-4

Yet one observation must be made at the outset: the presence of a shamanistic
complex in one region or another does not necessarily mean that the magico-
religious life of the corresponding poeple is crystallized around shamanism. This
can occur (as, for example, in certain parts of Indonesia), but it is not the most
usual state of affairs. Generally shamanism coexists with other forms of magic
and religion.

It is here that we see all the advantage of implying the term “shamanism” in its
strict and proper sense. For, if we take the trouble to differentiate the shaman
from other magicians and medicine men of primitive societies, the identification of
shamanic complexes in one or another region immediately acquires definite
significance. Magic and magicians are to be found more or less all over the
world, where as shamaism exhibits a particular magical specialty, on which we
shall dwell at length: “master over fire,” “magical flight,” and so on. By virtue of
this fact, though the shaman is, among other things, a magician, not every
magician can properly be termed a shaman. The same distinction must be
applied in regard to shamanic healing; ever medicine man is a healer, but the
shaman employs a method that is his and his alone. As for the shaman-ic
techniques of ecstasy, they do not exhaust all the varieties of ecstatic experience
documented in the history of religions and religious ethnolgoy. Hence any
ecstatic cannot be considered a shaman; the shaman specializes in a trance
during which his should is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or
descend to the underworld.

A similar distinction is also necessary to define the shaman’s relation to “spirits.”
All through the primitive and modern worlds we find individuals who profess to
maintain relations with “spirits,” whether they are “possessed” by them or control
them. Several volumes would be needed for an adequate study of all the
problems that arise in connection with the mere idea of “spirits” and of their
possible relations with human beings; for a “spirit” can equally well be the sould
of a dead person, a “nature spirit,” a mythical animal, and so on. But the study of
shamanism does not require going into all this; we need only define the shaman’s
relation to his helping spirits. It will easily be seen wherein a shaman differs from
a “possessed” person, for example; the shaman controls his “spirits,” in the
sense that he, a human being, is able to communicate with the dead, “demons,”
and “nature spirits,” without thereby becoming their instrument. To be sure,
shamans are sometimes found to be “possessed,” but these are exceptional
cases for which there is a particular explanation.

These few preliminary observations already indicate the course that we propose
to follow in order to reach an adequate understanding of shamanism. In view of
the fact that this magico-religious phenomenon has had its most complete
manifestation in North and Central Asia, we shall take the shaman of these
regions as our typical example. We are not unaware, and we shall endeavor to
show, that Central and North Asian shamanism, at least in its present form, is not
a primordial phenomenon that has a long “history.” But this Central Asian and
Siberian shamanism has the advantage of presenting a structure in which
elements that exist independently elsewhere in the world–i.e., special relations
with “spirits,” ecstatic capacities permitting of magical flight, ascents to the sky,
descents to the underworld, mastery over fire, etc.–are here already found
integrated with a particular ideology and validating specific techniques.

pgs. 5-6