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What is a Shaman?

 ...and what is a Shaman not?

If you’re an indigenous Tungus tribes-person from the Siberian Tundra, your Shaman may fill one or more roles within your community including that of medicine man, a spiritual intermediary and often sage counsel of his or her people.  It is generally suggested that the term, “Shaman” originated from this region and essentially translates as, “one who knows”.

In industrialised society, the term, “Shaman” has come to [commonly] indicate a person of spiritual and/or healing abilities.  I will use the term, “Shaman” in this industrialised and somewhat incorrect, generalised term from this point on.

Ed. – I use the term, “Industrialised” rather than Western, Eastern or similar perceptual divisions.  It is nonsensical and racist to elevate one people's 'spiritual potential' based on their geographical or ethnic origin.  

I group industrialised and commercialised peoples within a similar societal framework.  Similarly, I reject wholeheartedly the prejudicial, condescending and patronising, “Noble Savage” view espoused or even edified by some, whether directly or indirectly.


So what is a Shaman? 

A Shaman is a person, female or male, who has made true, humble service their life's passion after responding to their 'Calling'.  They are not the 'enlightened' ideal popularised by industrialised concepts of serene beings devoid of human desires and drives.  Shaman are flesh and blood.  The smart ones understand their weaknesses and account for them in their practices.  The 'foul' shaman form selfish power cliques and sooner or later drive their practice OR their society into irrelevance and dissolution.

A Shaman uses techniques to locate and hold specific states of mind in which they can mentally journey into the energetic, physical and spiritual realms of our universe; the depth to which they journey depends entirely upon their calling.  A Shaman may also be a gifted as a herbalist, counsellor, bone setter, keeper of lore, teacher, midwife and more, depending upon the human inclinations and strengths of the individual in question.  There is actually no requirement for a Shaman to use the Journey as part of their practice, although it is a pretty universal feature of shamanic work as I know it. 

The Shaman is "One who understands" and "One who serves".

A Shaman is first and foremost an observer.  The role of Shaman is, in evolutionary terms, a [societal] 'luxury' role, not linked directly to personal gathering and survival.  The Shaman - in many societies - was and is one who is essentially supported by his or her community; their time freed to observe and think, to track the seasons and husband the game, crops and society in which they live.  To be the repository of knowledge and lore for their people, and the teacher of others.

The anthropological advantage to a society lies in this observation,.. most beneficially applied as sage counsel to the society's leadership and people.  For example, a developing feud between two powerful families within a hunter/gatherer community has the potential to divide and weaken that community.  When even a leader is busy with the day to day demands of survival, these rifts may gather momentum before being acknowledged in time by that community.  The role of observer and counsel allows a Shaman to gather information and find solutions for the benefit [hopefully] of their whole community before those tensions destroy coherence.

The Shaman as a healer.  Whilst not all Shaman followed the path of herbal and botanical knowledge, in many societies it is a synonymous role.  The development of this role is a direct result of the people releasing their shaman from their [previously] required survival based activities through supply of food, shelter etc.  The freedom to observe and think, to specialise, gave rise to advanced concepts and linkages of concept and action which resulted in a medicinal pharmacopeia of knowledge and practice.

The Shaman as a seer.  In many hunting societies, a Shaman journeyed through the middle world (think 'astral projection' as a convenient misconception for now) to seek (remote view) and call prey and to observe potential troubles at a physical and temporal distance. 

A community's investment in time and energy, directing a large scale hunting party towards a particular route was a critical and dangerous one.  Days of otherwise productive time could be lost in a futile hunt, dearly costing the community its ability to prepare for the next seasonal shift.  The Shaman as a seer was significantly relied upon for their people's survival through metaphysical journeying.

Naturally, many of their more direct, societal observations were attributed to mysticism rather than the more mundane and practical observation and discussion.  In times of tension, the Shaman's voice [as a spiritual leader] might declare a festival with a certain theme or purpose designed to heal a fractious community, bring coherence and reduce discontent.  Whilst this sounds political rather than mystical (and it is!), it is the freedom to observe, granted by the benefiting society, that gives the shaman a unique opportunity of perspective in their survival driven, pre-industrialised society.

The Shaman as a spiritual leader.  Many practices in ancient and modern spiritual practice are convenient to the conveyance of belief and understanding, a person's sense of participation and belonging, be it a pagan festival triggered by the first full moon on or after the (Northern) spring equinox (later 'rebadged' as Easter) or the belief that wine becomes blood in some Christian Communions.  Limits were often imposed upon the leadership role of the Shaman with many successful societies holding the Shaman aloof from the Chiefly leadership of a people. 

Naturally, the Shaman was a political animal too.  All societal creatures are, be they politicians in a government or a troop of chimps in a jungle canopy.  A sharp leader used their Shaman as a counsel and support.  A thing that might be a bit unpopular if coming only from the chief may be more palatable 'if the spirits agree'; and if it is truly good for the people, there is every likelihood that the spirits will both agree and 'agree'!

The Shaman as a counsel. As a confidant of their people, the Shaman was/is in a unique position to render advice and assistance.  In many societies, the Shaman was the Psychologist, Doctor and Priest, the 'confidant' and 'confessor' of their people.  In many successful non-industrialised societies, there was a purposeful and distinct separation of roles between societal and spiritual leadership.

Naturally, human power grabbing also happens, leading to a theocracy of one version or another,.. and [almost] always leading to vulnerability & collapse of that society.  A Shaman who is following their calling will always place their people's requirements and long term survival first and foremost in their actions and intent.  One that is [over] concerned with money, personal glory and other selfish motivations is a negatively influenced shaman who practices away from their calling (foul).

In our industrialised world, a Shaman may still act in many of these traditional roles, albeit to a far lessened extent - our industrialised leadership has eschewed wise counsel and measured action in favour of election cycle proclamations.  They've deleted from our thinking the concept of long term goals and works in favour of instant gratification and entirely supplanted the theory of government in the place of wise leadership.

We [industrialised people] still have herbalists, botanists, keepers of lore etc., but their voice is harder to hear over the constant and distracting blur that deters us from observing even the grossest of occurrences within our society.  We value cop shows above doing what we know is right.  We value cage fights over personal exploration.  We value words above actions in our leadership, voting for the best lies and hair whilst never entertaining for a second the idea that the very same person is fit to babysit your kids!

Those following a calling, be it to medicine - natural or orthodox, be it to counselling, healing arts etc are in some ways practicing shamanically in its ideal.

The Modern Shaman is now being called upon to perform many of their metaphysical roles in our modern, 21st century world.  In 2010 and less than a week before writing these words, I received a ['last ditch'] request for a soul retrieval ritual to be performed for a person who has a strong science background.  As we recognise the lack of answers in modern techniques, many are again turning to the less mundane world occupied by metaphysical practitioners of all kinds and motivations, including the modern Shaman.





© Craig Berry - 1996 - 2010, All rights reserved - reproduction without written permission prohibited.