Shamanism comprises a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spirit world. It is a prominent term in anthropological research.[2] A practitioner of shamanism is known as a shaman, pronounced /ˈʃɑːmən/, /ˈʃeɪmən/, (|ˈshämən; ˈshā-|) noun (pl. -man(s)).[3] There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world, but several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Shamans are intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds. They can treat illness and are capable of entering supernatural realms to obtain answers to the problems of their community.[4].


The term "shaman" is a loan from the Turkic[5][6][7][8] word šamán, the term for such a practitioner, which also gained currency in the wider Turko-Mongol and Tungusic cultures in ancient Siberia. Shamanism played an important role in Altaic mythology. Tengriism which was the major belief of Xiongnu, Turkic, Hungarian and Bulgar peoples in ancient times incorporates elements of shamanism.


Shamanism sociology study applies various empirical investigation methods and critical analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge about shaman social structure and activity, often with the goal of applying such knowledge to the pursuit of social welfare.


The shaman's social role may be defined by a set of connected behaviors, rights and obligations as conceptualized by actors in a social situation and the expected behavior in a given individual within their cultural social status and social position. Cultural Anthropology approaches shamanism as the study of their culture, beliefs, and practices. The New Age movement has appropriated shamanism into modern practices.


The shaman may serve the healers role in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and the power to heal by accessing the spirit world. Often the shaman has, or acquires, one or more helper entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans or other ancestors. In the Quechua society, magic, magical force, and knowledge are denoted by one term yachay.[citation needed]


Shaman act as "mediators" in their culture.[9][10] The shaman is seen as communicating with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the dead. In some cultures, this mediator function of the shaman may be illustrated well by some of the shaman's objects and symbols. E.g. among the Selkups, a report mentions sea duck as a spirit-animal: ducks are capable of both flying, and diving underwater, thus they are regarded as belonging to both the upper world and the world underneath.[11] Similarly, the shaman and the jaguar are identified in some Amazonian cultures: the jaguar is capable of moving freely on the ground, in the water, and climbing trees (like the shaman's soul). In some Siberian cultures, it is some water fowl species that are associated to the shaman in a similar way, and the shaman is believed to take on its form.[12]

“The Shaman's Tree” is an image found in several cultures (Yakuts, Dolgans, Evenks, etc.) as a symbol for mediation. The tree is seen as a being whose roots belong to the world underneath; its trunk belongs to the middle, human-inhabited world; and its top is related to the upper world.[13]


Shamans perform a variety of functions depending upon their respective cultures:[14] healing;[15][16] leading a sacrifice;[17] preserving the tradition by storytelling and songs;[18] fortune-telling;[19] acting as a psychopomp (literal meaning, “guide of souls”).[20] In some cultures, a shaman may fulfill several functions in one person.[14]

The necromancer in Greek mythology might be considered[citation needed] a shaman as the necromancer could rally spirits and raise the dead to utilize them as slaves, soldiers and tools for divination.

The functions of a shaman may include either guiding to their proper abode the souls of the dead (which may be guided either one-at-a-time or in a cumulative group, depending on culture), and/or curing (healing) of ailments. The ailments may be either purely physical afflictions—such as disease, which may be cured by flattering, threatening, or wrestling the disease-spirit (sometimes trying all these, sequentially), and which may be completed by displaying some supposedly extracted token of the disease-spirit (displaying this, even if "fraudulent", is supposed to impress the disease-spirit that it has been, or is in the process of being, defeated, so that it will retreat and stay out of the patient's body) --, or else mental (including psychosomatic) afflictions—such as persistent terror (on account of some frightening experience), which may be likewise cured by similar methods. Usually in most languages a different term other than the one translated "shaman" is applied to a religious official leading sacrificial rites ("priest"), or to a raconteur ("sage") of traditional lore; there may be more of an overlap in functions (with that of a shaman), however, in the case of an interpreter of omens or of dreams.

To quote Eliade: "A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy."[21]

Distinct types of shaman

In some cultures there may be additional types of shaman, who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nanai people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp.[22] Other specialized shaman may be distinguished according to the type of spirits, or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts. These roles vary among the Nenets, Enets, and Selkup shaman (paper;[23] online[24]). Among Huichol,[25] there are two categories of shaman. This demonstrates the differences among shaman within a single tribe.

Soul and spirit concepts

The variety of functions described in the above section may seem to be rather distinct tasks, but the soul and spirit concepts may underlying to join them.

The soul concept can generally explain more, seemingly unassociated phenomena in shamanism:[26][27][28]
may be based closely on the soul concepts of the belief system of the people served by the shaman (online[15]). It may consist of the retrieving the lost soul of the ill person.[29] See also the soul dualism concept.
Scarcity of hunted game
can be solved by “releasing” the souls of the animals from their hidden abodes. Besides that, many taboos may prescribe the behavior of people towards game, so that the souls of the animals do not feel angry or hurt, or the pleased soul of the already killed prey can tell the other, still living animals, that they can let themselves to be caught and killed.[30][31] The ecological aspect of shamanistic practice (and the related beliefs) has already been mentioned above in the article.
Infertility of women
can be cured by obtaining the soul of the expected child to be born.
Also the beliefs related to spirits can explain many different phenomena too,[32] for example, the importance of storytelling, or acting as a singer, can be understood better if we examine the whole belief system: a person who is able to memorize long texts or songs (and play an instrument) may be regarded as having achieved this ability through contact with the spirits (for example among Khanty people).[33]

Ecological aspect

Resources for human consumption are easily depletable in tropical rainforests. In the Tucano Indian rainforest culture, a sophisticated system exists for resource management, and for avoiding the resource depletion through overhunting. This system is conceptualized in a mythological context, involving symbolism and in the belief that the breaking of hunting restrictions may cause illness. As the primary teacher of tribal symbolism, the shaman may have a leading role in this ecological management, actively restricting hunting and fishing. The shaman is able to “release” game animals (or their souls) from their hidden abodes,[34] The Desana shaman has to negotiate with a mythological being for souls of game.[35] Not only Tucanos, but the Piaroa rainforest Indians have ecological concerns related to their shamanism.[36] Besides Tukanos and Piaroa, also many Eskimo groups think that the shaman is able to fetch souls of game from remote places;[37][38] or undertake a soul travel in order to promote hunting luck, e.g. by asking for game from mythological beings (Sea Woman).[39]


The way shamans get sustenance and take part in everyday life varies among cultures. In many Eskimo groups, they provide services for the community and get a “due payment” (some cultures believe the payment is given to the helping spirits[40]), but these goods are only “welcome addenda.” They are not enough to enable shamanizing as a full-time activity. Shamans live like any other member of the group, as hunter or housewife.[40][41]


There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world; and several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Common beliefs identified by Eliade (1964)[4] are the following:

  • Spirits exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
  • The shaman can communicate with the spirit world.
  • Spirits can be good or evil.
  • The shaman can treat sickness caused by evil spirits.
  • The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy and go on "vision quests."
  • The shaman's spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
  • The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.
  • The shaman can tell the future, scry, throw bones/runes, and perform other varied forms of divination

Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living.[42] Shamanism requires individualized knowledge and special abilities and operates outside established religions. Many shamans operate alone, although some take on an apprentice. Shamans can gather into associations, as Indian tantric practitioners have done.[citation needed]

While the causes of disease are considered by many shamans to lie in the spiritual realm, being effected by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman will "enter the body" of the patient to confront the spirit making the patient sick, and heal the patient by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimen is often prescribed as treatment. In many places shamans claim to learn directly from the plants, and to be capable of harnessing their effects and healing properties only after obtaining permission from its abiding or patron spirit. In South America, individual spirits are summoned by the singing of songs called icaros; before a spirit can be summoned the spirit must teach the shaman its song.[42] The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit. Such practices are presumably very ancient; in about 368 BCE, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that everyone who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to "listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth".

The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many societies. 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 thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community,[citation needed] and is renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.

By engaging in this work, the shaman is exposed to significant personal risk: risks from the spirit world, from enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter the shaman's state of consciousness. Some of the plant materials used can be toxic or fatal, and the failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to physical death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.


The border between the shaman and the lay person is not always sharp:

Among the Barasana [of Brazil], there is no absolute difference between those men recognized as shamans and those who are not. At the lowest level, most adult men have some abilities as shamans and will carry out some of the same functions as those men who have a widespread reputation for their powers and knowledge.

The difference is that the shaman knows more myths and understands their meaning better, but the majority of adult men know many myths, too.[43]

Similar can be observed among Eskimo peoples. Many laic people have felt experiences that are usually attributed to the shamans of those Eskimo groups: experiencing daydreaming, reverie, trance is not restricted to shamans.[44] It is the control over helping spirits that is characteristic mainly to shamans, the laic people use amulets, spells, formulas, songs.[44][45] In Greenland among the Inuit, there are laic people who may have the capability to have closer relationships with beings of the belief system than others. These people are apprentice shamans who failed to accomplish their learning process.[41]

The assistant of an Oroqen shaman (called jardalanin, or "second spirit") knows many things about the associated beliefs; he or she accompanies the rituals and interprets the behavior of the shaman.[46] In spite of this, the jardalanin is not a shaman. For his or her interpretative, accompanying role, it would be even unwelcome to fall into trance.[47]

Initiation and learning

Shamanic powers may be inherited, whereas in other societies shamans are "called" by dreams or signs and require lengthy training.

Shamanic illness

Turner and colleagues[48] mention a phenomenon called shamanistic initiatory crisis. A rite of passage for shamans-to-be, commonly involving physical illness and/or psychological crisis. The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China.[49] In Sudan, the sanjak (shaman) experiences the shamanic call in "the form of affliction. The person selected by the spirit becomes severely ill for a prolonged period of time.... The affliction and cure are seen as the sign of his election. The phenomenon thus follows the lines of shamanism, where the initial affliction of the shaman serves as proof of his election."[50]

Cognitive, semiotic, hermeneutic approaches

As mentioned, a (debated) approach explains the etymology of word “shaman” as meaning “one who knows”.[51][52] Really, the shaman is a person who is an expert in keeping together the multiple codes through which this complex belief system appears, and has a comprehensive view on it in their mind with certainty of knowledge.[53] The shaman uses (and the audience understands) multiple codes. Shaman express meanings in many ways: verbally, musically, artistically, and in dance. Meanings may be manifested in objects, such as amulets.[52]

The shaman knows the culture of his or her community well,[54][55][56] and acts accordingly. Thus, their audience knows the used symbols and meanings—that is why shamanism can be efficient: people in the audience trust it.[56] Such belief system can appear to its members with certainty of knowledge—this explains the above described etymology for the word “shaman”.[57]

Sami shaman with his drum

There are semiotic theoretical approaches to shamanism,[58][59][60] (“ethnosemiotics”). The symbols on the shaman's costume and drum can refer to Power animals, or to the rank of the shaman.

There are also examples of “mutually opposing symbols”, distinguishing a “white” shaman who contacts sky spirits for good aims by day, from a “black” shaman who contacts evil spirits for bad aims by night.[61] (Series of such opposing symbols referred to a world-view behind them. Analogously to the way grammar arranges words to express meanings and convey a world, also this formed a cognitive map?).[53][62] Shaman's lore is rooted in the folklore of the community, which provides a “mythological mental map”.[63][64] Juha Pentikäinen uses the concept “grammar of mind”.[64][65] Linking to a Sami example, Kathleen Osgood Dana writes:[66]

Juha Pentikäinen, in his introduction to Shamanism and Northern Ecology, explains how the Sámi drum embodies Sámi worldviews. He considers shamanism to be a ‘grammar of mind’ (10), because shaman need to be experts in the folklore of their cultures (11)


Armin Geertz coined and introduced the hermeneutics,[67] “ethnohermeneutics”,[62] approaches to the practice of interpretation. Hoppál extended the term to include not only the interpretation of oral or written texts, but also that of “visual texts as well (including motions, gestures and more complex ritual, and ceremonies performed for instance by shamans)”.[68] It can not only reveal the animistic views hiding behind shamanism, but also convey their relevance for the recent world, where ecological problems made paradigms about balance and protection valid.[64]

Ecological approaches, systems theory

Other fieldworks use systems theory concepts and ecological considerations to understand the shaman's lore. Desana and Tucano Indians have developed a sophisticated symbolism and concepts of “energy” flowing between people and animals in cyclic paths. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff relates these concepts to the changes how modern science (systems theory, ecology, some new approaches in anthropology and archeology) treats causality in a less linear way.[34] He suggests also a cooperation of modern science and indigenous lore (online[69])


Generally, the shaman traverses the axis mundi and enters the spirit world by effecting a transition of consciousness, entering into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens. The methods employed are diverse, and are often used together. Some of the methods for effecting such trances:


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