On Shamanism

This text was last updated on 22 June 2020

For me a strong connection with nature and an emphasis on empowerment and healing are at the heart of shamanic techniques. It is not necessary to ‘believe’ in anything. You can explore such practices alongside any other life orientation, and also in any way you feel comfortable with, whether it is through imagination, senses, meditation or techniques of expanding consciousness through music, dance or other substance-free techniques.

Explaining shamans and their shamanisms is tricky business, as there are many nuances and contexts in which these terms mean different things. As I describe in an article on ‘dancing with the spirits’ (Kieft, 2020), shamanism is usually seen as a set of techniques for:

  1. accessing a ‘spirit world’ that coexists with ordinary reality, through a shift in consciousness;
  2. interacting with other-than-human-beings on behalf of individuals or the community, by asking for assistance, insights and power, and celebrating this connection;
  3. aiming to honour, maintain or restore health and balance in individuals and community, including relationships with the social and natural world.

Although I personally prefer to speak of ‘body- and nature-based practices’, I decided to use the terms ‘shamanism’ and ‘shamanic’ since those are more commonly known and also because any alternative term would face its own challenges. I do this cautiously however, and with awareness of the following critiques in mind:

  1. Shamanism as a concept appears to be mentioned for the first time in travel journals at the end of the 17th century. From the beginning of the 20th century it was then developed as academic (historic, ethnographic) category for cultural and religious comparison.
  2. There appears to be no culture in the world that originally refers to their set of practices as ‘shamanic’.
  3. The term shamanism was derived from a very local context, where ‘saman’ was the Evenki word for spirit medium or priest, but not even that cosmology was originally called shamanism. It was a local and animist version of Tibetan Buddhism.
  4. Even within the Evenki context there are many variations and no agreement on ‘a’ single approach.
  5. Therefore, extrapolating those variations to similar practices world-wide means that we can better speak of plural shamanisms.
  6. Shamanisms are not unchanging but always in movement as they adapt to historical, geographical, cultural and political changes.
  7. Archeolology evidences similar practices for tens of thousands of years, i.e. they seem a very ‘human thing’ to do.
  8. Hence there is no culture that can claim a monopoly on shamanism (even though it is often associated or even equated with First Nations people in North and South America).
  9. Nevertheless, we need to respect ancient and contemporary sacred traditions and (tangible and intangible) cultural heritage, when we reconnect to such other ways of knowing that are lost to most western contemporary cultures.
  10. Shamanisms are inherently pragmatic: use what works, discard the rest. This makes it adaptable both to contemporary urban contexts and to contemporary spiritual seekers.
  11. Neo-, contemporary or core shamanism are other variations and applications of shamanisms (see point 5). Equally, practices such as paganism, witchcraft, wicca, druidry, etc. belong to a similar family of practices (Family Resemblance), even though their assumptions, practices and history differ.
  12. Whereas the role of the shaman or shamanic practitioner in a community, their calling and vocation, initiation and apprenticeship differ from culture to culture, the archetypal power and many tools of the shaman are accessible to everyone, without, for example, being initiated through illness or hereditary or culturally appointed apprenticeships. Similar to the archetypes of Fool, Magician, King/Queen, Priest(ess), Lover, Hermit, Wise Elder, Warrior, Witch and many more, the Shaman exist as an archetype in our collective and individual (un)consciousness as an energy that we can connect to and learn from.
  13. The intention of Clover Trail is not to re-invent something old or copy something contemporary, but to explore authentic ways to have a direct and respectful connection with self, surroundings and the sacred.

I am very happy to have a dialogue about any and all of these assumptions, and to deepen, and where necessary amend, my understanding of this vast and wonderful landscape. Here is to a supportive and inclusive approach to life, in which all beings can thrive.

Reference

Kieft, E. (2020) ‘Dancing with the Spirits, Act 1: ‘Being grounded and being able to fly are not mutually exclusive’’, Dance, Movement & Spiritualities, 6(1). Here is a free pre-print PDF version of this text.

A selection of further reading that inspired my understanding of shamanism

Aldhouse-Green, M. S. (2005) The quest for the shaman. Shape-shifters, sorcerers and spirit-healers of ancient Europe. London: Thames & Hudson.

Atkinson, J. M. (1992) ‘Shamanisms Today’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, pp. 307-330.

Darling Khan, Y. A. (2020) Shaman. Invoking Power, Presence and Purpose at the Core of Who YOU Are.

Eliade, M. (1972 [1951]) Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Eyers, P. (2016) Ancient spirit rising. Reclaiming your roots & restoring earth community. Otanobee, Ontario, Canada: Stone Circle Press.

Harner, M. (1980) The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Harvey, G. (ed) (2003) Shamanism: A Reader. London: Routledge.

Keeney, H. and Keeney, B. (2018) ‘Revisiting the Shaman’s Ecstasy: the Intense Emotion that Ignites the Performance of Song and Dance’, Journal of Dance, Movement & Spiritualities, 5(2), pp. 183-205.

Kieft, E. (2014-2020) A variety of papers on soul, shamanism and spirituality can be accessed via the publications tab on my personal website.

Laufer, B. (1917) ‘Origin of the Word Shaman’, American Anthropologist, 19(3), pp. 361-371.

Wallis, R. J. (2003) Shamans/Neo-Shamans. Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans. London and New York: Routledge.

Walter, M.N. and Neumann Fridman, E.J. (eds.) (2004) Shamanism: an encyclopedia of world beliefs, practices, and culture. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio.

Winkelman, M. (2013) ‘Shamanism in cross-cultural perspective’, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 31(2), pp. 47-62.