Last-modified: 19 April 1994
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 email@example.com (Dean Edwards).
Shamanism-General Overview-Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
(c November, 1993 by Dean Edwards)
This FAQ shall be posted monthly and is maintained by Dean Edwards
(firstname.lastname@example.org). It is intended for the private non-commercial use
of Usenet users. It may not be sold or resold without the permission
of the author.
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
meanings. There is an extensive literature about shamanism that has been
compiled since the late Eighteenth Century. Like any field of study and
religious practice, shamanism 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, with
whom he or she communicates, 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 ecstasy?
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:
a. Shamanic Ecstasy
b. Prophetic Ecstasy
c. 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, 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.
a) 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.
b) Emotional perception of ecstasy refers to overwhelming feelings of awe,
anxiety, joy, sadness, fear, astonishment, passion, etc.
c) Intuitive perception communicates a direct experience and
understanding of the transpersonal experience of expanded states of
awareness or consciousness.
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. These experiencesa may occur in either the dream state, the
awakened state, or both. Dreams, and in particular, lucid dreams, often
play a significan role in the life of a shaman or shamanic candidate.
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 enculturalization and
training 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 factors.
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
a) Ecstatic (dreams, trances, etc.)
b) 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
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 crisis or 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
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.shamanism'. The purpose of this
newsgroup is to provide a forum for discussion and exchange of ideas,
views and information about historic,traditional, tribal and
contemporary shamanism. This FAQ is intended to provide a useful general
overview of what 'shamanism' actually means and what it is in practice.
In doing so, it has focused on shamanic ecstasy as being at the heart
of shamanic experience and practice. Many other aspects of shamanic
experience are encountered in the journey toward that center. Likewise,
much is also experienced in the journey out from that core experience.
End of FAQ