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The Baseline of Many Isms

Shamanism “is a methodology, not a religion” according to Michael Harner (Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, HarperOne, 1980, 1990, xiv). If not a religion, it is a spiritual system and worldview that underlies religious systems. Since the 1970s, shamanism has enjoyed a resurgence or revival, especially in the United States and Europe.

According to Michael Harner and others, five things are responsible for this revival: (1), the use of LSD and other mind expanding hallucinogens, e.g., ayahuasca; (2), soul survival following near-death experiences; (3), use of monotonous percussion sound to enter altered states of consciousness; (4), a multitude of practices under the general rubric of holistic health; and (5), the acceptance in traditionally Christian cultures of a wider range of spiritualities, some flowing from the East and others springing from the revival of paganism, centered on the belief that the planet is alive and spiritual in its essence.

Following now is an explanation of the core aspects of shamanism, including general origins, how it works, and what it influences.

Animism – the foundation for shamanism

Animism is the ism that forms the foundation for all forms of shamanism. Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical world, and that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, and all living things as well as rocks, mountains, rivers, and other geographical features. Examples of animism can be found in forms of Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, ancient forms of paganism, Islam, and Neo-Pagan practices such as Wicca.

Tribal animists of North America

In the animistic worldview, spirit, soul, or mind is in all, whether organic or inorganic, and soul is in people but has an existence apart from the body. The spirit or soul can be communicated with and manipulated to some degree. Spirit may be understood as energy, force, or that which is part of the “Supreme,” the “One,” the “All.”

Animism, however, is not pantheism, which means all is God. It is not panentheism, which means that God is in everything. Animism sees all things as having mind, soul, or spirit and are thus alive and can be communicated with, appealed to, placated, and prayed to.

The shaman

The origin and definition of the word “shaman” is variously and ambiguously described; more important is what the shaman does. Siberian origins of the word have been proposed, either from the Siberian tribes Tungas or the Evenki. Ethnologists and anthropologists have grouped witches, witch doctors, medicine men, seers, wizards, sorcerers, magic men, and holy men with shamanism, with shaman becoming the catchall term for these individuals.

Spirit and soul are closely related terms and are concepts that are essential to shamanism. Most shamans hold that human beings have more than one soul, the more the better. The shaman is able to work with spirits and has the power to usher a soul to heaven or retrieve a soul from hell. He is a mediator of and traveler between the visible and invisible worlds.

Anthropologist David Stern says shamans “believe that unseen spirits permeate the world around us, act upon us, govern our fates. By turn doctors, priests, mystics, psychologists, village elders, oracles, and poets, they are the designated negotiators with this hidden reality, and they occupy an exalted position within their societies.” Stern further says there are many different forms of “shamanisms” but the common thread is “the ecstatic trance, or soul journey, as it’s sometimes called, a signature phenomenon.” By means of ecstasy, meaning a trance state or altered state of consciousness, the shaman connects with spiritual powers for healing and other services beneficial to the community he or she serves. (David Stern, “Masters of Ecstasy” National Geographic, December 2012,

Wild looking black and white image of a Hamatsa shaman

Harner puts it this way: “A shaman is a man or woman who enters an altered state of consciousness – at will – to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons.”

The shaman is the priest from primitive eras who has survived into the modern age. Shamanism may well be the most practiced religious or spiritual form in the world. Shamans are everywhere and operate in the world’s largest religions. But there is no individual known as a shaman in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shinto, Christianity, and others. Nevertheless, shamanism is present in each of these, though often in disguise.

Shamanism: inter-connected with other religious systems

Shamanism is intimately intertwined with modern paganism such as Wicca; in fact, Wicca may be classified as a form of shamanism. A book on Wicca could just as easily be described as a book on shamanism, and vice versa.

Santeria altar with many objects and Catholic related saint figurines

Shamanism touches Christianity by connection with Santería, though Santería is not classified as part of Christianity. Santería, loosely translated as “that saint thing,” blended to a certain degree with Roman Catholicism. Its shamanistic male and female priests, called santeros, santeras, and babalawos, are often mistaken as Christian. (Crystal Blanton, a Wiccan high priestess, combines the worship of the Santerían goddess Yemaya with her witchcraft. See Sage Woman issue 84, pp. 27-30.)

Charisma does not directly connect with shamanism but does so indirectly by means of the trance state.

Origins of shamanism

Mircea Eliade, the French anthropologist whose book, Shamanism, is regarded as the classic work on the subject, concludes that shamanism developed in Siberia and central Asia somewhere in the Paleolithic era and is thus tens of thousands of years old. (Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.) Harner agrees that shamanism is at least twenty to thirty thousand years old. Eliade proposes that it spread when the shamans from Siberia migrated into all of Asia, Indo-Europe, and Africa, and also crossed over the frozen bridge between present day Russia and Alaska, with shamanistic views and practices continuing southward down to the tip of Argentina. It has flourished ever since.

Others suggest it developed independently in various locales due to the tendency of humans to inadvertently experience trance states. Roger Walsh, Ph.D., M.D., author of my favorite book on the subject of shamanism, poses the possibility that human experiences “such as isolation, fatigue, hunger, or rhythmic sound” might lead to the discovery of altered states of consciousness, chief among them being the trance state. Since such experiences are common to humankind, trance states would be a shared phenomenon and form a context for spiritual development in many places. (Roger Walsh, The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition (Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2007))

Michael Harner suggests that the altered state of consciousness is an evolutionary adaptation that helps secure the survival of the species. He views the SSC or “shamanic state of consciousness” to be superior to the OSC or “ordinary state of consciousness.” Indeed, athletes, artists, musicians, writers, and even scientists have explored the SSC as a means of developing their particular skills and insights. The basic fact that shamanism around the globe shows an obvious uniformity, Harner says, points to a possible DNA encoding mechanism that eventually yields something akin to shamanistic views and practices. Shamanism is worldwide, Harner insists, because “it works.”

man's head against blue sky and key unlocking his mind

Perhaps each of the above views has some validity and may even have worked in combination. The seemingly universal quest for altered states of consciousness may be the central factor for the similarity of expressions in shamanism wherever they are found. It is in the trance or passive state that, in my view, a human is most open to contact with spirits, regardless of what they are called. One objective of this book is to focus on the identity and nature of the spiritual entities that make shamanism and its offshoots work. The issue of what these spirits are is much debated. Most observers and practitioners are aware that not all spirits are beneficial; few, however, see them as evil or identified with the demonic.

The shaman and ecstasy

Shamans are identified with ecstasy. Not all those who engage in ecstasy or trance states are shamans, but the shaman’s claim is that his or her soul (shamans may be male or female, especially in more recent times; from here on I will use either he or him in references to actual shamans), while in the state of ecstasy or trance, leaves the body and ascends to the sky or descends to the underworld.

Anthropologist David Stern quotes a shaman named Dorzhiyev who lives in the Russian Republic of Buryatiya in Siberia and who described the shamanic trace experience:

As you start to fall into the trance, you feel some force of energy coming closer to you. You can’t see it – it’s like a human form in the fog. And when it comes even closer, you see who it is, that it is a spirit. Someone who lived long ago. He enters you, your consciousness departs. Your consciousness goes to somewhere beautiful. And the spirit takes over your body.

To obtain the shamanic vision, i.e., knowledge of and contact with the spirit world, the trance state is essential. The most experienced and respected shamans are able to enter into a trance easily and quickly. Some means of doing so are dancing, chanting, repetitive singing, deep meditation or contemplation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, and hallucinogenic drugs like ayahuasca, peyote, mushrooms, LSD, tobacco smoke, alcohol, or any of the preceding in combination. Harner states, however, that one may “will” one’s way into a SSC or shamanic state of consciousness, thus escaping the rigors involved to do so for the traditional shaman, which typically necessitate years of meditation, prayer, or chanting.

man floating in darkness amidst animals: tiger, owl, wolf. Man has cosmic tree painted on his body.

Shamans have contact, even relationships, with spirits. A spirit may identify itself as the soul of a dead person, a nature spirit, a mythical or real animal, or a god or goddess. There are many possibilities, and the spirits’ purpose is to assist the shaman. The identity of the “spirit” is of vast importance to our study. Are shamans correct in their identification? Our thesis says no, and further explanation follows.

Shamans and their power

Shamans are said to control the spirits rather than be possessed by them. This is said to be the mark of the practiced and mature shaman, but at times and in certain places, shamans can be under the control of a spirit. If all proceeds as the shaman wants, however, and he is the controller, the spirit guide or helper will give him the ability to communicate with the dead, other spirits, souls, and demons.

Since the dead are said to know things about the unseen world that living humans cannot, the shaman also engages in divination or fortune telling. This form of shamanic work may be referred to as “journey foreseeing.” As in SSC, the shaman journeys, usually with the help of a spirit animal or plant helper, to see what will be in store for a client. In addition, a “shaman may engage in clairvoyance, seeing what is going on elsewhere at the present moment.”

Shamans are healers and have learned secrets to work cures. During long periods of human history, the shaman with his knowledge of healing techniques and the application of various herbs was the only medical practitioner available.

In a tribe or society, Shamans are the elite due to their unique ability to manipulate the unseen world. The shamans are the mystics of any religion, those who are comfortable with the forces of the spirit. In a trance or ecstasy, the shaman is able to determine the cause of an illness and find the means for a cure. The shaman is the holy man who accompanies the dead to the “Realm of Shades” and serves as a mediator between them and their gods, celestial or infernal, greater or lesser. The shaman is the specialist in the human soul; he alone ‘sees’ it and can learn its destiny.

While shamans use power derived from spirits and souls of the dead to achieve certain ends such as healing of disease, the same power can be directed toward harmful or negative purposes. The shaman may be either a healer or a sorcerer, depending mostly on the needs and desires of a client. Shamans recognize the reality of demonic or evil spirits but are supposedly not alarmed or influenced by them. This is also said of the santeros, santeras, and babalawos of Santería and of the witches of Wicca. Each and all of these are aware of the “negative” forces, as they may call them, but they pride themselves in their high intentions and assert that they are careful not to use the power they have for harmful purposes. (However, based on emails I have received responding to essays I have written on Santería and Wicca there seems to be no hesitation to send beings from the nether regions to do me harm. These messages have arrived weekly for years now, and most are obscene.)

As will be shown, their assumption that there is a difference between good and bad spiritual entities is a superficial and false conception.

There is a “beautiful side of evil” (A phrase coined by Johanna Michaelsen in her book of the same name, in which she describes her exit from involvement in the occult), which is initially alluring and attracts adherents to shamanistic systems, so it is not surprising that shamanistic techniques and practices are attracting new followers around the world. More alluring than beauty, however, is the quest for power. Beauty is the bait; power is the hook.

Sources of shamanic power

The list of the sources of shamanic power is akin to what the Wiccans utilize. Several books I consulted on shamanism, as previously mentioned, could just as easily have been about neo-paganism, particularly Wicca, and the reverse is also true. The concepts are virtually identical, and this is most evident when speaking of the shaman’s power sources. The sources are (1) power animals, (2) spiritual teachers or guides, (3) objects infused with power, such as a rattle, drum, totem, etc., and (4) the elements of nature such as quartz crystals, the four directions of north, south, east, and west or the basic elements of fire, water, earth, and air.

The guardian spirit and other helping spirits

Each shaman will have at least one guardian or helping spirit which is usually represented as an animal, e.g., wolf, coyote, or eagle. This spirit may be with the shaman from birth but may leave after a period of time and need to be retrieved.

hazy, one person whispers in the ear of another

The guardian spirit may be referred to as a friend, companion, angel, or familiar. The shaman uses these spirits while in an altered state of consciousness or SSC. (Interestingly, in the King James Version of the Bible demonic spirits are sometimes called “familiars,” e.g., Lev. 19:31; Deut. 8:11; 1 Sam. 28:7; Isa. 29:4.)

The shaman acquires spirits from three categories: animal helping spirits, spiritual teachers (dead or still living), and souls of the dead (often more than one). Spirit teachers can access power or directly provide power to the shaman, who may use rattles or drums to summon spirits and may appeal to the elements and the four directions of the planet, which the shaman believes are alive, to obtain power. Living spirit teachers or guides may be elders in the community. Non-living guides may be spirits of community ancestors, local deities, aliens from outer space, and mythical or legendary gods and goddesses, including those from the Greco/Roman pantheon. Shamans working in the Christian tradition claim angels as guides. The teachers and spiritual guides may appear in a human-like form, animal-like form, as a light or aura, or in a symbolic form.

Power animals such as eagles, coyotes, deer, horses, fish, or others can transport the shaman to the “other world.” This is done in a trance state, and the shaman often carries or wears something that symbolizes the animal, such as a feather or the image of a coyote painted on a garment. They access the power of the animal represented. Some shamans have a stick horse fetish they “ride” on their journeys.

female shaman in full garments with large drum in front of log teepee in Mongolia

The drum and rattle of the shaman may be referred to as a “horse,” “mount,” “steed,” or “canoe” that serve to transport him to the “lower world” or “upper world.” The beat of the drum and noise of the rattle, performed just right, are the means of powering the journey. Harner states that research “has demonstrated that drumming produces changes in the central nervous system” and that “the shaking of the shaman’s rattle provides stimulation to higher frequency pathways in the brain than does the drum, reinforcing the drum beats and further heightening the total sonic effect.”

Power objects are also important in the shaman’s tool palette. Ceramic depictions of a turtle, bird, pine cone, egg, and other objects of nature are examples, and they need periodic feeding or re-energizing. (The same concept is found in Santería and is one of the reasons animals are routinely sacrificed, as the blood is said to feed the power objects, usually a representation of an orisha, which is a Santerían god or goddess.) Shamans must placate and feed their power animals periodically in order to keep them from wandering off and to thus maintain empowerment. There is a connection apparent here with the feeding of the Santerían “otanes,” which will be described in the next chapter.

Power Song

Every shaman needs a power song. Michael Harner’s own power song is as follows:

Stanza one:

I have spirits,
Spirits have I.
I have spirits,
Spirits have I.
I have spirits,
Spirits have I.
I, I, I.

This is repeated three times then on to stanza two:

My spirits
Are like birds,
And the wings
And bodies are dreams.
I have spirits,
Spirits have I.
I, I, I.

The second stanza is repeated three times then back to the first stanza; this pattern is continued for as long as needed to enter into to an altered state.

Quartz Crystals
row of necklaces made with quartz crystals

Quartz crystals are considered to be power objects. They are thought to have great spiritual significance, and thus shamans traditionally carry one or more on their person, preferably in a pouch made of a wild animal skin. The bag is the “bundle” or the medicine chest of the healing shaman. Many shamans enter into a special relationship with their crystals much like one would with a pet, even to the point of feeding them with substances like tobacco juice. Once again we see, or will see in the next chapter, a connection with certain Santerían practices.

Power Plants

In addition to power animals and quartz crystals, a shaman will depend upon the power of plants; they serve as spirit helpers. Plant power is not as strong as the animal or guardian spirit but is nonetheless essential for certain ceremonies. A shaman may have only one or two animal helpers but may have hundreds of plant spirit helpers. Shamans will acquire power plants while wandering in deserts, forests, and other places where exotic plants grow. Once such a plant is discovered, the shaman develops a relationship with that plant.

The recruitment and initiation of the shaman

Heredity, Call, Desire

There are generally three ways in which a person becomes a shaman. First is by heredity, from father to son or grandfather to grandson. This is referred to as “the hereditary transmission of the shamanic profession.” Second is a spontaneous vocation, a call, or an election. This may occur when a person is healed through the agency of a shaman and is “called” at the same time. Third is a personal desire and decision to become a shaman. Shamans with either hereditary title or those elected spontaneously are considered the most powerful. The least powerful and respected are those who pursue the position through self-entitlement. (It is becoming increasingly common for single individuals, apart from a community, to seek to become a shaman. It is even possible to receive initiation via the internet.)

In some religions, shamans (holy men or medicine men) are sought among those who are peculiar or exhibit signs of what more cultured societies would term mental or emotional illness. The unusual person, perhaps exhibiting epileptic seizures or schizophrenic behavior, is looked upon as having a gift from the gods or spirits. The mentally ill, however, often prove to be unsuccessful mystics. Shamans from this third class are likely to lack religious content in their communications. In general, neither epilepsy nor any other brain or mental malady is considered genuine possession. More often the shaman is a very gifted person in the tribe or clan, an honored and respected person.

Indian shamans blowing pipes

Often a candidate for shaman will simply undergo a change, becoming more meditative, seeking solitude, sleeping a great deal, seeming absent-minded, having prophetic dreams, and sometimes having seizures. In more advanced cultures this is the more likely process.

In whatever way a person is recruited into shamanism, he is not recognized as a shaman until he has received two kinds of teaching. One is instruction or initiation through the ecstatic experience, meaning the entering into trance or having dreams or visions. The ease with which a shaman is able to enter into ecstasy is a sign of his power and ability. The second kind of teaching involves initiations and messages from either living or dead shamans. The teachings consist of mastering the complicated techniques of shamanism, learning the names and functions of the spirits, absorbing the mythology and genealogy of the clan, learning a secret language, and discovering how secret spiritual knowledge is accessed.

The initiation by way of the ecstatic or trance experience and the didactic initiation through rigorous learning may take place over a long period of time, perhaps years. More recently, the process has been significantly shortened, mostly among westerners.

The threefold path of initiation

The threefold path of initiation for the shaman is suffering, death, and resurrection. The would-be shaman suffers an illness, emotional or physical – the suffering; he then retreats from the tribe – the death; and re-emerges whole again – the resurrection. This may take place in reality, an event that the entire tribe witnesses. Or it may take place in an ecstasy, which the candidate experiences and then reports. In ecstasy the would-be shaman may see himself being dismembered, perhaps by birds or spirits tearing away flesh, blood, and bone; this is the suffering. The suffering results in the physical body’s destruction and death. The body is then reconstructed or remade, thus completing the cycle with resurrection. Herein is the suffering, death, and resurrection, all of which the candidate for shaman must experience. Initiations are different among different people, but the same pattern is generally observed.

Once the shaman candidate has experienced the suffering and death, the resurrection, to be complete necessitates both an ascent to the sky where he speaks with the gods or spirits and a descent to the underworld where he converses with spirits and the souls of dead shamans. Because the soul journey occurs only during ecstasy, the initiate must later recount his experience and thus satisfy the community that he is now a complete shaman. (Ethnologists and cultural anthropologists who observe shamans in their natural setting are not attesting to the validity or reality of the gods, spirits, and souls. This is largely an issue avoided.)

The candidate must be expert at ascent and descent, because these will be major parts of his work on behalf of people who have lost loved ones or are suffering from some sort of illness. To accompany a deceased’s soul to the sky – heaven – is a shaman’s valued work. Of equal importance is the shaman’s ability to retrieve a soul from the underworld – hell. These are among the chief functions of the shaman.

The First Shaman

There are legends that speak of a “first shaman” whose pride led him to enter into competition with the supreme god. This first shaman’s body was made of a mass of snakes. The god sent down fire to burn the first shaman, but a toad emerged from the flames, and from this creature came the demons.

I refer to this legend, because it reminds me of the biblical account of creation and the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by the serpent (see Genesis chapter three). Certainly there are pronounced, even unmistakable, similarities between the two stories. That perhaps one is dependent on the other seems reasonable, but which comes first is unknown. In terms of origins my view is that the story of the first shaman is borrowed from the biblical account and is a natural distortion of the story of creation accounts found in the Bible.

Among certain tribes the eagle is considered to be the creator of the first shaman. Because eagles ascend to the sky, it is usual during ecstasy for the shaman to transform himself into an eagle in his ascents or be escorted there on the wings of an eagle. The eagle and other birds predominate in shamanistic ceremonies. Costume and ritual objects often utilize representations of various kinds of birds, including feathers and other bird-like features. The eagle’s ascent into heaven occurs in the mind of the shaman and may be acted out by the shaman as an actor might act out a scene on a stage. To a considerable extent, shamans are also story-telling entertainers.

Real or imaginary, internal or external?

The issue then becomes whether what is reported by the shaman is real or imaginary. Various authors writing on shamanism, Santería, or Wicca hesitate to say that what goes on in an ecstasy has a separate reality apart from the mind. Others are clear, however, that what happens is real contact with the spirit world, that the animal spirits, souls of the dead, and so on, are real, although all taking place within the head and mind of the shaman, santero, witch, or medium.

Our research confirms that the locus of the shamanic experience is internal; neither the shaman nor his ‘soul’ leaves his body and travels into a spirit world. The shaman may think he is on a soul journey, but the journey takes place within the shaman. There is, however, an actual spiritual event occurring; the shaman is not merely imagining things. The soul journey is rather a deception that the indwelling or possessing spirits are perpetrating or performing. The shaman may or may not realize the difference.

Research for this chapter reveals that there is a marked distinction between the classical shaman and the westernized contemporary shaman. The classical or tribal shaman is less likely to be concrete as to what is occurring in his ecstasy. The modern western shaman is more likely to claim actual contact with an otherworld inhabited by real spirits, although not all westernized shamans are open and plain about this.

Tutelary and helping animal spirits

A tutelary spirit is one that protects and guards the shaman. The tutelary spirit is even said to choose the shaman. A tutelary may give the shaman other helping spirits as well. Sometimes the tutelary spirit is female, even being called a “celestial wife.” There is a close relationship between mystical and carnal love in shamanism, and there is no doubt that sexuality plays an important part in the shamanic story. A shaman can have sexual relations with female spirits or, if the shaman is female, with male spirits. This is the age-old story of the incubus and the succubus, which are spirits imitating humans and having sexual contact with them. In occult-oriented writings, spirits that impersonate men and women are reported to have actual sexual relations with the humans they possess. (The suggestion of sexual relations with spirits may sound strange, but in my years of casting out demons, while rare, it was not absent. By spirits I mean demons. And typically, what began as pleasurable turned into something far less. It was the change that would motivate a person to get rid of the unclean spirit.)

carved wooden mask on tree

Tutelary spirits are also known as guardians. It is the tutelary spirit that the shaman ‘calls up’ in the séances, because they evidently have more power than the helping spirits. The majority of these spirits have animal appearances, and a chief characteristic of a shaman is the ability to adopt one of these forms. It is not that the shaman suddenly looks like an animal but that he speaks like an animal and moves like an animal. This “act” is highly polished and miraculous in many ways, and it may continue for extraordinarily long periods of time, demanding strength and energy far beyond that of a normal human being.

However, even though the shaman has ‘face-to-face’ experiences with gods and spirits and sees them, talks with them, prays to them, and implores them, he is in control, if at all, of only a limited number of them. Any spiritual entity invoked during a shamanic séance is not ipso facto one of the shaman’s guardian or helper spirits.

A certain amount of confusion or lack of clarity persists in the accounts of the various spirits encountered in shamanic ecstasies. There is nothing in the literature that could be considered standardized or identified as authorized fact.

The use of narcotics in achieving ecstasy

person preparing leaves in a pot pot of bubbling ayahuasca

By ecstasy is meant trance. Ecstasy is the moving out of a normal state of consciousness into a trance-like or altered state of consciousness. The trance entered into may be light, moderate, or deep. The experienced shaman can enter the deep trance easily. Other shamans, however, need help and resort to narcotics. Rum, tobacco juice, hemp smoke (cannabis), peyote, ayahuasca (a powerful hallucinogenic drug, also known as yage or yaje, highly toxic and dangerous), and psilocybin mushrooms, among others, may be used. Some shamans use a steam room or sweat lodge instead of a narcotic; combinations of the foregoing are often employed.

The Shaman as psychopomp

A psychopomp is one who conducts souls to heaven or retrieves them from the underworld. In Greco/Roman mythology, Hermes was a psychopomp. From the ancient Proto-Germanic shamanistic world the word “hel” is used for the underworld and is where we get our English word “hell.”

Illness and disease in shamanistic societies are seen as possibly caused by a “rape of the soul” or the result of a soul wandering away or getting lost. The remedy is for the shaman to retrieve that soul, and if it is in either heaven or hell, the shaman has the power to go there, capture the soul, and induce it to come back into the patient’s body.

In some cultures, soul retrieval is a major industry, because it is believed a person can have a number of souls. Only the shaman can work the cure; only he sees the spirits and knows how to deal with them. If the soul has left the body, only he knows how to overtake it, all of which is done in a trance.

Since sickness may be interpreted as a flight of the soul, the cure involves calling it back. If the soul has gotten lost or is merely wandering about, the shaman may read a litany of pleadings in which the patient’s soul is implored to return from the distant mountain, valley, river, forest, fields, or from wherever it may be wandering.

Shamanistic cosmology, the three cosmic zones, and the World Tree

Three-leveled Universe

The shamanistic worldview sees the universe as having three levels – sky, earth, and underworld – that are connected by a central axis, hole, or axle, often referred to as the axis mundi. It is through this axis or hole that the three levels can be traversed. The gods descend from heaven through the hole and the souls of the dead descend through the hole to the subterranean regions. It is through this hole that the shaman, and only the shaman, can fly up in ecstasy to the celestial or down to the infernal regions.

A “center” is where there is a possible breakthrough in the axis or plane and, therefore, here is where spiritual power breaks through. In some circles these “vortexes” are known as places of power. In Marin County where I live and work is Mt. Tamalpais, and many neo-pagans consider that mountain to be a spiritually powerful place.

Shamanistic people will erect poles or pillars to mark a sacred place, and this pillar, pole, stake, or totem is treated almost as a god, often with a small stone altar placed at its foot to place offerings. These may be the center pole of a yurt, igloo, tent, home, lodge house, and so on. The pole is the link between heaven and earth. The hole in a tent that allows smoke out, as depicted in images of North American Indian tepees, also serves as access to heaven or hell. (“Hell” is sometimes used by various sources in place of “underworld” and other similar terms. Obviously some sort of borrowing was going on.) In a larger sense, the “pole” can be a mountain, tree, pillar, pyramid, stele, and so on.

The World Tree

The cosmic tree is essential to the shaman, and that tree represents the World Tree. He may plant a birch tree, as representative of the World Tree, somewhere close to his residence and may make his drum from its wood. In climbing the ritual birch tree he believes he can reach the summit of the cosmic tree, heaven, the ultimate celestial place. He may keep artistic representations of the tree inside his dwelling place and on his drum. The tree connects the three cosmic regions of heaven, earth, and the underworld – the leaves reach heaven, and the roots extend to the underworld, while the trunk is the middle or present world.

drawing of cosmic world tree

The World Tree symbolizes the universe in continual regeneration, the inexhaustible spring of cosmic life, or the reservoir of the sacred. It also represents the idea of ultimate reality and immortality. The World Tree somehow becomes the Tree of Life and Immortality.

We see a connection with the biblical Tree of Life and also the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as described in Genesis chapters one to three. While it seems probable that there was borrowing, we found no evidence establishing a common origin.

Journeying: a core shamanistic practice

Shamanism and Wicca clearly intersect and have a great deal in common when it comes to the concept of journeying. In shamanism, as discussed above, the journey is to the lower, upper, or middle worlds, and the destinations are keyed to the structure of the universe based on the World Tree. Again, the leaves represent the upper world, the trunk down to the ground is the middle world, and the roots are the lower world.

The journey begins only when the shaman is in the trance state, and any number of techniques can be used to enter the altered state of consciousness – dancing, drumming, chanting, meditating, taking hallucinogenic drugs, or breathing in specially prescribed techniques, and these, again, are often accompanied by infusions of tobacco, rum, and so on. These techniques are meant to trigger a shift to an altered or passive state of mind.

A power animal, such as an eagle, may be the form of transportation, and the reason for the journey usually has something to do with a healing or the solving of a problem for an individual or the community.

pile of rocks in front of colorful totem of materials on Mt. Chingeltei Uul in Mongolia

Once in one of the three worlds, a guide is necessary, perhaps the soul of a dead ancestor, and then the journey is underway. Shamans will see spirits or spiritual energies and will communicate with spiritual beings. Perhaps the shaman is on the hunt for a soul whose absence from the body of a patient has caused an illness.

The question always is: What is going on here? Is the shaman really encountering actual spiritual beings and souls of the dead? Over the course of my research on this, I have found writers to be fuzzy on this point. Some, however, state unequivocally that it is all real but occurs in the mind of the shaman, santero, or witch, etc. Psychiatry puts great pressure on writers, since it is generally thought that some of the things that Wiccans and shamans say might suggest mental or emotional pathology. Whenever I engage in email exchanges with those who routinely go on soul journeys they will hesitate, equivocate, even become angry when I ask about the nature of the journeys and the entities encountered along the way. Any suggestion that there might be demonic spirits involved always ends the "conversation."

Shamanism in North and South America

Rather than survey shamanistic expressions globally, we will confine ourselves to the Americas, which should be adequately representative. Though there are differences from place to place, tribe to tribe, the overall schematic is consistent. There will be, of necessity, considerable overlap with previous descriptions of shamanism.

The shaman’s chief function is healing. Of first importance is the discovery of the cause of an illness. Generally, two kinds of illness are considered: one, due to the introduction of a disease-causing object, and the other, as a result of “soul loss,” discussed earlier. In the first, the treatment is to expel the foreign object mystically. The second is to find and return the patient’s fugitive soul. In the latter, the shaman is absolutely necessary, for only he can see the soul and capture it. In the first, a séance is conducted whereby helping spirits are summoned who reveal the problem and give the means to effect a cure. The shaman speaks as a medium and describes the activity and pronouncements of the spirits that take place while he is in a trance state.

traditional looking North American Indian named Dancing Thunder

The flight of the patient’s soul may be due to dreams that frighten the soul away. Or it may be due to the soul of a dead person fearing a lonely journey to the “Land of the Shades” who then captures a living person’s soul to take with him for comfort and protection. Or, a person’s soul may simply stray from his body of its own accord. (The language we employ does not mean that we agree with the shamanistic worldview; rather we are describing how it is for the shaman. Research and discussion with shamans have shed no light on how a soul strays from a body and whether this is the same as out-of-body experiences documented elsewhere.)

When spirits or the souls of the dead carry off a soul, the shaman is believed to leave his body and enter either heaven or the underworld. The shaman’s ecstatic journey is generally indispensable, even if the illness is not due to the theft of the soul by demons or ghosts. The shamanic trance forms part of the cure; whatever interpretation the shaman puts on it, it is always by means of his ecstasy that he finds the exact cause of the illness and learns the best treatment. The trance sometimes ends in the shaman’s possession by his familiar spirits. In most cases possession merely puts the shaman’s own helping spirits at his disposal. What has just been described is the work of the shaman as psychopomp.

traditional looking North American Indian medicine man with drum, ca. 1927

In the thinking of the North and South American Indians, every person commands a guardian spirit acquired by the same techniques the shaman uses to obtain his own spirits. The difference between layman and shaman is quantitative; the shaman commands a greater number of tutelary or guardian spirits and a stronger magico-religious power. In this respect we could say that every Indian “shamanizes,” even if he does not consciously wish to become a shaman.

Many are familiar with what is called the Ghost-Dance, which continues among North American tribes to this day. To prepare for the coming of the savior of the race, there are five or six days of continuous dancing. The dancing is intended to put the participants into a trance where the dead are seen and conversed with. The dances are ring dances around fires; there is singing but no drumming.

Do shamans employ trickery?

Shamans can be entertainers, dancers, and singers who put on the best show in town. They may act out a wide variety of parts and will most often cast themselves as the heroes of the story. They can at one time be a bird and at another time a wolf. They are narrators of lively battles between the spirits and themselves; they are usually, but not always, the winner. But, is it just theater?

Shamans will admit to trickery, but it is excused as being for a good purpose. If a shaman secretly places a dead and bloodied worm in his mouth, then proceeds sucking at the body of a patient to the point of pain, then suddenly pulls the worm from his mouth – is this deception? Is it perhaps the employment of positive thinking or the use of a placebo? Is the victory shout of the shaman an authentic healing mechanism, or is it trickery?

Shamans do perform as described above, producing some ostensibly beneficial though questionable results. But what about the journeys they take to the lower, middle, or upper worlds? Do they really escort the dead soul to the final resting place? Do animal spirits assist them and give them power? Is it all in the mind or does it have a separate reality?

Additional shamanistic practices and concepts

The Smith and the power of fire and burning

The Craft of the Smith, the worker of fire and metal, ranks immediately after the shaman’s vocation in importance. Smiths and shamans work together in many cultures. Smiths are said to have power to heal and even to foretell the future. Smiths, it is thought, are constantly threatened by evil spirits. The smiths’ tutelary gods and spirits do not merely help them in their work; they also defend them against the onslaught of evil spirits.

gathering around the fire

Like the smiths, the shamans are masters over fire. But the shaman’s power is greater. The smiths work with fire in forging their tools, most often weapons such as swords and knives. Control and power over fire is central, and protection from fire reflects shamanistic power and prestige.

Magical Heat is associated with control over fire, and advanced shamans are not merely masters over fire but can also incarnate the spirit of fire to the point where, during séances, they emit flames from their mouths or noses. The idea of mystical heat is not an exclusive possession of shamanism; it belongs to magic in general.

Often the shamanic ecstasy is not attained until after the shaman is “heated.” There is every reason to believe that the use of narcotics was originally encouraged by the quest for magical heat. Smoke from certain herbs and the combustion of certain plants has the quality of increasing power. The narcotized person grows hot; narcotic intoxication is “burning.”

The Bridge and the Ladder

The Bridge allows the shaman to travel from earth to heaven. By crossing the bridge that connects the world of the living and the dead while in ecstasy, the shaman proves that he is spirit, is no longer a human being, and thus may be able to restore the communication between the two worlds.

A myth that supports this concept is that the shaman does in ecstasy today what could be done by all human beings at the dawn of time. All humans could go up to heaven and come down again without recourse to trance. The shamans’ ecstasy re-establishes the primordial condition of all mankind. We see here a restoration of ancient customs. For the shaman in ecstasy, the bridge, tree, vine, or cord, which originally connected earth with heaven, does so once again, even if only for an instant.

The Ladder concept is another means to the sky; it is another “road of the dead.” In addition to the ladder as a way to heaven, there are stairs that reach from earth to the sky. The sky can also be reached by fire or smoke, by climbing a tree or a mountain, or by ascending a rope, a vine, the rainbow, or even a sunbeam. All these symbolic images of the connection between heaven and earth are merely variants of the World Tree and the Axis Mundi.

The shaman is an elect or privileged being, but he is not alone in being able to fly up to heaven or to reach it by means of a tree, a ladder, or the like. Other persons can do so as well: sovereigns, heroes, and initiates. Shamans differ from the other privileged categories by the one technique they employ, which is ecstasy. The shamanic ecstasy can be regarded as a recovery of the human condition before “The Fall.”

More Biblical connections
1728 illustration of Biblical story of Jacob dreaming of the ladder to heaven

Once again is found a connection with the opening chapters of Genesis. Before the rebellion against God called the Fall, in which humans broke the single command to not eat of the fruit of a certain tree, humans were living in the presence of their Creator. All their needs were met, and they had peace with each other, comfort in their environment, and even daily communication with God. But then this paradise experience ended, and the disobedient creatures that had been made in the image of God were forced to leave.

Is it all real?

As spoken of previously, the core issue is whether the journeys into the otherworld and the spirits, souls, guides, and more that fill the world of the shaman are real or imagined. Some in shamanism do not care, as long as it serves some beneficial purpose, and those who maintain this have in mind consciousness expansion and relief from mental and emotional troubles.

The real danger

My experience and research indicate that what is encountered in trance states can be either real or imagined. That said, it is the realness of the beings encountered by the shaman that is of chief concern. My position is that the beings are real but that they are not what they present themselves to be, e.g., the souls of deceased people who have returned to benefit those still living; they are, in fact, unclean or evil spirits. Obviously, many shamanism, Wicca, Santería, contemplative prayer, and charisma advocates will resist this conclusion, and while some will accept this evaluation, they will continue their practices, failing to realize the real danger.

Most controversial among my opinions is that the way of the shaman is the road to demonization, the possession by unclean or evil spirits. I cannot play the role of either the anthropologist who merely observes and reports or the psychiatrist who believes the spirit world is part of the human brain. The spiritual realm that shamanism enters is ultimately horrific.

My abiding or overarching interest in shamanism and associated phenomena is that there are those who desire to be free from the beings or entities that they encounter and with which they have involved themselves. Finding that Satan does not cast out Satan, they turn in other directions to find relief. The only relief is, in fact, Jesus Christ, who triumphed over the demonic forces through His death and resurrection and alone has the power and authority to cast them out.

The shamanic lure

Shamanism today is enjoying a revival of interest. The lure is primarily power, as stated earlier, and secondarily knowledge. The shaman’s supposed control of spirits is a strong attraction. In our materialistic and scientifically-oriented world, it is a heady and life-changing experience to suddenly come into personal contact with spiritual entities and the vast spiritual universe. Jesus and the biblical writers were very much aware of this reality and spoke of how deceptive and dangerous it is (see Matthew 24:24 and 2 Corinthians 11:14-15).

group of children standing around man with items for shaman teaching

The lure of power and knowledge is found in many religious teachings. It is also present in Santería, Wicca, and charisma. There is an additional enticing element identified by many writers discussing Shamanism, Santería, and Wicca, and that is sexual. Writers in these areas will speak of the possibility of having sexual relations with guide spirits or even animal spirits. Despite attempts to blunt the sheer force of what they are saying by intimating that the sexual relations are merely bonding techniques, descriptions of these sexual relations are clearly powerful lures. Such spiritual experiences can be life-changing and addicting, and may extend for years. I’ve learned from counseling those who have been snared in this way that this thrilling allurement has a shelf life, and after that the product turns wormy.

Connecting points

Similarities exist among shamans around the world, both in ancient and contemporary times. Some of these are a belief in a celestial god, shamanic initiation, relations with the souls of ancestors or dead shamans, relations with familiar spirits (relations that sometimes reached the point of “possession”), the conception of illness as soul loss or the intrusion of a magical object into the body of a client, and the shaman’s insensibility to fire. These seem to have a broad similarity around the world.


The notion of the “soul” is fundamental to shamanic ideology. Wherever one looks at shamanism around the world, in both ancient and modern practices, the concept of a soul is indispensable. This cannot be over-emphasized. The belief in soul is as integral to shamanism as is the trance state or ecstasy.

The origins of the concept, even the doctrine, of the soul are impossible to pin down, but it is certain that the ancient Greeks held to a dualistic philosophy that infiltrated many other philosophies or worldviews. Theirs was characterized by a good god struggling with an evil god, a division between light and dark, and a dis-integration of the individual into mind, heart, soul, and spirit on the one hand and the body or the flesh on the other. The spirit was considered good, while the body and all material was considered evil. This dualistic concept was imported to northern India around the onset of the first millennium before the Common Era and radically impacted the ancient form of Hinduism known then. The result was belief in an immortal soul that did not die with the physical body but transmigrated to other living forms. Thus the doctrine of karma developed and with it the idea of reincarnation. This is straightforward history.

Christianity was also impacted by Greek dualism in the fourth and fifth centuries after Christ, due to a revival of Greek philosophy sometimes called neo-Platonism. Although there is no concept of an immortal soul in the Hebrew or Greek biblical Testaments, the concept nonetheless entered the Church of that day and is embraced by a large percentage of Christians still. It survived to impact many of the churches that emerged out of the sixteenth century Reformation. The power of the doctrine of humans having an immortal soul is so strong among Christians that one who claims it is not a Bible-based concept is often labeled “liberal.” What I call “soul confusion” has opened the door to some of the concepts found in shamanism.

The future of shamanism

Traditional shamanism exists in many parts of the world and has not undergone significant alteration over the millennia. However, modern shamanism greatly changed when it encountered contemporary western cultures. The acceptance of alternative or contemporary healing techniques has pushed shamanism into the current discussions of treatments for any number of physical complaints. Shamanism fits in neatly with the New Age and self-help movements.

colorful painting of holistic medicinewheel

Michael Harner sees a bright future for shamanism. Toward the end of The Way of the Shaman he writes:

The burgeoning field of holistic medicine shows a tremendous amount of experimentation involving the reinvention of many techniques long practiced in shamanism, such as visualization, altered state of consciousness, aspects of psychoanalysis, hypnotherapy, meditation, positive attitude, stress-reduction, and mental and emotional expression of personal will for health and healing. In a sense, shamanism is being reinvented in the West precisely because it is needed.

Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shamanism, writes,

So where is the Shamanism in these modern practices dubbed “Shamanism”? Where is the New Age? Again, they seem almost completely blended together, while the practitioners are using new terms and definitions and claiming ancient links. They are essentially repackaging as Shamanism modern-day teachings about health, wellness, and holistic healing that have been circulating since the 1970s during the heyday of Esalen. That’s when the humanistic and transpersonal movements in psychology swept from the West Coast through much of America, and now they seem to have swept up Shamanism, too.

Scott speaks of five branches of shamanism that are current today. One is Traditional Shamanism, which is found in areas untouched by modern influences, e.g., the Asmat tribe of Papua, Indonesia. Second is shamanic practices used for healing and counseling in modern settings often as a business enterprise. Third is the blending of shamanism with medical practices, often using herbs. Fourth is shamanistic journeying techniques employed to contact spirits and other entities. (This is the backbone of Wicca, as will be evident in chapter 3.) Fifth is the blending of shamanistic techniques in journeying and healing methods used in New Age, self-help, and personal development techniques.

With a big push from the consciousness expanders, whether by way of drugs, the importation of Eastern religious practices, or the study of and experimentation with transpersonal psychology by ‘progressives’ at Esalen in Big Sur, California, the world of the shaman came to middle America. And it is growing today. Even psychologists and therapists are seeking to treat people through altered states of consciousness, supposing that the worlds imagined in the mind are nothing more than imagination or visualization and are beneficial in working out complex emotional issues.

Shamanism, in all its forms, is undergoing a revival.

Shamanistic-based practices are found around the globe. This is so even for people who know little or nothing about shamanism as traditionally understood. Take, for instance, a person in a trance or state of ecstasy, induced by any number of methods, who thereby contacts and has interaction with otherworldly spiritual beings or the spirits or souls of the dead, and then acts as an intermediary for others in performing a variety of duties – this is essentially a shaman, whether he is called a medium, fortune teller, witch, santero, channeler, medicine man, or holy man. David Stern asserts that shamanism is growing, not only in the lands of its origin, Siberia and Mongolia, but in many parts of the world.

three women on the floor, one is semi-conscious

Shaman-like persons are found in Buddhism (especially Tibetan Buddhism), Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto, Islam, and Christianity. Though I am a Christian, I am aware that shamanistic influences have also infiltrated parts of Christianity. This will be examined later in the chapter entitled “Charisma: A Surprise Indeed!”

To read more about Shamanism, Santeria, Wicca, and other related topics, purchase
The Soul Journey HERE


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Last Update: 2016-09-01 12:11