I’d like to begin by saying I am not myself a shaman, and my essay is based off reading a great deal about shamanism across many cultures. There are cosmic similarities from one culture to another, literally across the world, and those essential concepts are the ones that I’ve taken away as being the heart of shamanism. I don’t pretend to have an all-encompassing grasp of what shamanism is to any one culture, or even to any one person.
So what is shamanism, anyway?
There’s a popular, though somewhat misconstrued, idea that the practice of shamanism is the practice of a religion. In truth, it’s better considered a spiritual path that can be followed by someone of any, or no, religious background. To be a shaman is, at its essence, to be someone who illuminates the possibility of choice for another. Shamanism is greatly associated with healing, and to be a shaman is often to be a healer, someone who guides another along a path of wisdom and self-awareness so problems and weaknesses can be faced and accepted or overcome.
To that end, to be a shaman is also to embrace change. Shamanism is often associated with tricksters, such as the Native American Coyote or Raven. These tricksters are not only often the makers of the world, but also have a ruthless tendency to pull the rug out from under an unwary mortal’s feet. This is almost never malicious in legend and myth, but does force the poor human to re-evaluate everything that goes on around him. For a shaman, that moment of re-evaluation is critical: it’s the moment where change can begin, and with change, healing. A shaman’s purpose isn’t to make his charge comfortable, but whole.
Shamanism is an animistic spirituality; a shaman believes that all things, from humans to mosquitoes to rocks and water, have spirits that can be approached and asked things of–or offended. The method of approaching can be as mundane as simply asking the tree for its shade, or thanking the spirit of the moose you’ve hunted for giving its life to sustain you and your family.
But for a shaman, the journey into asking spirits for help can and often does run much deeper than that. A basic tenet of shamanism is the trance state, where the shaman leaves his own body to walk in a world beyond the physical. It is through these other worlds, which have many layers and names, that a shaman can guide a lost soul or ask for help in healing an injured creature.
The nudge-nudge-wink-wink method of entering trance states is through the use of hallucinogenics, but it’s possible to reach a trance state through any number of methods. Sweat lodges are one, drum circles another. The purpose of each of these methods is to lift the spirit out of the body and into another level of awareness, from which the spirits of the world can be accessed. Once reached, those new levels of reality can provide the shaman and his charge with the tools necessary to enact the healing that they seek together.
There seem to be two general approaches to shamanic healing. One is the shaman as a guide. With a guiding shaman, it’s the person seeking the shaman’s help who truly heals himself; the shaman’s purpose is to help him get to the place where healing is possible. In the guiding scenario, it is not the shaman’s magic that heals, but rather a freeing of the inherent ability of all people to heal themselves.
The other approach–and this is the one I’ve taken with the Walker Papers–is the shaman as a warrior, placing himself between the weak, the injured, or the unready, to do battle and call up his own magic to heal when others cannot. It’s a path of confrontation and challenge that initiates change and healing. The effect, no matter which method is used, is the same: the shaman has discovered a way for healing to begin.
Many modern practitioners of shamanism believe that everyone has the potential to be a shaman within them. It is not, to these practitioners, a path meant only for a select few, but rather to be embraced by as many as possible, for the betterment of the world at large.