The Origins of Shamanism


Shamanism has a long and storied history, considered by some to have originated in Siberia where members of indigenous tribes would gather the sometimes poisonous and highly psychoactive fly agaric or Amanita muscaria mushroom. But when this practice was recognized and classified as shamanism, it became apparent many cultures around the world conducted similar practices.

Shamanic Mysticism

It might just be the oldest spiritual practice in the world – one that is not necessarily based on faith in a particular god, but rather based on animism, the belief that everything is living and has a spirit.

Shamanism has persisted all over the world since its inception in ancient native cultures, including Siberian, Indian, Native American, and South American Shamans.  Shamanism has had to fight oppression from governments and religions worldwide that perceive it to be a manic and primitive tradition. But its mysticism and continued practice remain strong throughout disparate tribal cultures, many of which had little to no contact for centuries, despite their very similar traditions, beliefs, and rituals.

So what is shamanism? Shamanism is thought to be the key to existence — as long as shamanic rituals are practiced we will continue to exist. Shamans are a link between our plane and higher planes of existence. They link to the spirit world in order to heal, contact deceased ancestors, influence the weather, and uplift consciousness.

Duties of the Shaman

A shaman is concerned with the health and well being of the entire community, not any one individual or privileged group, and this extends to all plants, animals, and the whole environment. Shamans traverse the spirit worlds by inducing an ecstatic state, which leads to states of trance and spiritual, or sometimes physical, transformations.

This state is achieved through different methods, depending on the traditions of the particular culture. North American shamans, like those in Native American tribes, are known to induce an ecstatic state through deprivation techniques like fasting and isolation. South American and Siberian shamans are known to use hallucinogens and intoxicants to induce the ecstatic state, including mushrooms, peyote, Ayahuasca, or alcohol.

Shamanic Roots

North American Shamans

Shamans of North America typically gain their power through inheritance, personal quest, election, or by spiritual. They often specialize in the removal of intrusive objects – this is often done by sucking out the object, literally or figuratively, to remove maladies or anything that is physically ailing. Other shamanistic practices aim to influence the weather, help with a hunt, or provide future wisdom.

However, the primary focus of North American shamanism is to heal. The majority of Native American shamans are men, although female shamans are pervasive in tribes located around Northern California. The shamanism of arctic North America is more closely related to Siberian shamanism than traditions in the Southern part of the continent.

Shaman with wolf headdress

South American Shamans

South American shamans, located primarily in the Amazon, are chief-like figures in their tribes. The South American shaman is associated closely with jaguars and often the word used for a shaman is similar to the word for jaguar. Shamans are thought to be able to transform into jaguars at will, and jaguars are thought of as not actual animals, but either a transformed shaman or the soul of a deceased shaman moving through the physical realm. Disparate tribes with little to no interaction have almost universally associated shamans with jaguars and believe in this ability to transform.

Many South American shamans perform Ayahuasca ceremonies in order to invoke the ecstatic state by creating a tea from the Banisteriopsis caapi plant, often referred to as yagé. This plant contains the psychoactive compound DMT, which produces one of the most intense psychedelic experiences known to man. Consumed alone, the DMT in Banisteriopsis caapi is negated by an enzyme in the stomach known as monoamine oxidase.

That’s why yagé is mixed with another plant containing an MAOI, or monoamine oxidase inhibitor, the same compound contained in many antidepressants. How shamans knew to mix these two particular plants out of the seemingly infinite possible combinations of the 40,000 different plant variants in the rainforest is a bit of a mystery. But if you ask them, they’ll tell you the plants themselves told them.

Shamans administer this compound to seekers and often take it themselves to connect to the spirit world. Other shamans in South America use the psychoactive mescaline from Peyote, San Pedro, and other cacti to induce the shamanic state.

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Icaros read and sung by a shaman

One key element used by shamans is the instruments played to activate the ecstatic state. Typically, a drum is used, but in South America rattles are often shaken in place or in addition to a drum. For South American shamans, the rattle is very symbolic of the awakened state between our world and the spirit world they connect with. The gourd of the rattle signifies the universe, while the seeds or stones inside represent the souls of ancestors that have passed. The connection between the shaman and our ancestors is seen through the rattle’s handle, representing the world tree as a pathway to connect with the cosmos.

Particularly in Peru, the shaman will sing “icaros,” or songs depicted on tapestries by a meandering pattern resembling a puzzle or maze, but which can be read much like a musician reads sheet music.

Siberian Shamanism

Shamanism in Siberia is considered to be the origin of the practice. The culture was found in herding populations in Northern Asia, particularly a group speaking a language called Tungus.  Throughout Siberia and Mongolia, the shaman was one of the most revered members of a tribe. They would either be initiated by other shamans, or take a solitary, spiritual journey off from the tribe to contact spirits and learn their mystic ways. Shamans would fit into different classes based on what they specialized in. Some would ward off evil spirits, others would act as healers, and some would conjure spells or black magic.

The yurts that are common in the nomadic areas of Siberia and Mongolia are very symbolic in shamanism. The yurt is the connection between the underworld, physical plane, and heaven. The smoke that emanates from the middle of the yurt is the path thought to take the shaman to the cosmic world when conducting ceremonies to contact the dead.

The botanical hallucinogen of choice for shamans in Siberia is the Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric mushroom. The mushroom is highly poisonous and can be deadly in large doses, therefore the shaman must be able to correctly identify and take the proper amount. Siberian shamans would feed the mushroom to reindeer and then drink its urine in order to inactivate the poison and attain its psychedelic effects.

While shamanism was outlawed under the Soviet Union, it has had a resurgence since the fall of the USSR. Modern Siberian shamans believe that a quarter of its population practices shamanism. This sect of shamanism is called Tengerism and has been recognized as a national religion. This shamanic practice focuses on environmentalism and co-existence with other religions.

Path of the Shaman

An Interview With Shaman Alberto Villoldo

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In Healing the Luminous Body: The Way of the Shaman, Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., a psychologist, medical anthropologist and renowned shamanic healer, shares a captivating story of the first time he entered the Amazon rain forest as he embarked on his own shamanic journey.

With his first and second step, he could hear the symphonic song of numerous creatures. With his third step, there was silence. The jungle knew he did not belong.

It took fifteen years of study with Amazon and Andean shamans for Dr. Villoldo to be able to walk into the rain forest and be recognized as someone who belonged in the garden.

The Way of the Shaman

Now, Dr. Villoldo is teaching people how to grow new bodies that resist disease, heal quickly and age differently through modern-day shamanic rituals.

In addition the wisdom he has shared with Gaia in the past, he recently agreed to an exclusive interview. Read the interview with Dr. Villoldo below.

Q and A with Alberto Villoldo, PhD

I am inspired by the simple solutions you share for an array of complex problems. I watched One Spirit Medicine, Part One and One Spirit Medicine, Part Two, and I plan to cleanse my liver, simplify my diet, practice bearable fasting and take live probiotics in an effort to cleanse my body and clarify my mind.

In the meantime, I am hoping you can enlighten us about your role as a shaman and I want to start with understanding Shamanism.

How do you describe a shaman?

Shamans are mediators between the visible and invisible world. With the dawn of modern science, we stopped attending to the invisible world. In fact, the visible world was whatever we could look at under the microscope and we forgot about the spiritual world. This is one of the causes of today’s great disconnection that humanity is living. We are not only destroying nature but destroying our own nature in the process. Therefore, we’re becoming disenfranchised from Spirit and ignoring our role as offspring of one mother–Mother Earth.

Shamans were and are individuals that can help you come back to your own essential nature. They can help you to see how the ancient models that you follow, and the beliefs that you have about the nature of reality, create your health, create disease. Shamanic healers help create extraordinary health for willing humans so that their lifespan equals their health span and good health can last a lifetime.

How did you become a shaman?

I’m a medical anthropologist by training and I always had a sense of superiority like all Westerners about these primitive societies until one day I discovered that we were the primitive ones. In the process, I recognized my calling from Spirit.

How did you recognize your calling?

I believe that we all have a calling from Spirit and if we respond to it then we start walking the medicine way–the way of the shaman, which is the way of stewardship of earth, of bringing beauty and healing to others and being of service to all beings, including the plants, the animals and all humans. It is a calling that we all have.

Have you ever felt conflicted between the ancient knowledge of shamanism and modern ways of thinking?

You know, I never really did. I knew enough science to be able to understand what the shamans are doing. Today, neuroscience in particular, corroborates these ancient wisdom teachings that shamans have discovered over millennia.

In the first half of One Spirit Medicine, you highlight that there are 14,000 diseases and conditions recognized by Western medicine. There is only one in shamanism: “disconnection from nature” and Spirit. Can you share some of your wisdom on re-connecting with nature?

We have to start with our inner nature. Our inner nature is our gut flora. Nine-tenths of the cells in our body do not belong to us. Ninety percent of “us” are not us. We have 100 trillion cells and 90 trillion belong to over 10,000 species of bugs–bacteria that live inside of us that process all of the foods we eat. They turn broccoli–something that is not “us”–into us. This is where we begin to get in-touch with our inner nature. It’s not through meditation but by having a really healthy gut flora.

Most of us that have taken antibiotics have wiped out our guts, so we have lost our gut instinct. We cannot tell the people that want to help us from those who want to hurt us. We keep falling in-love with all the wrong people. When we’re not connected to our inner nature, it’s very difficult to connect to our outer nature.

You can meditate on a mountain top or a beach and if your gut flora is out of balance, you’re going to be worrying about what else you should be doing because the bacteria in your gut are so out of balance and their poop (because they too eat and then poop) is causing mood swings and anxiety so you cannot be fully present on your meditation retreat.

It is liberating to know that we can improve the world by working on our health.

We can start with ourselves, with the nature that lives within us. Ninety trillion other creatures–that is who we are. If you look at who you and I are from the perspective of bacteria, they’ve been around for two billion years and from their perspective, they created us so that they could travel and see the world. We’re wiping them out with antibiotics, pesticides, sugar and carbs. In turn, they are casting us out of the garden.

You are refreshingly honest about death during the second half of One Spirit Medicine. You describe it as, “a mystery of awe and terror because it’s a great journey to the unknown.” Additionally, you say that if we die consciously, we can visit other realms of light. However, Western medicine is known for medicating and operating on the human body in an effort to deny the inevitability of death. Can you offer further wisdom on dying “differently” that people can integrate into their daily lives now and with future loss?

Everybody is trying to come up with their own immortality project. For the shaman, immortality is a possibility, not a given. If you can acquire enough consciousness and enough personal power, which is acquired through service to others, you can take your consciousness and power into the great beyond. You don’t have to be returned back to molecules of energy to be reorganized into something else again.

The metaphor that I like to use is, if you take a drop of water and you drop it into a glass of water, where is that drop? We know it is in there but it is no longer in drop form. This is what happens to your energy body.

You want to maintain your identity so that when you return back to the great pool of consciousness, someone is there to witness it. That’s you. That consciousness requires deep discipleship and dedication to your spiritual practice as your top priority. Then, you do your work, take your kids to school, do your chores and do whatever else you need to do. Your prime agenda for dying differently is your spiritual practice.

You describe the luminous body as, “the subtle essence of who we are,” in addition to addressing steps to heal our physical bodies. As more and more humans access the Internet and rely on digital devices to stay connected and perform their jobs, there is a growing awareness of high-energy blue lights and their harmful effects on the eyes. Can you address how exposure to artificial light, in addition to other artificial materials does or does not interfere with our luminous body?

To start, for your computers, you have to download a program called F.lux, that dims the light of your computer in the evening. It takes the blue out and gives you the orange and red hues. For millions of years, we told stories around the fire–red, orange and yellow light–that stimulates and stabilizes melatonin production in your brain. The constant exposure to blue light from various devices interferes with your ability to fall asleep and achieve a restful night’s sleep. You want the blue light in the morning. It wakes you up and stops your body from producing melatonin.

In general, we have to be careful. Right now, consciousness is at a fork in the road. One direction is digital, silicon-based. We, all of us, are uploading ourselves to The Cloud and pulling the plug on the human because we are messy. You have to feed us. We poop. That’s one path.

On the other path, at this time when there is so much ecological devastation happening, we have the opportunity to quantum leap into an entirely different human that ages, heals and dies differently. This is the privilege that we, being incarnated today, have. We can become that human. This is the path I’m signing-up to take! This path will protect us from harmful elements.

I love that you describe humans as, “light trapped into form.” Our earthly bodies are primarily composed of water. Should we be equally vigilant about the water we consume and how do we protect our bodies from toxins such as trace pharmaceuticals, lead and chlorine found in drinking water?

I don’t know if you remember being a kid and playing with mercury. Less than a century ago, if you cut yourself, your mother would douse you with Mercurochrome. Well, eventually, they took it off the market because it was mercury and could poison you!

We have been exposed to so many toxins and the body stores toxins in fat cells because they are the most stable molecules. The brain is eighty-percent fat.

Now, when I was a medical anthropologist in the jungle, I got a grant from a Swiss pharmaceutical company to help them to create the next blockbuster drug for curing primarily Western diseases–cancer, Alzheimer’s, hypertension. For months, I went through villages that had never seen a white person. In fact, the kids would run up to me and rub my skin to see if the white “dirt” would rub off. I came back empty-handed because these native villagers had no heart disease, no dementia, no cancer. Of course, they also weren’t exposed to chemicals such as lead, chlorine and fluoride in the water or pesticides in their food.

Today, the first step that we all need to take is to detox. Detox the brain so we can create psychosomatic health. Otherwise, we’ll continue to create disease. Once you detox the brain, you can access states of consciousness that can help you become that new human that is being born on the planet right now.

Create Health

Do you ever get the sense that you were meant for something significant in this life? In fact, you are! We came to earth now to heal an apocalyptic world together. When you heal yourself from the inside, you create the optimal environment for dreaming the world into being.

For more information about the shaman’s way of healing or to begin your own shamanic journey with Dr. Alberto Villoldo, please visit his website.

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