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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Crocodiles and Plant Medicine: Lessons of the Modern Shaman
Crocodile came to me recently in ceremony. At first I was startled by his appearance, feeling I have already embraced every shadow aspect of myself he represents. Since his visit, however, I have spent time welcoming him and examining the teachings he now brings.
Crocodile/Snake holds our basal self, our deepest fears and lesser-evolved leanings which are held in the reptilian brain. In sacred ceremony and spiritual initiations, it is snake or crocodile who confronts you to face and embrace that which you fear most. His personal challenge to me: “You’re not a true shaman. You don’t work in the rain forest, you don’t ingest plant medicines, and you’re falsely holding your craft, thereby misleading those you serve.”
On more than one occasion I have been questioned and warned against calling myself a shaman. I haven’t studied in the jungle, I don’t have any hint of bronzed pigment in my Irish skin, and I don’t have a Maestro or don teaching me the ways. My path is unique in devoted past-life reclamation, shamanic journey, and an early proclamation at five-years-old that I would be a shaman. I was born ready and haven’t looked back. However, the thorny challenges still arise.
Enter the internal struggle of spirit and shadow. It’s brought me to a place of deep self-inquiry and an eventual and potent reclamation. It’s also offered me a new perspective on the path of the modern shaman.
What is a Shaman?
When asked, “What is a shaman?” my easiest answer is “someone who works in the invisible spaces to bring peace and healing to those whom they are in service.”
“Shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments/illness by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul/spirit restores the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. The shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans may visit other worlds/dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements. The shaman operates primarily within the spiritual world, which in turn affects the human world. The restoration of balance results in the elimination of the ailment.”
In Cave and Cosmos, Michael Harner suggests it is simply “one who knows.”
Core and Indigenous Shamanism
The big divide in the shamanic communities lies between those who work in the rain forest with the lineage of indigenous wisdom in their blood; and so-called Plastic Shamans who have no connection to the cultures and traditions they represent.
As shamanism has gained prevalence in the modern era, “core shamanism” has become the accepted term for those who use the methods of the shaman but have not been raised in the traditional cultures. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies has reintroduced the shamanic journey for self-healing, while the Psychonauts have lead a revolution through chemically assisted self-inquiry. Both are valid paths that differ greatly from a jungle education. While the efficacy of the practice is all that should matter, there still lies a division.
Another crucial distinction for indigenous shamans is their relationships with the plants. Dietas are ceremonial ingestions of plant medicines that teach the shaman how to walk between and within the astral worlds. Any number of teacher plants are used, from tobacco to ayahuasca. These ceremonies are performed with great reverence and honor and remain within sacred guidelines as sincere spiritual endeavors to deepen the path of the seeker. The illusion of this world fades away and great insights are gained, revealing the true nature of one’s own soul.
Freakin’ awesome when done in this sacred space, right?
I, however, am a different kind of shaman. I traverse the dimensions without the use of hallucinogens. Drums, deep meditation, and the psychic connection with spirits and plant allies, for me, have been enough. And Croc challenged me on this also: “Is your plant abstinence genuinely enough to gain such an alliance with the spirit realms?”
In the modern world, our relationship to the plants is vastly different than that of the indigenous shaman. We don’t commune with them personally, nor do we seek to hone their wisdom. As a result, contemporary seekers often misuse the medicines. In my younger days, I experimented with mushrooms recreationally. I found them an expansive and uplifting dalliance that only affirmed my path as a seer and healer. Yet I took them with no noble intent.
Recently, I found myself called to work more closely with the plants in ceremonial space and felt conflicted. My ego holds my hallucinogenic refrain as a badge of honor — a way of ensuring the purity of the messages received. And yet I found myself deeply appreciating the plant spirits again, in great awe and gratitude for the teachings they shared.
And what they shared was this: I’ve connected more than sufficiently with the plant spirits. I learn and walk beside them every day to offer blessings to my community. I need not ingest them, for they have been my allies all along!
In a recent Aubrey Marcus podcast, Astral Snakes and Binaural Beats (episode 59), Cory Allen shared his most recent devotion is not in using the plant medicines, but rather simply being in the astral plane without any enhancements. Under the influence of the medicine, “The consciousness of the plant is with you in that space and colors your vision of that space. If you get there without it, you are completely you and you are on your own.” Boom, validation! And Croc began to smile.
What I realized was, it all comes back to me not having any allies, any perceptions, any filters on my experience in these worlds. The mark of the shaman is not who they are when they’re on the medicines or how they handle these energies inside of them. It is who they are in the absence of any aids at all!