The Origins of Shamanism
By: Gaia Staff | June 5th, 2017
It might just be the oldest religion 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 and has fought through suppression from governments and religion. Its mysticism is made even stronger from its provenance in disparate tribal cultures that had little to no contact for centuries, while having many 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 maintain existence. 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 just one person. This extends to all plants, animals and the whole environment. Shamans transverse into spirit worlds typically by inducing an ecstatic state, which then leads to states of trance and spiritual, or sometimes physical, transformations. This state is achieved by different methods, depending on the traditions of the particular shaman, which vary often by location. North American shamans, like those from 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, such as mushrooms, peyote, Ayahuasca and alcohol.
North American Shamans
Shamans of North America typically gain their power through inheritance, personal quest, election, or by spiritual power. They often specialize in the removal of intrusive objects – this is often done by sucking out the object, literally or figuratively, to remove something physical or a malady. Other shamanistic practices aim to influence the weather, help with a hunt, or provide fortunetelling. However, the primary focus of North American shamanism is for healing. 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 that in the more southern part of the continent.
South American Shamans
In South America, mostly in the Amazon, shamans are a chief-like figure in their tribes. The 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 actually animals, but either a transformed shaman or the soul of a deceased shaman moving through the physical ream. Different tribes that have little to no interaction in the amazon all associate shamans with jaguars and believe in their ability to transform.
When a shaman performs a ceremony, in order to attain the ecstatic state, they often create a tea from the Banisteriopsis caapi plant called yagé or Ayahuasca in its end form. This is combined with a plant containing DMT and produces one of the most intense psychedelic journeys for a human. Shamans administer this to seekers and often take it themselves to connect to the spirit world. Other shamans in South America use the psychoactive drug mescaline from Peyote, San Pedro or other cacti to induce the shamanic state.
One key element used by shamans are instruments played in their methods of activating the ecstatic state. Typically, a drum is used, but in South America rattles are used in place or in addition to a drum. For South American shamans, the rattle is very symbolic for the awakened state between our world and the spirit world they are connecting 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.
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, shamanism spread and the shaman became one of the most revered members of a tribe. Shamans would either be initiated by other shamans, or take a solitary, spiritual journey off from the tribe to contact spirits to learn the ways of shamanism. 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 that is 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 too large of a dose, therefore the shaman must be able to correctly identify and take the proper amount. Some Siberian shamans even feed the mushroom to reindeer and then drink its urine to attain the 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 Siberia’s population practices shamanism. This sect of shamanism is called Tengerism and has been recognized as a national religion. This modern shamanism focuses on environmentalism and co-existence with other religions. While some see this as the persistence of shamanism into a modern era and modern iteration, others think that it has lost key elements of its origins and is now practiced because it is trendy.