The mind-blowing world of shamanism
The mysteries surrounding the ancient spirit healers.
“For the first time, I was able to connect with spirits, travel into different realms and enter different dimensions beyond the 3D world we live in.”
““Had I not seen this ritual play out in person, I can assure you I would have been skeptical.”
Shamanism is a catch-all term for a phenomenon seen worldwide, for many, many thousands of years.
Though every culture is unique, the common elements that can be considered nearly universal, are that the shaman:
Is an intermediary between our world and the spirit world,
Gains access to the spirit world for various purposes through chanting, drumming, singing,
Often enters altered states of consciousness, through trance or psychedelics.
From an anthropologist’s account in Siberia:
“...'she took a large round pebble of the size of a man's fist, set it upon the drum, and, blowing upon it from all sides, began to mumble ... she had lost the faculty of human speech-and then began to wring the pebble with both hands. Then a continuous row of very small pebbles began to fall from her hands. This lasted for fully five minutes, till quite a heap of small pebbles had collected below, on the skin. The larger pebble, however, remained smooth and intact.”
In this post I’ll talk a little bit about shapeshifting, I’ll talk about one of the biggest mysteries surrounding shamanism, and then we’ll look at what science says about shamanic healing.
Shapeshifting into animal form is a common element in shamanism. In shamanic beliefs, sometimes this means a full physical transformation into an animal, and other times it’s referring to an altered state of mind. The specific animal sometimes comes with specific abilities.
The Pomo “bear doctors” are a special class of shamans from California native American shaman traditions, detailed in anthropologist S.A. Barret’s book on the subject:
“shamans who have received power from grizzly bears, often by being taken into the abode of these animals—which appear there in human form,—and who after their return to mankind possess many of the qualities of the grizzly bear ... it is believed that they can be killed an indefinite number of times when in this form and each time return to life.”
Some regional variants believe they transition into physical bear form, others believe the bear doctor is a man disguised in bear skin.
A shapeshifting meditation
For the non-shaman layperson, Blogger Michael Drake describes a simple “shapeshifting” meditation here. Disclaimer: I don’t know anything about Mr. Drake’s credentials but you might find the meditation interesting.
A similar meditation can be found on Dr. Steven Farmer’s page here.
The biggest mystery of shamanism
Why is shamanism so consistent across such a huge range of geography and cultures and throughout millennia?
After studying shamanism across cultures, some researchers came to the conclusion that the shaman must be a legacy of some ancient, unified world religion that we all shared at some point in our early evolution.
“The universality of religion across human society points to a deep evolutionary past ... shamanism has been described as the universal religion of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.”
Other theories point to similarities in human nature across time and space that led to shamanism independently, in many different cultures.
Either way, shamanism is remarkable in this sense. Shamans represent something profound, something ancient, something meaningful to humans everywhere.
But there remains great mystery surrounding its origins and its strangely common elements, that can be observed across global cultures and time periods.
Which leads us to the modern day.
The new shamans
“Neoshamanism” is the term used to refer to the modern-day shamanic movements. Some consider this distinct from the shamans who are practicing a religion they trace within their ancestry. Others do not.
Yet, in both senses, shamanism, in some form, penetrates our modern society and remains very much alive.
Celebrity shamans, such as Durek Verrett, have been profiled in the New York Times, and most of us are probably familiar with the surge in ayahuasca tourism, a link to the transformative powers of psychedelics, which is central to many shamanic practices.
Shamanism and science
According to a page on shamanism from the Earl E. Bakken Center at the University of Minnesota, people seek out shamans for the same reasons they have in ancient times: “for practical and pragmatic solutions to problems in everyday life…”
“Shamans work in voluntary, ecstatic trance states, which alter their consciousness to travel to the realms of the invisible worlds.”
- Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, University of Minnesota
In a section about its value to humanity, the page continues:
“Thousands of years of practice indicate that shamanic approaches have value to those who use them, or they would not have survived and been perpetuated ... In recent years, some initial research efforts have begun...”
The TMD study
One modern, small-scale study has in fact looked into shamanic healing.
In a phase I clinical trial (a feasibility study) on shamanic healing, the first of its kind, it found that “Shamanic healing had lasting effects on TMDs [Temporomandibular joint disorders]” on the women in the study.
An interesting start to the research.
Some have also compared cognitive-behavioral therapy to shamanic methods.
After thousands of years of shamanic spiritual practices, humanity is apparently still benefiting from it:
“I could never have dreamed that the teachings of shamanism and in particular the process of shamanic journeying would have begun to alter me at my very core in all of these “ripple” effect ways. I am now 55 and have traveled many pathways. But this is the work that far transcends any of those attempted pathways.”
- Testimonial from shaman.org
The shamans live on.
More incredible excerpts, links, book recommendations, and a preview of next week
“Suddenly he commenced to beat the drum softly and to sing in a plaintive voice; then the beating of the drum grow stronger and stronger; and his song-in which could be heard sounds imitating the howling of the wolf, the groaning of the cargoose, and the voices of other animals, his guardian spirits-appeared to come, sometimes from the corner nearest to my seat, then from the opposite end, then again from the middle of the house, and then it seemed to proceed from the ceiling.”
“Upune, the wife of a dead Chukchee shaman, possessed wonderful shamanistic power; she herself declared that she had only a small part of her husband's ability. In a shamanistic performance 'she took a large round pebble of the size of a man's fist, set it upon the drum, and, blowing upon it from all sides, began to mumble and snort in the same kele-like manner. She called our attention by signs-being in the possession of the kele, she had lost the faculty of human speech-and then began to wring the pebble with both hands. Then a continuous row of very small pebbles began to fall from her hands. This lasted for fully five minutes, till quite a heap of small pebbles had collected below, on the skin. The larger pebble, however, remained smooth and intact."
At the request of Bogoras the female shaman repeated this feat with the same success, and all the upper part of the body being naked, it was easy to observe her movements. The practice of stabbing oneself through the abdomen with a knife is universal in shamanistic performances; Kamchadal and Eskimo, Chukchee and Yukaghir, even the Neo-Siberian shamans of northern Asia, are familiar with this trick.
It would be difficult to describe all the tricks performed by the shamans: some of the commonest are the swallowing of burning coals, setting oneself free from a cord by which one is bound…”
Shamanism in Siberia, by M.A. Czaplicka, ,
Shamanism at the University of Minnesota
Cross-Culturally Exploring the Concept of Shamanism
Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small by Ted Andrews
The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castenada
The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
Those Who Run in the Sky by Aviaq Johnston
Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson