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2. What is Shamanism? Table of Contents
What is Shamanism?
Post-Shamanic Traditions by Dean Edwards
2. What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is classified by anthropologists as an archaic magico-religious
phenomenon in which the shaman is the great master of ecstasy. Shamanism
itself, was defined by the late Mircea Eliade as a technique of ecstasy.
A shaman may exhibit a particular magical specialty (such as control over
fire, wind or magical flight). When a specialization is present the most
common is as a healer. The distinguishing characteristic of shamanism is
its focus on an ecstatic trance state in which the soul of the shaman is
believed to leave the body and ascend to the sky (heavens) or descend into
the earth (underworld). The shaman makes use of spirit helpers, with whom
he or she communicates, all the while retaining control over his or her
own consciousness. (Examples of possession occur, but are the exception,
rather than the rule.) It is also important to note that while most shamans
in traditional societies are men, either women or men may and have become
There are a number of relatively common practices and experiences in
traditional shamanism which are being investigated by modern researchers.
While the older traditional practices are ignored by some researchers,
others have begun to explore these older techniques. The emergence of the
new field of the 'anthropology of consciousness' and the establishment
of Transpersonal Psychology as a "Fourth Force" in psychology have opened
up the investigation of research into the nature and history of consciousness
in ways not previously possible. Outside of academic circles a growing
number of people have begun to make serious inquiries into ancient shamanic
techniques for entering into altered states of consciousness.
Traditional shamans developed techniques for lucid dreaming and what
is today called the out-of-the-body experience (oobe). These methods for
exploring the inner landscape are being investigated by a wide range of
people. Some are academics, some come from traditional societies and others
are modern practitioners of non-traditional shamanism or neo-shamanism.
Along with these techniques, the NDE or near-death-experience have played
a significant role in shamanic practice and initiation for millenia. There
is extensive document- ation of this in ethnographic studies of traditional
shamanism. With this renewed interest in these older traditions these shamanic
methods of working with dreams and being conscious and awake while dreaming
are receiving increased attention. (Additional information about the out-of-body
experience may be found in Jouni Smed's faq alt.out-of-body FAQ.)
`The ability to consciously move beyond the physical body is the particular
specialty of the traditional shaman. These journeys of Soul may take the
shaman into the nether realms, higher levels of existence or to parallel
physical worlds or other regions of this world. Shamanic Flight, is in
most instances, an experience not of an inner imaginary landscape, but
is reported to be the shamans flight beyond the limitations of the physical
As noted in this article, the Call to shamanize is often directly related
to a near death experience by the prospective shaman. Among the traditional
examples are being struck by lightening, a fall from a height, a serious
life-threatening illness or lucid dream experiences in which the candidate
dies or has some organs consumed and replaced and is thus reborn. Survival
of these initial inner and outer brushes with death provides the shaman
with personal experiences which strengthen his or her ability to work effectively
with others. Having experienced something, a shaman is more likely to understand
what must be done to correct a condition or situation.
While shamanism may be readily identified among many hunding and gathering
peoples and in some traditional herding societies, identifying specific
groups of individuals who might be called shamans is a difficult task in
more stratified agricultural and manufacturing based societies. A society
may be said to be Post- Shamanic when there are the presence of shamanic
motifs in its traditional folklore or spiritual practices indicate a clear
pattern of traditions of ascent into the heavens, descent into the netherworlds,
movement between this world and a parallel Otherworld, are present in its
history. Such a society or tradition may have become very specialized and
recombined aspects of mysticism, prophecy and shamanism into more specialized
or more 'fully developed' practices and may have assigned those to highly
specialized functionaries. When such practices and functionaries are present
or have teplaced the traditional shamans found in historical or traditional
shamanism the use of Post-shamanic is appropriate.
Dean Edwards (firstname.lastname@example.org) (August, 1995)
More specifically, a society may be said to be Post-Shamanic when at
least 6 of the following 8 conditions have been met:
a. Shamanic ecstasy is still present, but light trance techniques are also
used to access the Otherworld.
b. Agriculture and some forms of manufacturing/crafts have replaced hunting
and gathering as the primary basis for the economic life of the community.
c.The society has developed a highly stratified social structure and very
d. Religion and spiritual methodology has become more fully developed and
can no longer be properly referred to as 'archaic'. This is expecially
important for rituals, ceremonies and ecstatic techniques which had traditionally
been the domain of the shamans.
e. Mystical ecstasy and unitive visions have become at least as important
esoteric experiences and doctrines as shamanic ecstasy, ascension and descent
in the religious and spiritual life of the community.
f. The shaman is no longer the primary escort for the souls of the dead
into their place in the next world (psychopomp). This role generally either
passes onto the priestcraft or clergy to perform through ritual, is an
object of individual or group prayer, or is beleived to be done by gods
of guardian spirits, angels or demons.
g. A professional clergy is present which regulates the religious life
of the community.
h. Other forms of healing, divining and counseling are present have replaced
shamans as the primary source of such services.
Post-shamanic motifs are found among many Indo-Eruopean, Asian,
African and some native peoples of North America. The use of Post-Shamanic
as a term makes examination of these parallel traditons and possible survivals
of earlier shamanic traditions easier.
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