Shamanism- a definition?

There has been much controversy over the use of the word “Shaman”; some love it, some hate it, some could care less.  I would like to share a bit of a background on the word, as far as I know,  and how and why I am choosing to use it.

“Shaman” is a word from Siberia, more than likely Tuvan, that means “one who knows”.  This word has become a catch-all term to refer to those who follow similar beliefs and practices regarding communication  and interactions with the Spirit world.  “Shaman” are intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds, healers, counselors and diviners.  Here in the Americas, we have heard them called medicine people, witches, sorcerers, witch doctors, brujos and so on.

The practice of Shamanism can be found all around the world and is even considered the first religion, a proto-religion.  Although there are many variations depending on area and culture, there are quite a few beliefs and practices that are similar.  These are but a few of these similarities:

  • spirits exist and influence human lives
  • the shaman can communicate with spirits and travel within the spirit world
  • to do this the shaman enters a trance, altered state of consciousness or shamanic state of consciousness, thus entering a different reality, the spirit reality
  • to alter their perception the shaman will use  meditative and relaxation techniques, rhythmic sound, percussion, mind altering substances or a combination of these methods
  • the shaman can treat the spiritual causes of illness and disease which oftentimes will reflect in a physical healing
  • the shaman can affect ordinary reality by altering events in non-ordinary reality
  • the shaman has spirit allies/guides who are his/her source of power, support and assistance
  • the shaman can use different sources to divine events that occurred in the past or will happen in the future and/or provide counsel on various matters

There are many Native American people who refuse to refer to themselves as “shaman”, preferring the terms “healer”, “medicine wo/man”, “holy wo/man”, “behike”, “bujiti” or whatever the title may be in their own tribal language.  And as far as I have it understood, the Tuvan folk are none too thrilled at the appropriation  of their word, either.

Personally, I believe it’s all a matter of semantics- “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”  When I meet someone face to face, I will call them as they wish to be called.  In the meanwhile, I will use the term “shaman” for the sake of brevity, economy in writing and lack of gender definition.

My apologies in advance, to those who may find a reason for offense.

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