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Home: Religion: Shamanism: The Role of a Shaman.


Shamanism, The Role of a Shaman

The term 'Shaman' has been used to describe spiritual community leaders and medicine men historically known as the intellectual and spiritual leaders in their community.

In traditional shamanic tribes, the shaman usually has some power and influence on the tribe, and also performs several functions as leader in the community. Throughout history the central role of the tribal shaman has been to provide spiritual leadership as well as medical care, by communicating with entities on the "spiritual plane".

The Historic Role of The Shaman

Shaman (saman) is a term in Evenk, Manchu and other Manchu-Tungus languages for an intellectual and spiritual figure; who usually possess power and influence on other peoples in the tribe and performs several functions, one of which is analogous to the function of a healer in other cultures. The role of the shaman is also to provide medical care, and to provide for other community needs during crisis times, via "supernatural" means (means that people from a European cultural tradition might regard as magic, a concept which has its roots in the shamanism of the Middle-east, see magi). The role of the shaman is to communicate with entities on the "spiritual plane", and to secure their aid to provide for the needs of their communities. Although the word ends with "-man," it is a gender neutral term: a man or woman may be a shaman, depending upon cultural tradition. The plural is shamans.


A little Bird Told Me

Generically, Shaman refers to analogous functions in other cultures, such as the North American hunter-fishermen culture's "medicine man" or the African agricultural's "Witch doctor", or sangoma. Shamans have existed in most parts of the world, and the ancient shamans of Europe are more or less distantly remembered as druids, ba'ale shem and völvas, and in fairy tales as wizards and witches. Fairy tales and even the language of everyday life include frequent references to knowledge obtained because "a little bird told me," which is a remnant of the idea that shamans can communicate directly with animals. In the western world many of the roles of shamans have been replaced by (or evolved into those of) priests, scholars and doctors.

Joseph Campbell described the essential difference between priest and shaman:

    "The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own."

Shamans are usually credited with the ability to speak to spirits and perform feats of magic such as astral projection and healing. Shamans are usually found in tribal cultures with nature religions and beliefs in ancestor spirits, though some persons in modern Western cultures also consider themselves to be shamans. The shaman's office is frequently held to be hereditary and his ancestral spirits may act as his chief conduits for spiritual aid. However, the most powerful shamans are those who have a natural aptitude for the calling. These individuals easily enter into the separate reality of the spirits, and do so without the need of drugs or other artificial support.

Chosen by the spirits, not by the people

Tradition also holds that a shaman is chosen by the spirits, not by the people. A shaman may be initiated via a serious illness, by being struck by lightning, or by a near-death experience, and there usually is a set of cultural imagery expected to be experienced during shamanic initiation regardless of method. According to Mircea Eliade, such imagery often includes being transported to the spirit world and interacting with beings inhabiting it, meeting a spiritual guide, being devoured by some being and emerging transformed, and/or being "dismantled" and "reassembled" again, often with implanted amulets such as magical crystals. The imagery generally speaks of transformation and granting powers, or of traveling the other world and making useful contacts with spirits there.

One of a shaman's main functions is to protect individuals from hostile supernatural influences. He or she deals with a range of spirits, performs sacrifices and procures oracles. The shaman may act as psychopomp, conducting the spirits of individuals who have just died to the proper refuge for dead spirits. Shamanistic traditions often include induction of trance through natural drugs (often neurotoxins known to be hallucinogens), chanting, fasting, dancing and music. The drum (tungur in Altaic) is an important instrument in shamanic ceremonies, as it is commonly used to induce autohypnotic phenomena. Researchers also suspect that in some cultures schizophrenia or similar conditions may predispose an individual to the role of shaman. That view is a negative interpretation of the same insight that is enunciated by many shamanic cultures -- that the best shamans spontaneously perform their functions.

In Scandinavia shamans were forbidden to practice their religious functions (and many were even burned on the stake) during the 17th century, and many Russian shamans were shot during the beginning of the U.S.S.R. period.

Parts of the above article licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from Wikipedia. Images courtesy FCIT

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