An Introduction to Shamanism
In today's world, where the noise of daily life often drowns out the inner whispers of the soul, it's not surprising that many people are being drawn to the oldest spiritual path that exists - shamanism. This spiritual tradition dates all the way back to the Paleolithic era and spans across many cultures and continents.
The Origins of Shamanism
The word "shaman" has its origins in a language spoken by indigenous Tungus people in Siberia. The original term, "samān," is thought by some to be connected to the Tungus word meaning “to know”. There have also been other speculations that the word originated from the Sanskrit word, "śramaṇa," which was used to describe wandering holy figures connected to Buddhism in Central Asian languages.
Although the word itself is related to indigenous Siberian cultures, the concept of shamanism transcends geographic boundaries. Most indigenous cultures have some form of shamanic practice in their spiritual traditions. From the icy tundras of Siberia to the dense rainforests of the Amazon, shamans are revered figures who act as intermediaries between the seen and unseen worlds.
Shamanism Around the World
In the Amazon basin, the Shipibo-Conibo people engage in plant medicine ceremonies to commune with spirits for healing and guidance. Across the Pacific, among the Ainu people of Japan, the shamans chant and dance at the Kutune Shirka festival to bring harmony between humans and nature spirits. In Africa, the San people of the Kalahari Desert have shamans known as “healers of the spirits” who enter altered states to restore balance and well-being to individuals and their societies.
These practices, shared across wildly different cultures, highlight the universal essence of shamanism - a timeless wisdom that recognises and celebrates the connection between humans, the natural world, and the spiritual realm.
The Core Beliefs and Principles of Shamanism
While shamanism takes on many forms, most shamanic traditions share a few core beliefs:
- A belief in the existence of spirits: Shamanism acknowledges the existence of spirits, who play important roles in the lives of individuals and the larger community. These spirits can be benevolent - offering guidance and protection - or malevolent - causing sickness and strife.
- Communication with the spirit world: A shamanic practitioner has a connection with the spirit realm, and can communicate with these spirits. The shaman crosses into the unseen worlds through rituals and altered states of consciousness.
- Performing healing ceremonies: One of the shaman’s main roles is to treat sickness caused by evil spirits. They draw from their deep understanding of the spirit world and perform healing ceremonies to bring the patient back to health.
- Trance and vision quests: Shamans use trance-inducing techniques such as drumming, chanting, dancing, breathwork or entheogenic plants to enter a state of visionary ecstasy. In this state, the shaman receives answers and guidance from the spirit realm.
- Animal spirits: The animal world is revered in shamanic cultures across the world. Different animals serve as spirit guides and message bearers. A shaman may call on the power of an animal spirit for wisdom, strength or protection. For example, Owl may provide insight and clarity, while Cheetah might offer speed and agility.
How to Get Started with Shamanic Practices
Like most pagan paths, shamanism is a very intuitive and personal path. If you’re drawn to explore this tradition, remember that practical experience is just as important as reading it about it.
Here are a few tips to get started:
Connect with Nature
Make spending time in nature a regular part of your routine. Aim for wild and natural places when you can, but if you can’t, know that even your local park is full of the wonders of nature. Take time to form a connection to the flora and fauna around you. Simply sitting and feeling the energy of nature will bring you closer to the spiritual world.
See Beyond Preconceptions
Practice seeing things without judging or assuming. When you look at a tree or animal, don’t label it as “just a tree” or “just a bird”. Try to feel its presence and consciousness. Observe its beauty and uniqueness, and appreciate the life force within it. This kind of seeing connects you to the spirit of all living things.
Learn from the Animal World
Animal spirits offer protection, guidance, and support on the shamanic journey and in everyday life. Each person is said to have a power animal that serves as a personal guardian and source of strength. Discovering your power animal can help you tap into your innate talents, provide insights into challenges, and assist you in finding your soul mission. You can discover your power animal through shamanic journeying.
Shamanic journeying is a core technique in shamanism where the practitioner enters an altered state of consciousness to explore the realms where spirits and guides reside. Most often, drumming is used to induce the altered state, as the rhythmic beats induce a trance-like state.
Approach this ancient tradition with cultural sensitivity and respect. Shamanism has deep roots in indigenous cultures, and many of these practices are sacred and protected. If you want to explore specific shamanic practices from a particular culture, take some time to learn about the context of the practice.
While we can be inspired by those who came before, shamanism is a highly personal path. Your main priority should be building your own unique understanding and connection to the spirit world.
Shamanism is a powerful and ancient spiritual practice, and a beautiful way to connect with the natural world and the realm of spirits. It's a path of intuitive exploration and personal growth, where hands-on practical experience is as important as reading and studying.
While shamanism spans centuries, the world we live in today is vastly different from the ancient times when shamanism first emerged. However, the core principles of shamanism are more relevant than ever in the hustle and bustle of today's often disconnected world. Walking the shamanic path can help us find connection and balance even amidst the chaos of modern life.