“Shaman” is a word we’ve derived from the Tungus of Siberia, among whom it serves as both a noun and a verb. “Shamanism” is a term that’s unknown to them, but it has been adopted by anthropologists, religious historians, and other to refer to the art and practice of shamans. In the modern day, shamanism has grown to embrace many cultures the world over – above and beyond Siberia, where it originated.
Many writers have described the state of consciousness that shamans can enter into at will as ecstatic, a word that literally means “to stand outside oneself”. This is an apt summation of what shamanic practices have been able to achieve for thousands of years. Upon entering into a trance state of heightened awareness – often with the aid of drumming, rattling, chanting, singing and dancing – a shaman is reputed to be able to leave his or her body and travel, spiritually, to the heavens and the underworld. These spiritual journeys formed the crux of the religious life of many tribes, as shamans would share their experiences within what anthropologists call “non-ordinary reality”. The places to which practitioners of shamanism were wont to travel to are various: the netherworld, higher levels of existence, and parallel physical worlds. Also, Shamanic Flight referred to a kind of journey wherein the shaman could visit other regions of our physical world. All these experiences have their affinities with the out-of-body and near-death experiences of the modern day.
Shamanism experienced a revival in the latter half of the twentieth century. Inspired in part by the works of westerners like Carlos Castaneda (The Teachings of Don Juan) and Michael Harner (The Way of the Shaman), modern men and women seek to emulate the techniques employed by tribal shamans since ancient times. They use drums (or pre-recorded drum tracks), dances, guided meditations, and other means to enter non-ordinary reality to explore their inner world, seek wisdom and deeper knowledge, and heal themselves and others.
Urban shamanism, as this revival has come to be called, had a profound influence on the New Age movement. Another discipline of ancient shamanism that has been embraced by New Agers has been lucid dreaming, a practice wherein people attempt to become conscious within their dreams and manipulate them. Some have even drawn parallels between shamanic rituals from antiquity and modern rock concerts. Many elements – such as song, dance, chants, drumming, and audience participation – are consistent between the two. Also, consider the almost religious significance that is projected upon many rock stars in Western culture.
Traditional shamans often served, primarily, as the healers of their prospective tribes. They can be considered the first physicians, though their “treatments” typically addressed the spiritual and emotional states and belief systems of their “patients” rather than the physical body. A precept of shamanism that endured throughout many cultures maintained that shamans had to be wounded before they could heal. Their power to confront ilness in others was derived from their ability to transcend ilness in themselves.
Accordingly, there would oftentimes be some trauma that served as a percurser to one adopting the shaman’s vocation – or two: one occuring in childhood and the other in adolescence. This trauma set future shamans apart from the others in the tribe and necessitated that they turn inward and contact the spirit world in order to recover. This was the classic initiation, the process by which shamans not only learned to travel out of body and mediate between the spiritual and material worlds, but also the way in which their eyes were opened to reality, the true depths of both sorrow and joy in human life.