Shamanism-General Overview-Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

By Dean Edwards | September 4, 2001

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From: deane@netcom.com (Dean Edwards)
Subject: Shamanism-General Overview-Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Summary: This FAQ contains a general overview on shamanism. It should be read by anyone interested in understanding the what is meant by shamanism and what differentiates shamanism form other forms of ecstatic experience.
Date: Sat, 25 Jun 1994 02:17:23 GMT

Archive-name: shamanism/overview Last-modified: 19 April 1994 Version: 1.1.2

NOTE: The following general overview of shamanism is not intended to be the last word or the definitive work on this subject. Rather it is, as its title implies, intended to provide the participant or reader with a set of guidelines that will familiarize them with the general use of the terms shamanism, shaman and shamanic in the trends, study and practice of historic, traditional and contemporary shamanic experience. The word ‘shaman comes to English from the Tungus language via Russian. Among the Tungus of Siberia it is both a noun and a verb. While the Tungus have no word for shamanism, it has come into usage by anthropologists, historians of religion and others in contemporary society to designate the experience and the practices of the shaman. Its usage has grown to include similar experiences and practices in cultures outside of the original Siberian cultures from which the term shaman originated. Thus shamanism is not the name of a religion or group of religions. Particular attention should be paid to the use of qualifying words such as “may” or “usually”. They indicate examples or tendencies and are not, in any way, intended to represent rigid standards Please send comments to deane[at]netcom[dot]com (Dean Edwards).

Shamanism-General Overview-Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) (c November, 1993 by Dean Edwards) This FAQ shall be posted monthly and is maintained by Dean Edwards (deane@netcom.com). It is intended for the private non-commercial use of Usenet users. It may not be sold or resold without the permission of the author.

Table of Contents:

1. Terms used in this FAQ
2. What is shamanism?
3. What is Shamanic Ecstasy?
4. Becoming a shaman
5. The role of trauma in the development of a shaman
6. The relationship between shamanic traditions and culture
7. The role of Shamanic Ecstasy
8. The origin of the term “shamanism”
9. Roles of the shaman
10. Reasons for this FAQ

1. Why were the terms used in this FAQ selected and do they have special meanings.

There is an extensive literature about shamanism that has been compiled since the late Eighteenth Century. Like any field of study and religious practice, shamanism has developed a specialized vocabulary. Please note that some of the words used in the material that follows are drawn from scholars who have a solid background in shamanic studies and may have meanings that are specific and less general than is often the case in popular usage. Consulting a good dictionary should clear up any points of confusion.

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 speciality (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 shamans.

3. What is Shamanic Ecstasy and how does it compare with other forms of ecstasy?

From the Greek ‘ekstasis’, ecstasy literally means to be placed outside, or to be placed.This is a state of exaltation in which a person stands outside of or transcends his or herself. Ecstasy may range from the seizure of the body by a spirit or the seizure of a person by the divine, from the magical transformation or flight of consciousness to psychiatric remedies of distress.

Three types of Ecstasy are specified in the literature on the subject:
a. Shamanic Ecstasy
b. Prophetic Ecstasy
c. Mystical Ecstasy

Shamanic ecstasy is provoked by the ascension of the soul of the shaman into the heavens or its descent into the underworld. These states of ecstatic exaltation are usually achieved after great and strenuous training and initiation, often under distressing circumstances. The resulting contact by the shaman with the higher or lower regions and their inhabitants, and also with nature spirits enables him or her to accomplish such tasks as accompanying the soul of a deceased into its proper place in the next world, affect the well-being of the sick and to convey the story of their inner travels upon their return to the mundane awareness.

The utterances of the shaman are in contrast with those of prophetic and mystical ecstasy. The prophet literally speaks for God, while the mystic reports an overwhelming divine presence. In mysticism, the direct knowledge or experience of the divine ultimate reality, is perceptible in two ways, emotional and intuitive. While these three varieties of ecstatic experience are useful for the purposes of analysis and discussion, it is not unusual for more than one form of ecstasy to be present in an individual’s experience.

However, it can be argued that, generally speaking, there are three perceptive levels of ecstasy.

a) The physiological response, in which the mind becomes absorbed in and focused on a dominant idea, the attention is withdrawn and the nervous system itself is in part cut off from physical sensory input. The body exhibits reflex inertia, involuntary nervous responses, frenzy.

b) Emotional perception of ecstasy refers to overwhelming feelings of awe, anxiety, joy, sadness, fear, astonishment, passion, etc.

c) Intuitive perception communicates a direct experience and understanding of the transpersonal experience of expanded states of awareness or consciousness.

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While the physiological response is always present, the emotional response may or may not be significant when intuition is the principal means of ecstatic perception. Some have argued that beyond the intuitive state there is a fourth condition in which the holistic perception exceeds mental and emotional limitations and understanding.

The ecstatic experience of the shaman goes beyond a feeling or perception of the sacred, the demonic or of natural spirits. It involves the shaman directly and actively in transcendent realities or lower realms of being. These experiencesa may occur in either the dream state, the awakened state, or both. Dreams, and in particular, lucid dreams, often play a significan role in the life of a shaman or shamanic candidate.

4. How does one become a shaman?

Some have wondered if the experience of shamanic ecstasy or flight makes a person a shaman. Generally speaking, most would say no. A shaman is more than someone with an experience. First, he or she is a trained initiate. Usually years of enculturalization and training under a mentor precede becoming a functioning shaman. Second, a shaman is not just an initiate who has received inner and outer training, but is a master of shamanic journeying and techniques (shamanic ecstasy). This is not a casual acquaintance with such abilities, there is some degree of mastery of them. Finally, a shaman is a link or bridge between this world and the next. This is a sacred trust and a service to the community. Sometimes a community that a shaman serves in is rather small. In other instances it may be an entire nation. A lot of that depends on social and cultural factors.

One becomes a shaman by one of three methods:
a) Hereditary transmission;
b) Spontaneous selection or “call” or “election”;
c) personal choice and quest. (This latter method is less frequent and traditionally such a shaman is considered less powerful than one selected by one of the two preceding methods.)

The shaman is not recognized as legitimate without having undergone two types of training:
a) Ecstatic (dreams, trances, etc.)
b) Traditional (“shamanic techniques, names and functions of spirits,mythology and genealogy of the clan, secret language, etc.)

The two-fold course of instruction, given by the spirits and the old master shamans is equivalent to an initiation.” (Mircea Eliade, The Encyclopedia of Religion, v. 13 , p. 202; Mcmillian, N.Y., 1987.) It is also possible for the entire process to take place in the dream state or in ecstatic experience. Thus, there is more to becoming a shaman than a single experience. It requires training, perseverance and service.

5. What is the role of personal crisis or trauma or crisis in the selection or development of a shaman?

A common experience of the call to shamanism is a psychic or spiritual crisis, which often accompanies a physical or even a medical crisis, and is cured by the shaman him or herself. This is a common occurrence for all three types of shamanic candidates described above. The shaman is often marked by eccentric behavior such as periods of melancholy, solitude, visions, singing in his or her sleep, etc. The inability of the traditional remedies to cure the condition of the shamanic candidate and the eventual self cure by the new shaman is a significant episode in development of the shaman. The underlying significant aspect of this experience, when it is present,is the ability of the shaman to manage and resolve periods of distress.

6. Does the presence of an active shamanic tradition necessarily mean that the society itself should be deemed “shamanic”?

No, not at all. The presence of shamanism in a nation or a community does not mean that shamanism is central to the spiritual or religious life of the community or region. Shamanism often exists alongside and even in cooperation with the religious or healing practices of the community.

7. What is meant by shamanic ecstasy and what role does it actually play in shamanism?

The ecstatic technique of shamanism does not involve itself in the broad range of ecstasy reported in the history of religion. It is specifically focused on the transpersonal movement of the consciousness of the shaman into higher or lower realms of consciousness and existence. Another aspect of shamanism is that compared to other spiritual traditions, it is a path that the individual walks alone. While much of the focus of shamanic studies has been on the shamanic complexes of north and central Asia, shamanism is a universal phenomenon, not confined to any particular region or culture.

8. What is the origin of the word “shaman”?

Shaman comes from the language of the Tungus of North-Central Asia. It came into use in English via Russian.

9. What are the usual roles of a shaman?

In contemporary, historical or traditional shamanic practice the shaman may at times fill the role of priest, magician, metaphysician or healer. Personal experience is the prime determinant of the status of a shaman. Knowledge of other realms of being and consciousness and the cosmology of those regions is the basis of the shamanic perspective and power. With this knowledge, the shaman is able to serve as a bridge between the mundane and the higher and lower states The shaman lives at the edge of reality as most people would recognize it and most commonly at the edge of society itself. Few indeed have the stamina to adventure into these realms and endure the outer hardships and personal crises that have been reported by or observed of many shamans.

10. Why was this FAQ written?

This FAQ was originally written to support a new Usenet newsgroup, ‘soc.religion.shamanism’. The purpose of this newsgroup is to provide a forum for discussion and exchange of ideas, views and information about historic,traditional, tribal and contemporary shamanism. This FAQ is intended to provide a useful general overview of what ‘shamanism’ actually means and what it is in practice. In doing so, it has focused on shamanic ecstasy as being at the heart of shamanic experience and practice. Many other aspects of shamanic experience are encountered in the journey toward that center. Likewise, much is also experienced in the journey out from that core experience.

End of FAQ

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