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Understanding the multiple meanings of Shamanism (part 1)

Updated: May 25, 2021

This is the first installment of a five part series that explores the complex intersectionality of shamanism. I have personally studied neo-shamanism since 2010 and this series represents some of my academic work on understanding the subject. Part 1 lays the foundation for the discussion by establishing definitions and scope of the conversation. I will be releasing 1 part each week, so please subscribe and leave your comments and questions below!


Drums have been used for over 40,000 years to heal

For the past 500 years explorers, researchers, academics, adventurers and spiritual seekers have been entranced with the behaviors, cultural performances, and healing miracles encompassed within the term shamanism. Shamanism is the oldest healing modality known to exist. Parapsychologist and distinguished author on shamanism Stanley Krippner (2000) hypothesizes that shamanic epistemology emerged from “perceptual, cognitive, affective, and somatic ways of knowing that assisted early humans to find their way through an often unpredictable, sometimes hostile, series of environmental challenges” (p.98). A series of skills or technologies were developed from these unique ways of knowing, and soon a sociopolitical cultural structure began to form around the members of an indigenous society who possessed knowledge of these technologies thus elevating them to a specific societal role. What Krippner (2000) importantly points out is that these technologies developed independently of one another in a unique spatiotemporal reference to the needs of the community. In fact, “each society had a different word to describe what are now called ‘shamans’, and the specific duties expected of these practitioners differed from group to group” (p.99).

To build on the foundation of knowledge around this uniquely human phenomenon, the question should be asked: how, why, and to what extent is the word shaman and its associated term shamanism used presently in the United States? To begin, the term itself was formed from an externally observed set of reductionist characteristics, also known as etic, that assert a priori assumptions about the very existence of the term outside the context of the Tungus people of Siberia, from whom the term was appropriated (Jones, 2006; Krippner, 2000; Wallis, 1999). The goal of assigning this term cross-culturally was to provide researchers and the general public with a set of verifiable characteristics that could be used to identify individuals who possessed these unique abilities. With a history spanning over 40,000 years, it was perhaps naïve for academic fields of study to attempt a singular definition.

After its adaption in the early 19th Century (Narby & Huxley, 2001) the word ‘shamanism’ has a rich linguistic etymology making its definition as fluid and elusive as the human behaviors researchers have attempted to attribute to its alleged practitioners, the shaman. Applying an operationalized definition of a shaman based on decades of Anthropological field research might help a researcher feel confident in his or her ability to identify a shaman. However the more one knows about shamanism and its unique history the more complex the term becomes. Shamanism is not a static term. Shamanism, like the cultures it is performed in has, in fact, changed its meaning many times since its introduction into the English lexicon.

Sabino Canyon, Tucson, AZ

To add an additional layer of complexity, the term shamanism presently holds multiple concurrent meanings within the United States and its use varies dramatically within the many cultures living within the country. When contained within the parameters of academia this debate over the origins, etymology, and performance of shamanism will likely remain a popular focus of research. The pursuit of this academic cause, while valuable, is not the focus of this paper. Instead, the discussions herein will focus on the tension that has arisen for healers practicing under the umbrella of shamanism (regardless of their definition) in the United States.

Two very distinct forms of shamanic healing are being performed concurrently: shamanism and neo-shamanism. In this discussion shamanism is defined as “a group of culturally specific techniques by which only a select few individuals (the “shamans”) deliberately alter or heighten their conscious awareness to enter the so-called ‘spirit world’, accessing material that they use to help and heal members of the social group that has acknowledged their shamanic status” (Jones, 2006, p.21; Kripper, 2000). Neo-shamanism is defined in this paper as the non-indigenous, modern evolution of states of consciousness with indigenous origins by Euro-Americans which consists “of an individual who has voluntary access to, and control of, more aspects of their consciousness than other individuals, however the components of that consciousness are emically understood, and that this voluntary access is recognized by other members of the ‘shaman’s’ culture as an essential component of the culture” (Jones, 2006, p.21).

This topic is relevant to explore because of the growing pressure from the public and the field of Integrative Health on the biomedical health delivery system to incorporate Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicines (CAIM) such as shamanism and neo-shamanism into its health paradigm. It is within the modern health care paradigm that the identity crisis associated with shamanism is manifesting. Practitioners from both forms of healing are now working within hospitals, health clinics and wellness centers. In fact, thousands of individuals are being trained as neo-shamans each year, only serving to conflate the current identity crisis which has been developing slowly since the birth of neo-shamanism in the 1970’s. These growing populations of neo-shamanic practitioners are operating independently as local healers and/or under the umbrella of CAIM. Many are attempting to legitimate their practice through integration into the biomedical health paradigm and conducting evidence based research to establish their practice as legitimate.

While a clear distinction is made between the two in this paper, both sets of practitioners are identified and self-identify as shamans when, in fact, there are significant differences between how the practitioners perform their healing. For shamanism to be viewed as a legitimate and effective healing practice by biomedicine, of which the opposite has been its historic stance (Harner, 2000; Narby & Huxley, 2004), a consistent and rigorous distinction should be made between the two modalities and embodied within its practitioners which eliminates confusion and promotes the effectiveness of both healing forms independently while acknowledging their shared origins.

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