What is a shaman?

Shamanism comprises a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with a holistic world comprising the seen and unseen. A practitioner of shamanism is known as a shaman, pronounced Shah-man as opposed to the fashionable Shay-men. There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world (here though we are concerned with the Northern European Shamanism of the Vitki), but several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Shamans are intermediaries between the human and non-human worlds, they can treat illness and are capable of entering other worldly realms to obtain answers to the problems of their community.

The term “shaman” comes from Tungusic word šamán, the term for such a practitioner, which was used in the Tungusic cultures in Siberia. The word’s etymology is uncertain. It is sometimes connected to a Tungus root ša- “to know”. It became popular as a name as it was so obscure that it carried no baggage or attachments unlike the term ‘medicine man’ or ‘witch doctor’. There are variations of shamanism throughout the modern and ancient world; and quite a few common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism.

Common beliefs identified by Eliade in his researches back in 1964 include:

  • Non-human intelligences exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
  • The shaman can communicate with the other unseen worlds.
  • These non-human intelligences can be good/evolutionary or evil/devolutionary.
  • The shaman can treat sickness caused by such entities.
  • The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy and go on “vision quests.”
  • The shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
  • The shaman evokes animal soul archetypes as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.
  • The shaman can tell of the future potentials, throw bones/runes, and perform many other varied forms of divination.

Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by unseen energies and intelligences some times referred to as spirits which affect the lives of the population. Shamanism requires individually acquired knowledge and special capabilities and generally operates outside of established religions. The majority of shamans operate alone, though they are usually trained and initiated by the elder shamans. Shamans do gather into groups usually for specific tribal ceremonies such as initiations and coming of age ceremonies.

The functions of a shaman can include healing of ailments, the ailments may be either purely physical afflictions such as diseases, wounds, or can sometimes be mental (psychosomatic) afflictions which cause physical problems. Counselling in cases of distress, grief or stress and in the methods of releasing a persons inner potential. The are usually also the guardians of the lore and culture a role shared in this tradition by the Godhi.

The Shamanistic World View

The Shamanistic world view is quite different from that of the modern western world view. In modern society people have become divorced from the earth and nature as a whole. To understand they way of the Vitki you must return to the view once held by our ancestors. Below is one of the best descriptions we have of the shamanistic world view, it sums up both the view and the clash with modern society. It is an excerpt from a speech by the Native American Chief Seattle.

“If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man — all belong to the same family.

So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves. He will be our father and we will be his children.

So, we will consider your offer to buy our land. But it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us. This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you the land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s grave behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father’s grave, and his children’s birthright are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

I do not know. Our ways are different than your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring or the rustle of the insect’s wings. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around the pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with pine.

The air is precious to the red man for all things share the same breath, the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days he is numb to the stench. But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.

The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.

So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will make one condition – the white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers.

I am a savage and do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be made more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man.

You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children that we have taught our children that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.

This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know.

Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. One thing we know which the white man may one day discover; our God is the same God.

You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone”.