An Inuit Eskimo of Nunivak Island off the west coast of Alaska
An Inuit Eskimo of Nunivak Island off the west coast of Alaska

Ethno-Shamanism

In shamanistic societies, traditional knowledge is the key to indigenous life and well-being. Such knowledge can also provide solutions to numerous problems confronting the global community.

However, cultural resources are a function of our understanding of their potential; how we use them depends on our appreciation of their critical importance.

Shamanism.AstrologyClub.org seeks to preserve and disseminate native shamanistic knowledge and cosmology.

We call it ethno-shamanism.

What is Ethno-Shamanism?

Tlingit Shaman's Rattle. Alaska, 1850-1875
Tlingit Shaman’s Rattle. Alaska, 1850-1875

The basic elements of ethno-shamanism can be defined by the multiple functions reflected in the roles of its practitioners – the shamans. As individuals, specializing in the performance and the enactment of rituals, the traditional shamans are also the tribal time-keepers, or custodians of the calendar.

In hunting magic, the shamans foster and consolidate a vital relationship with Master of the Animals, or an equivalent figure, thus, assuring consistent bounty for their people. As healers, they employ various methods recognized by the cultural norms, including the ability to see the causes of disease and augur the future.

Not less important is the shaman’s function as a guide, or a psychopomp, for the souls of the dead, ascertaining that these do not become dispersed in the universal vastness, but are assured proper passages to their respective destinies in the spirit realms. Last, but definitely not least, is their extensive knowledge of the sacred and powerful plants.

The vital importance assumed by hallucinogenic substances in shamanistic rituals and imagery, and as crucial factors in cultural dynamics, must be duly underscored. The experience acquired in drug-induced visions, and later integrated through socially approved cognitive channels, serves as a major key to culture change. The dynamics of the force intrinsic to shamanism constitute a pervasive note in such a process.

Moreover, the shaman’s intellectual abilities are of real social consequence, particularly as they apply to issues involving the culture-environment system. Equipped with an impressive corpus of empirical knowledge (ethnoscience) and a profound grasp of human behavior, the shaman fulfills the vital role of a psycho-cultural adaptive mechanism, not merely as a healer of diseases, but as a harmonizer of social and natural dysfunctions and imbalance. He strives for harmony and balance in nature.

In view of his ecological significance, the shaman’s role as an agent in transcendental and existential realities tends to be underplayed by those who regard cultures as systems of more pragmatic and functional configurations. The importance of the latter two is undeniable, in its own right. However, to de-emphasize symbolic (religious, spiritual, etc.) considerations is to fail in the understanding of the full integrative potential inherent to shamanism as a dynamic factor in the cultural process.

Pacific Northwest, Bella Coola wooden mask representing the solar disk. British Columbia
Pacific Northwest, Bella Coola wooden mask representing the solar disk. British Columbia

To ensure survival, human beings learn and devise cognitive meanings. These can be found in the parallel extensions formed by the antipodal worlds, and available through the diverse techniques utilized by the shamans. It is the shaman’s task to organize and impart coherence to the inveterate journey of existential quest, thus affording ideological purpose and ecological possibilities to the human condition. Shamanistic states of consciousness are not regarded as extra-ordinary occurrences, neither are these alternate states viewed as separate realities. They all comprise the elements of a larger monistic whole.

A pre-existing set of physico-biotic conditions can ultimately give rise to a finite number of possibilities, favoring some at the expense of others. It appears, thus, that shamanism and hunting magic arose as almost inescapable developments in a mileu where both constituted a natural step – but not the only step – in a world where food resource was, and is, one of the main keys to natural selection. Awareness of the self and reflective consciousness, by then already innate, allowed for cognitive discrimination and abstract modalities of thought.

In turn, the latter led to an awakening to the immense potential benefits that could be derived from the observation and understanding of the natural environment, as opposed to mere passive acceptance of it. The transfer of this type of knowledge from one generation to the next took the form of rituals enhanced with accrued behavioral traits proven valuable for individual, as well as social, survival.

More importantly, the human species learned to use its adaptively transformed body (bioevolution) and mind (consiousness) as the basic tools in the process of continued evolution and culture change. As a result of the development of the adaptive mechanisms favoring survival, especially in view of intensified hunting, the tolerance for physical deprivation and other discomforts acquired a positive value. These traits entered into the shaman’s craft by being first incorporated into, and then expressed through, the system of shamanistic initiations.

Many of the shamanistic ceremonies worldwide are validated by myths explaining the creations of such rites, together with constructs of cosmological paradigms. These myths often rationalize the enactment of rituals in terms of cultural materialism or social pragmatism. The essence of social existence is centered around mythic imagery, which lends to life an existential dimension. Pure, rational thought is no more an objective reality than the myths whence such a concept is derived. Myths make up, in part, the fundamental responses to the basic human need for meaning. It is an inescapable condition of human existence, pervading all areas of interactions.

A Soyots (Tuvins) shaman's costume and drum from the Altai region, around 1900's
A Soyots (Tuvins) shaman’s costume and drum from the Altai region, around 1900’s

Shamanistic ideology lies at the foundation of systematic knowledge. Shamanism, with its techniques and visions of the Otherworlds, has modified the syntax of cultural metaphors, and consequently, epistemology. In turn, shamanistic cosmology has been influenced by the shaman’s own cultural worldview.

Thus, the adaptive value of shamanism, if considered in pragmatic or ecological terms, should be viewed against a cultural matrix – that is, within a specific cultural context, such as a cosmological model – if it is to be appreciated fully. The meanings of shamanistic experience and symbolism are modulated by culture. The cultural worldview formats and renders a definition to paradigms acquired directly via shamanic states of consciousness.

From a soil nourishing a common existential root sprouted a new universal ritual system, where the role assumed by humankind, as part of nature’s chain of being, became less passive and more articulate. This new order of understanding can be viewed as the first systematic attempt to derive an epistemology and influence processes which fall within the domain of human experience. It is known as shamanism.

“In my experience, I have tried to avoid the genre of New Age pop-shamanism, generated by ‘alternate mode shamanic counselors’ whose practical experiences consist generally of interfacing with their followers in the setting of a hired conference room, or other such place. Quite frequently, the ‘urban’ pop-shaman views shamanism as a tool – a vocational wand for popular psychology and mass-market self-help programs.

To such groups, shamanism appears to represent an ancillary aspect of a cultural trend. Few of them grasp or even realize the agons of physical deprivations, the prolonged ordeals, inner personal crises, and near-death encounters connected with genuine shamanic callings. To learn the techniques employed by a shaman does not make one a shaman. True, shamanism can sometimes be defined by certain techniques, as well as by a characteristic state of consciousness.

However, it becomes meaningful only if the definition encompasses the appropriate cultural context and behavior. One can attend school to acquire knowledge, but to acquire wisdom is quite another matter. By the same token, one can learn shamanistic methods in an effort to shamanize, but one cannot matriculate as a shaman. To become a shaman is altogether different. It calls for a serious psychological and spiritual transformation on the part of the individual.

Consequently, I am of the opinion that New Age shamanism fails to represent accurate dynamics of the sociocultural situation, both historically and phenomenologically. Its preoccupation with the integration of shamanic elements into the social fabric, where shamanism has not figured as an institution, is accompanied all too frequently by a tremendous lack of awareness, sensitivity, and insight into the true shamanic experience.”

– Excerpted from Shamanism: Religion or Rite? by Michael Ripinsky-Naxon

In This Section: