Shamanism is practiced in countless regions of the world, from the Americas to Australasia, from Siberia to Asia.
Shamanism is remarkably widespread, both around the globe, and throughout history. Shamanic practices vary considerably, however one common element across all these traditions is the use of altered states of consciousness, often known as trance, to actively communicate with beings of other spiritual realms that are invisible and inaccessible to most non-shamans.
Traditional Shamanism in North America generally refers to healing practices, however using the term shamanism here can be controversial. The interpretation of dreams is important to Yurok, Wintu and Karok Indians to identify psychic attacks and other unseen threats. Many tribes consider owls to be malevolent sprits in disguise. In Mexico and in South American, Shamans make great use of hallucinogenic plants such as the Banisteriopis vine and the San Perdro cactus.
Our word shaman is derived from the word saman from tungusic languages spoken in Siberia. Shamanism is still practiced today in Siberia; however today it is somewhat in decline. Shamans use drumming, animal sacrifice and fire to achieve a trance state. In the trance state they perform healing as well as divination, and are said to be able to resist burns when handling hot coals.
A medicine man of Australian Aboriginal culture undergoes initiation rites which appear to have many shamanic characteristics. He undergoes a transformation performed by spirits in which he “dies” before being revived with new powers. He is then able to use these powers to heal, to harm and to perceive events at a distance.
Australian Aboriginal medicine men use a bullroarer, an aerofoil that is swung on a cord in a circle to produce a roaring sound, to achieve the trance state. Like Siberian Shamans, the trance state is said to enable Australian Aboriginal medicine men to resist burning when handling hot coals.
Shamanism appears to have been widespread in Europe before the spread of Christianity, indeed some fragments of related folk lore still remain, such as the Mazzeri of the Mediterranean island of Corsica. A 15000 year old cave painting, commonly known as The Sorcerer, in Les Trois Frères cave in Southern France is believed to depict a hunter sorcerer, and has elements of shamanic imagery. There is also historical evidence of shamanic practices in Finland, Sweden as well as Anglo-Saxon England.
Whether Shamans seek to heal, to predict the future or to retrieve the advice of the gods, the similarities between these geographically, and historically, separated practices are remarkable.