From archaeological and anthropologicalevidence, we know today that the practice ofshamanism has existed for thousands of years,perhaps since the beginning of the human race.It has been around certainly since the StoneAge, and is still practised today. Shamanismattempts to bring in good fortune and drive outmisfortune, to manage a duality that can causedistress. Yet, insofar as ritual is concerned, itshows a unique religious form in which theshaman contacts the deities spiritually, usingsinging and dancing in a largely spontaneousway. It is a practice that brings divination andhealing together as its main components.
Evidence of shamanism has been found in allparts of the world. Particularly in isolatedregions, it has survived almost unscathed andas a result the modern world is now coming toa better appreciation of the beliefs of the ancienttribes of the Americas, Asia, Africa and regionsof Europe and Australia.
Although there are differences of ritual foundamong the various peoples, there are somestartling similarities. There is what has become known as the ‘shamanic state of consciousness or ‘ecstatic trance’. In the full shamanic state,the shaman (literally meaning ‘he who knows’)has various powers that he does not normally possess. He sees spirits and souls, and communicates with them; he makes magical flights to the heavens, where he serves asintermediary between the gods and his people;and he descends to the underworld, the land ofthe dead. He thus puts himself in touch with information not available to him in a non-trance state. Without this change ofconsciousness, the shaman will not be able to perform all the assignments and responsibilities he is called upon to carry outappropriate to his status.
This ability sets him apart from priests and adepts of non-shamanic persuasion, though some of the Christian sects, which rely ons peaking in tongues, show a similar ability. In his altered states of consciousness the shaman remains in control, is capable of perceiving non-worldly realities, and is happy to act as ago-between among the various states of reality.
So that the shaman can access the shamanic state when required, he learns certain practices that help him to do so. He integrates singing and dancing into a standardized ritual, where he contacts his gods by dancing and placates them through singing. His practices include rhythmic activities such as drumming, rattlingand chanting, purification rituals – isolation indarkness, sweat baths and sexual abstinence –and gaining greater mental control over his own ‘inner’ environment by, for instance,staring at a flame or concentrating on imagery.Some societies use psychedelic drugs for this purpose, though most claim drugs are notessential, perhaps even harmful.
The shaman accepts that he has access to threeworlds – earth, sky and the underworld. They are connected by a central alignment represented by a World Pillar, World Tree or World Mountain. This same idea resurfaces in the tenets of the Kabbalah, with its Tree of Life.
Remaining lucid throughout all of his experiences, the shaman has various abilities that are not apparent in ordinary reality. He canascend to the heavens, using mythical animalsor by shape shifting (actually a type of change of consciousness similar to the ones seen in Celtic practices), and he can descend to the underworld. In both places he can communicate with spirits and souls, and he can also act as intermediary between the gods and his tribe.
Central to the belief of the shaman is the ideathat he (or she) has a guardian spirit, usually ananimal or plant. In a ‘vision quest’, most often used by Native Americans, the initiate seeking his totem animal either deliberately goes into a‘trance’ state or has a vivid dream in which hisguardian spirit manifests. Sometimes he receives advice directly from the Great Spirit.
Traditionally, shamans are called to their profession in two ways: by heredity or by spontaneous and involuntary election by the supernatural beings, this often being the way in which women became shamans. In this day and age it is permitted to seek out shamanic training, but traditionalists are aware that these individuals may not be considered as powerful as those who have inherited the ability. This is believed to be because, for many, contact with other worlds is not considered normal within their culture and is therefore a learned response and perhaps therefore less powerful. Many such seekers will, however, undertake a visionquest assisted by an initiated shaman, thus gaining knowledge of the relevant world. The vision quest provides the average individual,not just the ‘medicine man’, with access tospiritual realms for help.