The Reawakening of Shamanism in the West1
By Bill Brunton
© Shamanism, Fall/Winter 2003, Vol. 16, No. 2

The scope of this paper is to briefly survey the emergence of modern shamanism in the West. My context for this consideration is principally the United States and Canada. Developments in other Western countries such as Austria, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Australia, for example, are understood to generally parallel those in the U.S. In fact, the emergence of shamanism in these countries has been stimulated by that in America.2 My consideration explicitly excludes the surviving shamanisms of Native North Americans except insofar as some neo-shamanic practitioners borrow (some would say, expropriate) shamanic heritage from these peoples. My main thrust in this paper will be to describe and provide interpretive context for emergent Western shamanism.

Since native European systems of shamanism are extinct or nearly so among Euro-Americans, the recent appearance of shamanism among them is not so much a reawakening as a rediscovery, or reintroduction. However, since Europeans had shamanic cultures at one time, and since shamanic remnants remain in their folk culture, including their forms of Christianity, the present title seems justified.

The problem at hand is to offer an insight into the late 20th Century reappearance of shamanism in the West that shows that it is indeed the genuine article and that it is a natural, even predictable development in democratic post-industrial societies like those of the United States and Canada.


Photo by Gene Rosen

Shamanism can be seen as a fundamentally spiritual approach to real-life problem solving informed by an animistic philosophy that is practiced by individuals for the benefit of their group(s). These individuals systematically utilize a technique or combination of techniques to alter consciousness in such a way that they reliably access nonordinary reality. This reality--as experienced--is the abode of conscious beings with whom these individuals (shamans) interact. Interaction with these “spirits” is a defining attribute of shamanic practice. Human-spirit interaction results in the transferral of knowledge and/or power (uncanny abilities) from the spirit to the human to be used by the latter for healing of various kinds. The nonmaterial basis of this experience is in sharp contrast to the materialist, empirical paradigmatic posture of American Culture. This may explain the appeal of shamanism to individuals in this cultural milieu who are seeking an alternative paradigm more suited to the vagaries of everyday life or who are looking for a way to at least broaden the conventional cultural paradigm.

America has a long history of interest in spiritualism. For example, Ellwood and Partin3 have described the plethora of spiritual innovations that have swept America throughout its history. While only briefly mentioning neo-shamanic developments, they focus on more organized, group, spiritual approaches such as Anthroposophy and Transcendental Meditation. But, they do show, through myriad examples, the deep-seated spiritual quest that is characteristic of the American cultural scene, and by so doing provide context for recent interests in shamanism.

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