What is a shaman? How does one become one?
The re-emergence of shamanism in the West has been largely driven by the pioneering work of the late anthropologist Dr. Michael Harner, founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. His lifetime of research, experimentation, and personal exploration led him to develop Core Shamanism, an authentic and powerful form of shamanic practice that is not bound to culturally-specific ceremony and ritual. Its emphasis is on universal, near universal, and common features of shamanism, making it the ideal methodology for present-day practitioners to engage in shamanism while respecting the rites and customs of native peoples. Since shamanic knowledge was overwhelmingly lost to Western society centuries ago due to religious oppression, the Foundation’s programs in Core Shamanism are particularly intended to help contemporary people reacquire access to their rightful spiritual heritage through quality workshops and training courses.
What is shamanism?
As shamanism has grown in popularity, confusion about what it is, and specifically who and what a shaman is, has also grown. The term “shaman” is often loosely applied to anyone claiming an affinity for a natural lifestyle or a nature-based spirituality.
Michael Harner, after noting that “definitions are often a contentious matter,” went on to provide the following: “Shamanism is universally characterized by an intentional change in consciousness to engage in purposeful two-way interaction with spirits. Its most distinctive feature, which is not universal, is the out of body journey to other worlds.” He pointed out that not all shamans journey, or journey in the same way, but “what they do share is disciplined interaction with spirits in non-ordinary reality to help and heal others.” (Cave and Cosmos, pp. 47-48.)
Animism vs. shamanism
Where things often get confusing is in understanding the difference between animism and shamanism. Animism is a worldview that posits the aliveness of all things in the universe, as well as the unity and harmony of all life. It sees humans as a part of the living universe, but not superior to any aspect of it. This view is universally accepted in shamanism. That said, though all shamans could be considered animists, not all animists are shamans. This is because they don’t necessarily do what shamans do (see above).
Who can be called a shaman, and how do they that achieve that status?
In traditional shamanic cultures, shamans do not proclaim themselves as such. Someone who works with spirits to help their people is often named a shaman by that community if they are successful in their work.
”Shamans are often called ‘see-ers’ (seers), or ‘people who know’ in their tribal languages, because they are involved in a system of knowledge based on firsthand experience. Shamanism is not a belief system. It’s based on personal experiments conducted to heal, to get information, or do other things. In fact, if shamans don’t get results, they will no longer be used by people in their tribe. People ask me, ‘How do you know if somebody’s a shaman?’ I say, ‘It’s simple. Do they journey to other worlds? And do they perform miracles?'” (Michael Harner, Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone, p. 1.)
The preferred term for modern persons who engage in shamanism is “shamanic practitioner.” This denotes someone who has learned the methods and discipline of shamanic practice, and works to help and heal others with these methods. If a shamanic practitioner is successful with clients over time, other people may call them a shaman, but it is considered inappropriate to name oneself a shaman.
How does one become a shaman?
Michael discusses this at length in his book Cave and Cosmos (pp. 177, 179, 182). Traditional methods include inheriting shamanic status from an ancestor; becoming a shaman through life-threatening illness or initiation; being born with shamanic gifts which are recognized and supported by elders; learning directly from the spirits; and in some cultures, the Shuar, for example, knowledge of the way to power is bought from a master shaman. There are many paths, including study and practice with reputable teachers. But the path one travels to become a shaman is not as important as a powerful relationship with your own compassionate helping spirits.
To sum up, here are two essential characteristics of those who practice shamanism:
- The ability to shift consciousness at will, to interact with spirits from non-ordinary reality for the purpose of helping and healing others. (This is accomplished in 90% of the world’s shamanic cultures through sonic driving like drumming and rattling.)
- The understanding, through direct experience, that everything in the universe is interconnected, alive, and has spirit.
Contemporary shamanic practitioners are those who successfully practice and embody the above characteristics, and who have ongoing relationships with highly-evolved, compassionate spirits who provide spiritual power, knowledge, and wisdom throughout life. A practitioner of shamanism who works with these highly-evolved spirits and succeeds in helping and healing members of their tribe or society, may be recognized and named a shaman by their community.
Narrye Caldwell & Robbie Staufer
RESOURCES for further study of shamanism
Polestar logo design by Carolyn Fee ©2010 Foundation for Shamanic Studies
FSS Polestar highlights some of the questions we are frequently asked about contemporary shamanic practice. “Polestar” is defined as “something that serves as a guiding principle.” It reflects our commitment to helping practitioners stay oriented to authentic shamanic methods and ethics, while maintaining their own independent spirituality, which comes from learning directly from the compassionate spirits. Send us your practice-related questions for consideration for Polestar. Use our CONTACT FORM, and put “Polestar” in the subject line.