What is Shamanism?


Shamanism (from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman, which means “to know”) is one of humanity’s oldest religious practices which centers on a shaman who consumes mind altering substances and who is believed by others in the community to possess spiritual power and wisdom. Shamanic practices are accompanied by ecstatic religious behaviours and experiences. 

Shamanic beliefs and rituals have been held and practiced in many historical communities including those found in Africa (the San), Australasia (the Aborigines) Europe (the Vikings), North America (the American Indians), and Asia (the Khanty and Mansi). The Viking people practiced certain forms of shamanic divination and shamanic elements appear in medieval myths of the Norse god Odin.

Shaman practices, closely linked to animism, were based on the belief that that spirits could be influenced by shamans, special men and women believed to possess power and wisdom. These men and women could act as intermediaries between the human world and the spirit world, and through entering into altered states of consciousness, shamans could travel to other worlds and interact with the spirits living there. They would bargain with these spirits as a means to gain insight into the future, assistance for hardship, and remedies for the sick. As such, shaman’s have engaged the spirit world largely out of the care for others in the material world. Shamans have also been referred to using different terms, including “witch doctors” (particularly in Africa) and “medicine men” (in North America).

The longest recorded history of shamanism is found in the Sami people of northern Europe. The Sami are semi-nomadic reindeer herders and coastal fishers who cultivated a fully shamanic religion all the way into the eighteenth century CE. They believed that the shamans (referred to as noaidi) could be called or chosen by spirits, and that they had helping spirits in the form of animals. These animals included bears, wolves, reindeer, and fish of whom the shaman would imitate when entering into a trance. This imitation occurred through a process of interior transformation as opposed to any external and visible change.

A Sami shaman would go through intense physical deprivation by working naked in cold Arctic temperatures. They made use of the sacred “rune” drum and its rhythmic beat to make contact with the spirit world. The drums were decorated with images of three realms: the world of the gods above, the world of the dead below, and the world inhabited by humans (the Earth), which are all connected by the World Tree. The third step for entering into a trance was for the shaman to ingest a psychotropic (mind-altering) mushroom. After taking the mushroom the shaman would fall into a trance and become rigid and immobile, as if dead. During this process, male Sami guarded the shaman while the women sung songs they believed would help the shaman find his way home through the realms. However, stories are told of Sami shamans who never returned from the other realm.


Ambalu, S. et al. The Religions Book. p. 28-29



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