When the world was still young and the Gods still walked among the people, the healing arts still fell under the domain of the sacred. Back at those distant beginnings of history the people still regarded themselves as a part of a magical universe, in which 'dead matter' was an unknown concept. The natural world was alive with supernatural beings and each animal, plant, rock, tree, mountain or spring was endowed with its own spirit, some friendly, some unfriendly. Even long dead ancestors were a force to be reckoned with. To keep the universe in balance and avert disasters, it was important to maintain a harmonious relationship with all the spiritual powers of this magical world. If the universe slipped out of equilibrium, disease or disaster were bound to ensue. It was the task of the shaman to readjust the cosmic balance if ever it threatened to become unstable. A shaman denotes an expert in spiritual matters who is adept at traveling between the different dimensions of existence and knows how to communicate or fight against demons and spirits. He is the link and messenger between the world of wo/man and the world of the Gods.
Shamanism is indeed as old as mankind. In many societies it continues as a living tradition to this day, yet, it is often poorly understood. In recent years shamanism has attracted much attention among the younger generations, particularly among 'psychonauts' and lost souls in search of a spiritual home. However, shamanism is not, as some mistakenly believe, a religion or some kind of mystical path. There is a deep gulf between ancient and modern practices and it seems necessary to draw certain distinctions. Traditional shamanism has nothing whatsoever to do with new ageism or neo-paganism and cannot be taught or learnt at a weekend workshop, though no doubt such practices or workshops may have their own merits.
Today the word ‘shaman’ is often loosely used to denote a ‘witch doctor’, ‘medicine man’ or ‘sorcerer’, yet, such uses of the term are misleading. Originally the word was borrowed from the Tungus language and literally means ‘to shake’, or ‘to fall into trance’. It referred to a type of Siberian holy man who could enter and leave a state of trance at will and who did so in order to access the supernatural world. Since the practice of ’shamanism‘ is a trans-cultural phenomenon the term is now used more universally and describes a person of any cultural background, who employs a technique of divine ecstasy or trance for magico-religious purposes.
In most traditional tribal contexts the skills and techniques of shamanic practices are passed on through the family line: from father to son or mother to daughter. Sometimes the Gods themselves ‘choose’ a candidate by giving him or her special ‘initiation’ experiences. These often come in the form of serious illness or near death experiences. In traditional societies shamanic knowledge is never pursued for glamour, riches or fame, nor for spiritual enlightenment. It is not a devotional practice and it does not rely on the principle of faith. Shamanism is a very active practice and can at times be rather dangerous or even violent. It demands special qualities of the candidate, the first of which is self-sacrifice (as opposed to new age practices, which emphasize self-realization). It is a calling that must be heeded, as an obligation to one's community. It is an unavoidable task. Often it brings social isolation, since those who converse with the spirits possess special powers, powers that can be dangerous, and which inspire both awe and fear. Traditionally it is against the ethics of shamanism to charge money for spiritual services, though an appropriate gift exchange usually does take place. But in order to earn his living, the shaman must tend his herds or fields besides performing his spiritual tasks.
Healing is one of the tasks of a shaman, especially where supernatural causes are suspected. The diseased person may be under attack from evil spirits caused by jealousy, grief, avarice or guilt, he may have lost his spiritual balance or his soul may have become displaced or confused. In modern lingo we might speak of psychological imbalances. In modern societies, the traditional role of the shaman has been transferred to and divided between doctors, priests and psychotherapists. However, unlike their modern equivalents, the shaman recognizes the fundamental unity between body, spirit and soul. He recognizes the fact that the causes of physical symptoms must be sought in the spiritual sphere. ‘Psychosomatic disease’ is a label modern medicine likes to give to certain symptomatic conditions. However, modern medicine rarely actually acknowledges the reality of the soul and its suffering, but instead interprets 'psychosomatic' as basically 'imaginary' and therefore non-existent. In today's materialistic world a human being is reduced to his/her physical components, while the spiritual aspect is simply denied. There is usually no attempt to treat the soul. Instead, it is attempted to treat the physical symptom and suppress the feelings of emotional distress with ‘relaxants’ or ‘anti-depressants’.
The shaman on the other hand does not focus on the physical symptom, but instead seeks their causes in the spiritual world. The treatment consists of a ritual or series of rituals, which places the patient at the symbolic centre of the universe and attempts to re-establish the psycho-spiritual equilibrium. The shaman enters a trance. He finds the underlying cause of trouble and the means of treating or neutralizing them. Sometimes this implies a spiritual battle with the demons of disease; sometimes he has to search for a lost soul, which may have become displaced, e.g. due to emotional shock etc. and he has to coax it to return with him to its rightful physical body. Sometimes he has to transfer or banish intruding spirits, which may manifest themselves as irrational fear or depression.
Depending on the cultural background, the shaman employs a variety of techniques to enter the healing trance. Chanting, drumming and dancing are frequently encountered. Entheogenic substances also play an important role as mediators between the upper and lower worlds. Siberian shamans were well known for their use of fly agaric mushrooms while in the Amazon a psychotropic liana, Banisteriopsis caapii is used as the magical healing plant. The methods and techniques differ depending on the cultural context, but the principles remain the same.
In some cultures the shaman also knows and uses healing herbs, whilst in others herbal treatments are carried out by herbalists, who usually are not shamans. When the shaman uses herbs in the healing ritual, he may give these to the patient, consume them himself, or he may simply invoke the spirit of the healing plant. The healing session often begins with some form of inner and outer cleansing, fasting or abstaining from certain foods, or induced sweating or vomiting as a means of helping to rid the patient of stagnant emotional debris, that could hinder the growth and development of his soul. Sometimes the shaman 'draws' the intruding force out of the patients body with a strong element of drama. Western scientists have often taken such drama as 'proof' that shamanism is little more than quackery and mumbo jumbo. What they fail to realize is the impressionability of the psyche. By personalizing harmful emotions such as excessive fear, hate or jealousy as demons the patient has a chance to dissociate himself from them and participate in his own psychodrama, batteling as it were with the shaman to extract and bannish the demons that are causing the anguish. Likewise, when plants are involved in the healing ritual less emphasis is placed on any 'active ingredients' of a particular botanical remedy than on setting the emotional conditions for healing to take place. The healing ritual can take one or several sessions and sometimes involves not just the individual but his whole family or clan. The crucial point is the co-operation between shaman, patient and community to help an individual regain his psycho-spiritual balance as opposed to western systems of medicine in which patients are expected to assume a passive role while the doctor wields absolute power.
For a long time shamanism was too obscure and incomprehensible to modern scientists to be taken seriously. In western societies it still is, though in some more traditional societies medical doctors and shamans are attempting to work together. There are some things pills just won't cure, and equally, there are certain conditions where modern medicine has the most effective remedies. The wisdom of a true healer lies in knowing his or her own limits.
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