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2. What is Shamanism?




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This article is from the Shamanism FAQ, by Dean Edwards deane@netcom.com with numerous contributions by others.

2. What is Shamanism?

Shamanism is classified by anthropologists as an archaic
magico-religious phenomenon in which the shaman is the great master
of ecstasy. Shamanism itself, was defined by the late Mircea Eliade
as a technique of ecstasy. A shaman may exhibit a particular magical
specialty (such as control over fire, wind or magical flight). When a
specialization is present the most common is as a healer. The
distinguishing characteristic of shamanism is its focus on an
ecstatic trance state in which the soul of the shaman is believed to
leave the body and ascend to the sky (heavens) or descend into the
earth (underworld). The shaman makes use of spirit helpers, with
whom he or she communicates, all the while retaining control over
his or her own consciousness. (Examples of possession occur, but
are the exception, rather than the rule.) It is also important to
note that while most shamans in traditional societies are men,
either women or men may and have become shamans.

There are a number of relatively common practices and experiences in
traditional shamanism which are being investigated by modern
researchers. While the older traditional practices are ignored by
some researchers, others have begun to explore these older techniques.
The emergence of the new field of the 'anthropology of consciousness'
and the establishment of Transpersonal Psychology as a "Fourth Force"
in psychology have opened up the investigation of research into the
nature and history of consciousness in ways not previously possible.
Outside of academic circles a growing number of people have begun to
make serious inquiries into ancient shamanic techniques for entering
into altered states of consciousness.

Traditional shamans developed techniques for lucid dreaming and what
is today called the out-of-the-body experience (oobe). These methods
for exploring the inner landscape are being investigated by a wide
range of people. Some are academics, some come from traditional
societies and others are modern practitioners of non-traditional
shamanism or neo-shamanism. Along with these techniques, the NDE
or near-death-experience have played a significant role in shamanic
practice and initiation for millenia. There is extensive document-
ation of this in ethnographic studies of traditional shamanism. With
this renewed interest in these older traditions these shamanic
methods of working with dreams and being conscious and awake while
dreaming are receiving increased attention. (Additional information
about the out-of-body experience may be found in Jouni Smed's faq
alt.out-of-body FAQ.)

The ability to consciously move beyond the physical body is the
particular specialty of the traditional shaman. These journeys of
Soul may take the shaman into the nether realms, higher levels of
existence or to parallel physical worlds or other regions of this
world. Shamanic Flight, is in most instances, an experience not
of an inner imaginary landscape, but is reported to be the shamans
flight beyond the limitations of the physical body.

As noted in this article, the Call to shamanize is often directly
related to a near death experience by the prospective shaman. Among
the traditional examples are being struck by lightening, a fall from
a height, a serious life-threatening illness or lucid dream
experiences in which the candidate dies or has some organs consumed
and replaced and is thus reborn. Survival of these initial inner and
outer brushes with death provides the shaman with personal experiences
which strengthen his or her ability to work effectively with others.
Having experienced something, a shaman is more likely to understand
what must be done to correct a condition or situation.

Post-Shamanic: While shamanism may be readily identified among
many hunding and gathering peoples and in some traditional herding
societies, identifying specific groups of individuals who might be
called shamans is a difficult task in more stratified agricultural
and manufacturing based societies. A society may be said to be Post-
Shamanic when there are the presence of shamanic motifs in its
traditional folklore or spiritual practices indicate a clear pattern
of traditions of ascent into the heavens, descent into the nether-
worlds, movement between this world and a parallel Otherworld, are
present in its history. Such a society or tradition may have become
very specialized and recombined aspects of mysticism, prophecy and
shamanism into more specialized or more 'fully developed' practices
and may have assigned those to highly specialized functionaries. When
such practices and functionaries are present or have teplaced the
traditional shamans found in historical or traditional shamanism the
use of Post-shamanic is appropriate.
Dean Edwards (deane@netcom.com) (August, 1995)

More specifically, a society may be said to be Post-Shamanic when
at least 6 of the following 8 conditions have been met:

a. Shamanic ecstasy is still present, but light trance techniques
are also used to access the Otherworld.

b. Agriculture and some forms of manufacturing/crafts have replaced
hunting and gathering as the primary basis for the economic life of
the community.

c.The society has developed a highly stratified social structure and
very specialized occupations.

d. Religion and spiritual methodology has become more fully developed
and can no longer be properly referred to as 'archaic'. This is
expecially important for rituals, ceremonies and ecstatic techniques
which had traditionally been the domain of the shamans.

e. Mystical ecstasy and unitive visions have become at least as
important esoteric experiences and doctrines as shamanic ecstasy,
ascension and descent in the religious and spiritual life of the
community.

f. The shaman is no longer the primary escort for the souls of
the dead into their place in the next world (psychopomp). This
role generally either passes onto the priestcraft or clergy to
perform through ritual, is an object of individual or group
prayer, or is beleived to be done by gods of guardian spirits,
angels or demons.

g. A professional clergy is present which regulates the religious life
of the community.

h. Other forms of healing, divining and counseling are present
have replaced shamans as the primary source of such services.

Post-shamanic motifs are found among many Indo-Eruopean, Asian,
African and some native peoples of North America. The use of
Post-Shamanic as a term makes examination of these parallel traditons
and possible survivals of earlier shamanic traditions easier.

 

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