Shamanism is a term used to describe a type of religious practice. The term was coined from practices found in Siberia. However, today the term is most commonly used to refer to Native American practices.
Because shamanic practices are used within many different tribes, only general statements can be made about shamanism itself. Rituals, spirit names and so forth will vary widely from tribe to tribe.
Animistic WorldviewShamans exist in animistic religions, meaning that they believe that the spirit world and physical worlds are closely linked, and that various things in the physical world have spirit world counterparts. One might be able to speak to the spirit of bear or coyote, for example, or even the spirit of a specific river or mountain.
The nature of these spirits closely resembles the nature of their physical counterparts. A bear spirit is strong, while a mountain spirit is ancient and enduring, for example.
Walker Between WorldsThe shaman provides a vital role within the tribe, acting as an intermediary between the physical world and spirit world. Sometimes the spirits are mainly approached when favor is needed, such as providing healing to a tribe member. In other tribes, most commonly where survival is hardest, spirits are viewed as capricious and need constant appeasing.
The shaman possesses the ability to travel between the worlds. There he may face tricks, traps and spiritual attacks as he searches for the appropriate spirit and negotiates for its goodwill. Then he must find his way back. These journeys are widely considered as dangerous, with the shaman's soul in real danger of becoming lost and unable to find its way back to his body.
Becoming a ShamanOne does not simply choose to be a shaman. In many cultures, a person is only trained to be a shaman after experiencing a specific event which indicates their connection with the spirit world. In some cases, the prerequisites are certain types of dreams. These cultures place a lot of value on dreams as a connection between the spirit world in general, and much of a shaman's connection with the spirit world is through dreaming.
Another indication of a shaman's abilities is surviving a deeply traumatic, near-death experience, something that would change the person's behavior and outlook throughout his life. It is understood that such a person would have gained a glimpse of the spirit world and perhaps that it the spirits who allowed him to return.
After displaying one of these experiences, a shaman is generally trained under a more experienced shaman for many years to understand the lore and rituals, as well as how to more safely travel the spirit world. In some cases, the training comes first, without a specific experience marking the potential shaman. In this case, at some point the trainee will still need to have such an experience, although it might be brought on by ecstatic trance work or through chemical means.
GendersBoth male and female shamans can be found throughout the world. However, each tribe has its own understandings of who is an appropriate shaman. Some allow both genders, while some have only one or the other. Some allow both but tend most often to have one or the other.
Position in the Community Some shamans are well integrated into the community, living among them day-to-day. Some even participate in other community roles, such as hunting, particularly in areas where the tribe needs everyone to contribute to basic physical survival.
Other shamans, however, are viewed as outsiders, living outside the main camp on his own, although often having as assistant or shaman-in-training with him. His contact with the spirit world makes him unlike the rest of the tribe. He is more a part of the wilderness, in many ways more animal than human. These isolated shamans survive on what they can forage as well as the payments received for their services.
Some shamans are seen as primarily beneficial, with their powers focused on bringing blessings to the community. Shamans in other cultures are viewed as having powers to both hurt and heal. This is particularly the case when shamans live more isolated from the community. In these cases, shamans often offer protection from the possible curses of other shamans. If the tribe can be convinced of a shaman's magical actions against the community, he can be exiled or executed.