What Is A Shaman?

While “shaman” is a very specific word, morphed from a very specific language, in English-speaking contemporary cultures it has come to symbolize the archetypal aspect of this embodiment we call ‘shamanism’- the aspect that is universal and exists in all shamanic cultures, regardless of what name they have for the role within their culture. So I am using the term here to describe the archetype, and not the cultural stereotype.

Simply put, a shaman is someone who mediates or bridges between this material realm and the realm of the Spirits for the specific benefit of the community and individuals within the community. Most shamans are psychics, mediums, oracles, mystics, and mages. But these ‘abilities’ are interwoven in all the services a shaman provides, so the shaman rarely identifies these aspects of the practice as being separate from “the work.” In other words, how a shaman works is vastly different than someone who identifies as a professional psychic, for example- each uses their ‘ability’ in a distinct way.

But there’s more to being a shaman than being a psychic, a medium, and oracle. Modern shamanism requires a soul-tending, that the shaman be adept at re-connecting the broken lineages and practices, and tends to the brokenness in a healing way, a soulful way. The professional role that is the most similar to that of the modern shaman is chaplaincy, in my opinion. However, the fundamental aspect of shamanism that distinguishes it from other professional roles (psychotherapy, social work, personal coaching, midwifery, hospice work, pharmacist, doctor, etc.) is that the shaman intercedes in the spiritual realms, more than in just prayer (sending), but also in altering consciousness in order to receive information directly from the spiritual realms, and to work with helping and ancestral Spirits. It is this unique relationship with the Spirits and the work done in the spiritual realm that sets shamanism apart from other helping professionals. But contemporary shamanism will be different than archaic shamanism in some key ways. A common misunderstanding in North America is that a shaman is someone who practices or represents Native American spirituality. While some shamans choose to learn from the First Peoples and have the blessing to share the ceremonies and traditions of the First Peoples, generally Native American tribes were not shamanic- they tend to be, however,  ‘medicine cultures’, steeped in ceremonial traditions intended to maintain and restore health and wholeness in all the ways.

The Shaman As A Role

Shamanism dates back thousands of years, and the role of shaman is found within many cultures. The role of the shaman was integral to the health and functioning of the community. Terence McKenna said:

The shaman is the figure at the beginning of human history that unites the doctor, the scientist and the artist into a single notion of care-giving and creativity.

While some people have referred to shamanism as a religion, there is no central belief system (beyond animism), no dogma, no holy book or set of artifacts which serve as the iconography. Shamanism is both dependent on culture and transcends it. In other words, each culture will have specific beliefs, dogmas, icons and relics that support the expression of their spiritual traditions through the shamanic practice, but in the archetypal view of shamanism it does not resemble a religion. Michael Harner was emphatic that shamanism is not a belief system or a faith:

Shamanism is a path of knowledge, not a faith, and that knowledge cannot come from me or anyone else in this reality. To acquire that knowledge, including the knowledge of the reality of the spirits, it is necessary to step through the shaman’s doorway and acquire empirical evidence. 

Because the United States and other Westernized cultures have largely lost or become disconnected from their shamanic lineages, we have become confused and often fearful of what shamanism is. People can be especially fearful of the spiritism that is foundational to shamanism, and the Judeo-Christian influences have demonized shamanism, equating it with sorcery. But in indigenous and ancient cultures animism was the way in which humans understood and related to the material world around them. It was the way for them to connect with God and understand their spiritual dimensions and experiences. And it was the primary way they gathered information about things that were happening. It was essential to their survival. Imagine not having a doctor to see or a pharmacy to go to for a life-saving medication! How did humans know which plants would cure what conditions? In a vast jungle of various flora and fauna, it would be impossible to narrow this initial discovery down to a reasonable few plants. They had to be directed by higher forces, unseen forces. And so animism is integral to shamanism and nearly all shamanic cultures are animistic. However, it is not the case in reverse- not all animistic cultures are shamanistic. They may have had medicine men or women, holy men or women, elders, storytellers and wisdom-keepers, but they didn’t all have the specific role of shaman.

Sometimes it’s easier to define what something is by defining what it is not. A shaman is not someone inherently more ‘gifted’ or special. In some indigenous cultures the role of shaman was not coveted and was often seen as the least desirable role in the community because it meant a very difficult and dangerous life path.  But it’s important to realize that in most tribal cultures people live communally and they often subsist. So they share all their resources with one another, and each role in the community is of equal stature. The path of the shaman is a path of service and sacrifice.

The inherent difference between a shaman and a sorcerer (from a shaman’s point of view) is humility and service- service to humanity. A shaman is motivated by the desire to decrease pain and suffering in the world. A sorcerer is motivated by self-interest and will use the shamanic techniques and knowledge to manipulate others for their own gain or the gain of their tribe. The differences can be subtle, but discernment can ferret out those with a pure heart.

There is no doubt we are living in tumultuous times. Sorcery is rampant. And there has been a rapid resurgence of shamanism in answer to the deep call of humanity, as we collectively try to find a way forward. In this sense modern shamans in post-industrialized cultures not only bridge the Spirit world with the material world, they also serve as a bridge with the past, while leading forward into a more soulful and connected way of living.

The Shaman As A Human

While shamans perform a specific and distinct role and are essentially trained in the techniques and cultural practices required in fulfilling that role, there is also a unique system by which a shaman is chosen to be the shaman. While some make claim that the shaman is not human, I personally do not identify with that. In fact, I think the shaman often leans the furthest into her humanity and human experience, transmuting that into wisdom and healing. It certainly is this way for Westernized shamans. The personal psychospiritual development of the shaman, this mastery of self, the path to finding the lapis philosophorum seems to be the way of the modern shaman. In his highly respected work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade said of the shamanic character:

The primitive magician, the medicine man or shaman is not only a sick man, he is above all a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself.

According to Andrew Camargo at The School of Modern Soul Science there are distinct facets of the shamanic archetype. If you are interested and want to learn more, I encourage you to explore The School of Modern Soul Science website. I have listed and briefly identified all the shamanic archetype facets here. Keep in mind that no individual will likely embody every one of the facets, and identifying with one or more does not necessarily mean one is a shaman. There is a distinct process one must pass through in order to fully embody the archetype of the shaman. So while the archetype is universal, there is a distinction between a shamanic individual and a shaman.

Part of this distinction falls along the line of whether one is actually in service to the community. A shaman must be fully committed to fulfilling a specific role of service to their community, whereas a shamanic individual is someone who identifies and expresses some of the facets of the shamanic archetype, but may not use those facets specifically in a role of healing.

But in Westernized culture in particular, the Wounded Healer aspect of the shamanic character is extremely important. It’s the fusing of the skills and techniques with the medicine. So while the Spirits do much of the healing, it ought to also be that the shaman herself is a medicine carrier. That is, she is the medicine. Toko-pa Turner offers profound wisdom in this regard. I consider her my mentor, as is Martin Prechtel.

One of my favourite teachings by Martín Prechtel is that violence is an inability with grief. In other words, it takes skillfulness to grieve well, to grieve wholeheartedly. It requires us to bravely, nakedly come to face all that is lost, keeping our hearts open to loving just as fully again.

When we make war, lashing out in rage and revenge, it is because we are unwilling to make this full encounter with grief. It is easy to enact the same violence which has taken so much from us – including towards ourselves – but the greater work is to let that which is missing enlarge your life; to make beauty from your brokenness.”

So this wisdom, this old way of being, of sitting in community, of soul-tending another’s grief and suffering, it is an essential aspect of shamanism in this broken world. And developing that kind of skill usually comes from having been broken oneself.

But equally important, and absolutely central to the initiation and process of becoming a shaman is death. The shaman must have died and been reborn. Perhaps this is a literal physical death, but it can be figurative too. This death experience is more than Ego death. It encompasses all the levels and bodies, and is a total and complete death- a passing over from the material into the spiritual realm. In this way the shaman also carries a death medicine.

Defining a shaman is both simple and very complex. Yet defining shamanism as we reinterpret the role for our modern cultures is absolutely essential and really should be an ongoing conversation among shamanic individuals across the world. This is one of a few reasons I envisioned The Urban Shaman. If you want to understand more deeply and/or want to contribute to the conversation, please come check out our Facebook Page, join our Facebook Group, and see what is unfolding on our website.