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Shamanism Jesse Seegars Ms. Robinson-Heyward Sociology 101 26 April 2007
Perspective • In this analysis, the role of shamans and shamanism will be discussed from the structural functionalist perspective in order to expound upon their place in ancient and modern society and show the part they play in various world cultures.
What is shamanism? • Shamanism is “a deeply rooted traditional system for healing and solving personal and community problems, in which a spiritual or healing practitioner, called a shaman, contacts spirits for wisdom and advice, usually by going into an altered state of consciousness.” It is important to note that shamanism itself is not a religion, but a practice that is found in religious systems the world over. http://www.daanvankampenhout.com/english/sjamanisme_eng/index.htm
Where is shamanism? • Shamanism is a practice common to every part of the world. • Today it is most prominent among Native Americans, tribal societies such as those found in tropical rainforests, and regions of Asia such as Mongolia and Siberia. Buryat Mongol Shaman
The shaman • A shaman is a person who, through heredity or spiritual calling, possesses the ability to travel to spiritual planes in order to contact gods, ancestors, and spirits for the purposes of healing, acquiring knowledge, etc. • How a person becomes a shaman varies among cultures. Some gain the position via hereditary lines. Others are selected because of some sickness such as seizures. One might also be selected as a shaman by the gods or spirits who reveal their desire through dreams or natural phenomena like lightning.
How shamans operate • A shaman serves his or her community by traveling to the “Otherworld” and, once there, either battling the evil spirits which do harm, or working with the good spirits in order to bring blessings.
Spirits • “Spirit” is a broad term which encompasses any non-corporeal entity with which a shaman associates. These spirits are one of the fundamental components of shamanism, as they are seen as the cause of most problems as well as the bringers of blessings. It is the shaman’s job to work with the entities for the benefit of his or her people. • The shaman will work not only in the spirit world, but also in the physical through offerings, prayers, rituals, and the building of special altars. A Mongolian shaman constructing an Ovoo which is a shrine built in honor of spirits
Totems • One of the best known aspects of shamanism is totemism. • A totem is the spirit of any natural thing (generally animals and plants) which a person or group of people claim as theirs. • A totem will guide and help the shaman on his/her journeys and will serve as a protector when he/she faces danger.
Journeying • Journeying, also known as “spirit flight”, is the method by which a shaman travels to the Otherworld • This is a method of attaining an altered state of consciousness in which the shaman’s soul is thought to be freed from its body to walk in the spirit world.
How trance is achieved • A skilled shaman is able to slip into a trance at will. Sometimes, however, special tools are used to aid in reaching this state. These tools include: • Drums and rattles • Chanting and singing • Dancing • The use of sacred (often hallucinogenic plants)
Medium • The shaman’s primary job has always been that of an intermediary between the worlds. It is the duty of the shaman to act as a mouthpiece for the various gods, ancestors, and spirits. It is through the shaman that their message is brought to humans. • If a shaman does not possess the ability to communicate with the spirits then he or she may not be eligible to become a shaman (even if it is a hereditary title). If, however, a candidate is accepted (generally due to the imminent death of the old shaman with no desirable successor), he/she is not looked at as a full shaman.
Healer • The role of medium also extends to another central practice of shamanism – healing. Often referred to (although somewhat erroneously) as “medicine men/women”, the shaman acts a healer and spiritual counselor for many ailment, physical, spiritual, and psychological. By traveling in the spirit worlds, the healer is able to determine what is causing the patient’s illness and can draw out the malevolent spirit and, afterwards, ask the benign spirits to speed the client’s recovery, as well as to protect him or her from future attacks. • Sometimes, however, the illness is determined to have been caused not by ill-intending spirits, but by the gods or ancestors because of some offense done by the client. It then becomes the shaman’s job to argue on his/her client’s behalf to find out what the person has done and what actions should be taken to make amends. Mary Louie – a well known healer of the Snoqualmie tribe ca 1900
Soul fragmentation • Another common affliction is a condition known as having a shattered or fragmented soul. It is believed among many shamanistic cultures (including the Teleut, Buryat, and Chukchee), that when a person becomes severely ill or experiences great trauma one or more pieces of their soul will break away and wander in the Otherworld. The shaman, being the only person in the society capable of making “spirit flights”, will then, with the aid of his or her spirit helpers, search the Otherworld to find these fragments and return them to the person who is in need of healing, thereby curing them of their problem.
Psychopomp • A psychopomp is one who comforts the soul of a dying person and, when death occurs, guides them to “the other side.” A psychopomp also has the ability to search for lost souls in order to bring them back to this world, similar to soul retrieval. • It is believed that when death occurs, the soul may sometimes become confused or caught in a kind of limbo. The shaman must then journey to this limbo in order to find the spirit and help it move on.
Magician • As magicians, shamans are expected to use their gifts to the benefit of their community. This includes things such as bringing fertility to the crops and/or animals, influencing the weather to bring rain in times of drought or to stop storms if there is flooding, coercing the spirits of animals to give up their lives to hunters so that the tribe may eat, and working against enemy shamans and groups who may be working to usurp their land. The ways in which shamans go about this vary depending on the shaman and the tradition. Some will use something similar to mana, “a sacred impersonal force existing in the universe” (Kottak 1996), which certain people can harness and direct in conformity with their will in order to affect the world around them. Others will use methods like those discussed previously, petitioning the gods/spirits of the rain, the land, etc. in order to gain their blessings.
Diviner • In order to divine the future for his or her tribe, a shaman will, of course, seek knowledge from the deities/spirits/ancestors to learn what is in store for them, frequently becoming a mouthpiece for the gods and prophesying in an oracular manner. This, however, is (as in most cases) not the only method employed. Shamans are often adept in one or more forms of divination particular to their culture exemplified by the use of bones among the Yukagir. • In modern cultures, runes and tarot cards have become an acceptable way for shamans to come by glimpses of what is to come. Also in the shaman’s repertoire is the ability to interpret various signs and omens such as the flight patterns of birds.
Religious figure • As a person of religion, the shaman is the common man’s direct link to the divine and is, therefore, often turned to for advice in spiritual matters. It is generally thought to be part of the shaman’s duty to guide those who come to him/her in the way the spirits guide them. It is not, however, within his or her job description to be a religious leader, as is a common misconception. Shamans are not in place to dictate spiritual rules to the people of their communities. Their purpose is that of a teacher (although their teaching is often limited to those deemed worthy) and a guide. Rather than dictate what a person must do concerning his or her religious belief, the shaman will generally offer just enough advice for the inquirer to be able to come up with the answer for themselves, rather than have the path presented to them.
Shamanic specialization • Frequently, when a group has more than one shaman, some will choose to work to develop a specialized skill. Areas of specialization include: Drumming, weather manipulation, divination, and healing. • http://www.wildspeak.com/vilturr/deities/weatherethics.html
Modern shamanism • There are many cultures in the world today, ranging from hunter/gatherers to pastoralists and agricultural societies, where modern people still look to shamans as a source of spiritual aid. There are even people in the most “civilized” countries such as England and the United States who operate as shamans within the constructs of typical western society. On almost every continent there are shamans who are still practicing much the same way their ancestors did. Many of these are more tribal (like those living in the rainforests of South America), but even in modern cities there is a resurgence of shamanic practices by groups such as the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and the Institute for Contemporary Shamanic Studies whose students operate within systems similar to traditional shamans http://www.philhine.org.uk/writings/ess_touching.html Modern Uranian Shaman
Role variation over time and distance • The roles of shamans has remained the same throughout • every culture in which they are found. • j • Shamans are also performing the same tasks today that they were 10,000 years ago • A few minor changes have been made, such as the dress code. Today one might find a shaman in a business suit and tie just as easily as in deer skin and eagle feathers. Shamans in industrial societies also tend to work a bit more within the constructs of modern science, seeing techniques such as soul retrieval as useful aids in reunifying all parts of a person, helping them to feel happy and complete within themselves, rather than thinking that a malevolent spirit has carried away a piece of the person’s soul. Shaman of Trois Freres