What Is Shamanism

Since humans first sat around a fire in a cave or looked up at the nighttime sky, they wondered about their World and their place in it. “There must be some big Beings up there who made all this”, they might say, and they would think that to be in the good graces of those Beings would be an important thing.

Not just the Beings in the Sky but the Spirits of the animals around them, especially powerful animals like the cave bear or saber tooth lion. Things hunted us then. Nature wasn’t something that meekly bowed down to our dominance.

But how ask these powerful forces to be our friends and allies?

Among those first tribes of the Neolithic would have been people with the gift and calling of looking deeper into the shadows and the lights of that World. To see the rhythm and rhyme of the plants, animals and natural World. Which herbs healed and which poisoned, which animals to be hunted and which would hunt you, where it was safe to rest and where it wasn’t.

Slowly those seekers would also discover the ways to contact the spirits around them, to learn the ways to ask for their help and their knowledge. Having such a person among your group would bring a great advantage and those people would have been respected (and sometimes feared).

We call those people now, “Shamans”.


What is a Shaman?

Priest, Medicine Man (or Woman), Healer, Witch, Magician, Wizard, Shaman.

People tend to use these names interchangeably, when each of those names refers to a more specific skill set. A Healer might be a Shaman, but not all Shamans are Healers. A Witch might be a Medicine Woman but not all Medicine Women are Witches.

Greer would say define your terms first so that there is no confusion later.

The name “shaman” actual comes from the Tungusic language of Siberia. It was picked up by archaeologists and scientists to describe the broad type of person in a tribal setting which used a mystical method to assist the tribe. Not all of those people were what I define as shamans.

Laypeople and the Media began using this term, especially in the 1980’s here in the United States when the popular attention on North American Indian culture and spiritually hit, think the movie “Dances With Wolves” or the film “Clan of the Cave Bear”.

Its use though to describe all mystical roles in tribal culture would be wrong.

For the purpose of this blog, I will define a “shaman” as someone who specifically communicates with the Spirits. Who learns what the Spirits want from us, learns how the Spirits wish to interact with us and learns how to placate these Spirits and seek their help.

Greer has mentioned many times that he believe there are non-human and non-corporal beings who inhabit our World along side us. From my own experiences I believe this too. Call them spirits, ghosts, avatars, angels or demons, perhaps even Gods, these beings interact with humans in many ways, from the mundane to the sacred, sometimes completely ignoring us to other times completely possessing our lives. They can be as simple as a guardian spirit of a home to deities worshiped by millions.

Our ancestors knew that these beings existed, they knew that these spirits could bring benefit and could bring harm. They came to depend on the specialized knowledge and skills of shamans to help smooth the interaction between them and these beings. Its only in the last few hundred years that Science has managed to convince people that this isn’t true.

Science is mistaken.

So too is Religion mistaken, in that modern religions dismiss non-corporal beings mostly out of hand as not existing, or only recognizes their existence within the frame work of that religion’s hierarchy. Spirits worshiped by Pagan religions became Saints. Yuletide and the celebration of the Winter Solstice became Santa Claus and Christmas.

When Science rose during the Renaissance, it made a marriage of convenience with Religion to stamp out Magic. They divided up Reality and agreed not to step into the other’s sphere of influence. Science, Religion and Magic is like the sides of a coin. Religion and Science are the faces, yet Magic is the edge which binds them. To not recognize the importance of all three is to deny a fundamental part of everything.

Just because you claim something doesn’t exist, doesn’t always mean it goes away.

I do think though that many of those same non-corporal beings have learned to adapt themselves to the predominate religions which humans practice at any given time. So a fertility god might morph into a Patron Saint of Marriage, co-opting the attention and the worship of new followers. Why? That’s a good question. Personally I think such non-corporal beings feed on our attention and our worship but I don’t honestly know.

Its lonely when no one recognizes you. Must be even lonelier when you were once a god.

Though that might be simplistic too. I share my home with several cats, and I can say without a doubt that my role to them is not just putting food and water out for them. They derive pleasure it seems in being with me as I do with them. So our interaction is much more than just sustenance. Maybe its the same with Spirits? With Spirits though, its hard to tell which of us is owner and which of us is the pet.

It doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is how beneficial the relationship is. I may be a asshole sometimes with you BUT if I have your back in emergencies then the relationship benefits you.

Working with Spirits is complicated…

Some Further Definitions

For purposes of further discussion, let me define some other roles. You may disagree with my definitions but for the purposes of the next few posts, this is mine.

“Priest” is someone who mediates between a dominate God or Goddess and their worshipers. This can be for minor spirits or ones that command the worship of millions. Usually once someone takes the mantle of “Priest” the interaction between the spirit and its worshipers becomes in some way formalized, with recognized rites and rituals.

Personally at this point, I think its hard for the normal person to attract their God’s attention and actually have an interaction with them. You can still invoke their power but in a much more subdued way, with a corresponding drop in power.

To get any amount of reciprocal benefit, you may have to seek other gods to worship. Or you can choose to worship their opposition. Satanism as an example. Standing out in a huge crowd is difficult but how many of us need their Deity to recognize them personally?

And yet like the spirits Moon and Sun, large spirits of power can and do single out individual worshipers for their attention.

“Witch” or its male counterpart “Warlock” is a priest of the Heathen or Pagan religion. Worship and veneration of the “Goddess”. In many ways they are the same as Priests though Christian priests have forgotten their active mystical power. Maybe that is why we all take tales of Exorcists of such interest. Witches are often Healers and Shamans too.

In reference to dominance of a religious discussion, “Magician” refers to a spiritual worker who uses a dominate religion’s template in their rituals. Like 18th century magicians using wards and pentagrams to bind and constrain Christian demons with a controlling relationship. Magicians are ceremonial and often put the human in the equation at the apex of the power relationship. Is this shamanism? I don’t think it is, yet it is one viable mystical practice which can involve spirits.

This name can also refer to mystical practitioners who diminish the role of non-corporal beings into artifices of the Will or the archetype energy forms of human creation. Do you have to believe in the existence of non-corporal beings to use mystical means to affect your reality? No you don’t but I believe you cut yourself off from a powerful ally when you do.

“Healer” or “Medicine Man (or Woman)” are usually community based wellness practitioners focused on close relationships and individual outcomes. They use their knowledge of herbs, plant based medicines and change of lifestyle actions to cure sickness and promote good health. Unfortunately they are often the first persons to be targeted when a major religion feels threatened because they don’t have a power base to push back from.

“Wizard” to me is someone less worried about how they access power and where it comes from as “does it work”. They are kind of the garage mechanics of spiritual work. Roll up your sleeves and get some grease on your face. They are the closest to my idea of Green Wizardry. People focused on results not spiritual political correctness.

“Sorcerers” are like Wizards but have a more personal focus, and often seek personal power over others and their environment. To me there is a bit of darkness to sorcerers.

Both can be as powerful as Shamans, yet often lack a grounded relationship with their power that comes from recognizing that your source comes from a distinct living entity. You can write about love when you don’t have a lover but without the true depth that such a relationship brings.

Now while I will define a Shaman as one who works with Spirits, that doesn’t mean I think people who pursue training as a Shaman should stop there. A good Shaman learns many other skills, not the least of them Healing and Herbalism.

Are these definition set in stone, of course not. You may disagree with my definitions and still learn something from this series of articles. I’m simply telling you what I mean when I say the things I say.

We will explore what I’ve learned as a shaman in further posts…

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