What Is Shamanism?

Since the term “shamanism” has been used in a number of ways during the discussions here I thought it might be helpful to present some basic information on shamanism as the inter-disciplinary subject that it has become since Mircea Eliade wrote “Shamanism”.

The following is from the Forward, which explains the approach that Eliade took to study Shamanism as a magico-religious phenomena, and which has been the foundation that shamanism as a spiritual tradition, as well as explaining how other academic disciplines approach the subject.


Originally published in French as “Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaiques de l’extase”, Librairie Payot, Paris, 1951. Revised and enlarged for the Bollinger edition.

To the best of our knowledge the present book is the first to cover the entire phenomenon of shamanism and at the same time to situate it in the general history of religions. To say this is to imply its liability to imperfection and approximation and the risks that it takes. Today the student has at his disposition a considerable quantity of documents for the various shamanisms–Siberian, North American, South American, Indonesian, Oceanian, and so on. Then too, a number of works, important in their several ways have broken ground for the ethnological, sociological, and psychological study of shamanism (or rather, of a particular type of shamanism). But with a few notable exceptions–we refer especially to the studies of Altaic shamanism by Holmberg (Harva)–the immense shamanic bibliography has neglected to interpret this extremely complex phenomenon in the framework of the history of religion. It is as a historian of religions that we, in our turn, have attempted to approach, understand, and present shamanism. Far be it from us to think of belittling the admirable studies undertaken from the viewpoints of psychology, sociology, or ethnology; we consider them indispensable to understanding the various aspects of shamanism. But we believe that there is room for another approach–that which we have sought to implement in the following pages.

The writer who approaches shamanism as a psychologist will be led to regard it as primarily the manifestation of a psyche in crisis or even in retrogression; he will not fail to compare it with certain aberrant psychic behavior patterns or to class it among mental diseases of the hysteroid or epileptoid type.

We shall explain why we consider it unacceptable to assimilate shamanism to any kind of mental disease. But one point remains (and it is an important one), to which the psychologist will always be justified in drawing attention: like any other religious vocation, the shamanic vocation is manifested by a crisis, a temporary derangement of the future shaman’s spiritual equilibrium. All the observations and analyses that have been made on this point are particularly valuable They show us, in actual process as it were, the repercussions, within th epsyche, of what we have called the “dialectic of hierophanies”–the radical separation between profane and sacred and the resulting splitting of the world. To say this is to indicate all the importance that we attribute to such studies in religious psychology.

The sociologist, for his part, is concerned with the social function of the shaman, the priest, the magician. He will study prestige originating from magical powers, its role in the structure of society, the relations between religious and political leaders and so on. A sociological analysis of the myths of the First Shaman will elicit revealing indications concerning the exceptional position of the earliest shamans in certain archaic societies. The sociology of shamanism remains to be written, and it will be among the most important chapters in general sociology of religion. The historian of religions must take all these studies and their conclusions into account. Added to the psychological conditions brought out by the psychologist, the social ocnditions, in the broadest sense of the term, reinforce the element of human and historical concreteness in the documents that he is called upon to handle.

The concreteness will be accented by the studies of the ethnologist. It will be the task of ethnological monographs to situate the shaman in his cultural milieu. There is danger of misunderstanding the true personality of a Chukchee shaman, for example, if one reads of his exploits without knowing anything about the life and traditions of the Chukchee. Again, it will be for the ethnologist to make exhaustive studies of the shaman’s costume and drum, to describe the seances, to record texts and melodies, and so on. By undertaking to establish the “history” of one or another constituent element of shamanism (the drum, for example, or the use of narcotics during seances), the ethnologist–joined when circumstances demand it, by a comparatist and historian–will succeed in showing the circulation of the particular motif in time and space; so far as possible, he will define its center of expansion and the stages and the chronology of its dissemination. In short, the ethnologist will also become a “historian,” whether or not he adopts the Graebner-Schmidt-Koppers method of cultural cycles. In any case, in addition to an admirable purely descriptive ethnographical literature, there are now available numerous works of historical ethnology: in the overwhelming “gray mass” of cultural data stemming from the so-called “a historical” peoples, we now begin to see certain lines of force appearing; we begin to distinguish “history” where we were in the habit of finding only “Naturvolker,” “primitives,” or “savages.”

It is unnecessary to dwell here on the great services that historical ethnology has already rendered to the history of religions. But we do not believe that it can take the place of the history of religions. The latter’s mission is to integrate the results of ethnology, psychology, and sociology. Yet in doing so, it will not renounce its own method of investigation or the viewpoint that specifically defines it. Cultural ethnology may have demonstrated the relation of shamanism to certain cultural cycles, for example, or the dissemination of one or another shamanic complex; yet its object is not to reveal the deeper meaning of all these religious phenomena, to illuminate their symbolism, and to place them in the general history of religions. In the last analysis, it is for the historian of religions to synthesize all the studies of particular aspects of shamanism and to present a comprehensive view which shall be at once a morphology and a history of this complex religious phenomena.

Chapter One, General considerations. Recruiting Methods. Shamanism and Mystical Vocation.

Since the beginning of the century, ethnologists have fallen into the habit of using the terms, “shaman,” “medicine man,” “sorcer,” and “magician” interchangeably to designate certain individuals possessing magico-religious powers and found in all “primitive” societies. By extension, the same terminology has been applied in studying the religious history of “civilized” peoples, and there have been discussions, for example, of an Indian, an Iranian, a Germanic, a Chinese, and even a Babylonian “shamanism” with reference to the “primitive” elements attested in the corresponding religions. For many reasons this confusion can only militate against any understanding of the shamanic phenomenon. If the word “shaman” is taken to mean any magician, sorcerer, medicine man, or ecstatic found throughout the history of religions and religious ethnology, we arrive at a notion at once extremely complex and extremely vague; it seems, furthermore, to serve no purpose, for we already have the terms “magician” or “sorcerer” to express notions as unlike and as ill-defined as “primitive magic” or “primitive mysticism.”

We consider it advantageous to restrict the use of the words “shaman” and “shamanism” precisely to avoid misunderstandings and  to cast a clearer light on the history of “magic” and “sorcery.” For of course, the shaman is also a magician and medicine man; he is believed to cure, like all doctors, and to perform miracles of the fakir type, like all magicians, whether primitive or modern. But beyond this, he is a psychopmp, and he may also be priest, mystic and poet. In the dim, “confusionistic” mass of the religious life of archaic societies considered as a whole, shamanism–taken in its strict and exact sense–already shows a structure of its own and implies a “history” that there is every reason to clarify.

Shamanism in the strict sense is pre-eminently a religious phenomenon of Siberia and Central Asia. The word comes to us, through the Russian, from the Tungusic “saman”. In the other languages of Centeral and North Asia the corresponding terms are Yakut “ojuna” (“oyuna”), Mongolian “buga”, “boga” (“buge”, “bu”) and “udagan” (cf. also Buryat “udayan”, Yukut “udoyan”: “shamaness”)”, Turko-Tartar “kam” (Altaic “kam”, “gam”, Mongolian “kami”, etc.) It has been sought to explain the Tungusic term by the Pali “samana”, and we shall return to this possible etymology (which is part of the great problem of Indian influences on Siberian religions) in the last chapter of this book. Throughout the immense area comprising Central and North Asia, the magico-religious life of society centers on teh shaman. This, of course, does not mean that he is the one and only manipulator of the sacred, nor that religious activity is completely usurped by him. IN many tribes the sacrificing priest coexists with the shaman, not to mention the fact that every head of a family is also the head of the domestic cult. Nevertheless the shaman remains the dominating figure; for throught the whole region in which the ecstatic experience is considered the religious experience par excellence, the shaman, and he alone, is the great master of ecstasy. A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = “technique of ecstasy”.

Yet one observation must be made at the outset: the presence of a shamanistic complex in one region or another does not necessarily mean that the magico-religious life of the corresponding people is crystallized round shamanism. This can occur (as, for example, in certain parts of Indonesia), but it is not the most usual state of affairs. Generally shamanism coexists with other forms of magic and religion.

It is here that we see all the advantage of implying the term “shamanism” in its strict and proper sense. For, if we take the trouble to differentiate the shaman from other magicians and medicine men of primitive societies, the identification of shamanic complexes in one or another region immediately acquires definite significance. Magic and magicians are to be found more or less all over the world, where as shamanism exhibits a particular magical specialty, on which we shall dwell at length: “master over fire,” “magical flight,” and so on. By virtue of this fact, though the shaman is, among other things, a magician, not every magician can properly be termed a shaman. The same distinction must be applied in regard to shamanic healing; ever medicine man is a healer, but the shaman employs a method that is his and his alone. AS for the shamanic techniques of ecstasy, they do not exhaust all the varieties of ecstatic experience documented in the history of religions and religious ethnology. Hence any ecstatic cannot be considered a shaman; the shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.

A similar distinction is also necessary to define the shaman’s relation to “spirits.” All through the primitive and modern worlds we find individuals who profess to maintain relations with “spirits,” whether they are “possessed” by them or control them.

Several volumes would be needed for an adequate study of all the problems that arise in connection with the mere idea of “spirits” and of their possible relations with human beings; for a “spirit” can equally well be the soul of a dead person, a “nature spirit,” a mythical animal, and so on. But the study of shamanism does not require going into all this; we need only define the shaman’s relation to his helping spirits. It will easily be seen wherein a shaman differs from a “possessed” person, for example; the shaman controls his “spirits,” in the sense that he, a human being, is able to communicate with the dead, “demons,” and “nature spirits,” without thereby becoming their instrument. To be sure, shamans are sometimes found to be “possessed,” but these are exceptional cases for which there is a particular explanation.

These few preliminary observations already indicate the course that we propose to follow in order to reach an adequate understanding of shamanism. In view of the fact that this magico-religious phenomenon has had its most complete manifestation in North and Central Asia, we shall take the shaman of these regions as our typical example. We are not unaware, and we shall endeavor to show, that Central and North Asian shamanism, at least in its present form, is not a primordial phenomenon that has a long “history.” But this Central Asian and Siberian shamanism has the advantage of presenting a structure in which elements that exist independently elsewhere in the world–i.e., special relations with “spirits,” ecstatic capacities permitting of magical flight, ascents to the sky, descents to the underworld, mastery over fire, etc.–are here already found integrated with a particular ideology and validating specific techniques.

Internet Book of Shadows, (Various Authors), [1999]