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Shamanism is an ancient practice dating back to neolithic age. It is practiced all in all contitents. The word “shaman” comes from Siberian Tungus language. According to Wikipedia it can be loosely translated as “one who knows”. Wendy Stein in her book Shamans: Opposing Viewpoints, states that it is derived from the word “saman” which means “one who is excited, moved, or raised”(Stein, p14). According to the North American Lakata's language, sha-maan is the name for the female genitalia, which is implicedly inappropriate to call someone who practices their medicine.

There is no universal name for a "shaman" and each culture usually has its own respective name.

In tribal societies shamans act as leaders, healers, prophets and magicians. One becomes a shaman by either inheriting the role, being called by the spirits, or voluntarily setting out to learn the art from an existing shaman. The shamans who received the “call” from the spirits are usually considered the most powerful ones. Often the call comes as either visions (often tormenting ones) or a physical occurrence, such as being struck by lightning or surviving a near-death experience. Often the call is accompanied by mental and psychological torment akin to madness, the only way out of which is to accept the role of the shaman.

Shamanic initiation is a very trying task, both physically and mentally. Often the shaman initiate has to endure solitude, hunger, thirst, and pain in order to stimulate visions from the spirits that would teach the future shaman his/her art. Often in the visions accompanying initiation there is a theme of death and rebirth. (Lommel, p53)

Shaman's duties include healing, relaying messages from spirits, performing general magic rites to ensure successful hunt, fertility, suppression of enemies, etc. Shamans also guide the souls of the dead and act as prophets through either direct spirit communication or interpretation of omens.

Shamans practice healing either by use of medicinal herbs, removing a malevolent spirit out of the body of the sick, or, if the shaman determines that the illness is caused by the patient's soul being stolen, by retrieving it from the spirit world and returning it to patient's body.

Often shamans have spirit helpers and allow them, and other spirits to take control of the shaman's body to help him/her do magic, while the shaman's soul is on its journey through the spirit world. This journey thorough the spirit world is akin to the modern term “astral projection”.

The shaman operates in a trance. The things that aid in achievement of the trance are drumming, dancing, singing, and sometimes drug herbs such as tobacco (in form of juice or smoke), psychedelic mushrooms, ayahuasca and others.

Sources:

Lommel, Andreas, Shamanism: The beginnings of Art, translation from German by Micheal Bullock, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York – Toronto, 1967

Stein, Wendy, Shamans: Opposing Viewpoints, Greenhaven Press, Inc, San Diego, California, 1991

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaman December 28, 2005.

See also