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A Closer Look: Shamanism - Bridging the Sacred and the Profane

Your text makes a passing reference to the role of the shaman.  Originally, shamanism referred to a religious technique used by  tribes of Siberia. Over time, the term came to be applied to any religious practice in which a spiritual specialist (known as a shaman) links the visible world with the other world of gods and spirits for the benefit of the local community.   

The shaman serves as a mystical intermediary between the sacred and profane for specific purposes, such as healing. Usually, the shaman claims direct contact with spirits who have called him/her to this intermediary role and who continue to guide him/her.  Thus, the shaman has access to a non-physical/spirit world that is generally inaccessible to most people. Through an altered state of consciousness (usually an ecstatic trance), the shaman is able to enter that spirit world. In an ecstatic state, the shaman journeys to the realm of the spirits (whether that realm is heaven/sky or the underworld), seeking help as a healer or seer.  The journey is experienced as a flight or as possession and is similar to what we might call an "out of the body experience."

 In some cases, it appears that the shaman actually attempts to control the spiritual powers of the other world.  At the very least, the  shaman enters the spirit world and accesses the spiritual power and knowledge that enables him/her to do what is beyond ordinary human abilities. For example, the shaman may receive visions, divine instruction, otherworldly knowledge, and the ability to work miracles or to heal. The shaman thus enters the spirit world for the purpose of enabling the “resources of the spirit world to be transmitted to persons and circumstances in the ordinary world.” (Cannon, Six Ways, 61) Thus, the shaman is called by the spiritual powers, but also seeks to use, enlist and influence those same powers.

Shamanism is often found in the religions of indigenous (descendents of the original inhabitants of a land) people. These include the tribes of Siberia, Mongolia, the Aborigines of Australia and the Native American peoples of North and South America.  The so-called “medicine man” of some Native American tribes may be the best-known example of a shaman. Fortunately, the account of one North American shaman has been recorded for us in the book Black Elk Speaks.  Black Elk was a medicine man of the Lakota tribe who was born in 1863.  In his eventful life, he witnessed the battle of Little Big Horn (1876), traveled to Europe (1886-89)  and witnessed the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee (1890). In 1930 he told his life story to the poet John Niehardt. Black Elk died in 1950.

Photograph of Black Elk
Black Elk

  The presence of shamanism in virtually every religious tradition indicates a common understanding of the sacred as a realm that is distinct from the ordinary. It is also important to note that in many societies the shaman is kept apart (even temporarily) from the other members of the community lest they be "defiled" by sacred power.