The History of Shamanism: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 1

Sometime during the past week, I was conversing with someone about shamanism. Throughout our conversation, I remember that I’d written a paper about shamanism when I was still at Sofia University. Since it’s been a couple of weeks since I last shared a paper, I thought that this synchronicity was a good opportunity to share it. This was a paper I wrote for a class called: “Proseminar in Social and Community Process: Culture & Consciousness.” In today’s post, we’ll look at the history of shamanism and the different definitions of shaman.


In this paper, I will explore the history of shamanism along with the origins of the word shaman. I will identify varying definitions of what it means to be a shaman and explain some of the different roles that a shaman may carry out. I will identify how some shamans have lost their roles through the development of political/social stratification. I will also examine how it is that one becomes a shaman and have a small dialogue with regard to schizophrenia. To begin, we will delve into some of the history of shamanism along with a derivation of the word ‘shaman.’

History of Shamanism

Shamanism has been part of history for quite some time, but that does not necessarily mean that there is agreement within the academic community as to when shamanism began. According to Walsh (1996), “Paleolithic art from Europe dated to over 17,000 [years] ago and from South Africa dated to 25,000 years ago appear to show shamanic practices” (p. 96). However, the earliest known archaeological record of a shaman excavation was from a burial site in Israel, which dates back 12,000 years (Grosman, Munro, & Belfer-Cohen, 2008). Another viewpoint states that shamanic traditions have been around for 30,000 years (Krippner, 2002). According to Rosano (2006), “Evidence from Upper Paleolithic (UP) cave paintings suggest that these ideas may extend back tens of thousands of years” (p. 347). The argument put forth by Rosano (2006) seems to be similar to the arguments put forth by Krippner (2002) and Walsh (1996). Given the similar nature of Rosano (2006) and Walsh’s (1996) argument, it seems that there is evidence that shamanism has existed for at least the last 20,000 years. This is by no means an extensive overview of the history of shamanism, but a brief summary from various sources on shamanism. Part of the ‘discovery’ that humans have existed for as long as they have is because of the cave paintings by some of the first humans. As well, there have been bones of humans that have been recovered that help to date how long humans have been around. Given the way in which the discovery of the first ‘human,’ it makes it hard to fall onto one side or the other when it comes to the first appearance of shamanism in history. It is possible that shamanism existed 30,000 years ago, but there is concrete evidence that shamans existed 10,000 years ago because of the excavation. Regardless of the argument of the first discovery of humans, it is safe to say that shamanism has existed for at least the last 10,000 years, and there is evidence that suggests that it has lasted for 20,000 years or more. Now that we have come to this inference, let us examine the etymology or the derivation of the word ‘shaman.’

‘Shaman’ originated from the language of a Siberian tribe known as the Tungus (Peters, 1989; Smoley & Kinney, 2006). More specifically, it comes from the word ‘saman,’ which means “one who is excited, moved, raised” (Walsh, 1989, p. 2). Walsh goes on to say that “[shaman] may be derived from an ancient Indian word meaning ‘to heal oneself or practice austerities’ or from a Tungus verb meaning ‘to know’” (p. 2). It would appear that there is much more consensus on the origin of the word shaman than there is on the first appearance of shamanism in history. It is interesting to note the derivation of the word shaman because it relates to some of the various roles that shamans take on and definitions of shamanism, which we will learn about later on in the paper. Briefly, part of a shaman’s role can involve healing and it is frequently tied to an altered state of consciousness, which explains the reference to austerities. As for the ‘knowing’ part of the etymology, shaman’s commonly engage in ‘conversations’ with spirits in order to gain information to heal. To this point, we have learned that shamanism dates back at least 10,000 years, but there is evidence to support that it has existed for 20,000 years or more, and that the word shaman originated from a Siberian tribe known as the Tungus. In the next section, we will explore some of the various definitions of the word shaman.

Definitions of Shaman

Shamanism has not been a concept with one succinct definition over the years of its existence (Walsh, 2001). However, there have been varying degrees of specificity within the definition. In the broadest definition, “the term shaman refers to any practitioners who enter controlled ASCs [altered states of consciousness], no matter what type of altered state” (p. 32). Given this definition, there is room for mediums and yogis to be classified as shamans. Because of the prestige of shamanism, one might ascertain that shamans would prefer not to be placed into the same category as mediums and yogis, especially since they do different things for their community. There is a definition offered by Michael Harner, who is an anthropologist that “spent years with Amazon tribes in the 1950s and 1960s” (Smoley & Kinney, 2006, p. 158), and later became a shaman himself. Harner (1982) defines a shaman as “a man or a woman who enters an altered state of consciousness at will to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons” (p. 25). The definition offered by Harner (1982) is similar to the one offered by Walsh (2001) except in the definition offered by Harner, there is more specificity concerning what the shaman will do when they enter into the ASC. Walsh (1989) offered a much more elaborate, summative, and descriptive definition of shamanism:

shamanism might be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves, or their spirit(s), traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entities in order to serve the community. (p. 5)

A definition with specificity is much more useful because it identifies the type of altered state, prototypical experiences, and the practitioner’s goals (Walsh, 2001). This specific definition allows for much of the ambiguity to dissipate as any traveling anthropologist could use a checklist of the points offered in this definition to determine the ‘shaman’ in the tribe from the other members. However, there is the possibility that the difficulty in defining a shaman or shamanism is because there really is no real summative definition. Maybe the difficulty in pinpointing an accurate definition of shamanism is because shamans do not call themselves shamans. According to Smoley and King (2006):

This concept [shamanism] is the creation of scholars and anthropologists. Jews regards themselves as Jews, Christians as Christians, even Witches as Witches; but most native shamans do not call themselves that, nor do they think of their religion as “shamanism.” The term has been created by academics to describe a certain facet of religious experience. (p. 158)

The argument presented by Smoley and King (2006) is useful in the process of defining shamanism because they tell us that shamans do not want to define who they are nor do they want to define what it is that they do. To this point, we have learned that shamanism has a broad range of definition that begins with an altered state of consciousness and can be as specific as identifying the type of altered state, prototypical experiences, and the shaman’s goals. We have also learned that shamans do not like to call themselves shamans nor do they like to call their religion shamanism. In the next section, we will examine how one becomes a shaman for their respective tribe.


Check back tomorrow for the next section: How One Becomes a Shaman.

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2 responses to “The History of Shamanism: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 1

  1. Pingback: How One Becomes a Shaman: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 2 | Jeremiah Stanghini

  2. Pingback: The History of Shamanism: A Brief Overview of S...

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