How One Becomes a Shaman: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the history of shamanism. We learned that shamanism goes back at least as far as 25,000 years ago in South Africa. We also looked at the varying definitions of shaman. In today’s post, we’ll look at how one becomes a shaman. Enjoy!


How One Becomes a Shaman

Given the seemingly differing opinions on the history of shamanism and the definition of a shaman, there seems to be substantially more agreement on the process by which one must undergo to become a shaman. According to Merchant (2006):

The ‘call of the spirits’ to the shamanic vocation is experienced as a serious and disturbing psychological phenomenon early in life (often at adolescence) and this initiatory illness is interpreted as a (mostly unsolicited) calling, which is not only experienced as a destiny/fate but is articulated in these cultures as an election by the spirits. A strenuous and difficult initiation follows, involving altered states of consciousness, dismemberment imagery and death/rebirth phenomena. (p. 133-4)

The candidate is not fully recognized by their cultural group as a shaman until they are able to demonstrate their abilities of mastery over the spirits and communicate with them to acquire information for the purposes of healing (Merchant, 2006). Metzner (1998), like Merchant (2006), referred to a process where the shaman-to-be has visions in which they see themselves being dismembered. According to Metzner (1998), “In some Australian aboriginal tribes, the would-be medicine man [or shaman] is “cut open” with stones; the abdominal organs are “removed” and replaced by crystals, which give him curing and clairvoyant power after he is put back together” (p. 101). Smoley and King (2006) also refer to the dismemberment of the shaman-to-be and reassembly: “The candidate ‘dies’ to his old identity and is reborn to a new one” (p. 160). Given the idea that the shaman has to die under his old identity before the shaman can become the new identity, the rite of passage where the shaman must undergo a process of dismemberment and reassembly is fitting. Merchant (2006) referred to ‘serious and disturbing psychological phenomena during adolescence’ and in the western world (the USA) can easily be mistaken for schizophrenia.

Given all that I have read about schizophrenia and shamanism, it is possible that people who are classified as schizophrenic in the western world are actually ‘hearing the call of the spirits,’ but because they were born into a society that does not appreciate this as a gift, but rather an illness, are treated distinctly different. I have not found any evidence to support this point of view, but it is worth mentioning. Rock, Abbot, Childargushi, and Kiehne (2008) conducted a study where they were attempting to determine the effect of a shamanic-like stimulus (a procedure that was very similar to shamanic journeying) on those who could be classified on the schizotypy continuum. The study included the appropriate control group(s) and had the following conclusion: “One’s score on the CP [cognitive-perceptual] factor of schizotypy appeared to influence one’s ability to experience alterations in phenomenology. Consequently, high CP factor individuals may be strong candidates for shamanic training” (p. 94). The results of this study are seemingly in congruence with the description that those in adolescence undergo psychological hardship offered by Merchant (2006).

There is an activity that I remember participating in during my ‘psychopathology and diagnosis’ class in the winter semester of this year at ITP. During this activity, the class was divided into 4 or 5 groups. The professor gave us a case study of a tribe of people in Africa who had been relocated from their original land and who had some people that were seemingly ‘ill.’ We were to pretend that we were a prospective business vying for the right to ‘cure’ these people. Many of the ‘symptoms’ that were present in the people would have made them categorically schizophrenic, if we were to use the DSM-IV [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]. During the presentation portion of this class, we worked our way around the room as all the groups identified their possible ‘plan of action’ to cure the people. It was at this point that each of the groups made mention of the fact that the people who were ‘ill’ might not have been ‘ill’ by the standards of the tribe. However, the ‘illness’ was something that was observed by the people who were examining the tribe from the outside. After each of the groups shared, the professor praised all of us for recognizing this and made note that other classes he has taught at non-transpersonal schools would probably not have recognized this factor. While this example might just show the openness of the students who enroll at a transpersonal psychology school, my hope was that it might have shed light on the possibility that non-transpersonal schools rarely (if at all) take into account the norms of the tribe they might be diagnosing. My reason for sharing this story is that it seems to tie in with the shamanistic ‘rites of passage’ discussion. If the people who were shamans in tribes in other countries, instead, grew up in America, it is quite possible that they would be categorized as schizophrenic and placed in a hospital. This makes me wonder if the people that are categorized as schizophrenic in our society today are not necessarily people who need to be feared, but instead, people who need to be revered and taught to embrace their shamanic qualities.

In this section, we have examined the process one undergoes to become a shaman. We have learned that there is a great deal involved in becoming a shaman including the following: ‘schizophrenic’-like symptoms in adolescence, altered states of consciousness, dismemberment/reassembly of one’s body, and an ability to display one’s skills in communicating with the spirits to obtain information to heal people within their community. We have also explored the possibility that people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia in America are actually candidates for shamans. In the next section, we will take a closer look at some of the roles that shamans can play for their community.


Check back tomorrow for the next section: Roles of a Shaman.

7 responses to “How One Becomes a Shaman: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Roles of a Shaman: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 3 | Jeremiah Stanghini

  2. Pingback: How One Becomes a Shaman: A Brief Overview of S...

  3. I think what you are forgetting here is that each culture has their own traditions and beliefs. You cannot just say all Shaman do this or believe that. You have to examine traditional shamanism from the perspective of the country or culture or time frame or belief system of the specific peoples involved. I am a Traditional Shaman of Siberian descent and what I practice is completely different than what an Andean Shaman believes or practices. I just don’t think you can lump it all together like this. also you need to consider the spiritual beliefs of each tradition.

  4. I think you need to consider that there are many different cultures and locations and peoples who practice Shamanism and you cannot just lump them all together like this. I am a Traditional Shaman of Siberian descent and the beliefs and practices of my own culture are completely different from those of the African Shaman or the Andean Shaman. The practices of a Traditional Shaman are based on the beliefs, culture and geography of his or her people. Each tradition, each culture must be considered separately. There is no manual for “general shamanism” as you are trying to create here. There are many paths of Traditional Shamanism each unique unto itself and they all lead to the same goal, healing.

  5. Thanks so much for your comments, Shaman Elder Maggie Wahls!

    This was a paper I wrote a few years for a seminar in social & community process: culture and consciousness.

    You’re absolutely right that this is by no means comprehensive (taking into account the varieties of shamanism. In writing this paper, I was merely trying to mine the academic literature for writings on shamanism. If I were turning this into a thesis (or a journal article), I probably would have done some interviews with shamans from different traditions to really flesh out this section.

    • Shamans are the links or vessels between the spiritual and physical realms. To try and define such a broad role into specific experiences or definitive characteristics is both ignorant and misleading. Assumed knowledge is one of the major causes of misinformation, prejudice and suffering. He who claims that he knows, knows nothing. He who claims nothing, knows.

      • I hear your concern about the broad roles of shamans, but I don’t think that it’s ignorant to try to classify the natural world around us. This is what we do, as humans, from a very young age. Academia tries to do this in a more scientific way.

        I’m sure many academics would tell you that there is still a great deal to be learned about the subject for which they’re an expert.

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