Roles of a Shaman: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 3

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the ways in which people become shamans. I also shared an anecdote from one of my classes where I learned that a shaman in one part of the world may be seen as someone with a disorder in another part of the world. In today’s post, we’ll look at the various roles of the shaman.


Roles of a Shaman

The various roles in which a shaman undertakes are closely related to the cultures that one is likely to find shamanism (Walsh, 1989). This is because a shaman plays many roles for their culture. The cultures in which we are likely to find shamans are “simple nomadic hunting and gathering societies” (p. 8). In these kinds of cultures, people do not generally rely on agriculture and have very little political organization or social class. As such, the shaman is left to play many roles: “medicine man, healer, ritualist, keeper of cultural myths, medium, and master of spirits” (p. 8). Krippner (2000) stated similar roles that shamans play: “Shamans were probably humanity’s original specialists, combining the roles of healers, storytellers, weather forecasters, performing artists, ritualists, and magicians” (p. 98). Krippner (2002) added “shamans appear to have been humankind’s first psychotherapists [and] first physicians” (p. 970). References to shamans as physicians can be seen more than once in the literature. Shortly, we will liken a shaman to a ‘general practitioner.’ Krycka (2000) argued that shamanic techniques are “the bridge between ancient and allopathic approaches to healing” (p. 69). The ties between a shaman and therapy are not hard to make, as there is evidence for similarities between shamans and therapists (Stone, 2008; Voss, Douville, Solider, & Twiss, 1999; Wiseman, 1999). Because of the lack of social class, shamans usually possessed a great deal of influence on their culture (Walsh, 1989). Winkleman (1989) noted that as societies evolved into sedentary, agricultural, and social/political stratification, shamanism seems to disappear. Instead of the shaman holding all of the previous roles that they had held, specialists assume some of the roles once had.

Walsh (1989) identified a noteworthy parallel to western society in that there was a disappearance of the old medical general practitioner and an “appearance of diverse specialists” (p. 9). Walsh continued saying that priests emerge as the representatives of organized religion and are responsible for engaging with spiritual forces. “However, unlike their shamanic ancestors they usually have little training or experience in altered state” (p. 9). Walsh explained that other members of the culture assumed the various roles of the shaman except for one – journeying. Walsh referred to the suppression of owning a drum in parts of Europe during the last century as being one possible explanation to this disappearance and made reference to the discovery of the powerful states associated with various yogic and meditate practices. It is not clear as to why this role of the shaman would have seemingly vanished into the nether, while the other roles were scooped up into other specialists’ responsibilities. Given how powerful altered states of consciousness are, it is plausible that the ‘powers that be’ when forming social/political stratification decided intentionally not to include this practice in their culture for fear of losing their power. There is no substantial evidence to support this claim, but that does not negate it as a possibility. Even given the seemingly intentional forgetfulness of the people in power during the formation of the earlier cultures that did not include shamans, shamanism is still around today and used by a variety of people. According to Larson (2002), “Shamanic healing was the first mode of healing to emerge, and it still thrives today in both traditional cultures as a principal form of healing and in developed societies as an alternative form of healing” (p. 256).

Given our discussion of the ‘disappearance’ of the shaman into ‘specialists’ with the introduction of social/political stratification, there is an interesting tribe that seems to have kept a ‘number’ of shamans. According to Krippner (2002), “There are many types of shamans. For example, among the Cuna Indians of Panama, the abisua shaman heals by singing, the inaduledi specializes in herbal cures, and the nele focuses on diagnosis” (p. 963). In this tribe, it seems as though instead of splitting up the various roles of the shaman and thusly doing away with the shaman, there already were various roles in place. Krippner does not go into much detail about the Cuna Indians and there is not any (that I was able to find) academic literature on the Cuna Indians. I was only able to find that it is more politically correct to refer to them as the Kuna and this was from Wikipedia, so it may or may not be accurate.

In this section, we have explored a number of topics. We have examined the various roles that a shaman can undertake: healer (psychotherapist and physician), medicine man, magician, storyteller, weather forecaster, performing artist, master of spirits, medium, ritualist, and keeper of cultural myths. We have also explored how the shamans originally assumed many roles and then subsequently relinquished many roles. We looked at some possible reasons as to why shamanic journeying was not assumed as the role of one of the many ‘specialists’ that emerged from the shaman’s roles. We also learned of some of the different types of shamans among the Cuna Indians of Panama. In the next section, we will summarize all that we learned about shamanism.


Check back tomorrow for the conclusion and the list of references.

Published by Jeremiah Stanghini

Jeremiah's primary aim is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the "Blind Men and the Elephant," it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a 'tusk' or a 'leg.' He writes on a variety of topics: psychology, business, science, entertainment, politics, history, etc.

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