What is Shamanism? (Part 1)

An Introduction to Shamanism (Part 1)

A Brief History

From anthropological and historical records, shamanism is an ancient spiritual practice, as well as a way of life, that dates back to 30-40 thousand years ago, with its roots in the Paleolithic era (Grof, 2006).  Some of the earliest existing records of shamanic cultures can be found on cave walls throughout Northern Spain and Southern France.  The cave walls of Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Les Trois Frères, Altamira, La Gabillou and many others are covered with beautiful depictions of shamanic life (Grof, 2006).  The images include animals, mythical creatures, and depictions of early shamans, all with magic and ritual implications (Grof, 2006). 

The Sorcerer of Les Trois Frères 

The Sorcerer of Les Trois Frères 

Shamanism is a universal phenomenon.  It did not just start or thrive in only certain locations, but rather existed throughout many cultures that encompassed the world (Grof, 2006).   Shamanic cultures are still prevalent today.  Some of these cultures still practice the way of life just as their ancestors once did.  Stanislav Grof claims that some of these cultures have lasted so long because holotropic states have induced the “primal mind,” which from the anthropological viewpoint is the most basic and primordial part of the human mind, which transcends sex, culture, historical time, and race (Grof, 2006, p. 30).  Arguably these cultures have not become diluted by politics or world events because they continue to focus on the primal mind.

The Word Shaman

The word “shaman” in the West is usually associated with words like “madmen,” “witchdoctor,” “medicine man,” “sorcerer,” or “healer” (Harner, 1980).  These people are usually considered to have surprising powers to communicate with spiritual forces and with nature.   Shamans also are known to be the keepers of sacred techniques that are associated with extraordinary powers to heal illness or cure disease (Harner, 1980).  The actual word “shaman” is thought to have roots with the Tungus people of Siberia. The Tunguso-Manchurian word “saman” can translate to “he or she who knows” (Grof, 2006, p. 26).  The word “saman” can also translate to “one who is excited, moved, or raised” or from an Indian word that means “to heat oneself or practice austerities” (Walsh, 2009, p. 13).  Mircea Eliade, a philosopher and historian of religion states that shamanism can be defined as an “archaic technique of ecstasy.”  The term “ecstasy,” from a Greek translation, means “stepping out of oneself” (Grof, 2006, p. 33). 

Rodger Walsh, the author of the book, The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition, claims that Western culture might have a skewed perception of what a shaman or shamanism really is, as the Western cultural movement of “neo-shamanism” is divorced from the actual traditional cultural context of authentic shamanic cultures (Walsh, 2009).  He says that it is hard to actually define the word “shaman” or “shamanism” because of the wide array of beliefs and traditions.  Each culture has a different set of techniques, rituals, ceremonies, and mythical archetypal beings.  Some cultures may be considered shamanic but actually are not shamanic in nature.  For example, a healer or medicine man might use herbs to help cure illness but that doesn’t make him a shaman nor the culture shamanic (Freke, 2000).     Walsh (2009) comes up with his own definition for what the world shaman or shamanism means. 

Shamanism can 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) interacting with other entities, often by traveling to other realms, in order to serve their community (p. 15-16)

Shamans can also voluntarily induce holotropic consciousness to communicate with the spirit realm.  This is often viewed in shamanic cultures as a “soul flight,” “journey,” or an “out-of-body-experience” (Walsh, 2009).  The experience can be represented as a shaman’s soul leaving his or her body to travel through space to enter into different realms, dimensions, or worlds (Walsh, 2009).  In a sense, the shaman has mastered the map or inner territories of the psyche and is able to share this wisdom with others.  They not only share this knowledge with others, but also have the power to help guide people through their own psyches for self-discovery or healing purposes (Grof, 1985).  Shamans can also be portrayed as the world’s first psychotherapists (Walsh, 2009).


Freke, Timothy (2000). Shamanic wisdomkeepers: Shamanism in the modern world. Godsfield Book. 

Grof, Stanislav. (1985). Beyond the brain: Birth, death, and transcendence in psychotherapy. Albany, NY: State University of New York (SUNY) Press. 

Grof, Stanislav. (2006). The ultimate journey: Consciousness and the mystery of death. Sarasota, FL: MAPS

Harner, Michael. (1980). The Way of the Shaman: a guide to power and healing. New York, NY: Bantam Books. 

Walsh, Roger. (1996). Shamanism and healing.  Scotton, Bruce W., & Chinen, Allen B., & Battista, John R. (Eds.), Textbook of transpersonal psychiatry and psychology (pp. 96-103). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Walsh, Roger. (2009). The world of shamanism: New views of an ancient tradition. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

Books Referenced