a short introduction
by Jonathan Horwitz & Annette Høst ©
What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is an ancient spiritual tradition and magical craft, used worldwide for healing, problem solving and for maintaining balance between humans and nature. Shamanism is not something that exists only among Indians and exotic peoples, as many believe. Also in Scandinavia traces of a shamanic tradition are found. Shamanism’s basic features are found worldwide, and all humans have the ability to practice shamanism.
The traditional shaman
Originally, the word shaman came from the Evenki people of Siberia. It means "the one who knows." A shaman is defined by how she or he works. Using rhythmic drumming, singing and ritual, the shaman experiences a shift in his consciousness (that is, what some people call trance), which allows her to travel to the spirit world. There, in the other reality, she meets with her spirit helpers and gets help and advice, which she brings back and uses in the physical world.
The shaman's worldview sees everything as imbued with life. Everything that has life also has spirit and power. Spirit and power are the links between all forms of life, between people, trees, animals, rocks, wind and water, earth and sky. It is the shaman's job to communicate with other life forms, sometimes mediating between humans and other creatures. This is always done in close cooperation with the shaman’s spirit helpers, whether they are guardian spirits in animal form or teacher-spirits. No spirits - no shaman.
In most cultures, the shaman's training is long and intense, and can be a lifelong process of initiation. The shaman’s jobs include being seer, healer, problem solver, taking care of the balance between humans and nature, and taking care of the balance between the living and the dead. Some shamans fulfill all of these tasks, while others specialize in only one or two. Both in traditional shamanic societies, and in modern context, the main task of the shaman is healing.
Shamanic understanding of power and healing
The term “power” is fundamental in the shamanic understanding of the universe and especially of health and disease. Here power should be understood in the sense of “energy”, not to be confused with “might”. For an organism to be healthy, physically and spiritually, it must be full of vitality, and powerful. If you are powerful, there is no place where disease can enter.
Traditionally, shamans understand that there are two main causes of illness. Either a person has something within him that should not be there (an intrusion of inappropriate power) or is missing something that should be there (power loss, or soul loss). The healing work is roughly divided into either regaining lost power or soul, or removing the unwanted power.
The symptoms of power loss may be that you become depressed or constantly become ill or get infections or everything goes wrong in life, what we sometimes call “bad luck.” In many shamanic societies these symptoms mean that you are not in contact with your guardian spirit or your power animal has left you. Healing consists therefore in finding the power animal or guardian spirit of the sick person and reconnecting them, or in some other way reuniting the person to the power of the universe.
Another and more serious form of power loss is what shamans call “soul loss”. It is traditionally regarded as the main cause of many serious diseases. Soul-loss can happen when we are exposed to experiences or influences that are so painful that they are felt to be unbearable. A part of the soul then leaves us so the organism as a whole can survive, albeit incomplete. Partial soul loss is thus a functional survival mechanism, which only becomes problematic when the lost soul will not or cannot come back.
Soul-loss means that we can not feel ourselves, our body, our emotions. It is as if one sees his life from the outside. Other symptoms include memory loss or the irresistible urge to fill the hole in your soul with substitutes for life, for example drugs or alcohol.
The shamanic treatment is to find the lost soul and bring it home again, thus uniting the sufferer with everything the soul left with. For some this integration requires effort and support which the shaman can also help with.
Shamanic treatment today
A contemporary shamanic practitioner works, in principle, like traditional shamans have done in other cultures for centuries. But our practice here and now is obviously influenced by our own culture. Because every shamanic practitioner works with and is trained by his own spirit helpers, there may be individual variations in treatments. Everyone has their specialties or areas of work they do best.
Once the practitioner has heard how the problem manifests itself in someone’s daily life, she consults with her spirit helpers to get their view of the situation and diagnosis, and to find out what to do. For that she uses drumming, singing, and making a ritual journey to the world of the spirits. The actual healing work is performed together with her spirit helpers and will happen in a changed state of consciousness.
In addition to these traditional ways of working, today we also have shamanic counselling. This is a modern counselling method that is based on classic shamanism, but in this case the “client” becomes his own shaman and his spirit teachers become the counsellors. Under the guidance and support of the experienced shamanic counsellor the "client" shifts to shamanic consciousness and journeys to the spirit world with his own mission. The purpose may be, for example, to get in touch with his own spiritual power, or to find his way through a personal life crisis, or receive advice on some practical issue.
These are some of the basic ways shamanic assistance and healing is practiced today. These ways are not to be confused with psycho-therapy or psychological or medical treatment. The shaman realizes that we are not isolated units and works to re-establish the links to the power of the universe.
You can read more about soul retrieval work in the article Coming Home: the Shaman’s work with Soul Loss and Soul Retrieval