An introduction to shamanic practice & its place in modern culture, written by medicine woman & practicing shaman: Evangeline Del Cisne.
Featuring historical photographs of Shamans from around the world, sourced from the Welcome Collection public archives. (Most photos are so rare that the record of the tribes location and year of creation have been lost.)
The word “shaman” derives from the Tungusic word saman, which means “to know” -- the shaman is “one who knows”. Medicine woman (or man) is another term used to describe a shaman.
Trying to define the shaman is almost like trying to define life itself. It’s so much more than colonial researchers and proponents of neo-shamanism make it out to be. These days, you won’t be hard pressed to find numerous people on Instagram with the word “shaman” in their bio, this sacred calling has become commodified and perverted due to capitalism and the worldwide erasure of indigenous cultures and knowledge.
Although shamanism is an ancient practice, with roots in many cultures -- from places such as Siberia to Mexico -- and with similar themes running through all of them, each tribe has vastly different practices, and place emphasis on the practices that are most relevant to them. In certain cultures, the shaman would act merely as a seer and relate dreams and prophecies, whilst in other cultures shamans would perform elaborate rituals to assist the tribe in hunting, wars, and anything else that was necessary.
There were also “good” shamans and “bad” shamans -- some would heal, and some would curse. Many tribes were even wary of their own village’s shaman, as the power they held was so great it often ostracised them from their own communities (until someone needed their help). In my own Mvskoke (also spelled Muscogee, a.k.a. Creek) lineage, there is a special emphasis on healing songs that must be sung whilst preparing medicine. These songs are sacred and kept secret; learnt directly from the plants and passed down the generations -- or at least they were before colonisation.
Because of the destruction of the original ways, there is only one fully initiated medicine man left from my lineage. For those of us who have the shamanic calling, we must learn directly from our ancestors in the other worlds. In traditional shamanic tribes, it is known early on who the next medicine person will be, from the time they are a child. The shaman is typically “death marked”, usually before the age of 5. This means that they have had a near-death experience, and it is thought that this early brush with death is what allows them to so easily walk between the worlds, commune with spirits, and deliver messages.
Although most shamans will have spiritual and mystical experiences from an early age, there will come a time when they are officially called by spirit to step fully into their duties. This call cannot be ignored. It usually comes in the form of some type of crisis, usually an illness; sometimes physical, sometimes mental, frequently both. Commonly referred to as “shaman sickness”, the symptoms can be debilitating and can last for years, until the individual wholeheartedly accepts their calling.
The illness is usually so severe that it is not uncommon for it to end in death -- rejecting your calling is not an option. My own shamanic sickness has been an incredibly difficult mixture of emotional and physical suffering, of battling with myself and wishing I could reject my calling. My own sickness has lasted almost four years now and is just starting to subside, as I have finally accepted my calling and continue my initiation and learning process with my ancestors and the spirits in the other worlds.
The documentary Crazywise (Phil Borges, 2017) is a wonderful look at the phenomenon of shamanic sickness. It follows a group of individuals from the west who are awakening to their shamanic abilities, and a group of individuals from tribal communities. The people in the west are hospitalised, pathologised, and believed to have mental health problems. There is no understanding of the call of spirit; in fact, any mention of other worlds or spirits will only lead colonial doctors to believe you’re mentally unwell in the first place. The difference between the two cultures is stark.
When children and young people in the tribal communities start hearing voices and having unexplained experiences, it is immediately understood that they are the next shaman, that they have been chosen by spirit, and their training begins. The children in the tribal societies go on to become respected healers and valued members of their communities, whereas the American shamans are left traumatised from their brush with the medical industrial complex; and also remain isolated from society, unable to fulfil the call.
In pre-industrial and traditional societies, mental pathologies didn’t exist. The following quote by Colin Campbell, an African Sangoma (traditional healer), sums up why perfectly:
“It has to do with the fact that traditional societies are highly structured. Not just in Africa but across the pre-industrial spectrum. Structured, not just in terms of the practicalities of daily life but also in terms of existential questions; who are we and why is this ‘thing called life’ happening to us. Each individual goes through a series of processes to find context and meaning.”
To truly understand shamanism, we need to understand the indigenous worldview and just how different it is to the western worldview. Working with plant spirits, animal spirits, and ancestors, are key themes of shamanic practice all around the globe, and it is vital for us to realise just how differently indigenous cultures view the natural world.
In the west, nature is something to dominate – it’s often seen as a resource. The west has a hierarchical view of life, with humans at the top and everything else underneath us. We view ourselves as the most advanced species on the planet. Indigenous cultures view everything as animate -- rocks, trees, water, clouds. Everything is endowed with a spirit; everything is our relative. When working with plants and other forces of nature, shamans are engaging in a relationship with their spirits. When picking plants for medicine, we connect to their spirit and communicate with them; always asking permission before we take them (sometimes they say no).
Before taking any kind of plant medicine, it’s essential that we hear the call from the plant spirit beforehand, rather than simply taking whatever we want. Respect and communication with nature is key. I know that befriending plants and nature spirits sounds bizarre to most of us in the west, and I myself wasn’t sure how to go about it at first. Although I had been friends with bees and flowers as a child, as I grew older I had little connection with nature; as I grew up in London and had adopted the busy, always-in-a-rush lifestyle that’s necessary to survive here. Having relationships with nature spirits requires slowing down, going within, and listening to your intuition.
The realisation that you’re just a small part of a vast network of creation, with many relatives, is humbling and comforting. Indigenous people know and understand that the realm we exist in is temporary, and that we have everything we need here -- the Earth provides us with all we could need. This short life is sometimes referred to as an “Earthwalk”, where we come to be stewards and guardians of the Earth until we can return home to the Skyworld -- understanding and accepting the temporary nature of existence in the 3D plane makes living life much simpler.
The shamanic understanding of time is also key to understand if we wish to truly know what shamanism is. When I was a child, I had an innate understanding that the past, present, and future were all happening at the same time. I had a strange practice of checking up on my past self and future self when I woke up every morning. I thought it was something everyone did and that everyone knew. After I discovered I had shamanic lineage and that this was the reason for many of my mystical experiences, I delved deeper into the shamanic understanding of time as circular rather than linear.
The lower, middle, and upper worlds are known as the “shaman’s map”, and each world has different kinds of spirits and is good for different kinds of work. The lower world is generally where you would go to heal trauma and meet ancestors; the middle world is where you would go to help lost spirits transfer into the other worlds; and the upper world is where you would go for insight into the future and to connect with celestial teachers and entities.
Since all timelines are existing at once, it makes it easier to understand how shamans can contact ancestor spirits, and also receive prophecies and visions of the future. The idea of circular time is a complex, nuanced subject that I can’t fully describe here, but I encourage anyone who’s curious about it to do further research.
Within tribal societies, everyone had a role; for example hunter, chief, shaman, and sometimes even clown. The tribe would form one large organism in a way -- I like to think of them as ecosystems. In the same way that all systems of the body work together to keep it functioning healthily, then all the roles in the tribe function to keep the whole of the tribe healthy. Each role was vital, each role was valuable, and every role was equally important. There was no hierarchy in roles; and without one role, the entire ecosystem would become unbalanced and collapse. Everybody would have a role that suited them, that they were naturally gifted at, and that’s how they would contribute to the tribe.
Community care and cooperation are foundational to these societies, and often the shamans’ physical needs would be taken care of by the tribe, while they saw to everyone’s spiritual needs. It’s in everyone’s interest to embrace the shaman so that balance can be maintained in the social ecosystem.
Duties of a shaman/medicine person differ depending on the cultural context, but there are a few practices which seem almost universal, such as working with spirits; use of sacred objects and tools such as drums and rattles, that help the shaman travel into the other worlds by putting them into a trance-like state; and healing in general. Some shamans would help the dying cross over to the Skyworld; some would retrieve soul fragments from traumatic experiences and work closely with power animals and totems.