Origins Of Shamanism

When and Where

Origins and Distribution of Shamanism


Shamanism is one of humankind’s most ancient traditions, spanning perhaps tens of thousands of years. The American anthropologist Michael Brown points out that “anthropologists are fond of reminding their students that shamanism, not prostituion, is the world’s oldest profession. Not only is it the oldest profession but also one of the most widespread, found today in areas as scattered as Siberia and South America.
The striking similarities among shamans raise the obvious question of how these similarities emerged. Perhaps they developed spontaneously in different locations, evoked by innate human tendencies or recurrent social needs. Another possibility is that they resulted from migration from common ancestors.
Migration alone seems unlikely. Shamanism occurs among tribes with so many diferent languages that diffusion from a common ancestor must have begun at least 20,000 years ago. But would shamanic practices remain so remarkably stable in so many cultures, while language and social practices changed so drastically? Migration alone can hardly account for shamanism’s far-flung distribution.
It follows that some recurring combination of social forces and innate abilities led to the repeated discovery of shamanic practices and states of consciousness in diverse times and cultures. Certainly humans seem to have an innate tendency to enter altered states, and some of those states are very specific. For example, for 2,500 years Buddhists have accessed eight highly specific states of extreme concentration called jhanas, while yogis have accessed similar concentrative samadhis. Clearly the human mind tends to settle into certain specific states of consciousness if given the right conditions or practices, and this suggests an underlying neural basis.
Similarly for shamanic states. These can be induced by diverse conditions, and most people can experience them to some degree – all of which suggests that the mind has an inherent tendacy to adopt them. Since common experiences such as isolation, fatigue, hunger, or rythmic sound induce them, they would likely be discovered by many cultures and generations. Given that shamanic states can be meaningful and healing, the methods for inducing them would likely be transmited across generations, supportive beliefs would develop, and shamanism would be born again.


Since Shamanism has endured so long and spread so widely, an obvious question is why does it accur in some cultures and not in others? Cross-cultural research suggests some answers. The anthropologist Michael Winkelman compared magico-religious practices in forty-seven societies spanning almost 4,000 years from 1750 B.C. ( the babylonians ) to the present. Remarkably, prior to Western influences, all of these cultures used altered states of consciousness for religious and healing practices.
But although shamanic practices extend to most regions of the world, they accur primarily in particular types of societies: nomadic and hunting and gathering tribes. These people have little agriculture and almost no social classes or political organization. Within these tribes the shaman plays many roles: healer, ritualist, mythologist, medium, and master of spirits. With their many roles and power vacuum offered by a classless society, shamans exert a major influence on their people.
However, as societies evolve and become more complex, the situation changes dramatically. As societies become fixed rather then nomadic, agricultural rather then foraging, and socially and politically stratified rather then classless, then shamanism, as such, dwindles. In is place appear a variety of specialists who focus on one of the shaman’s many roles. Instead of shamans we now find healers, priests, mediums, and sorcerers/witches. These specialize respectively in medical, ritual, spirit possession and malevolent magic practices. A contemporary parallel is the waning of the medical general practitioner or G.P., together with the multiplication of medical specialists.
It is interesting to compare some of the ancient specialists with the shamanic G.P. who preceded them. Priests emerge as representatives of organized religion and are often moral and even political leaders. They lead social rituals and pray to the spiritual forces on behalf of theur society. Yet unlike theur shamanic ancestors, they usually have little direct experience of altered states.
Shamans are often ambivalent figures, revered for theur healing power yet sometimes also feared for their melevolent magic. Whereas priests inherit the shamans’ benefical religious and magical roles, sorcerers and witches are viewed as the specialists in melevolent magic, and ,as such, they tend to be feared and persecuted. ( speaking of ancient times, not the new age religious beliefs ).
Mediums specialize in spirit possesion. While they do not undertake journeys, they do enter ASCs ( altered states of consciousness ) in which they experience themselves receiving messages from the spirit world. Recall that some researchers use a board definition of shamanism that includes anyone using altered states to serve their community. Such a definition fails to distinguish shamans and mediuns, both of whom use altered states, though of quite different types. Since shamans are usually found in foraging societies and mediums in more complex ones, this provides a further reason to distinguish them.
As cultures evolve, so too do their religious practicioners. Though shamans as such largely disappear from complex societies, most of  their roles and skills are retained by various specialists. However, there is one exception: journeying. None of the shaman’s successors focus on journeying.
Why this practice should largely disappear is a mystery. It may be that of suppression of shamanic practices by organized religion, during the nineteeth century it was a criminal offense in parts of Europe to own a drum. Another factor may have been the discovery of techniques such as yoga and meditation. Howver, it is unclear whether these factors alone could account for the virtual absence in complex societies of a practice that war powerful enough to spread around the world, survive for thousands of years, and form the basis of humankind’s most ancient and durable religious tradition.

5 responses to “Origins Of Shamanism

  1. When I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Is there any means you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

  2. Great Post, I thought you might like my midwinter machinima animation,
    ‘Flight of the Shamanic Santa’

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    Ho Ho Ho ~

  3. An fascinating discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more on this topic, it might not be a taboo topic but generally individuals are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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