The word shaman means "He/she who knows". It is a word in the Evenki language (Tungus) from Siberia in the north of Asia and was introduced to the West in the 1500s.
Through frequent use, it has become a widely accepted loanword to describe the phenomenon that shamans practice worldwide. But it is a vague word and should be used more as a useful indication of what we are discussing, rather than an absolute identification of something.
Shamanism is often called the oldest religion in the world. There is evidence from the Paleolithic Age (Stone Age) of cave paintings depicting shamanic experiences and events. For example, the "Dancing Wizard" in the cave of Les Trois Freres in France from 30,000 to 10,000 BC. Or another cave painting believed to represent a shaman in a trance from Lascaux in France, approximately 17,000 B.C.
Seen from an archaeological point of view, only that which been found in the ground can prove the historical existence of something. But because things naturally become lost in time, science is always limited since it must be based on empirical knowledge. But it is safe to assume on the basis of "shamanic knowledge and tradition" that Shamanism is as old as man himself. But it surely existed before man, it just didn’t have a human name ..
The different characteristics of Shamanism
It’s a mistake to believe that there is one kind of shamanism, and that it is the same everywhere. The shamanic form and ideas governs by large by the cultural influences of the society in which it is practiced in, for example, one can say that there is a certain type of shamanism in Mongolia while there is another type of shamanism in the Amazon or up in Scandinavia. Other names for Shamans are: Noadi (Sápmi), Angakok (Inuit / Eskimo), Mudang (Korea), Curandera (South America), Paqo (Andes) and so on.
But despite often being rooted in the cultural aspects of the society, there are many examples where shamanism is not characterized by a particular culture, but have found a more cross shape. The latter is perhaps most common in parts of the world where historically shamans often were actively persecuted and killed and the shamanic knowledge become lost, which lead the shamans of our time to have to rediscover Shamanism, often inspired and a little borrowed from other cultures whose shamanic heritage is still active.
While shamanism has many common and characteristic features, which are discussed below, shamanism is not a movement or a doctrine. The point made is that shamans are often individual wise old men and women who work in the tribe / group to help and teach others for various purposes. In addition to the role as spiritual healers so have shamans traditionally often had roles like: keeper of traditions, herbs and plant expert, advisor, counselor, mediator and messenger towards the spirit world, priest, enforcer and keeper of the tribes sacred knowledge, conjurer, doctor etc..
To an outsider, you can soon see certain characteristics in Shamanic practice. Although the culture where the shaman lives reflects upon the shaman's profession, anthropologists have found that some shamanic characteristics are identical regardless of the culture which the shaman lives in.
Examples on common characteristics which exists regardless of place and historical age
The ways to become a Shaman can be quite numerous. Knowledge can be inherited within families / the tribe or it can be purchased and be taught by a shaman for a certain cost. Often comes a lot of learning through a combination of several ways. But regardless of how a person learn shamanic techniques they also need lessons given directly from the spirit world. The shaman always works together with the spirits. Without benevolent spirits, there is no shamanic practice, and without this calling a knowledgeable practitioner can never be really powerful. Traditionally, these lessons come e.g. out of dreams or through other trance-like states where the shaman's soul can travel freely to the spirit world and receive knowledge directly from the spirits. The shaman can be said to have been initiated.
A shaman always works by altering his state of consciousness in order to see and work in other realities. It is often said that shamans achieve ecstasy and it is through the ecstasy he or she can communicate and interact with the spirit world. The ways to achieve this condition can be through Entheogens, i.e. the use of sacred herbs and plants for spiritual and sacred purposes. It is also very common to work with drum rhythms, rattles, dance and other instruments. Or by exposing the body and mind for extreme stress with the intent to change your perception. Traditionally, the latter can mean that the shaman spends long durations alone in nature with little food or comfort. It is also common to be fasting for long periods, taking “sweats” in sweat lodges, etc.
Shamans often travel to other worlds in order to retrieve information or to influence events so they have an impact in our world.
This may of course be difficult to grasp for some people that human beings are capable of much more then what our physical bodies limits us to do. But this just how things are and shamans throughout the world have known this throughout the ages.
Traditionally, it is customary to speak of three worlds. These three worlds can in themselves have access to many more worlds and be bound together in unexpected ways, but the main approach is to look at reality as divided into an Upperworld, Middleworld and an Underworld. All connected through a central axis, i.e. the “Axis Mundi” which is often seen as a World Tree.
When it comes to thinking about concepts like upper, middle and under, then especially the Western mind have a tendency to compare words and evaluate something as being better or worse by the regular use of the words. So do not fall into the trap of imagining the "underworld" as something comparatively worse than, for example the"upperworld". Ideas like “heaven” or “hell” are something that were entered into the equation far later on, and these ideas are not only wrong - they are not even relevant to the discussion.
However, we can for the sake of interest place our own "world" as part of the "middleworld". But note the use of "part of", since our world and what we see is not all there is.
The ability to spiritually “travel” to other worlds could be as previously indicated to find information or perhaps to find help and healing. But for whatever reason or intention the shaman always makes it with the aid, co-operation with his own benevolent spirit helpers.
Everything has a soul
Healing is an absolute and essential part of the shamans work. One of the fundamental roles of a shaman is being a healer and I would even go so far as to state that those who don't see themselves as practitioners of this matter, does not constitute the definition of a Shaman. Obviously you can practice shamanic techniques without being a shaman, but to act in the spirit of healing and harmony are essential as to be a Shaman.
However, being part of healing is not the equivalent of loving everything and everyone. Nor is it necessarily to think of oneself as a ”human peace dove”. As previously stated, the shaman knows the secrets. He or she works with the great mystery in ways that are not always translatable into contemporary ideas in society. But it is not the shaman’s role to be a representative for anyone else but the spirits which he works with, so often the shaman walks between or outside worlds where he or she can be alone and work in peace with the spirits.
The insight to that "everything has life" has a very important role in the shamanic worldview and thinking. Trees, flowers, mountains, lakes, wind and the moon have all their own souls and the Shaman can communicate with these entities. This is called a animistic worldview but it does not mean that the shaman worships objects or entities as gods. Rather, the shaman sees such things as sacred beings which he can communicate and interact with on an equal and respectful manner, and not in a submissive or a superior position. It is from this standpoint that you sometimes hear the expressions "Grandmother Earth", Mother Earth, Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon in shamanic context.
The shaman has the understanding and the insight that we are all related and that all beings are equally part of the great mystery and the great Spirit. But understanding that all life are linked together does not present any difficulties when it comes to acknowledging that each and everyone’s own spirit can also exist for its own sake.
Everything is possible in the great cosmic dance which we call Life.