Who has the right to call themselves shamans these days?

Submitted by Peter on

Who has the right to call themselves "shamans" these days? Now, this is a tricky question and a minefield if I ever saw one..

I have previously written about the background of shamanism so I will leave out the obvious questions regarding what shamans do, as to instead discuss the word "shaman" itself.

The etymology of the word can be found on Wikipedia. But since I'm not a big fan of using Wikipedia for anything anymore, since it's very bias and prone to censorship we'll use the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (1989) instead. (But you'll probably find most of this information on the previous mentioned place).

Shaman, n. (and a.)

A.A n. A priest or priest-doctor among various northern peoples of Asia. Hence applied by extension to similar personages in other parts, esp. a medicine-man of some of the north-western American Indians. Occas. in wider sense: an adherent of shamanism. Also more recently, with recognition of the widespread similarity of primitive beliefs, the term denotes esp. a man or woman who is regarded as having direct access to, and influence in, the spirit world which is usu. manifested during a trance and empowers them to guide souls, cure illnesses, etc. Also fig.

1698 A. Brand Emb. Muscovy into China 50 If five or six of these Tonguese Families happen to live near one another‥they maintain betwixt them a Shaman, which signifies as much as Sorcerer or Priest.    1706 tr. Evert Ides' Trav. vii. 29 Several Tunguzians, amongst which is also their famed Schaman or diabolical artist.    1780 Tooke Russia III. 245 Among all the Schamanes, women are looked upon as beings vastly inferior to men.    1848 S. W. Williams Middle Kingdom II. xviii. 258 The ritual of the Shamans‥has been translated by Neumann, a German sinologue.    1868 F. Whymper Trav. Alaska 255 The Schaman, pronounced exactly like our word showman.    1900 T. Adney in Harper's Mag. Mar. 495 A former chief and medicine-doctor, or shuman.    1907 C. Hill-Tout Brit. N. Amer., Far West x. 199 If the corpse was that of a woman it was prepared for interment by a female shaman.    1910 Haddon Races of Man 62 After a death they [the Veddas of Ceylon] perform certain dances and rites through a shaman to the recently departed spirit.    1921 R. H. Lowie Primitive Society xii. 328 It was indeed through the shaman, who revealed the will of the spirits, that the chief was chosen.    1925 G. Róheim Austral. Totemism vii. 350 This rite‥is based on the scheme of death and rebirth and‥the vocation of a shaman is often chosen at puberty.    1938 in F. Boas Gen. Anthropol. ix. 469 Because the North Californian woman happens to be a shaman does not mean that she treats her family and friends differently.    1952 Koestler Arrow in Blue xiii. 106 Vladimir Jabotinsky‥became the first political shaman in my life.    1964 W. R. Trask tr. Eliade's Shamanism i. 4 The shaman is also a magician and medicine man.‥ But beyond this, he is a psycho⁓pomp, and he may also be priest, mystic, and poet.    Ibid., Through this whole region in which the ecstatic experience is considered the religious experience par excellence, the shaman, and he alone, is the great master of ecstasy.    1971 I. M. Lewis Ecstatic Relig. ii. 56 We are perfectly justified in applying the term shaman to mean‥a ‘master of spirits’.    1971 Times Lit. Suppl. 19 Nov. 1453/3 The Maori shaman clasps in his arms the tree on which his people rely for food, clothing, shelter and transport.    1972 P. M. Bartz South Korea 42/1 Primitive spirit worship (shamanism) was followed by Buddhism.‥ Today, there are said to be 27,000 shamans, 10,000 of them women.    1979 London Rev. Bks. 25 Oct. 1/1 America lacks this type of magician—the shamans there are grander, more worldly, more pretentious.

B.B adj. (or attrib.) Of or pertaining to a shaman or to shamanism.

1780 Tooke Russia III. 243 The Schamane religion is undoubtedly one of the most antient that exists.   1882 H. Lansdell Through Siberia xxx. (1883) 374 The Russian missionaries‥find the conversion of the Shaman Buriats tolerably easy.    1901 Contemp. Rev. Jan. 95 The necessary spiritual gifts entitling to the Shaman-office often are bestowed.

Hence †shaˈmanian n., a shamanist; shaˈmanic a., akin to shamanism; also, of or connected with a shaman. Also ˈshamanka, ˈshamaness, ˈshamanin, terms sometimes applied to a female shaman.

1802 Pinkerton Mod. Geog., Russ. Emp. in Asia ii. II. 47 The Schamanians even believe that the Burchans, or gods themselves, arose from the general mass of matter and spirit.    1899 Athenæum 11 Mar. 303/2 The mental attitude of the composers is shamanic and archaic.    1936 Jrnl. R. Anthropol. Inst. LXVI. 80 The term shamanka is used by travellers and anthropologists for all female shamans. This usage is unscientific and misleading.‥ For the sake of convenience, however, I shall follow current usage.    1955 H. V. Elwin Relig. Indian Tribe v. 146 A shamanin who has done the wrong things is regarded rather as a nun who has broken her vows.    1964 W. R. Trask tr. Eliade's Shamanism vii. 241 A shamaness‥resolves to bring back his soul and goes down to the ‘world of the dead’.    1964 Listener 29 Oct. 677/2 The initiation dreams, the general schema of shamanic flight‥are not a shaman monopoly.    1968 N. K. Sandars Prehist. Art of Europe i. 26 In Siberia there were also women who were shamankas.    1977 D. R. McCann Black Crane p. i, These oracles to Chesŏk‥were recited by a mudang, or shamaness.

Thoughts about the word itself

Evenki reindeer herders on their sleds – Republic of Sakha, Siberia, Russia. Photo: Maria Vasilieva Regretfully I have sometimes come across harsh statements coming from some people living in areas where their culture is still rich with shamanic practices. The intent being to reclaim the original use of the word shaman together with trying to exclude areas and people from using the word since it's not being used in its original context.

I.e a person living in Texas can not call himself a shaman since he must be from Siberia (actually the Evenki, formerly known as the Tungus) to be able to call himself a shaman. After all, this is the correct origin of the word.

Well, seeing that this is a fact, shouldn't people not born in these areas stop using the word? The easy answer, and if you all excuse my political incorrectness: Would be yes, if we're all acting as children and don't mind looking like fools.

When reading the etymology we immediately notice that the broader use of the word is old, and the word itself has been traveling all over the world in academic circles, which also means that the word eventually has started to be used by people in general.

You can choose to be stubborn and simply argue the facts that the word itself must not be used out of context. But this is taking the easy way out and simply put, it wouldn't be fair.

Indigenous exploitation

I'm sad to say, and now I'm speaking to the few Shamans living in actual Siberia who might be reading this - but it all boils down to the use of a word which have become a description of something. This particular word which was first imported by careless anthropologists and been used for hundreds of years to describe common shamanic characteristics, is now shared by shamans all over the world. I am definitely not saying I'm personally born in Siberia, but the word shaman is a loanword and saying you're a shaman today in the western world is more of a work description.

I'm sorry to see indigenous people being exploited. I feel very sad when I see how people are being pushed out of their land, their culture exploited and the riches of the earth is selflessly seen as a "resource" and not a living organism which deserves our respect and care.

I have often heard indigenous people trying desperately to make themselves noticed that their culture is being exploited in all sorts of ways, and to make matters worse. Some Caucasians "white's" are trying to profit from using knowledge or culture wrongfully as well as often lying and acting like they are indigenous themselves when it suits their selfish purposes.

SápmiWhere I live, in Sweden, people in general are so brainwashed that they don't even believe in something that isn't first broadcasted on public mainstream TV. I live in a land which supposedly is part of the industrial world where more and more poor people are actually starving, our culture is almost non existent and our own indigenous culture: The Sami people in the area Sápmi are largely seen as arcane and sometimes living a "useless" lifestyle. People are so brainwashed that it have become "interesting and fun" to read books or go on vacation trips as tourists to visit representatives of their own culture! And many would rather look at their heritage on display in a museum then to actually live it!

This is the truth: Indigenous people are being exploited everywhere. I can see it, and you can be sure I'm not trying to hide it or saying anything different. It's wrong when land, heritage or culture are being exploited anywhere.

But the problem is bigger then the use of a word. Regardless if we like it or not, but the word has been used as a description for a very long time and during so the word itself has come to mean more to the rest of the world then its original meaning.

I would not propose or say something stupid like: "the word now belongs to all of us" or something equally fluffy and naive. But I would like to have it recognized that I'm personally not trying to pose as someone from Siberia but instead using the word as a description of what I'm doing.

"There are no shamans in the western world"

And sometimes the discussion comes down to this, when people are running out of arguments. It's a reverse racist tactic and I don't think it needs to be dealt with any further. You either hear the earth speaking to you or you do not. It's that simple. ...To those who understand what this final sentence means I congratulate.

Mother Earth does not restrict her message to borders or countries. There are certainly differences in spirit-work in different parts of the world as well as customs and traditions. I don't argue anything else. I'm only saying that Mother Earth and the Spiritworld is not secluded to certain areas in the world. The western world is definitely not generally prone to good use or practice when it comes to dealing with spirits or living in harmony with Mother Earth. This is self evident. But still there is an ongoing awakening in the world right now, and I rather choose to think positive and hope that this part of the world where I'm living will stop being insane and wake up to what is happening! But this is another topic which you can read all you want on the rest of my webpage.

Some last thoughts about the phrase "neo-shaman"

Some would like to see it distinguished when used in the western world by for example using the prefix "neo-" as in the greek "new". The obvious problem is that there are no suitable "new" words and the word "neo-shaman" is more often used as a derogatory term to portray someone who is a dilettant or a charlatan. Of course I would leave it to others to decide what I am, but you would be really naive if you think I would call myself something that's really a swearword just to be a little politically correct.

Hopefully I have described some of the problems arising when using the word shaman and not being born in the Evenki culture. I do think people need to understand the real history behind the word before they try and use it, as well as recognize that if you are using the word wrongfully or trying to pose as something you are not, then it doesn't help if you call yourself shaman or anything else. It will still be clear to those who can see what you really are.

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