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Shamans used to be important figures in ancient societies which is why the origin of shamanism dates back to prehistoric times. In an era when medicine wasn't as systematized as it is now, magic powers dominated the healing aspect of mental and physical ailments. Ancient healers were also seen as clairvoyant and they could communicate with the spirit world which few people could do.
We aim to examine the definition of shamanism and how it manifested itself in different cultures throughout history. To do this, we will look at the Mayan and Aztec civilizations that inhabited Mexico and North America, as well as at the Inuit and Yupik cultures (also called Eskimo groups), the Mongolians and various other cultures.
Shamanism is defined as an ensemble of magical practices that center around a shaman - a practitioner that allegedly has access to the spirit world via an altered state of consciousness.
Shamans typically enter a trance state in order to achieve this transcendental voyage and usually, although not in all cases, they do so with the use of psychoactive substances. The knowledge obtained through these "journeys" was meant to bestow divination and healing powers to the shaman.
The term "shaman" started being used by western anthropologists to describe religious rituals in Mongolia and Turkey, as well as the neighboring areas. Although contacting spirits is still a centerpiece in the shamanic practice, the term is now being applied to similar rites around the world.
In reality, aside from the Mongols and the Turks, ceremonies from other cultures which came into contact with the scientists, such as the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Australian aborigines, or certain African tribes, became associated with the concept of shamanism due to sharing several traits with this practice.
Nowadays, neo-shamanism has become a rather popular phenomenon in Westerns cultures - however, it only superficially adopts notions from shamanic beliefs, sometimes with little regard to historical accuracy. These practices are now being incorporated into alternative therapies and have a close relationship with the rise of arbitrary antiscientific doctrines, relatively close to magical thinking, that these cultures are experiencing.
Despite the fact that certain cultures around the world still practice similar ceremonies to those found in shamanism, generally speaking, we are experiencing a downfall in the popularity of shamanic rituals in the last years.
Nevertheless, in ancient times, the role of the shaman was regarded as fundamental in the lives of humans all over the world.
Mexico continues to represent a central focal point in shamanic rituals, and traditions inherited from Mayan, Aztec, and Toltec shamans persist to this day.
In Mexico as well as other Latin American countries, the position of shaman included functions such as healing illness, predicting the future, and offering counsel - either emotional or practical. Shamans were known to give advice on financial matters and to newlyweds.
Some of the Native American societies that inhabited the continent before the arrival of the European would perform specific shamanic rituals, while others had different practices.
Siberia has been and remains to this day the birthplace of shamanism; and the word "shaman" originates from the Evenki word šamán, most likely from the southwestern dialect spoken by the Sym Evenki peoples. The Tungusic term was subsequently adopted by the Russian settlers of Siberia who applied it to all indigenous spiritual healers.
This region is rife with shamanic beliefs, although their popularity has declined at the beginning of the 20th century due not only to the modernization of the area but also with that of the people's beliefs.
According to historical records, shamanism has been linked to Mongolians due to their proximity to the European colonists that coined the term. Mongolia is, in fact, located quite close to Siberia - it lies South of this region.
In ancient times, Mongolian societies were structured into clans and the bulk of the authority was given to the shaman, community spiritual leaders. Both men and women could fulfill this extremely important position.
Neoshamanism has started to gain fame in the region particularly because of Buryats, the largest indigenous group in Siberia. Their neo-shamanic beliefs center around reclaiming the culture and traditions of these people.
The European countries that are closest to Turkey and Mongolia are the ones that exhibit a higher prevalence of shamanic traditions. Specifically, Hungary and the cultures originating from this region are associated with this type of practices more than any other European country.
We have to keep in mind that the concept and definition of shamanism were devised by Europeans, which explains why certain rituals from this area were left out when describing the term - which has been used from the very beginning to describe belief systems that were different to those popular in Europe at the time.
Some argue that the term "shamanism" shouldn't be applied to the Celtic pseudo-shamanic practices because it would imply using elements from other geographical areas.
Nevertheless, if we interpret the definition of a shaman in terms of someone who can contact the spirit world, Celtic culture is a good example of this type of collective creeds.
Shamans are still popular in Korea where the role is passed down from generation to generation and a big part of the shaman's responsibilities involve counseling members of the community.
Korean shaman women are called “mudang” while the male shamans are "baksu".
The Shinto and Ainu religions from Japan are also connected to shamanic rituals.
The animist view of the world and the elements that comprise it (not only living beings) are key to understanding the Japanese culture and mythology as a whole.
The Hmong people are an ethnic group originally from Southeast Asia that migrated in various places around the world because of the Vietnam war. This way, its practices started expanding in the Americas, Europe, and Australia, among other regions.
The most known practice in the Hmong culture is called "Ua Neeb" that includes animal sacrificing and sacred words that aim at curing diseases.
There are various African villages that have a sorcerer who practices rituals similar to those encountered in shamanism.
Therefore, the Zulu "sangoma" were able to use spiritual powers for good or evil purposes, the Dogon people of Mali were able to communicate with a spirit called "Amma" who gave them healing and clairvoyant powers. Meanwhile, the Dagaaba people of Ghana and Burkina Faso believed that individuals who had recovered from mental illness had shamanic powers given their ability to overcome the spirits that had possessed them.
Inuit and Yupik cultures are ethnic groups closely related that inhabit the circumpolar region and are known as "Eskimos" by most people although this term is now considered derogatory.
The shamanism practiced by the Inuit and the Yupik people ticks off the essential prerequisite this practice has: the shaman is a pivotal figure that acts as a mediator between spirits and the rest of the world. One of the reasons shamanism is still alive in these areas is that it was accepted as a voluntary choice more than a hereditary or innate ability.
Bužeková, T. (2011). Modern Faces of Ancient Wisdom: Neo-Shamanic Practices in a Slovak Urban Environment
Campbell, J. (1959). The Masks of God: Primitive mythology. London: Penguin Books.
Harner, M. (1980). The way of the shaman: A guide to power and healing. NewYork: Harper and Row.
Kehoe, A. (2000). Shamans and religion: An anthropological exploration in critical thinking. London: Waveland Press.