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What Are the Practices of Shamanism?

Sucheta Pradhan
The beliefs and practices of shamanism have always amused people across the world, and a lot of studies are being conducted on how a shaman connects with the higher powers of nature. Let's take a look at some of the basic practices of shamanism.
Every act in shamanism revolves around a 'shaman' who is believed to achieve divine powers through trance and religious ecstasy. It is believed that the shaman's soul leaves his/her body and enters the spirit world.
Shamanism is a 'magico-religious' practice, wherein the practitioner, known as a shaman, goes into a trance, so that he/she can communicate with spirits and supernatural entities. Largely associated with healing and divination, a shaman encompasses the essence of a healer, a priest, a social worker, and a mystic, all at once.
Therefore, a shaman can mean a huge array of things for the people belonging to a particular indigenous culture. Shamanism, is thus, a religious and ritualistic tradition that seems to have developed simultaneously in various parts of the world.
The term 'shaman' is derived from the local language of the Evenks, a small Siberian community of hunters and reindeer herders. For them, a shaman was a religious specialist from their region. Later on, however, all the similar religious traditions that existed throughout the world, came to be sheltered under the term, shamanism.
In fact, it was easier to refer to it that way, as the 'shamanic cult' spread gradually throughout the world. Even today, several world religions have several practices, which seem similar to the ancient shamanic ones.
Shamanism thus, is not a single, unified religion, but a ritual-based belief system, which is scattered and fragmented and does not possess any written doctrines, which can serve as a point of reference.
In spite of this, some significant historical, ethnographic, and anthropological studies have been made on shamanism, due to which we have been able to understand the system to a considerable extent.

Shamanic Notions of Spirit and Soul

Shamanic logic is rooted in the idea of mutual dependency between the physical world and the spiritual world. The shamanic world view states that everything, whether animate or inanimate, possesses a spirit.
Spirit, in the shamanic thought, is a very complex concept. It is the essence of being; it is a vital spark that makes an animal an animal, or a stone a stone. Spirit also encompasses the realm of consciousness.
But, despite its abstractness, shamanism also believes that the spirit has an independent existence, and can sometimes intervene in human lives to cause both, good and bad events. And, it does not stop just there - every single spirit has a distinctive form, name, and characteristics.
So, there are spirits of the sun, the moon, the stars, the animals, the trees, and so on. Moreover, the spirit of a tiger is ferocious and aggressive, while that of a rabbit is friendly and timid.
A spirit of a sword kills, whereas that of a container, contains. Notably enough, the essence of all these beliefs is in a way based in the abilities of nature to create and destroy.
The shamanic concept of soul is equally complex as that of the spirit. The basic belief says that the soul has the capacity to leave the body. But, while it is not possible for a layman to control his soul, a shaman can do so.
A shaman's soul can travel through other supernatural realms, and can also set up a communication. By doing so, a shaman offers to help people in trouble and/or to heal the ill.

Basic Shamanic Practices

In order to enter other realms, which are otherwise inaccessible to humans, and set up a communication with supernatural beings inhabiting them, a shaman performs several different rituals and acts.
Usually, a shaman travels across the axis mundi or the cosmic axis (believed to be connecting the heaven and the earth), and enters the spiritual world. In other words, he/she enters into an altered state of consciousness or trance. In order to enter into a trance and get access to the world of spirits, the shaman practices various methods:


This is a technique of self-induced hypnotism, wherein the individual seems to be completely disconnected from the world around him, and enters into a completely different realm. A shaman practices this technique in order to make a spatial journey across the axis mundi and enter the forbidden realms.

Consumption of Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens or entheogens are those substances, which cause hallucinations. In spiritual context, such substances are consumed in order to "generate the divine within". Hallucinogens, in the shamanic context, are sacred drugs, which help the shaman to reach a state of ecstasy and thus, get in contact with the outer world(s).

Spirit Dance

Shamanic dancing is believed to be a doorway to the spirit world. The main purpose of this dance is to call spirits into the physical world and to set up a direct and an intimate contact with them.
The kind of dance that a shaman performs depends on his/her aim. There are different dances to thank the spirits, to establish contacts with them, to ask for their help, and so on. Here, the dance movements become the means of connection between the two worlds.

Music and Songs

Like spirit dancing, music and singing are also vital shamanic practices. One of the most important aspects of shamanic music is the imitation of natural sounds, which are used for inviting spirits into the physical world. Much like shamanic dancing, there are different kinds of music and songs used for different purposes.
To produce music, a shaman uses various musical instruments, the most prominent ones being the drum and the rattle. By producing certain kinds of music and sounds, and by singing certain songs, a shaman allows the spirit to possess him/her, so that he/she can make divination and/or heal.

Medicine Songs

Also known as the icaros these are songs sung by trained and experienced shamans, in order to heal. These songs are intended to call the benevolent spirits of natural entities and/or ancestors, so that the evil spirits, which trouble humans, can be warded off.
Through the medium of medicine songs, a shaman requests the benevolent spirits to come and take away the harmful and troublesome ones.

Vision Quest

One of the universal practices of shamanism is the vision quest, wherein a shaman, along with his followers, spends about four days and nights in seclusion, in the wilderness.
The idea is to connect with natural elements and to communicate with natural spirits, and to learn from them, their wisdom about divination, healing, and the overall world. It is believed that vision quests also make a person realize his/her purpose in life and to plan the way ahead, accordingly.

Regurgitation of 'Mariri'

Mariri is the nature spirit, believed to be living in the phlegm of a shaman. The spirit needs to be fed with tobacco smoke on a regular basis, so that it can aid the shaman during magical rites.
It is believed in shamanism that a shaman can digest the Mariri as well as pass it on to his/her disciples. However, it is also believed that Mariri can be given to a nature spirit as well, and then both of them can jointly help the shaman during magical rituals.
Apart from the ones given here, a shaman also observes various ways of vigil (purposeful sleeplessness) and ritual fasting. Through these, it is believed that a shaman can get closer to the spirit world by generating the divine powers within himself/herself. The center of shamanism is the shaman himself/herself, and the others are mere spectators.
Basically, all the practices of shamanism revolve around connecting with the spirit world, so that the shaman, with the help of the spirits, can ward off the troubles of his/her people or community, can make divination, and can help them heal.