The shaman is the traditional healer. From the Tungus word shaman, or haman, he moves through the world of spirit curing, divining, and chasing ghosts. He communicates directly with souls “on the other side”, asking questions face to face rather than supplicating them. And unlike a witch, all of this is done in full view of his people. The remaining stronghold of the shaman is in northeast Asia among the Yakuts, Tungus, and the tribes of the western shore of the Bering Sea.
The shaman resides not only in the middle world of men; he moves through the upper world of light and good and the lower world of darkness and evil. This is what distinguishes the shaman from all other healers; the ability to communicate directly with spirits. He communes with his familiars, his guardian angel or Emekhet and an external soul known as his Yekyua. This mischievous spirit belonging to both the shaman and a living beast, an animal, is what enables the shaman to do harm in the middle world. This spirit can be a source of irritation to the shaman as it is independent of him and has effects on his life that he has no control over. Effects that can include death.
The shaman uses many things in his practice including special clothing and percussion instruments, all adorned with symbols. He uses these in his séance while he travels to the spirit world in full public view. He can be in two places at once; his physical body twitching and convulsing in the middle world while his soul works in the spirit world. And when his journey is done, he often collapses in exhaustion. He makes these journeys to heal, to dispel spirits, and to maintain the faith of the people. This is not to say that this is a job without risk. If things go wrong, if too many people go uncured, the shaman may be accused of being a witch. More than one shaman of the Pima-Papago and the Mohave has been killed when sickness went uncured. With impassive acceptance, the shaman would meet his fate, knowing that in violent death he would receive an other-worldly fate he may otherwise miss.
Today, particularly in “New Age” communities, many call themselves “shamanic” healers. I have always been skeptical of them. They exhibit no true knowledge of what a shaman is, or what a shaman does. It is a convenient and popular appellation that people adopt with no knowledge whatsoever. They admire the shaman for his “ability” to “get in touch with himself” and the use of spiritual medicine as opposed to mechanical Western medicine. They are completely ignorant of the perils that exist in the real shaman’s craft. A true shaman deals with human fears and illness on a consistent basis. Sorcery is often seen as the cause of illness and the penalty for being found as a sorcerer is often times death. Should a shaman fail in his duties to cure illness regularly, he himself may be found to be a sorcerer. In his practice, he continually assures his people that he is doing all he can to cure them. Willingness to subject himself to physical pain is a sign that he is acting in good faith. A true shaman would never lock 60 people in a sweat lodge while he sits outdoors as they suffer and die inside. The penalty for a true shaman would be certain death. There is no appreciation of the context in which a real shaman operates, the spiritual discipline he adheres to, or the dangers he faces in the pursuit of his duties.Beware, because unless these people travel through the spirit world and communicate directly with spirits they are in no way “shamans”. True shamans learn their vocation over years of training and to reduce their lifetime of discipline to a set of personal development techniques strips the tradition from links to a specific landscape and cultural tradition. This does a tremendous disservice to the peoples who are true shamans. They are warriors in the battle against the darkness of the human heart. Shamanism not only attests to the vibrancy of life, but can also bring violence and death. Next time you meet a “shaman”, ask if death could be the penalty for failure to heal you and others!