"The Shaman was not in the least surprised to see Walser"

Shamanism refers to a range of beliefs and practices around communication with the spiritual world.  A shaman is a religious leader within this belief system, which is believed to have originated in Siberia.  The word 'shaman' derives from the word 'saman', meaning 'one who knows', in the Tungus dialect of the Ural region.  However, versions of shamanism exist across North and South America, among Eskimos, in Africa and China. 

The role of the shaman in a tribe or community is to intercede between people and the spirit world, seeking solutions to problems in alternate dimensions.  The majority of his or her time will be spent in the world of spirits, with advice and guidance learned there impacting on the life of the community.  The shaman is 'called', often after a period of physical or nervous illness, to the role of mediator and healer; shamanism is closely allied to the native American 'medicine man'.  The key difference is that whilst shamans believe that they enter another world to communicate with spirits, they do not possess nor become possessed by those spirits unlike other, similar religions.  Shamans are also guardians of the oral tradition, passing on local songs and stories, fortune tellers and guides of deceased souls.  In some cultures these roles are divided among several spiritual leaders, whilst elsewhere one individual may take on all responsibilities.

Believers in shamanism divide creatures into animals of the Sky, Earth and Underworld according to their place among trees and air, on the ground or beneath the water. Some shamanistic belief systems involve sacrifice, with the souls of animals acting for the good of the people by attracting other game to the locality.  Animals also act as symbols, messengers and spirit guides within the physical and spiritual world, and can aid with the reading of the future and identification of right actions.  Similarly, the shaman could connect with the soul of an unborn child to cure infertility in women.

Shamans follow strict diets appropriate to their culture, and whilst some can induce a trancelike state independently, others employ plant-based drugs including cannabis, mushrooms, tobacco, fly agaric, deadly nightshade and opium to reach the spirit world.  These drugs are known as entheogens; 'that which causes god to be within an individual'.  The spirit journeys are seen as a form of hysteria, but are distinct in that the shaman retains a high degree of control over the experience.  By learning to channel their hysteria, many shamans cure pre-existing nervous conditions through adopting their vocation.

shaman's costume, Evenk people, Siberia
Creative Commons Attributionshaman's costume, Evenk people, Siberia - Credit: s uncana

In order to employ these drugs, shamans often carry smoking pipes; skin drums, rattles and gongs are also commonly used to achieve an altered state of consciousness and travel between worlds.  Feathers often form part of the shaman's costume since birds travel in the air, and thus play a role as messengers from the spirit world.  The core costume of the Siberian shaman includes a coat, mask, cap and iron plate.  The mask is designed to close the eyes to the physical world whilst visiting that of the spirits, other accessories and instruments envelope the shaman in disorienting colour, images and noise which help to increase his impact on observers and to ease them into a semi- hallucinatory state.

Today, shamanism has died out in many areas of the world with former shamans, and followers of the belief system, feeling mocked and embarrassed within modern culture.  It survives chiefly among indigenous, isolated peoples, still most notably in Siberia where, although many citizens are registered as Christian or Buddhist, they continue to follow elements of shamanistic beliefs.  For example, when the first reindeer is killed on a day of hunting, a carved wooden spirit figure is smeared with its blood to guard the health of the remainder of the herd.  There are also, inevitably, individuals claiming to be shamans who are no more than frauds selling worthless oils and medicines.  A line of modern, western shamans also offer courses and guidance to individuals wishing to explore shamanism in today's society.

Read texts on shamanism

Identify animal spirits

Visit shamanism.co.uk