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 History of Shamanism

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PostSubject: History of Shamanism   Wed Sep 30, 2009 6:55 am

History of Shamanism:


Shamanistic practices are sometimes claimed to predate all organized religions, dating back to the Paleolithic, and possibly to the Neolithic period. Aspects of shamanism are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by shamanism, as reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, and Calypso among others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and other mysteries.

Some of the shamanic practices of the Greek religion later merged into the Roman religion. The shamanic practices of many cultures were marginalized with the spread of monotheism in Europe and the Middle East. In Europe, starting around 400, institutional Christianity was instrumental in the collapse of the Greek and Roman religions. Temples were systematically destroyed and key ceremonies were outlawed or appropriated. The Early Modern witch trials may have further eliminated lingering remnants of European shamanism (if in fact "shamanism" can even be used to accurately describe the beliefs and practices of those cultures). The repression of shamanism continued as Catholic influence spread with Spanish colonization.

In the Caribbean, and Central and South America, Catholic priests followed in the footsteps of the Conquistadors and were instrumental in the destruction of the local traditions, denouncing practitioners as "devil worshippers" and having them executed. In North America, the Puritans conducted periodic campaigns against individuals perceived as witches. Today, shamanism survives primarily among indigenous peoples. Shamanic practice continues today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and also in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially widespread in Africa as well as South America, where "mestizo shamanism" is widespread.


Etymology of Shamanism:


Shaman originally referred to the traditional healers of Turkic-Mongol areas such as Northern Asia (Siberia) and Mongolia, a "shaman" being the Turkic-Tungus word for such a practitioner and literally meaning "he or she who knows." The words in Turkic languages which refer to shamans are kam, and sometimes baksi.

The word may have passed through Russian and German before it was adopted into English. In any case, the proper plural form of the word is "shaman" or "shamans" and not "shamen", as it is unrelated to the English word "man". Similarly, the feminine form is not "shamaness" but "shamanka". In its common usage, it has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a term which unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and other lore, and the ability to cure a person and mend a situation.

However, this term is generally considered to be pejorative and anthropologically inaccurate. Objections to the use of shaman as a generic term have been raised as well, by both academics and traditional healers themselves, given that the word comes from a specific place, people, and set of practices. The shaman is referred to in Greek mythology as a necromancer and could raise sprits and corpses to use as slaves, soldiers, power chanerlers and as tools for divination.


Function of Shamanism:


If we want to enumerate the functions of the shamans (in all cultures that are recorded as having shamans), then we get a plethora of functions: healing; leading a sacrifice; preserving the tradition by storytelling and songs; fortune-telling; acting as a psychopomp. In some cultures, a shaman may fulfill several functions in one person. As a psychopomp, the shaman may accompany the incarnating soul of a newborn baby, or inversely, the departing soul of the newly-dead. They may also serve the community by maintaining the tradition through memorizing long songs and tales.


Mediator in Shamanism:


Shamans act as "mediators" in their culture. The shaman is seen as communicating with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the dead. In some cultures, this mediator function of the shaman may be illustrated well by some of the shaman's objects and symbols. The shaman's tree is an image found in several cultures (Yakuts, Dolgans, Evenks) as a symbol for mediation. The tree is seen as a being whose roots belong to the world underneath; its trunk belongs to the middle, human-inhabited word; and its top is related to the upper world.


Distinct types of shamans
:
In some cultures there may be additional types of shamans, who perform more specialized functions. For example, among the Nanai people, a distinct kind of shaman acts as a psychopomp. Other specialized shamans may be distinguished according to the type of spirits, or realms of the spirit world, with which the shaman most commonly interacts.


Ecological aspect of Shamanism:


In tropical rainforests, resources for human consumption are easily depletable. In some rainforest cultures, such as the Tucano, a sophisticated system exists for the management of resources, and for avoiding the depletion of these resources through overhunting. This system is conceptualized in a mythological context, involving symbolism and, in some cases, the belief that the breaking of hunting restrictions may cause illness. As the primary teacher of tribal symbolism, the shaman may have a leading role in this ecological management, actively restricting hunting and fishing.

The shaman is able to release game animals (or their souls) from their hidden abodes, The Desana shaman has to negotiate with a mythological being for souls of game. Not only Tucanos, but also some other rainforest Indians have such ecological concerns related to their shamanism, for example Piaroa. Besides Tukanos and Piaroa, also many Eskimo groups think that the shaman is able to fetch souls of game from remote places ; or undertake a soul travel in order to promote hunting luck, e.g. by asking for game from mythological beings.


Soul concept, spirits in Shamanism:


The plethora of functions described in the above section may seem to be rather distinct tasks, but some important underlying concepts join them.

Soul concept in Shamanism:
In some cases, at some cultures, the soul concept can explain more, seemingly unassociated phenomena: Healing in Shamanism:
May be based closely on the soul concepts of the belief system of the people served by the shaman. It may consist of the retrieving the lost soul of the ill person.


Scarcity of hunted game in Shamanism:
Can be solved by releasing the souls of the animals from their hidden abodes. Besides that, many taboos may prescribe the behavior of people towards game, so that the souls of the animals do not feel angry or hurt, or the pleased soul of the already killed prey can tell the other, still living animals, that they can let themselves to be caught and killed.

Spirits in Shamanism:

The beliefs related to spirits can explain many phenomena too, for example, the importance of storytelling, or acting as a singer, can be understood better if we examine the whole belief system: a person who is able to memorize long texts or songs (and play an instrument) may be regarded as having achieved this ability through contact with the spirits.


Knowledge in Shamanism:


The shaman is a person who is an expert in keeping together the multiple codes through which this complex belief system appears, and has a comprehensive view on it in their mind with certainty of knowledge. The shaman uses (and the audience understands) multiple codes. Shamans express meanings in many ways: verbally, musically, artistically, and in dance.

Meanings may be manifested in objects, such as amulets. The shaman knows the culture of their community well, and acts accordingly. Thus, their audience knows the used symbols and meanings, thats why shamanism can be efficient: people in the audience trust it. Such belief system can appear to its members with certainty of knowledge this explains the above described etymology for the word shaman. There are semiotic theoretical approaches to shamanism, and also ones that regard it as a congnitive map.


Initiation and learning in Shamanism:


In some societies shamanic powers are considered to be inherited, whereas in other places of the world shamans are considered to have been "called" and require lengthy training. Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that "Western" bio-medical clinicians would perhaps characterize as psychotic, but which Siberian peoples may interpret as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shamans are called in their dreams. In other societies shamans choose their career.

In North America, First Nations peoples would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest"; whereas South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans. Similarly the Urarina of Peruvian Amazonia have an elaborate cosmological system predicated on the ritual consumption of ayahuasca. Coupled with millenarian impulses, Urarina ayahuasca shamanism is a key feature of this poorly documented societyUrarina. Putatively customary shamanic "traditions" can also be noted among indigenous Kuna peoples of Panama, who rely on shamanic powers and sacred talismans to heal. As such, they enjoy a popular position among local peoples.


Underlying beliefs of practice in Shamanism:


The shaman plays the role of healer in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens. Even in western society, this ancient practice of healing is referenced by the use of the caduceus as the symbol of medicine. Often the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiar helping entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans. In many shamanic societies, magic, magical force, and knowledge are all denoted by one word, such as the Quechua term "yachay".

While the causes of disease are considered to lie in the spiritual realm, being effected by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman will "enter the body" of the patient to confront the spirit making the patient sick, and heal the patient by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimen is often prescribed as treatment. In many places shamans claim to learn directly from the plants, and to be capable of harnessing their effects and healing properties only after obtaining permission from its abiding or patron spirit.

In South America, individual spirits are summoned by the singing of songs called icaros; before a spirit can be summoned the spirit must teach the shaman its song. The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit. Such practices are presumably very ancient; in about 368 BCE, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that everyone who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to "listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth".

The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many shamanic societies. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, and is renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.

By engaging in this work, the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from any enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can be fatal, and the failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to physical death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.


~~Excerpts from
Shamanism: As a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life

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