Shaman: Definition & Talents

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will give a general definition of the terms 'shaman' and 'shamanism.' We will learn what shamans do, how they help people, and examine different religious traditions that fall under this category.

What is a Shaman?

The term shaman is one of those words that most of us have heard, but frequently in a vague or less-than-accurate way. It is common to hear everyone from Jim Morrison of the Doors to a techno DJ at Burning Man being referred to as a shaman, but these associations are pretty misleading. A shaman is actually a religious specialist, a man or a woman who is believed to have the ability to leave their body and travel into the spirit world in order to obtain special information, or to commune with supernatural beings.

Virtually any religion can include a religious specialist that fits this definition, although the term is most commonly applied to indigenous religions or traditions outside of Judeo-Christianity. The term 'shaman' was first used to describe religious practitioners in Central Asia and Siberia, but it has since been applied to similar religious behaviors in many different parts of the world and in many different time periods.

A traditional Siberian shaman
Siberian shaman

A Case Study In Shamanism: Old Norse Seiðr

Seiðr was a form of shamanism practiced within the Old Norse pagan tradition throughout Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland until about 1100 CE. These Old Norse shamans would go into trances, possibly aided by local psychedelic mushrooms or other mind-altering substances, and travel into the realm of the spirits, the Gods, and the dead.

Seiðr, as in many examples of shamanism, was often used to heal the sick or find out the answers to important questions. Before the invention of modern medicine, what would an Old Norse pagan do when she was having trouble conceiving children or suffering from headaches? She'd go to see her local shaman, that's what! The shaman would get trance-y, her spirit would leave her body, and she'd travel into a sacred realm in which answers for the woman's problem could be sought. Once the shaman found what she was looking for, her spirit would return to her body, and she'd provide advice to her client on how to fix her problem.

Although women were the most commonly cited practitioners of Seiðr, men could also practice this tradition. Odin, perhaps the most important of the Norse Gods, was himself a practitioner of Seiðr, traveling into the land of the dead to gain the knowledge of written language so that humans could use it.

A traditional Inuit medicine man around 1900
Inuit Medicine Man

Shamanism Is a Category

Maybe the most important thing to know about shamanism is that it is a category of religious behavior, not a particular religion or specific tradition. A Vodou priest or priestess in Haiti might go into a trance or become possessed by one of the Vodou spirits in order to diagnose an illness or obtain advice about a client's love life, but this priest or priestess may have never heard of the word 'shaman.' Many of the rituals and practices within Haitian Vodou fall under the scholarly definition of shamanism, but that does not mean that people who practice Vodou identify themselves as shamans.

Numerous different cultures and ethnic groups within the Inuit and Yapik peoples of Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland practice a wide variety of religious traditions that involve trance states, mystical healing, or out-of-body travel, but these religious practices should not all be lumped together as constituting the same religion. A Wiccan or neo-pagan living in the United States in the 21st century might identify themselves as a shaman, but that does not mean they necessarily have anything in common with a Vodou priestess, an Inuit healer, or a practitioner of Old Norse Seiðr.

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