Shamans and Shamanism
Shamans are "ritual practitioners in hunting-and-gathering societies who enter altered states of consciousness to achieve a variety of ends that include healing the sick, foretelling the future, meeting spirit animals, changing the weather, and controlling real animals by supernatural means" (Clottes 19). According to H. R. Ellis Davidson:

"The shaman acts as intermediary between the world of men and the gods, and has the power to descend into the realms of the dead. His spirit is believed to journey forth from his body, which remains in a state of trance. Sometime the long journey which it takes is described by him in a chant. Sometimes he induces the conditions of ecstasy by beating his drum or by an elaborate and exciting dance" (118).

The cave painting above depicts a human figure with a bird head lying (flying?) beside a bison. This figure is traditionally called "the dead man," but he could just as easily depict a shaman who has fallen into a halucinatory trance. Notice the figure's erect phallus (indicating power, fertility?) and the bird (indicating flight to other worlds?) on a staff below him. Note, too, that while the bison appears to be charging, he has also been pierced by a spear in the groin area and is partially eviscerated. At the left is a fleeing rhinoceros. From the cave of Lascaux, France, 17,000 BC. [Use "Go" button to return to this page.]

Other means which shamans use to enter a hallucinatory trance state are fasting, ingesting psychotropic drugs, enforced isolation, sensory deprivation or even torture. (We shall read how the Norse god Odin hangs himself on the world-tree in order to gain secret wisdom.) Shamans often dress in animal skins and masks, and in the deepest part of their trance-journey to the spirit world, they often imagine meeting or transforming into the local animal of power. The spirit animal is either the animal that is hunted most often and provides the most food, or the animal seen as "master of the beasts"--a being who brings / ensures good hunting. It is thought by some that the pictures of half-animal, half-men figures found in both ancient and modern cave drawings are depictions or recreations of the shamanic trance state. (See the figure called the "Sorcerer" from the cave of the Trois Frères and Clottes 81-99.)

The shaman goes on his spirit-journey in order to bring back benefits from the other worlds--upper or lower. The shaman's journeys to the spirit world are depicted as ascents (by flight, ladder, or tree) or descents (by diving, walking or falling). Davidson writes:

The purpose of the ceremony is usually to find the answer to some question of some importance for the community, such as the reason for a dearth of food, or an epidemic. Alternatively, it may be to heal some sick person, in which case it may be necessary for the shaman's spirit to pursue the soul of the sick man down into the underworld and to overcome by his superior powers the hostile spirits trying to prevent it from returning to the body. (118) David Adams Leeming claims a kinship between the shaman and the trickster figure (22-24). There are certain similarities: both take animal forms, both go on boundary-crossing journeys, both mediate between gods and humans, and both claim to control supernatural forces in order to bring benefits (food, healing) to humans. So in some ways, the trickster may represent the shaman in humorous folktale form. But even though the trickster operates within a sacred context, he often mocks that context while breaking religious and societal rules. A shaman is an actual, serious religious practitioner while the trickster is an imaginary god-like jokester. There are some ways, however in which trickster tales and shaman's trance-journeys are folktale and ritual versions of the hero's journey pattern. (See "Hero's Journey" for more on this pattern.)

In more complex agricultural societies, shamans are replaced by priests. Instead of going on an individual vision quest, the priest presides over communal rituals. In agricultural societies, a religious trance is usually interpreted as possession by a god or spirit, while in hunter-gatherer societies the trance is vehicle for the shaman's soul or spirit to leave his or her body and go on a spirit-journey (Clottes 26).

Works Cited

Back to ENG 204 World Mythology Course Index