Shamanism has been around for tens of thousands of years. The modern-day Shamanic movement (or the bringing of the techniques and the cultural/spiritual commoditization of it) began in 1980 with Michael Harner’s publication of Way of the Shaman. This movement began earlier in scholarly circles, however, through Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy published in the 1950’s and Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan in the late 1960’s but did not achieve mainstream spiritual circles until the 1980’s with the publications of Harner, Villoldo,, and others.
Much of the accounts prior to Harner were anthropological and historical, meaning that people went and studied Shamans in varying cultures and reported back on them, mainly from the perspective of an academic documenting the “other” as a curiosity or from the lens of academia. Harner, Villoldo, and others were different. They went into cultures and from sitting with Shamans from these cultures created their own “spiritual systems” to import back into the U.S.- these systems integrated psychology and the creation of techniques that could be easily assimilated by mainly white, middle/upper class people who were looking for something to fill the modern-day spiritual vacuum that is in many of our lives.
But herein is where the problem lies. Most people in contemporary society believe Shamanism to be about the techniques and spiritual systems that were created by Harner, Villoldo, and others. Many people have also romanticized the cultures that Shamans are from as well as have romanticized the figure of the Shaman, bestowing on them characteristics and new-age ideologies that no real Shaman could ever live up to. Here is a no-holds barred discussion of some of the myths that have been created by new-agers about Shamans:
1. Shamans don’t call themselves Shamans
Shamans generally didn’t call themselves Shamans in tribal cultures because they didn’t need to. In many tribal cultures the midwife would announce that the baby would be a Shaman, or the traits of becoming a Shaman were evident in early childhood. Shamans have a certain energy about them that is quite easy to spot. Shamans in these cultures didn’t need to call themselves a Shaman because by the time they were born or by early childhood everyone would already know. They were marked. At the appropriate age the Shaman would apprentice with the local Shaman and then be a Shaman, be called a Shaman, call themselves a Shaman (or whatever the cultural equivalent was for Spiritual Healer), and so forth.
In contemporary society most people who engage in this type of myth are not Shamans nor have they ever really read about one, visited one, or worked with one. Being a Shaman is a job, it is a calling. If you are one there is no reason not to call yourself one. You have gone through the initiations and special kind of difficulties that being a called Shaman in modern society entails. If you are truly meant to be a Shaman you will fit all or most of the criteria, including initiations, near-death or death experiences, and the ability to traverse worlds. Your experiences are so intense and people react to you in such a way that you know that you are a Shaman. There is no question. All of this mental posturing is silly. Shaman is a job just like Teacher, Plumber, Astronaut, Barista, Lawyer, Massage therapist, and so forth are jobs. We need people called to all sort of jobs to make up a community. Shaman is one of those jobs that a community needs.
2. Calling yourself a Shaman means that you lack humility
Nope. If you are a Shaman, you are a Shaman. Although Shaman originally was a word meant specifically for Spiritual Healers from Siberia, the word (like many words) has grown to being a generic term for many different types of Spiritual Healers, whose job entails helping people in the community with their spiritual issues. The Shaman (or Spiritual Healer) simply means that you have the ability to traverse worlds, to negotiate (or spirit lawyer) between the mundane world that most people would agree upon and the layers and layers of energies, spirits, and beings that most people cannot. It is something that you can do or it is not. Most Shamans would rather not be Shamans, actually. The romanticizing of the figure of the Shaman has created this powerful, enlightened yet utterly humble being in neo-Shamanic circles that is much different than what any Shaman I have met or read about (beyond what the work of Harner, Villoldo, Castenada, and other modern “core” Shamanic writers offer) is or does. Being a Shaman is a job. It is a calling. If you would have no difficulty calling yourself a Painter, or a Writer, or a Plumber, or a Physician if you are any of these, you should have no issue calling yourself a Shaman if you actually are one. It is not a source of pride- it simply is what you are and the type of work you do based on your abilities and calling in life.
3. Shamans would never accept money
I always think that this one is really funny because it so highlights both the fact that people have never read about Shamans beyond the pop-psychology “core” versions and have never met or studied with one, as well as the issues that the spiritual community has with spiritual bypass and anything that is Earth-based, body-centered, and focused on mundane reality. I hate to break it to people, but by tribal standards Shamans were well off. Many had their own compounds where their entire family and extended family lived. They were well-fed (even when others in their community were not) and were given gifts of food, household items, animals, and herbs by those who they served. Most were actually quite wealthy by tribal standards. This is because being a Shaman is a dangerous job, Shamans were outcasts, and it was best to keep the Shaman who talked to the weather spirits (for example) to ask for rain so you can grow decent crops happy. Of course you didn’t pay an indigenous Shaman money (as in dollar bills). You provided for their whole existence- what did they need money for? Most modern Shamans from tribal/indigenous cultures are happy to accept money nowadays. They either will have an agreed upon price or it will be assumed that you will provide them with a gift or money for their services.
It is of course a bit different with modern Shamans. We do not live in a tribal culture so it is unlikely that a Spiritual Worker is going to be provided with housing, animals, food, and other items needed to survive (although I do appreciate cookies). Modern Spiritual Workers and Shaman get paid. In money. Their work is still dangerous and deserves payment- payment for their abilities, skills, power, time, and supplies. If you are participating in spiritual bypass in which money or anything related to the mundane world is “evil” or “negative” it is time to look at your life and your relationship to money and your feelings about living in the consensual reality we all must operate in. If you would pay a Plumber, a Physician, a Teacher, a Waiter, a Therapist, or anyone else for their work you should have no issue paying a Shaman. They are no different because they are “spiritual”. Money is not evil or negative, it is not anything really. If you argue that Spiritual Workers shouldn’t be paid you are saying that either their work isn’t important, you have romanticized and new-aged yourself into thinking that Shamans are these magical mystical creatures that somehow don’t need to pay their mortgage, eat, have families and pets, or you are so engaged in spiritual bypass that you think that the spiritual is separate from the physical. Basically, if you don’t want to spend money on a Shaman don’t go see one. If you don’t want to spend money on a Plumber deal with your own broken pipes. No job is more or less important.
4. Shamans are Enlightened
This is a funny one. Somewhere along the spectrum there is this assumption that has developed that Shamans are enlightened. Shamans can traverse worlds, they can work with the spiritual, they can see, feel, and sense many things that most people cannot. They can see behind the masks people wear, they can communicate with spirits, energies, beings, and the different layers of reality. They remember things about the world, about themselves, and about their communities. Due to a focus in pop-spiritual culture on enlightenment being this elusive end-goal Shamans have been romanticized as this enlightened mystical being. There is a difference between walking between the worlds and being able to see and communicate with a bunch of different energies, beings, spirits, and so forth and being enlightened. I have met Shamans who were what I would consider enlightened and some that were jerks. Being able to see and know so much along with the abilities that true Shamans have as well as the initiations they have to go through with the understanding level that most people are participating on a very surface level in life is difficult knowledge to have. This can lead to isolation, or being a jerk. This can also lead to enlightenment. This depends on the Shaman and the path they walk.
5. Shamans are all about “love and light”
Similar to the last category, the idea of a Shaman being all about “love and light” is currently very prevalent in modern-day spiritual circles. Ideas like a Shaman would never do anything wrong, or anything against the will of another human being, that they don’t think negative thoughts and that they are all about healing and light and would never say or do anything dark. This again comes from people who have never read about or met a Shaman. Shamans often have to make difficult decisions in their work- they work with death, power, and community and individual issues that are not black and white. It is easy to idealize this situation and think that the spiritual is “out there” and must be traveled and journeyed to and anything dark or negative can just be ignored or transmuted into light, but real Shamans know that this is not true. When you are a Shaman you have to make decisions where none of the options are that great, you have to work with beings and energies that aren’t the cuddliest, and ignoring anything “dark” is actually quite dangerous. When you have power, as in actual power, other Shamans may try to steal it. They may try to attack you out of jealousy. Other beings and energies will be attracted to you. Most people will be afraid or ostracize you. This is an ordinary thing that many Shamans have to deal with. When you do not have any power you don’t have to worry about beings, energies, and other living practitioners. You can form a whole tribe of “Shamans”, take workshops at a Holiday Inn or at some vacation spot, venerate cultures and ancestors and spirits not your own, and self-create all sorts of spiritual scenarios out of thoughtforms and your own belief systems. Aspirational shamans can pretend whatever they choose. Real shamans have to deal with energies, with events, and make decisions that may prove dangerous to themselves to benefit the individuals they are working with or the community they are part of.
6. Shamanism is about Self-healing
Again, no. A Shaman is specifically a member of a community, one that can work with the spiritual layers, energies, and beings to benefit the community and individuals of that community. The mixture of pop-psychology with the spiritual systems of Harner and Villoldo has turned Shamanism into a series of techniques for self-help purposes. Real Shamans may work on their own stuff but really they have the abilities and experiences they do to benefit their communities and the world.
7. Shamanism is about the techniques
When Shamanism was popularized in the West by Harner and others they created spiritual systems. These systems were to engage modern-day people who had interests in Shamanism but not the calling of being a Shaman to learn how to do techniques purportedly from Shamans. The difficulty with this is that many of these techniques, like Soul Retrieval, are more creations of the Western psychological movement than techniques that any Shaman would actually do. Shamans know that the spiritual is all around them- while they may journey or meditate to gain a stronger connection or communicate in a deeper way there is no ability to create this weird divide that is in modern “core” Shamanism of thinking that the spiritual is somehow “out there” in order to feel safe and in control of it. What the modern spiritual systems have done is taken healing abilities and techniques of Shamans, mixed it with a Western psychological mindset, and taken any sort of spirituality out of it. In modern “core” shamanism you do not need to believe in any specific deity, have any specific spiritual path, or be a part of any specific religion. These techniques are practiced outside of anything spiritual (which is still really odd to me and I wish more people would question). You always have to go somewhere and journey to access anything spiritual, and the “middle world” (as in, the world we all are supposed to function in) is dangerous.
Any Spiritual Worker or Shaman I have worked with (and in my own practice) utilizes divination methods to figure out what is going on with you and then works on you. No separation of techniques. Whatever needs to happen spiritually for you will. You do not book a “Soul Retrieval” with a Shaman. A Shaman will look at your situation, see what you need, and do whatever work needs to get done. This may be talking, a ceremony, herbal medicine, massage, or any number of methods of healing intertwined.
8. Everyone can be a Shaman
No. Again, another new-age myth based on the entitled “everybody can be or do whatever they want” movement that is prevalent in modern spiritual circles. Everyone can be a Shamanic practitioner, though. For more on this read this blog…
9. You can be your own Shaman
Anyone can learn the techniques of core Neo-Shamanism. These are self-help tools based in psychology that people can use to better their lives and understand themselves on a deeper level. They can be quite helpful. For self-help purposes meditation, learning how to journey from core Shamanic courses, and taking care of yourself in terms of diet, exercise, sexual practices and more can improve your health dramatically mind, body and spirit. If you are not a Shaman, you cannot be your own Shaman though. And if you are a Shaman you will need an outside healer, Shaman, or other health practitioner to help you out, be a catalyst, teach you, or heal you at some point. If everyone could heal themselves, they would. Many times we need an outside look at our situations, an outside source to help us heal. I still go to practitioners and I have studied and worked with some of the best healers, educational institutions, teachers and gurus out there and have worked with people worldwide through my practice.
10. Shamans are special magical creatures
I say this one as a jest (sort of) but the idealization of what Shamans actually are and do has reached a sort of absurd level these days in modern culture. Shamans are unique, they are. They are on a different wavelength than most people. They have spiritual experiences that are so far outside the normal realm of possibility that if they talk about them most people wouldn’t understand or would have cognitive dissonance in reaction (basically, they wouldn’t be able to process the info). This has translated into a sort of idea of a Shaman as being this special magical creature that literally cannot be human, and is unlike any human that has walked the face of this Earth. This idealizing of the “other” and the uniqueness of the Shaman has led thousands of people to want to be one as well. This is funny because being a Shaman is dangerous, it is extraordinarily difficult, and being on a different wavelength than most people, having experiences that nobody else does, and being able to work in the spiritual realms like Shamans are able to is extremely isolating and difficult for most actual Shamans. Most Shamans experience a great deal of grief and anger about their path, as do their families (in tribal cultures) when they find out that their child being born is going to be a Shaman.
11. Shamans are mentally ill
There is a current meme going around about “What a Shaman sees in a Mental Hospital”. It is all about how mental illness, or the mentally ill can be or may be Shamans, Shamans who either failed initiations or were not recognized in modern culture. This is the sort of crass generalization that is extraordinarily dangerous. Some people classified as mentally ill may be Shamans, or may have failed Shamanic initations, sure. But some people are mentally ill. To say that all people in mental hospitals or who are mentally ill are Shamans is one of those romantic things that people who have mental illness or those who surround them comfort themselves with. There are thousands of people out there, and many people who have contacted me who believe that they are undergoing some sort of spiritual process. Some of them are, but many of them are not getting help that they desperately need (for things like homelessness, total lack of functioning, drug addiction, believing that the number 13 is out to get them, that they are cursed when they are not, that aliens or beings have invaded their space, ISIS is reading their thoughts, that they are Jesus, etc) because they are stuck on this idea that they are having a spiritual experience. The practical and mundane should always be taken care of before the spiritual. If someone is severely bipolar or schizophrenic to the point that they do not realize that they need to wear a coat in ten degree weather they do not need a Shaman. They need people to watch over them in a hospital.
12. There are no modern Shamans (or Suburban Shamans)
There is a belief that Shamans can only come from tribal or indigenous cultures. Some take this a step further and announce that Shamans only come from Siberia. There are Shamans being called in every community. Most modern Shamans do not know how to answer this call. They do not know how to find apprenticeships or appropriate teachers so they can become skilled. Often modern Shamans are so overwhelmed by their experiences and their experiences are so far from what other people report that they just don’t speak about them. There are modern Shamans all across the world. Many of you may feel more comfortable calling them Spiritual Healers or other transmutations of the name that are appropriate and specified for the culture or region (Curandera, Conjurer, Rootworker, etc). But there are modern Shamans. There are Shamans in the suburbs. Many of them just don’t know what to do with themselves and get lost in all of the information and workshops that are meant for aspirational or “core” Shamanic practitioner types.
A note with this last one: I have talked with several Native Americans over the years about the term “Shaman”. Some of them do not feel it is right for anyone to utilize the term in modern-day and become angry about it. This is totally understandable because of the history of Native Americans, the atrocities that occurred, and the subsequent renaissance of modern-day spiritual sorts taking the spiritual aspects of Native Americans (or thinking that they are), turning them into a commodity, and creating a whole host of puritanical beliefs on top of them. The spirituality of people who look through a puritanical lens and have a fascination with Native American spiritual practices without understanding the modern day realities of Native Americans, the history, and the surface level B.S. of most whites doing “pipe ceremonies” and “sweat lodges” with nothing more than a surface level understanding and a fake Native American teacher of some sort understandably creates a great deal of anger. Many others object to people specifically using the term “Shaman” while appropriating NDN culture and ceremonies, inventing fake “grandmothers” and teachers, fake ancestry, saying that one was a Native American in a previous life, and using sacred objects in ceremonies without permission. I completely agree. While I do think that there are modern-day Shamans and Shamans in suburbia since the term has now encompassed what “Spiritual Healer” means, utilizing the ancestors, practices, and objects of other cultures without their permission is hideous. Claiming ancestry that is not yours will only lead to trouble. Learning about your own ancestors, developing your own power, understanding what spirits are calling to you as an actual Shaman is incredibly important. I have seen time and time again people getting into a lot of trouble by being fake about their credentials, their spirits, and by utilizing practices that are not their own and they do not have permission to use. Ignorance is not helpful. If you want to find out if spirits are real piss them off. Honor your own ancestors, your own spirits, before you honor ones from Peru, Native American, etc. ones.