Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The shaman is an intellectual and spiritual figure who is regarded as possessing power and influence on other peoples in the tribe and performs several functions, primarily that of a healer ('medicine man'). The shaman provides medical care, and serves other community needs during crisis times, via "supernatural" means (means that people from a European cultural tradition might regard as magic, a concept which has its roots in the shamanism of the Middle-east, see magi). The role of the shaman is to communicate with entities on the "spiritual plane", and to secure their aid to provide for the needs of their communities.
Specifically, shaman (saman) is a term in Evenk, Manchu and other Manchu-Tungus languages, though the phenomenon of shamanism is widespread and cross-cultural. (Note that although the word ends with "-man," it is a gender-neutral term: a man or woman may be a shaman, depending upon cultural tradition. The plural is also shaman, but pronounced differently.)
Generically, the word shaman refers to analogous functions in other cultures, such as the North American hunter-fishermen culture's "medicine man" or the African agricultural's "Witch doctor", or sangoma. Shamans have existed in most parts of the world, and the ancient shamans of Europe are more or less distantly remembered as druids, ba'ale shem and völvas, and in fairy tales as wizards and witches. Fairy tales and even the language of everyday life include frequent references to knowledge obtained because "a little bird told me," which is a remnant of the idea that shamans can communicate directly with animals. In the western world many of the roles of shamans have been replaced by (or evolved into those of) priests, scholars and doctors.
Joseph Campbell described the essential difference between priest and shaman:
- "The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own." (1969, p. 231)
Some shamans encourage the belief that they possess supernatural qualities that transcend human nature. To wit, shamans are usually credited with the ability to speak to spirits and perform feats of magic such as astral projection and healing. Shamans are usually found in tribal cultures with nature religions and beliefs in ancestor spirits , though some persons in modern Western cultures also consider themselves to be shamans. The shaman's office is frequently held to be hereditary and his ancestral spirits may act as his chief conduits for spiritual aid. However, the most powerful shamans are those who have a natural aptitude for the calling. These individuals easily enter into the separate reality of the spirits, and do so without the need of drugs or other artificial support. Tradition also holds that a shaman is chosen by the spirits, not by the people. A shaman may be initiated via a serious illness, by being struck by lightning, or by a near-death experience (e.g. the shaman Black Elk), and there usually is a set of cultural imagery expected to be experienced during shamanic initiation regardless of method. According to Mircea Eliade, such imagery often includes being transported to the spirit world and interacting with beings inhabiting it, meeting a spiritual guide , being devoured by some being and emerging transformed, and/or being "dismantled" and "reassembled" again, often with implanted amulets such as magical crystals. The imagery generally speaks of transformation and granting powers, or of traveling the other world and making useful contacts with spirits there.
One of a shaman's main functions is to protect individuals from hostile supernatural influences. He or she deals with a range of spirits, performs sacrifices and procures oracles. The shaman may act as psychopomp, conducting the spirits of individuals who have just died to the proper refuge for dead spirits. Shamanistic traditions often include induction of trance through natural drugs (often hallucinogens), chanting, fasting, dancing and music. The drum (tungur in Altaic) is an important instrument in shamanic ceremonies, as it is commonly used to induce autohypnotic phenomena. Researchers also suspect that in some cultures schizophrenia or similar conditions may predispose an individual to the role of shaman. That view is a negative interpretation of the same insight that is enunciated by many shamanic cultures -- that the best shamans spontaneously perform their functions.
In Scandinavia shamans were forbidden to practice their religious functions (and many were even burned on the stake) during the 17th century, and many Russian shamans were shot during the beginning of the U.S.S.R. period.
For a categorisation of the Siberian shamans based on drum motif semantics, see ceremonial drums. This category of shamans have not the same function in their society today, besides some very few exceptions. This change occurred especially after the Russian revolution (1917).
- Mircea Eliade, Shamanism. The classic study of this phenomenon
- Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology: the masks of God, 1969.
- M. A. Czaplicka , (1914) 'Shamanism in Siberia' 
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