Some spiritualists, regardless of their background, describe themselves as shamans in the same breath that they also call themselves Reiki masters, tarot readers, aura cleansers, and mediums. While these terms each refer to a particular type of spiritual practice, “shaman” has seemed to have lost most of its specificity. With Western spiritualists throwing around the word “shaman” as freely as “energy,” “entity,” and “vibrations,” let’ explore the term’s roots.
In short, what’s become a pretty general term isn’t general at all.
The actual word “shaman” is derived from the Siberian Tungusic word for a spiritual leader, or ” one who is raised.” As it became more widespread, the title of shaman was used interchangeably with “medicine man,” “medium,” and “healer.” Indigenous communities around the world, from Central and Northern Asia to North America to Central and South America, practiced various forms of shamanism.
Most famously, shamans were known for their ability to communicate with the afterlife. It’s believed that, through ceremony, they would enter trance, an altered state of consciousness, and cross over. These rituals, where shamans would reach spiritual ecstasy, consisted of drumming, singing, dancing (which usually involve herbal work, animal magic, and invoking the spirits). They’d also use their connections with the other side to see the future and heal community members.
It wasn’t uncommon for shamans to treat both physical and emotional ailments, it has been suggested that a shaman’s role within the community was, in part, to help others understand and cope with their grief.
With the arrival of organised religion, shamanic practices started to fade out. Vilified and outlawed as “black magic,” shamanism has taken on a mystical, esoteric air. Of course, there are still indigenous people who practice it, but the push from prominence to obscurity is what has led to shamanism’s current status as a go-to, vaguely otherworldly term for Western spiritualists.
Simply put, the word “shaman” has culturally specific, historically rich roots.
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