For Shamanic healing the shaman’s cosmological model contains the four elements and four directions which enable us to access spiritual realms. Shamanism does not use the Tree of Life as a model, but symbolism is important.
The definition of shamanism is varied, but the importance of the shamanic work within a community cannot be over-emphasised. Mircea Eliade’s definition of Shamanism is a Technique of Ecstasy.
Magicians are not shamans, but shamans can be magicians
The shaman specialises in altered levels of consciousness or trance that enables him to travel through the spiritual realms in order to perform actions to benefit the community. Shamans are able to communicate and command spirits; rarely will a shaman allow himself to be possessed by spirits. ‘Shaman’ is a Siberian word, but shamanic experiences have been recorded throughout the world. Shamanic techniques are far more sophisticated and safer than astral travel.
Religious experiences in Siberia include a Great God or Creator, whose name often means Sky or Heaven, or having the characteristics of luminosity or loftiness. White Light or Master of the Sky is another epithet. This God has several ‘Sons’ or ‘Messengers’ subordinate to him who live in the lower heavens. Their number is usually seven or nine. These Messengers watch over and are the link between the two. Later, as knowledge and power degraded, there appear to be division between the Messengers.
Finding the Shamanic Vocation
The shamanic life often begins with a spiritual crisis or ‘separation’. Shamans are recruited by either hereditary transmission or spontaneous calling. Traditionally, those who become shamans by their own free will are not as powerful as those who are recruited and trained. The training is carried out by two methods; ecstatic (dreams, trances etc), or traditional.
Whether or not shamanism is hereditary, signs of potential ability from puberty include: nervousness, desire for solitude, being absent minded or dreamy, even epileptic fits. Many latent candidates sleep excessively. The person may be instructed by a spirit in a dream of his vocation. However, the person still has to prove to the spirits of his abilities through various tests. In other words, the process may take some years before the person is accepted as a shaman within the community.
The spirits give the initiate prophetic dreams, or carry him to the underworld in order to be instructed by deceased shamans. Someone going through this process may exhibit sudden changes in moods; from irritability to normality, or melancholia to agitation, for example. The prospective shaman may try to extend his powers more as a mean of personal survival, but this result in abilities to protect society at large. Symptoms of shamanism may be similar to mental disorder, and care has to be taken, but the he is considered to be one who has cured himself of all his maladies. In other words, his vocation is to cure his own illness. For some perfect health is attainable only as long as shamanism is practised. They are often very intelligent, they have a supple body and unbounded energy. In some cultures, the shamanic vocabulary is three times that of the tribe. We may consider that because they were ill, and then cured themselves, shamans have the theory and practise of illness and its cure.
The experience of dreams and ecstasies is the signal for the elder shamans to begin teaching the student. The main structure to an initiation is of suffering, death, and resurrection.
Initiations follow this general pattern:
- Dismemberment of the body
- Renewal of the internal organs
- Ascent to the sky and dialogue with the gods and spirits
- Descent to the underworld and dialogue with spirits and souls of dead shamans
- Visionary revelations
The process of the emergent shaman is characterised by him becoming meditative, seeking solitude, sleeping a great deal, appearing absent minded, and having prophetic dreams.
Some traditions maintain that each shaman has an eagle or mythological bird that cuts the shaman’s body in pieces and gives them to the evil spirits to eat. This gives the shaman the power to control disease in the future. Once the spirits depart the bird re-assembles the body. We can consider that the body parts have either been ‘cleaned’ or replaced. The eagle lives in a great tree, where she lays her eggs depends on the quality of the shaman. Other shamans ‘travel’ across deserts, ascend a mountain where they enter a cave. The initiating spirits then cut up the bodies and cook them in a giant cauldron. Then, either the waters or a blacksmith reassembles the body. Some shamans experience torture by the demons. The shamanic experience is often undergone by the initiate sleeping in a graveyard or on the grave of a saint. In some cultures, quartz or a piece of bone, or other item is placed within the shaman’s body when it is reassembled.
Enlightenment follows, which the initiate perceives as a luminous light (inner light) within his body which enables him to see in the dark, perceive the future or hidden events, and the secrets of others. The experience is often in terms of height or depth, ascending a tree or flying as a bird. In Tantric, Buddhist or Christian traditions the initiate contemplates or visualises himself as a skeleton. To summarise, the shaman’s body is dismembered and reassembled often using fire (cooking).
Shamanic Powers in the Past
Historically shamans were capable of physically flying through the air. Interestingly, the origin of the first shaman is associated with the outbreak of evil, either in society, or that the he was too proud to recognise God. God had to intervene in the form of an eagle. The result was that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ shamans were created. In the beginning, initiatory death and resurrection was the criteria for creating a shaman, not teaching by spirits and elder shamans.