Shamanism comprises a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with a holistic world comprising the seen and unseen. A practitioner of shamanism is known as a shaman, pronounced Shah-man as opposed to the fashionable Shay-men. There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world (here though we are concerned with the Northern European Shamanism of the Vitki), but several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Shamans are intermediaries between the human and non-human worlds, they can treat illness and are capable of entering other worldly realms to obtain answers to the problems of their community.
The term “shaman” comes from Tungusic word šamán, the term for such a practitioner, which was used in the Tungusic cultures in Siberia. The word’s etymology is uncertain. It is sometimes connected to a Tungus root ša- “to know”. It became popular as a name as it was so obscure that it carried no baggage or attachments unlike the term ‘medicine man’ or ‘witch doctor’. There are variations of shamanism throughout the modern and ancient world; and quite a few common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism.
Common beliefs identified by Eliade in his researches back in 1964 include:
- Non-human intelligences exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
- The shaman can communicate with the other unseen worlds.
- These non-human intelligences can be good/evolutionary or evil/devolutionary.
- The shaman can treat sickness caused by such entities.
- The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy and go on “vision quests.”
- The shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
- The shaman evokes animal soul archetypes as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.
- The shaman can tell of the future potentials, throw bones/runes, and perform many other varied forms of divination.
Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by unseen energies and intelligences some times referred to as spirits which affect the lives of the population. Shamanism requires individually acquired knowledge and special capabilities and generally operates outside of established religions. The majority of shamans operate alone, though they are usually trained and initiated by the elder shamans. Shamans do gather into groups usually for specific tribal ceremonies such as initiations and coming of age ceremonies.
The functions of a shaman can include healing of ailments, the ailments may be either purely physical afflictions such as diseases, wounds, or can sometimes be mental (psychosomatic) afflictions which cause physical problems. Counselling in cases of distress, grief or stress and in the methods of releasing a persons inner potential. The are usually also the guardians of the lore and culture a role shared in this tradition by the Godhi.