Art of the day: Shaman

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Mon, 07/03/2006 - 21:43.

Many consider this figure to represent a warrior carrying a shield and an enemy head. The smaller figures possibly represent spiritual helpers, two of which also appear to be carrying heads.

I saw today, on PBS, a remarkable BBC exploration of our mankind called "How art made the world", about how "The discovery of prehistoric cave paintings in the last century led to the shocking realisation that humans have been creating art for over 30,000 years... why the very first pictures ever made were created, and how images may have triggered the greatest change in human history."  What I learned was research has concluded the origin of known art is "shamanism" - "The shaman was to serve as interpreter and intermediary between man and the powers behind the veil of nature".

So art was originally an exclusive domain of spiritualists - these images were what the "Shaman" saw in trance... including the people who first came across the Bearing straights to the current American land, over 20,000 years ago.

Cave art of ancient France, 100s year old rock paintings in Southern Africa, and 10,000+ year old rock painting found in now America all were rooted in spirituality - trance. The realization of this came from many reiterations of study by decades of experts, and this fits with what I have always known and seen in as diverse worlds as New Guinea and Africa. I agree art is created as a vision quest - a solitary experience - made in retreat to an isolated place.

That said, I celebrate all spiritual artists of 10,000s years ago and today as our "interpreters and intermediaries between man and the powers behind the veil of nature", on what many call Independence Day. I prefer to think of Independence as described below, from a Christian scientists site, of all places:

Shaman art

A recent find in the Ardeche gorges region of Southern France, on the
edge of a national reserve, revealed a vast underground network of caves with
paintings and engravings dating from the late Paleolithic age. The caves are
divided into "galleries," with the art depicting a variety of animals (horses,
rhinoceros, lions, bison, wild ox, bears, a panther, mammoths, ibex, an owl
etc.) but more significantly there are symbols, panels filled with dots and
both positive and stenciled hands.

The nature of these paintings is unlike anything which came before.
What is it? It is "shaman-art", and it is at most 32,000 - 34,000 years old
(though dating is a tricky process, it is unlikely the envelope will be pushed
much further back).

To understand shaman-art, we must begin with the shaman. What is it?
As Joseph Campbell has explained in "The Masks of God" (1959), "The shaman was
to serve as interpreter and intermediary between man and the powers behind the
veil of nature."

The word shaman is derived from a Tungus word meaning "he who knows."
(The Tungus are a people who originated in the Amur River valley and spread
into northeastern Asia). Associated with the shaman is the dance, as Campbell
explains in his interview with Bill Moyers. The shaman dances as a way to
experience another realm of consciousness (see The Power of Myth, Doubleday,
1988 @ pp. 85-87)

This shaman experience depicted in cave art. For example, in the
20,000 year old Sanctuary of Le Trois Freres in Ariege, France, there are
three such depictions. One shows a dancing shaman wearing a buffalo robe and
headdress, another with a combination of buffalo and human features, and a
third of a dancing shaman with a beard and human legs, but with the features
of a number of animals, including reindeer, stag, owl, wolf and horse. (These
drawings are reproduced in Goodman, The Genesis Mystery, Time Books, 1983 @

Such depictions are UNKNOWN before 34,000 years ago or so.

Here are some of the basics of shamanism and shaman art:

1. The shaman sees two realities--ordinary physical, and extraordinary
nonmaterial. The latter is the world of the spirit. This is where the human
soul resides.

2. The shaman sees a unity between man and animal at this spiritual level.
This spiritual level is an "upper world."

3. If one has access to the spirit world, it means the person may possess the
powers of animal spirits. Through a personal animal "guardian," the shaman
draws upon the spiritual power of the animal clan. (the term "guardian spirit"
is common among Native Americans, but you'll find common terms in, e.g.,
Siberian, Mexican and Central American shamanism).

4. Access to the spirit world was accomplished by a trancelike state, induced
by dancing and, some have said, by ingestion of certain substances.

5. Mythical animals are often depicted. For example, in the cave of Lascaux
one can see a strangely marked four legged creature with two straight horns,
like antennae. It is not an animal of this earth (and has been called, rather
incorrectly, l'unicorne). But to the shaman there are no such things as
"mythical" beasts. Beasts from the spirit world are just as real as anything

6. One can also see various depictions of "anthropomorphs," ghost like
creatures with birdlike heads. What they seem to represent are initiates to
shamanism, being prepared to take flight to the spirit world.

7. Often the animals depicted (and we're talking about animals with power,
e.g., buffalo) are shown to be "floating" in the air, as their spirits might
(e.g., the cave at Altamira, Spain).

8. The shaman supplied the "link" for his people between worlds.

What are we to make of all this explosive, recent and utterly
different kind of art? Where you have shaman art, you have fully modern homo
divinus, the spiritual man. But there is NO evidence, anywhere, before modern
man, of what is called the "shamanistic complex":

"Shamanism is as old as fully modern man himself; almost everywhere evidence
of one is found there is evidence for the other. all the elements of the
shamanic complex are present in Cro-Magnon man's legacy of art and
artifcacts." [Goodman, 234]

The same cannot be said of Neanderthal, of course. There is virtually
nothing that can be considered shamanistic, let alone the COMPLEX of artifacts
that is the true mark of shaman culture. It simply doesn't exist outside
modern man.

Look over the essentials of shamanism again, as listed above. Can
anyone really think there is similar capacity outside modern man? The attempt
to link, say, Neanderthal to this type of evidence simply can't work. It
always fails. The experts know this. Shreeve and Leakey are just two of the
more popular and recent examples who admit this. That is why they both refer
to the emergence of the modern as an "enigma" (and my old friend Tattersall is
right along with them on this, of course). Why call it that? Because the
appearance of shaman art is astounding and widespread evidence of a quantum
leap in consciousness. Neanderthal never exhibited anything close to this.

An enigma is something you CAN'T EXPLAIN with current knowledge.
That's what the experts say about all this. And current knowledge, when it is
locked into an evolutionary framework, is certainly not going to be able to
move to what really happened:

"In all evolution there is no transformation, no 'quantum leap,' to
compare with this one. Never before has the life-style of a species, its way
of adapting, changed so utterly and so swiftly. For some fifteen million years
members of the family of man foraged as animals among animals. The pace of
events since then has been instant on the evolutionary time
scale." [Pfeiffer, The Emergence of Society, pp. 28-29]

How to explain this explosion? Special creation. Any other view either
skews the physical evidence, or skews the Bible, or both. I'm not willing to
do either.


Campbell, Joseph, The Masks of God (Penguin, 1976)

Campbell, Joseph & Moyers, Bill, The Power of Myth (Doubleday, 1988)

Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. by Willard
Trask, rev. ed. (1989)

Goodman, Jeffrey, The Genesis Mystery, Time Books, 1983


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About the Shaman

From Wikipedia, of course:

Shaman originally referred to the traditional healers of Turkic-Mongol areas such as Northern Asia (Siberia) and Mongolia, a "shaman" being the Turkic-Tungus word for such a practitioner and literally meaning "he (or she) who knows".

The Tungus word has been further connected with Chinese sha men "Buddhist monk," ultimately from Sanskrit. śramaṇa "Buddhist ascetic" (see shramana).

Accordingly, the only proper plural form of the word is shamans and not shamen, as it is unrelated to the English word "man".

In its common usage, it has replaced the older English language term witch doctor, a term which unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and other lore, and the ability to cure a person and mend a situation. However, this term is generally considered to be pejorative and anthropologically inaccurate. Objections to the use of shaman as a generic term have been raised as well, by both academics and traditional healers themselves, given that the word comes from a specific place, people, and set of practices.

Criticism of the term "Shaman"

Certain anthropologists, most notably Alice Kehoe in her book "Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking", are highly critical of the term. Part of this criticism involves the notion of cultural appropriation. This includes criticism of New Age and modern Western forms of Shamanism, which may not only misrepresent or 'dilute' genuine indigenous practices but do so in a way that, according to Kehoe, reinforces subtly racist ideas such as the Noble Savage.

Kehoe is highly critical of Mircea Eliade's work. Eliade, being a historian rather than an anthropologist, had never done any field work or made any direct contact with 'shamans' or cultures practicing 'shamanism'. According to Kehoe, Eliade's 'shamanism' is an invention synthesized from various sources unsupported by more direct research. To Kehoe, what Eliade and other scholars of shamanism treat as being definitive of shamanism, most notably drumming, trance, chanting, entheogens and hallucinogenics, spirit communication and healing, are practices that 1) exist outside of what is defined as shamanism and play similar roles even in non-shamanic cultures (such as the role of chanting in Judeo-Christian rituals) 2) in their expression is unique to each culture that uses them and cannot be generalized easily, accurately or usefully into a global 'religion' such as shamanism. Because of this, Kehoe is also highly critical of the notion that shamanism is an ancient, unchanged, and surviving religion from the Paleolithic.

(see also Plastic shaman)


Shamanistic practices are sometimes claimed to predate all organized religions, and certainly date back to the Neolithic period. Aspects of shamanism are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by shamanism, as reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, and Calypso among others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and other mysteries. Some of the shamanic practices of the Greek religion later merged into the Roman religion.

The shamanic practices of many cultures were marginalized with the spread of monotheism. In Europe, starting around 400, the Catholic Church was instrumental in the collapse of the Greek and Roman religions. Temples were systematically destroyed and key ceremonies were outlawed or appropriated. The Early Modern witch trials may have further eliminated lingering remnants of European shamanism.

The repression of shamanism continued as Catholic influence spread with Spanish colonization. In the Caribbean, and Central and South America, Catholic priests followed in the footsteps of the Conquistadors and were instrumental in the destruction of the local traditions, denouncing practitioners as "devil worshippers" and having them executed. In North America, the English Puritans conducted periodic campaigns against individuals perceived as witches. More recently, attacks [citation needed]on shamanic practitioners have been carried out at the hands of Christian missionaries to third world countries. As recently as the nineteen seventies, historic petroglyphs were being defaced by missionaries in the Amazon. A similarly destructive story can be told of the encounter between Buddhists and shamans, e.g., in Mongolia (See Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon, 1996).

Today, shamanism, once possibly universal, survives primarily among indigenous peoples. Shamanic practice continues today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and also in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially widespread in Africa as well as South America, where "mestizo shamanism" is widespread.


While shamanism had a strong tradition in Europe before the rise of monotheism, shamanism remains as a traditional, organized religion only in Mari-El and Udmurtia, two semi-autonomous provinces of Russia with large Finnic minority populations.[1]


There is a strong shamanistic influence in the Bön religion of some Central Asians, and in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism became popular with shamanic peoples such as the Tibetans, Mongols and Manchu beginning in the eighth century. Forms of shamanistic ritual combined with Tibetan Buddhism became institutionalized as the state religion under the Chinese Yuan dynasty and Qing dynasty. According to some, one common element of shamanism and Buddhism is the attainment of spiritual realization, at times mediated by entheogenic (psychedelic) substances. However, in the shamanic cultures still practiced by various ethnic groups in areas such as Nepal and northern India, shamans are not necessarily considered enlightened, and often are even feared for their ability to use their power to carry out malicious intent.

In Tibet, the Nyingma schools in particular, had a Tantric tradition that had married 'priests' known as Ngakpas or Ngakmas/mos (fem.). The Ngakpas were often employed or commissioned to rid the villages of demons or disease, creations of protective amulets, the carrying out of religious rites etc. The Ngakpas were often looked down upon by Tibetan hierarchs in the monasteries. The monasteries, as in many conventional religious institutions, wished to preserve their own traditions, sometimes at the expense of others. The monasteries depended upon the excesses of patrons for support. This situation often led to a clash between the more grassroots and shamanic character of the travelling 'Chodpa' & 'Ngakpa' culture and the more conservative religious monastic system.(Economy of Excess, George Bataille)



Native American "conjuror" in a 1590 engraving

In Native American groups, only the shaman had the power to commune with the gods or spirits, to mediate between them and ordinary mortals, to talk with the souls on behalf of the living. The shaman, man or woman, was often an extraordinary character, both in physical appearance and in acting talents. He would be a mystic, poet, sage, healer of the sick, guardian of the tribe, and the repository of stories. Those who did not possess the full range of the shamanistic attributes became simply "medicine men", and functioned as respected healers. To become a shaman, a person had to "receive the call", to suffer a religious experience, and would then be initiated into the mysteries of the art. By symbolic death and resurrection, he acquired a new mode of being; his physical and mental frame underwent a thorough change. During this period of initiation, the novice would see the spirits of the universe and leave his body like a spirit, soaring through the heavens and underworld. There he would be introduced to the different spirits and taught which to address in future trances. According to Mircea Eliade's book "Shamanism", during the initiation, spirits would take the shaman's old bones and replace them with new ones. Since sickness was thought to be caused by an evil spirit entering the victim's body, the shaman would call it out in order to affect a cure. He would do so by a special ritual, beating a rhythm on his drum, swaying and chanting steadily increasing the sound and interspersing it with long drawn out sighs, groans, and hysterical laughter.

Initiation and learning

In Shamanic cultures, the shaman plays a priest-like role; however, there is an essential difference between the two, as Joseph Campbell describes:

"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)

A shaman may be initiated via a serious illness, by being struck by lightning and dream of thunder and become a Heyoka, 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 of initiation generally speaks of transformation and granting powers, and often entails themes of death and rebirth.

In some societies shamanic powers are considered to be inherited, whereas in others shamans are considered to have been "called": Among the Siberian Chukchis one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which Siberian culture interprets as possession by a spirit who demands that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirape shamans are called in their dreams. In other societies shamans choose their career: First Nations would seek communion with spirits through a "vision quest"; South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans.

Shamanic illness

Shamanic illness, also called shamanistic inititatory crisis, is a psycho-spiritual crisis, or a rite of passage, observed among those becoming shamans. The episode often marks the beginning of a time-limited episode of confusion or disturbing behavior where the shamanic initiate might sing or dance in an unconventional fashion, or have an experience of being "disturbed by spirits". The symptoms are usually not considered to be signs of mental illness by interpreters in the shamanic culture; rather, they are interpreted as introductory signposts for the individual who is meant to take the office of shaman (Lukoff, 1992). The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China (Noo and Shi, 2004).

Practice and method

The shaman plays the role of healer in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens. Even in western society, this ancient practice of healing is referenced by the use of the caduceus as the symbol of medicine. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiar helping entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans. In many shamanic societies, magic, magical force, and knowledge are all denoted by one word, such as the Quechua term "yachay".

While the causes of disease are considered to lie in the spiritual realm, being effected by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman will "enter the body" of the patient to confront the spirit making the patient sick, and heal the patient by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimen is often prescribed as treatment. In many places shamans claim to learn directly from the plants, and to be capable of harnessing their effects and healing properties only after obtaining permission from its abiding or patron spirit. In South America, individual spirits are summoned by the singing of songs called icaros; before a spirit can be summoned the spirit must teach the shaman its song. The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit. Such practices are presumably very ancient; in about 368 BCE, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that everyone who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to "listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth".

The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many shamanic societies. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, and is renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.

By engaging in this work, the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from any enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can be fatal, and the failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to physical death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.

Shamanic technology

Generally, the shaman traverses the axis mundi and enters the spirit world by effecting a change of consciousness in himself, entering into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens. The methods used are diverse, and are often used together. Some of the methods for effecting such altered states of consciousness are:

Shamans will often observe dietary or customary restrictions particular to their tradition. Sometimes these restrictions are more than just cultural. For example, the diet followed by shamans and apprentices prior to participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony includes foods rich in tryptophan (a biosynthetic precursor to serotonin) as well as avoiding foods rich in tyramine, which could induce hypertensive crisis if ingested with MAOIs such as are found in Ayahuasca brews.

Gender and sexuality

Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may be shamans. In some societies, shamans exhibit a two-spirit identity, assuming the dress and attributes of the opposite sex from a young age, for example, a man taking on the role of a wife in an otherwise ordinary marriage. This practice is common, and found among the Chukchi, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Araucanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navajo, Pawnee, Lakota, and Ute, as well as many other Native American tribes. Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful. They are highly respected and sought out in their tribes, as they will bring high status to their mates.

In Korea, almost all of the shamans are female.

Shamanism and New Age

The New Age movement imported some ideas from shamanism as well as Eastern religions. As in other such imports, the original users of these ideas frequently condemn New Age use as misunderstood and superficial[1][2].

At the same time, there is an endeavor in occult and esoteric circles to reinvent shamanism in a modern form, drawing from core shamanism, a set of beliefs and practices synthesized by Michael Harner and often revolving around the use of ritual drumming and dance; various indigenous forms of shamanism, often focusing on the ritual use of entheogens; as well as chaos magic. Much of this is focused upon in Europe, where ancient shamanic traditions were suppressed by the Christian church and where people compelled to be shamans often find it improper to use shamanic systems rooted in other parts of the earth. Various traditional shamans express respect for this endeavor, sharply distinguishing it from "light" New Age shamanism. Some anthropologists and practitioners have discussed the impact of such 'neo-shamanism' as 'giving extra pay' (Harvey, 1997 and elsewhere) to indigenous shamanisms, particularly as many pagan- or heathen-'shamanic practitioners' call themselves by specific names derived from older European traditions - the völva or seidkona (seid-woman) of the sagas being an example (see Blain 2002, Wallis 2003).

Sometimes, however, people from Western cultures claim to be shamans, often associated with either the New Age or Neopaganism movements. This is considered offensive by many indigenous practitioners, who view these New Age, Western "shamans" as hucksters out for money or affirmation of self. Many shamanistic cultures feel there is a danger that their voices will be drowned out by self-styled "shamans," citing, for example, the fact that Lynn Andrews has sold more books than all Native American authors put together. Often too, these New Age Shamans (sometimes called Plastic shamans), make up elaborate ceremonies that are often completely fraudulent (such as Sweat lodge ceremonies, or Chuluaqui-Quodoushka). Others may be based on real traditional ceremonies but reproduced in a way that distorts, or commercializes, their meaning. At the same time, dealing with the phenomenon of the "self-styled" New Age shamans, one should exercise caution. If religious and spiritual practices are based on the appropriation of other people's cultures or even contain elements of deceit, this does not automatically make them less valid and "traditional." Strictly speaking, in matters of religion/spirituality, such labels as "traditional " and "non-traditional," "indigenous" and "non-indigenous" do not make sense.