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Witchcraft and Shamanism
To most people, witchcraft and shamanism appear to be two distinct and separate disciplines. The general public associates shamanism with the holy healing people of native tribes, while they associate witches with spells, potions, Halloween, and, due to popular misconceptions, evil. The two seem worlds apart, but in reality, they come from a very similar root.
What Is a Shaman?
The word shaman, or saman, is Tungus in origin, coming from the Ural-Altaic tribal people of Siberia. Related to the Tungus word sa, which translates as to know, the Siberian people use the word saman to refer to men and women who act as the spiritual healers and wise ones of the tribe. They are the ones who know the mysteries of spirit. The word shaman is properly used to refer to the spirit healers of those tribes who share a similar genetic origin to those of Siberia. It is usually used in reference to the healers of the North and South American tribes, but culturally and linguistically it can be used throughout Eurasia. The role of the shaman applies to both men and women, though culturally one gender can be more prevalent than the other. Few refer to female shamans with a different word, such as shamaness. Sexual orientation and gender identity does not preclude one from shamanism either. In many traditions, shamans dress in the clothes of the opposite gender or practice homosexuality. For anthropologists exploring the spiritualities of tribal societies, the word shaman is an easier and safer term than the words witch, wizard, sorcerer, magician, and seer, even though these labels were used in the past to describe the tribal shamans European counterparts. For those from a Western mainstream academic background, shaman has less negative baggage than these other highly charged terms. In an effort to be more precise, some anthropologists and mystical students use the term core shamanism to differentiate the use of shamanic techniques and ideas from traditional Siberian or Native shamanism. Although it is not a religion, shamanism has a definitive set of core practices that sets it apart from other traditions of magick, yet it can be found worldwide, particularly in tribal cultures, and in the foundations of visionary traditions. Not all mystics can be referred to as shamanistic in the truest sense of the word. Core concepts to the practice of shamanism include the following:
The ability to enter an altered state of consciousness through the use of sound, rhythm, movement, and plants. The experience of one or more nonphysical realities that are just as real to the practitioner as the physical world, and of actions in the nonphysical worlds that directly affect the physical world. The use of an altered state, a trance sometimes defined as an ecstasy, to project self-awareness from the physical world to the nonphysical worlds. Dealings with nonphysical beings, or spirits, who enter into a relationship with the practitioner. They offer guidance, healing, or power used to create change in the physical world. Other mystics may have the same gifts and abilities but do not access them through ecstatic trance or working with the spirits. Though they can be gifted medicine people or spell casters, without that link to the spirit world they are not necessarily shamans. The voluntary interface with the unseen and the ability to use this link to create change is what sets a shaman apart from other magi. Shamans are typically equated with the title of medicine person, though not all medicine men and women use shamanic techniques to effect healing. Humanity seems to be hard-wired with a few common ways to interface with the spirit world. These interfaces are a natural part of our physical and spiritual makeup. Wise ones across the globe separately discovered and applied these techniques and then applied their own cultural beliefs and rituals to them. These techniques have survived because they work. Archaeological evidence indicates that shamanic practice is at least 20,000 years old, making it truly the oldest profession. The recognition of core shamanic techniques in the lands beyond Siberia and the Americas has led to the somewhat controversial use of terms such as Celtic Shamanism and Norse Shamanism, applying a cultural adjective to the shamanic practice. Practitioners of these other cultural traditions sometimes resent the label of shamanism. The word shaman, being from Siberia, was never used by the ancestors of the Celts, Norse, or any other Europeans. A Celtic practitioner once asked me why we dont say Siberian Druidism or Asian Druidism, and in a way he had a point. Through this anthropological choice, shamanism became a default term recognizable to all. This practice of using the word shaman as a generic label has led to a bit of confusion and some difficult feelings. Those involved in the Native tribes feel that culturally it is their word and resent it being used as a generic label or default term. Modern pagans, sharing a similar spiritual history with tribal communities, should be sensitive to these feelings and make an effort to create bridges of understanding. As you study these techniques, it is important to remember that although there are great similarities between the healing practices of many cultures, there are also great differences in thought, philosophy, and interpretation. Such differences must be respected. When I first started on my shamanic path, I attended a lecture in the Boston area by a scholarly and experienced Celtic practitioner of the Underworld traditions, visiting from the United Kingdom. He insisted, and made quite a convincing case, that there is no such thing as Celtic shamanism. In his opinion, people who use the term are careless, sloppy scholars and need to be better educated. The...(Continues)