Understanding Shamanism (practices, trance, beliefs)

Shamanism is undoubtedly the oldest and most enduring form of spirituality that humanity has known. Prior to all other religions, it very often constitutes a practical basis on which more complex philosophies can be built.

It is correct to see shamanism as a primordial spirituality, a set of ideas shared by most of our ancestors (if we go back far enough at least).

Yes, we are talking here about this universal wisdom that all people on earth once knew!

Including teachings on the world, life and humans, but also other more practical ones on healing or magic for example, shamanism has something to interest... or at least to intrigue.

In this article, we will try to learn more about these beliefs which may have animated our Ancients.

Contents :

Definition of Shamanism

Basic beliefs of shamanism

Put them into practice in real life

Some tools of shamanism

Shamanism around the world

Neo-shamanism: the modern expression of an age-old thought

For further

Discover this article in video format

Several balanced piles of pebbles arranged during a shamanic ritual.

Definition of Shamanism

The term “shaman” comes from the Tungus tribe, a people of Siberia.

Starting from the observation that the beliefs and spiritual practices of the members of this community were surprisingly close to those that could be practiced almost everywhere in the world millennia ago (we know this in particular thanks to archaeological excavations), anthropologists are put to use the words "shaman" and "shamanism" to talk about the religions of indigenous peoples in general.

We can therefore initially define shamanism as being the set of primordial spiritual practices of first and indigenous peoples.

A question then arises: do the similarities between the beliefs of different peoples really justify placing them under the same banner, linking them together?

The answer is clear: yes, it is entirely relevant.

There are so many points in common between the different shamanic practices that it can sometimes be complicated to differentiate between two traditions, which are nevertheless separated by thousands of kilometers from each other.

We now know what shamanism is, but a second question quickly comes to mind: what is a shaman then?

As you can imagine, the term has evolved a lot since its creation.

While originally it was used to describe the guides and spiritual leaders of tribes who remained faithful to the shamanism of their ancestors, the word "shaman" today is used to describe any person possessing sufficient wisdom, knowledge or of mystical powers only to be able to transmit them or make others benefit from them.

Thus, in traditional cultures, shamans are often priests, counselors and healers, but also magicians, clairvoyants and artists.

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Basic beliefs of shamanism

Concretely, shamanism is based on a few simple principles from which more complex ideas and practices can emerge.

The first of these principles is that a sufficiently great knowledge of the world can allow access to senses, states and even worlds to which we do not normally have access. We are talking here about mystical trances or shamanic journeys for example.

Another basic idea is that spirits exist, and that they live in a particular world which sometimes can mix with that of humans. More precisely, shamans will be able to interact with the spirit world in order to modify reality, obtain prophetic visions or even request healings.

Another essential point is the idea that everything that happens to an individual is "self-generated". This simply means that all the experiences we have are fundamentally shaped by our inner being, then by the energies and vibrations that it sends back to the world. This observation comes from another who describes the human being as a pure expression of the universe which is then expressed through him, and vice versa.

When you mix these three points, you come to the conclusion that it might be possible to access other realms of consciousness, to modify our reality and to be able to benefit from the primordial energies of our world in one form or another.

Moreover, it is precisely these conclusions that shamanism arrives at.

Several objects, tools and plants used in shamanism.

Put them into practice in real life

Before we talk about how these ideas are put into practice, there is one thing you absolutely need to understand.

According to shamanic principles, each human being is entirely responsible for his state, his moods and the energies that live within him. Everyone is also master of the relationship they have with the spirits (plants, animals or even the ancients).

It is therefore unacceptable to leave our spiritual life aside and rely on a shaman who would do all the work for us. It doesn't work like that.

Even if shamans necessarily have the facilities to carry out certain rituals, journeys, etc. They will not be able to do them for you!

Relaxation and well-being massage session.

The practice of care and healing

Shamans work (as a general rule anyway) according to more spiritual principles than most other healers.

According to their point of view, a true total healing cannot simply ignore this part of the human being just because it is not immediately visible. In other words, shamanism sees good health as a physical state, necessarily, but also energetic, psychological and spiritual.

It is also interesting to note that, according to the principle of personal responsibility cited earlier, any healing path necessarily begins with personal will and a certain form of self-healing of the being.

So, even if certain ceremonies or rituals can help, the bulk of the work will have to come from you, and us from the shaman who will then simply serve as your guide.

The greatest help it can provide will certainly be to help the patient find a state of balance and harmony conducive to the initiation of this said care process.

For the phenomenon to work, however, one condition must be met: the patient must again be involved and adopt an active posture throughout the rituals.

By combining age-old practices, the power of certain plants and those of spirits, shamanic healers have in any case been recognized for their abilities for a very long time.

Dreamlike representation of a woman who encounters several animal totems.

The place of the totem animal...

A totem animal is a kind of symbolic representation of your deep personality.

We are all different, and we all have our own qualities and faults. In the shamanic tradition, these character traits connect us to certain species of animals (our animal totems) in a very intimate way.

In fact, some people make this bond with their totem animal a real way of life. It is true that meeting our related species (this can be a shamanic journey course, but also simple meditation or visualization exercises) is certainly a significant event.

Even more interesting, our totem animals can guide us during our shamanism sessions. Since the dawn of time, they have served men and women capable of connecting with them.

We can, for example, cite Neolithic hunters, who tracked their prey through the eyes of birds, clairvoyants who, even today, use their animal totems to learn more about the past or the future, or even simple meditators who find the right path in their meditations through their support.

Mystical and fantastic character, a sort of tree-woman representing nature.

. ..and that of spiritual guides

The concept of totem animal is one thing in shamanism, but that of spiritual guide is another. Even though the two ideas are quite similar, there are differences between them that are worth raising.

While a totem animal truly corresponds to an expression of our deep being, a spiritual guide will be much more detached from us.

In reality, shamans encounter spiritual guides much more often than entities of the other type because, even if the links which connect them to them are necessarily more tenuous, they are also more numerous and can therefore necessarily express ideas and more varied concepts.

Obviously, this opens up more possibilities, notably that of receiving (or rather interpreting) more complex messages that travelers will then bring back to their community.

Furthermore, while an animal totem will always have the traits (or at least some) of an animal, while spirit guides will have much more varied forms. These range from species of humanoids, to pure spirits, energies or natural phenomena.

The way of communicating also can be quite different. While meeting animal totems usually takes the form of discussion, some spiritual guides will share through kinds of symbioses or “mergers” with the spirit of the shaman.

Meditation where the practitioner releases a luminous aura, a sign of his spiritual trance.

Trance: a true shamanic journey

Trances and spiritual journeys constitute an essential part of shamanism, and undoubtedly also the one which attracts the most people to this form of spirituality.

Here we will briefly attempt to answer some of the most frequently asked questions on this subject.

The most common is undoubtedly this: but where do we go during these shamanic trances?

Spirit world, other world, dream space... The names are numerous and will vary depending on the tradition to which you are attached, but all refer to the same reality.

It would seem (at least it is a widespread belief) that there exists a sort of parallel world where purely spiritual beings reside, a world to which our spirit can sometimes access. Quite similar to a dream, this world would be made of paradoxes, seemingly impossible things and deep symbolism.

Here is another question that comes up quite often: how to make such a trip a success?

While a shaman with several years of experience will achieve this relatively easily, it can be more complex for young followers.

Unfortunately, there are no magic recipes on this subject... One thing, however, is to know: when you are close, the journey will come to you by itself.

So do not try to achieve it at all costs, but rather work to acquire the wisdom and philosophy necessary for the smooth running of your earthly life.

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Some tools of shamanism

Whether it is healing, meeting your totem animal or shamanic journey, practitioners have many tools at their disposal to achieve their goals more quickly.

It is precisely these objects that we are going to talk about now.

Shamanic drum with mallets placed on its stretched skin.

The drum

The drum is a powerful instrument capable of producing deep and regular rhythms in particular vibrations which have real effects on living beings.

Associated with the energy of the earth, these pulsating sounds have been used by shamans since ancient times.

We all have in mind this image of tribes gathered around the fire, dancing frenetically around the fire to the rhythm of drums beaten by priests in traditional outfits. Well this image is not that far from reality.

There are many ways to benefit from shamanic drumming and the benefits you can get from them are very varied. In particular, there are several types of drums which will have very different effects.

The enormous drums, with a very serious and deep sound, will serve, for example, for relaxation, re-anchoring in reality and stabilizing individuals.

Smaller models (we can think of portable drums used for millennia) will be used to elevate consciousness to higher spheres and to regulate the vibration rate.

Several traditional rattles and maracas in bulk.

The rattle

Along the same lines as the drum, some shamans may use rattles. Please note, we are not talking about children's toys here but rather powerful tools that are an integral part of shamanism...

The principle here will remain the same as for the drum (and for any musical instrument in fact): it is the vibrations that they produce which will work directly with those which travel through our body.

Apparently, it would also be possible to redirect energies with shamanic rattles and transform it into more concrete forms (a bit like a magician would do with his wand, you get the idea). For our part, we have a little difficulty believing it, but that is in any case what many practitioners have told us.

If there is one thing for sure about the rattle, it is that it can purify the places where it is used and create atmospheres conducive to prayers, meditations and shamanic rituals of all kinds.

Shelf in an herbalist's shop with sage used to prepare remedies.

“Medicinal” plants

The subject here is really thorny. (That's the case to say.)

Plants have always been an important part of primitive spiritual practices. Our ancestors all used it all day long and, even today, some herbalists continue traditions that are sometimes thousands of years old.

When they are used to heal, relax or nourish, plants do not pose too much debate and are easily accepted by everyone.

When, on the other hand, we talk about hallucinogenic substances, things are different!

Ayahuasca, mandrake, iboga, peyote: many substances classified as psychotropic (and therefore made illegal in most countries) are nevertheless part of an ancient pharmacopoeia.

We are of course not encouraging you to consume this type of plant (which would be completely prohibited by law in any case), but are simply informing you on the subject.

Thus, psychoactive plants are used to access certain visions, to communicate with energetic entities, to heal emotional blockages, or even to access the famous “other world” that we spoke about earlier.

Centuries old globe representing the continents of the world.

Shamanism around the world

There is a point that we mentioned in the introduction but which is absolutely essential to fully understand shamanism : we are talking here about a form of spirituality that was once shared by all the peoples of the earth.

It is not for nothing that so many are interested in the subject, hoping to find there a form of primordial wisdom, an original vision of the world which would allow them to access hidden truths.

You will also have understood: we are not talking here so much about a fixed religion (possessing dogmas, rules, etc.) as about a relationship with the world.

However, the relationship with the world is necessarily different depending on the environment in which an individual lives. An Indian from the Amazon will probably not develop the same thoughts as a Mongol from the steppes.

For these two reasons mainly, we will now review some places in the world where shamanism is still present.

Chinese painting on linen canvas representing ancestral shamans.

The origins of Chinese Taoism

China has a long and complex history.

According to most historians, it began around 5,000 years ago when a people decided to settle along the banks of the Yellow River.

Known as " Wu ", these primordial people of the Middle Kingdom had one characteristic (very common at the time, but so be it): they practiced shamanism.

Chinese mythology is thus marked by heroes capable of communicating with plants or animals, spiritual journeys outside the body, etc.

The shamans of early China thus knew the powers of songs, dances, trances and primordial rituals.

Even more interesting, many specialists describe Taoism (this famous Chinese philosophy based on the teachings of Lao Tzu) as a direct descendant of Chinese shamanic beliefs.

Having been interested in the question, we can tell you that this is entirely plausible.

Two Mongolian yurts where nomads live.

The nomadic shamans of the Mongolian steppes

Mongolia is made up of vast steppes swept by the winds and where the sky seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.

The men and women who live there lived a nomadic lifestyle for a long time and, just as long, followed a shamanic spirituality.

The traditional religion that was once practiced there was based on the principles that we have seen together in this article, but added a key element: the very strong belief in invisible spirits living in our world.

More than other peoples, the Mongols attributed a whole host of natural phenomena to these invisible beings.

Whether a herd was struck by disease, a woman died in childbirth, or an important battle was lost: it must have been the move of a demon.

Whether a leader had an heir, whether the season was good or nature abundant: benevolent spirits must be the source.

Mongolian shamans were thus able to practice a whole bunch of rituals and ceremonies filled with offerings aimed at attracting the favor of these beings.

Several totem poles lined up in the middle of a snowy Siberian landscape.

Siberia, land of the shamans of the far North

Quite similar to Mongolia, Siberia is largely characterized by difficult terrain and large empty expanses… the bitter cold of winter to boot!

This ecological particularity has long prevented men from settling there, forcing the tribes who lived there to maintain their nomadic lifestyle until very recently.

Between hunting, ice fishing and reindeer herding, ways of subsisting exist in Siberia, but involve harsh living conditions.

This is evident quite clearly in the shamanism practiced in the region and, even if these practices were fought by the Soviet regime from its early years, certain peoples knew how to preserve their traditions.

Many of the Buryats of Lake Baikal, for example, still practice shamanic rituals several times a year during major popular festivals.

Further north, many clans still see shamans officiating within them, particularly for the purposes of communication with spirits and healing.

Interior of a traditional Native American shaman's cabin.

Native American cultures

We all have in our minds the image of American Indians building their villages around large animal-shaped totems.

Their spirituality, often called “ totemism ”, is in fact nothing more and nothing less than a form of shamanism !

Of course, talking about shaman to describe a wise man from a Native American tribe is not correct (this type does not come from their language), but the ideas behind remain more or less the same.

In fact, the main characteristics of shamanic beliefs are found in those of the different clans: presence of a world where spirits live, animal totem, ability to travel outside the body, importance of plants, etc.

Thus, even if many peoples were evangelized and converted to Christianity by European missionaries, a whole bunch of others preserved their tradition which they still perpetuate today.

Stone circle drawn by Celtic druids to pay homage to their deities.

Shamanism and paganism in Europe

When we talk about shamans, we instinctively think of priests in outfits made of skins, bones and furs, dancing to the exotic sound of drums... This is quite simplistic and does not exactly correspond to reality.

Shamanic principles can indeed be expressed in many forms and, as said in the title of this paragraph, paganism formerly practiced in Europe can be included in it.

Before the arrival of the Christian religion on the continent, many Europeans practiced Shamanism. Although many differences exist, the pagan religions of the Celts or the Germans had almost all the characteristics that make spirituality a form of shamanism.

Drawing a parallel between the Gallic druids and the Amazonian or Mongolian shamans is undoubtedly a bit daring but, in their essence, were they really so different?

African ceremony with several children wearing the outfits of their ancestors.

Africa, shamans and ancient knowledge

Africa is a large continent and it is quite complicated to describe its beliefs because they can be so different.

However, it is interesting to note how, from one end of the continent to the other, people were able to share certain ideas specific to shamanism.

If we take the example of the Dogons of Mali, we immediately see the notion of leaving the body and mystical trance.

The Ancient Egyptians were able to use certain plants (notably a species of lotus) to achieve modified states of consciousness during initiatory rituals.

In South Africa, archaeological traces attest to particular healing and divination rituals.

The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Chinese painting on linen canvas representing ancestral shamans.

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Neo-shamanism: the modern expression of an age-old thought

We wanted to end this article with one of the most important points: neo-shamanism.

A fairly recent word, “ neo-shamanism ” simply designates the current putting into practice of shamanic principles.

Yes, this article talked about ancient ethnic groups, millennia-old traditions and a relationship with the world undoubtedly as old as humanity, but left the contemporary character of shamanism aside a little.

However, true initiatory traditions still exist today.

Although some are only accessible after long initiations, the ingestion of questionable substances or flights of several thousand kilometers (neo-shamanism is particularly influential in South America), others are undoubtedly more accessible than what you don't think.

The phenomenon actually developed from the middle of the 20th century in a West losing its bearings, and where certain beliefs were able to fill a spiritual hollow left vacant by modernity. It is thus mainly in the traditions of Amazonia or Central America that neo-shamanism found its roots.

Be careful, however, we have one last piece of advice to give you: it can be easy to be misled, there are so many false shamans today. Between a hollow New Age and age-old traditional practices, there is sometimes unfortunately only one step.

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Discover the author: Cyril Gendarme

Cyril Gendarme is a writer whose website "The Lucky Door" ("La Porte Du Bonheur" in French, his native language) has become a reference in the field of esotericism. Born in Belgium, Cyril has been attracted to the mysteries of the world since he was a child. When his interest in occultism was awakened, a particular subject caught his attention: lucky charms.

After years of study and in-depth research on esoteric traditions from around the world, Cyril decided to share his knowledge with the public through the internet. In 2019, he launched "The Lucky Door," a website dedicated to exploring lucky charms, magical symbols, and esoteric arts.

The Lucky Door is much more than just a showcase for those curious about magic, divination, or tradition. It is the result of Cyril's passion for researching and understanding the mysteries of the universe. Every piece of information available on the site testifies to his dedication to sharing his knowledge of the most hidden symbols and their unique powers.

In addition to his online work, Cyril regularly organizes workshops and conferences in different countries. His presence on social media is also highly appreciated, where he offers personalized advice and happily answers questions from his community.