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Shamanism Unveiled: Exploring Origins, Confronting Appropriation, and Embracing Ethical Practice

Updated: Jul 19, 2023


Shamanism is an ancient spiritual practice that has its roots in indigenous cultures across the globe. It involves connecting with the spirit world, harnessing the power of nature, and performing rituals for healing, divination, and guidance. As interest in shamanism grows, it becomes essential to explore its origins, address appropriation concerns, and understand how individuals,can approach it ethically and respectfully.


Shamanism dates back thousands of years and is believed to have originated in indigenous cultures found in Siberia, Central Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. These cultures developed unique shamanic traditions, each with its own rituals, practices, and beliefs. Shamans, as the spiritual intermediaries, played vital roles within their communities, serving as healers, seers, and wisdom keepers.


The term "shamanism" originated from the Tungus language spoken in Siberia, specifically among the indigenous Evenki and Eveny peoples. It was later adopted as a widely used term to describe similar spiritual practices found in indigenous cultures worldwide. The term itself does not imply a direct copying or appropriation of closed practices from specific cultures, but rather serves as a general framework to understand and discuss various indigenous spiritual traditions.


Michael and Sandra Hardener, the founders of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, pioneered the introduction of shamanism to contemporary life and is dedicated to preserving, studying and teaching shamanism welfare to all. Furthermore, the term shamanism emerged as a scholarly and cross-cultural concept to recognise and discuss the shared features of these diverse spiritual and healing traditions. It serves as a means of understanding and appreciating the commonalities, such as spiritual connections, healing rituals, and journeys to altered states of consciousness, found among these practices. However, it is crucial to respect and honour the specific cultural contexts and names used by indigenous healers themselves, rather than imposing the term "shaman" upon them.


For instance, Indigenous healers have their own distinct names and titles within their respective communities, which reflect their unique roles and practices. These titles vary across cultures and may include terms such as curandero, sangoma, medicine person, healer, or wise elder. These individuals often possess deep knowledge of their traditional healing methods, spiritual practices, and ceremonial rituals, and they play integral roles within their communities.

By recognising the diversity and uniqueness of indigenous healing traditions and acknowledging the individual names and identities embraced by practitioners, we can foster a more inclusive and respectful understanding of the spiritual and healing practices found across different cultures.


To avoid cultural appropriation, it is crucial to approach shamanism with respect, cultural sensitivity, and a willingness to learn from and collaborate with indigenous communities. This involves understanding the cultural significance, historical context, and traditional practices associated with shamanism, rather than cherry-picking elements for personal gain or entertainment.


Here are some ethical practices for those of us who are looking to explore shamanism within the frame work of the above.


Education and Research:

Begin by educating yourself about the diverse cultures that practice shamanism. Study their histories, beliefs, and practices through reputable sources, literature, documentaries, and engaging with indigenous voices.


Cultivate Relationships and Respect:

Approach shamanism with humility and respect. Seek opportunities to engage with indigenous communities and or teachers who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences. Form meaningful relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.


Avoid Commercialisation and Exploitation:

Be cautious of commercialised versions of shamanism that commodify sacred practices. Avoid purchasing or selling sacred objects, artefacts, or rituals. Genuine shamanic experiences are not for sale.


Acknowledge and Honour Indigenous Rights:

Recognise and support the rights of indigenous communities. Advocate for their land rights, cultural preservation, and the protection of their spiritual practices. Collaborate with indigenous individuals and organisations on initiatives that empower and uplift their communities.


Seek Permission and Guidance:

If you wish to incorporate shamanic practices into your life, seek permission from the appropriate indigenous sources. If granted, ensure you receive proper guidance and training from experienced teachers who respect and honour the tradition they are sharing.


Avoid Cultural Stereotypes:

Be mindful of perpetuating stereotypes or reducing shamanism to a simplistic caricature. Appreciate the complexity and diversity of indigenous cultures and their spiritual practices.


By approaching shamanism with cultural sensitivity and respect, individuals can honour the tradition and contribute positively to the preservation of indigenous knowledge and cultures.


I would like to turn our attention to the revivalist of Celtic shamanism in the UK, or any form of indigenous spiritual tradition, with caution and cultural sensitivity. Some individuals may attempt to use cultural roots in a nationalistic manner, promoting exclusivity or suggesting that only people of British descent can engage in these practices. This approach warps the true essence of the tradition and can lead to cultural misrepresentation.


It is important to recognise that the revival of Celtic shamanism in the UK among modern Brits is often a reinvention or reinterpretation by the modern mindset imaginings based on historical records, folklore, and archaeological findings. The lived experience of indigenous cultures, such as those in the Americas, Indonesia, and various other regions, have maintained an unbroken connection to their ancestral traditions. This ongoing connection is distinct from a reimagined practice that modern Britons engage in due to the vast historical, cultural differences, historical interruptions and time distances. Therefore, respecting the cultural roots and origins of shamanic traditions involves acknowledging the lived experiences and continued practices of indigenous cultures who have maintained these traditions for generations, while also acknowledging the limitations of British shamanic practices in fully replicating the depth and authenticity of those traditions.


In recent years, there has been a notable surge of individuals in capitalist societies seeking to reconnect with their Celtic origins or rediscover a sense of connection to nature. This inclination arises from a deep-seated feeling of disconnection caused by the current system of overwork, underpayment, and pervasive societal inequality. This longing to reconnect often carries an undercurrent of yearning for a purer or simpler time, as people perceive the loss of access to the past and recognise the need to reinvent it. However, it is essential to approach this practice with transparency and awareness, acknowledging that the past cannot be fully reclaimed but can be reimagined in a way that resonates with contemporary needs and values. By engaging in this process openly and honestly, individuals can find solace, inspiration, and a renewed connection to the natural world that offers a counterbalance to the challenges of the modern capitalist system.


The resurgence of interest in shamanism reflects a deep yearning within modern society for a reconnection to nature, a rediscovery of ancient wisdom, and a search for meaning and healing. It serves as a powerful testament to the universal human longing for a more holistic and spiritually nourishing way of life." - Dr. Michael Harner


Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that the resurgence of interest in reconnecting with Celtic shamanic origins and rediscovering nature has also attracted the attention of certain elites who seek to exploit this movement for their own interests. Some may attempt to establish secret societies or manipulate cultural narratives to further their agendas, including the theft of land and the appropriation of indigenous cultures, all in an effort to legitimise their positions of power and dominance. This highlights the need for discernment and critical thinking within these practices, ensuring that they are approached with a keen awareness of the potential for exploitation and the importance of preserving the authenticity and integrity of such traditions. By remaining vigilant and actively working to expose such manipulations, individuals can help safeguard the genuine intentions of those seeking to reconnect with their roots and honour the interconnectedness of all beings.


It is also important not to over romanticise the lives of spiritual leaders and the communities of the past. While Celtic shamans and spiritual leaders played vital roles, it is crucial to recognise that their lives often involved solitude and, at times, exclusion from the wider community. The nature of their spiritual practices required periods of seclusion, deep introspection, and solitary communion with nature and the spirit world. This may have resulted in a certain degree of separation from day-to-day community life. Additionally, it is essential to acknowledge that people in the past had their own unique cultural, social, and historical contexts, which we cannot fully understand or replicate from our modern mindset. Our interpretations and experiences of spirituality are influenced by the complexities and values of our current era. Recognising this helps us approach the exploration of Celtic shamanism with a grounded perspective, embracing the wisdom of the past while acknowledging the limitations of our understanding. By doing so, we can engage with these traditions in a way that respects their historical context and remains relevant to our own contemporary lives.


Here are some examples of shamanism from the British Isles:


Celtic shamans, known as druids or seers, held significant roles within their communities as spiritual guides and mediators. They were revered for their wisdom, deep understanding of the natural world, and their ability to communicate with the spirit realm. As spiritual guides, druids provided counsel and guidance to individuals and communities, offering insights and wisdom derived from their deep connection with nature. They were responsible for conducting rituals and ceremonies to honour the cycles of the seasons, maintain harmony with the land, and seek divine guidance. In addition to their role as mediators between the physical and spiritual realms, druids were often sought after for their healing abilities


Anglo-Saxon Shamanism: The Anglo-Saxon people of early medieval England had their own forms of shamanism. The practice involved working with spirits, using herbs and natural elements for healing, and performing rituals for divination and protection. Anglo-Saxon shamans, often referred to as wise women or cunning folk, were respected for their healing abilities and knowledge of the spirit world.


Shamanic Influences in Modern Paganism: Modern Pagan and shamanic movements in Britain draw inspiration from indigenous shamanism as well as the land's spiritual traditions. These practices often emphasise a deep connection with nature, the honouring of ancestral spirits, and the use of ritual and trance techniques for spiritual exploration.

Wise women ‘witches’. During the witch trials and persecution, many women, particularly herbalists and healers, were labeled as witches due to their alternative spiritual practices. These women, would not have identified themselves as shamans, but exhibited shamanic characteristics in their profound connection with nature, their utilisation of herbal medicine, and their ability to access the spiritual realm. Recognising their contributions as herbalists, healers, and keepers of traditional knowledge helps reclaim their place in history and sheds light on the resilience and strength they displayed in the face of adversity. This example highlights the diverse forms of shamanic practices that have emerged within British culture.


Exploring the realms of shamanism, witchcraft, and indigenous spiritual practices requires us to approach these subjects with respect, cultural sensitivity, and a commitment to ethical engagement. Understanding the origins of these practices, addressing issues of appropriation, and seeking knowledge from diverse sources, including indigenous and British authors, is essential. By embracing diverse perspectives and honouring the cultural integrity of these traditions, we can deepen our understanding, foster mutual respect, and contribute to the preservation and appreciation of indigenous wisdom and British spiritual heritage. May our exploration of these paths be guided by curiosity, humility, and a genuine desire to learn from the voices and experiences of those who have carried these traditions throughout history.


Finally, after you research and find an appropriate means of engaging with shamanic work, it offers a multitude of benefits for individuals seeking personal growth, healing, and spiritual connection. Through practices such as journeying, ritual, and energy work, shamanism provides a gateway to accessing deep states of consciousness and tapping into the wisdom of the spiritual realms. By delving into shamanic work, you create an opportunity to explore and heal emotional wounds, traumas, and patterns that may hinder personal growth. This process allows for the integration of mind, body, and spirit, fostering holistic well-being. Furthermore, shamanic practices have the potential to enhance intuitive abilities, expand consciousness, and cultivate a profound connection with nature and the interconnected web of life. As a result, individuals who engage in shamanic work often report increased clarity, self-awareness, emotional balance, and a heightened sense of purpose and meaning in life. Ultimately, the transformative journey of self-discovery, empowerment, and spiritual evolution that shamanic work offers can be profoundly rewarding.


Limitations and Further reading:

While the information provided in the above discussions offers insights, it is important to acknowledge the limitations inherent in addressing such complex and diverse topics within a limited scope. The subject of shamanism, witchcraft, and indigenous spiritual practices is vast and multifaceted, encompassing a wide range of cultures, traditions, and perspectives. The recommendations provided for further reading are by no means exhaustive and represent just a fraction of the available literature. Additionally, the experiences and practices of indigenous cultures are diverse and vary greatly across different communities and regions. It is crucial to recognise that each culture has its unique spiritual traditions, and generalisations may overlook the intricacies and nuances of individual practices.


Therefore, it is recommended to continue exploring, engaging with indigenous voices, and seeking out additional resources to deepen one's understanding of these rich and multifaceted spiritual traditions.


For the purpose of this article I have only included four areas for further readings to get you started.


Foundational:


The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner - In this classic work, Michael Harner introduces core shamanic practices based on his cross-cultural studies, providing practical guidance for those interested in engaging with shamanism.


Feminist perspective:


The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess by Starhawk - This classic work examines the revival of goddess spirituality and the reclaiming of feminine power, exploring the connection between feminism, witchcraft, and Earth-based spirituality.


Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés - This book delves into the power of women's stories, myths, and folklore, celebrating the wild and instinctual nature of women and reconnecting with the ancient feminine wisdom.


The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth by Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor - This book explores the ancient roots of goddess worship and the role of the divine feminine in indigenous cultures, providing insights into matriarchal societies and their spiritual practices.


The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd - In this memoir, Sue Monk Kidd shares her personal journey of spiritual awakening and transformation, examining the patriarchal structures of traditional religion and embracing the sacred feminine.


The Witch's Book of Self-Care: Magical Ways to Pamper, Soothe, and Care for Your Body and Spirit by Arin Murphy-Hiscock - This book combines witchcraft, self-care practices, and feminist perspectives, offering rituals, spells, and techniques for nurturing and empowering oneself from a spiritual standpoint.


British practices of Druidry, shamanism, and witchcraft:


Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic" by Emma Wilby - This scholarly work explores the shamanistic elements present in early modern British witchcraft and magic, examining the practices and beliefs of cunning-folk.


The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth by John Michael Greer - This book provides an introduction to Druidry, exploring its historical roots and modern practices within a British context, emphasising a deep connection with the natural world.


The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate - This book offers a comprehensive overview of magical traditions in England, including aspects of witchcraft, druidry, and shamanism, exploring the history, practices, and influential figures in British magical traditions.


Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways by Gemma Gary - Focusing on the traditional witchcraft practices of Cornwall, this book delves into the magical and shamanic traditions rooted in the British landscape, providing insights into charms, spells, and ritual practices.


Circles of Power: Ritual Magic in the Western Tradition by John Michael Greer - This book explores the history and practice of ritual magic, including elements of ceremonial magic, shamanism, and occult traditions that have influenced British magical practices.


The Witch's Book of Shadows: The Craft, Lore & Magick of the Witch's Grimoire by Phyllis Curott - In this book, Phyllis Curott, a prominent British Witch and author, provides a guide to the Craft, including aspects of British Witchcraft, spellwork, rituals, and the use of a Book of Shadows.


Historiography:


Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson. In this book, Anderson explores how nations are socially constructed entities and examines the role of print capitalism, language, and cultural factors in shaping collective identities.


Shamans, Spirituality, and Cultural Revitalisation: Explorations in Siberia and North Asia" edited by Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer - This book explores the history and cultural revitalisation of shamanism in Siberia and North Asia, providing insights into the role of shamans in these regions.


Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade - Eliade's influential work examines shamanism from a cross-cultural perspective, tracing its historical roots and exploring the common features found in shamanic practices around the world.


Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing" by Michael Winkelman - This book provides a comprehensive examination of shamanism from a multidisciplinary perspective, including historical, cultural, and psychological aspects.


The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition edited by Roger Walsh - This collection of essays presents various perspectives on shamanism, including historical and anthropological viewpoints, providing a comprehensive understanding of the tradition.


The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves by Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams - Focusing on prehistoric cave art, this book explores the role of shamans in ancient societies and their connection to altered states of consciousness and spiritual practices.


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