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Photo Credit: subarcticmike

Introduction to Shamanism

The history of shamanism is challenging to pinpoint. Its roots lie in prehistory. While opinions vary as to its inception, cave art indicates the practice existed anywhere from 17,000 to 30,000 years ago. 


The earliest known archaeological record of a shamanic excavation in a burial site is in Israel and dates back 12,000 years. Still, some experts believe shamanism existed as far back as 30,000 years ago.[i] 


Jean Clottes, a French pre-historian and a specialist in the cave art of the early Paleolithic period, believed shamanism began as early as the Aurignacian period (-40,000 to -29,000).[ii] Clottes heads the scientific study of the Chauvet and Cosquer caves. 


To survive, our ancestors had to develop and hone their ability to cope with health problems. Painstaking trial and error helped them figure out how to survive. It taught them to deal with illness, trauma, and death without the modern conveniences we have. Shamanism was their solution.

Did you ever wonder how early humans diagnosed illness without doctors, medical tests, and imaging machines? How did they treat each other without drugs, blood transfusions, or anesthesia?

Again, the answer was shamanism. 

Mircea Eliade 

Mircea Eliade introduced shamanism to the western world. The religious scholar was to shamanism what Madame Blavatsky was to astrology. Eliade was born in Bucharest in 1907 and died in Chicago, IL 1986. He was “one of the most influential scholars of religion of the 20th century and one of the world’s foremost interpreters of religious symbolism and myth.”[iii]

When Eliade was studying the Tungusic people in northern Siberia, he came across the shamans. Eliade defined a shaman as a “person who enters an alternate state of consciousness to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality at will. Shamans enter this reality to acquire knowledge, power, and to help others.”[iv] 

​Eliade was not sure what to call these people because of limitations in the French language; all the terms to describe them were pejorative: witch, warlock, witchdoctor, sorcerer, wizard, magician, psychic, and seer. The post-Inquisition terminology was a reminder of the lack of respect that Christianity had for the shamanic cultures in Europe. 

Shamans “are separated from the rest of their community by the intensity of their own religious experience,”[v] Eliade wrote. That makes them the experts in issues of the human soul.[vi] He also noted that shamanism was a form of mysticism, not religion


Michael Harner 

A Ph.D. professor at Stanford University, Michael Harner left academia to establish the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Even after his death, he stands as the world leader in the neo-shamanism movement. “Neo-shamanism” “comprises an eclectic range of beliefs and practices that involve attempts to attain altered states and communicate with a spirit world.” 

The term unites those who have studied with the Foundation. It also distinguishes those who chose to study shamanism in the western world from traditional practitioners.

Traditional shamans tend to keep their knowledge and practices within family lineages. They mentor their children and pass on their knowledge orally.[vii] Neo-shamans have had to forge their path in a culture that largely rejects them. Both forms of training involve similar rituals and the ability to journey into shamanic reality. 

Journeying is the word used to explain the process used to cross over from ordinary to non-ordinary or shamanic reality. Shamanic reality has three levels of existence, known as the Upper, Middle, and Lower Worlds. 




In the case of extractions, shaman removes “something” that does not belong in the “luminous body” or aura of a person. That something can weaken a person’s physical, spiritual, emotional, or mental defenses. Its presence manifests itself as an illness, may cause an accident and can result in death. 

In a way, a retrieval is the opposite. In this instance, “something” that a person is missing and found in non-alternate reality, is brought back to that person. After a soul or power retrieval, a person will experience a sense of peace, completion, and empowerment. The very first journey that anyone does is to find his/her power animal. 

Shamanism “represents the most widespread and ancient methodological system of mind-body healing known to humanity”[viii] Michael Harner wrote in his book, The Way of the Shaman. 

The traditions are as varied as the languages of the people that practice it and the terrains they occupy. They do, however,  share common principles and practices. Click below to review these. 



[i]Jeremiah Stanghini, The History of Shamanism: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 1,

[ii]Alfred de Grazia, Vertical bisons: was cave-painting a form of shamanism? QMag,org,, Translated from the French by Anne-Marie de Grazia

Go to the original article on the site, Accessed 8/30/2019.


[iv]Source needed.

[v]Eliade, p.8.

[vi]Eliade, p.8.


[viii]Ibid, Pg. 40. 

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