Ideologies of the Shaman

by LadyTia

"There were shaman before there were gods. The very earliest religious data we know from archaeology show the dancing masked sorcerors or shamans of Lascaux, Trois Freres, and other Old Stone Age caves. The worldwide distribution of functionaries recognizable as shaman testifies to their antiquities." (LaBarre 161)

Evidence of the dancing sorcerors supports the concept that Shamanism is one of the oldest loose federations of cosmologies, further supported by recurrent themes which resonate through the ideologies of the growing religious paths. For example, there are a number of shamanic themes in ancient Greek Mythology, including echoes of them in the story of Jesus. (Smart 191)

In a well documented area, such as India, not only can an impressive continuity be shown from the dancing sorcerors or hunters of the Mesolithic rock paintings of the Mahedeo Hills to horned bow-carrying shaman of two Indus copper tablets. Evidence suggests shamanism may also be found among ancient Dravidian and Aryan tribes. (LaBarre 187)

Ecstatic trance sometimes before battle would prompt a metamorphosis for the Shaman into a bear, according to ninth century Norse poems is the origin of the ‘berserker rage’, attested to by Swedish rock carvings of about 4000 years ago. (LaBarre 135)

Concerning spirit-possessions, Zarathustra, Christ, Gnostic sources, and other various prophetic figures have revealed testimony through their teachings supporting the concept of such possessions being of both positive and negative sources or influences. The notion, as well, is woven into the shamanic corpus. (Smart 193)

Black Elk, a Native American visionary and healer, speaks on the nature of medicine power and how it does not originate from the medicine person. “Of course it was not I who cured. It was the power from the outer world, and the visions and ceremonies have only made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two leggeds." (Fisher 62)

Supporting Shamanism of ancient East Asia, the Wu, from the Shang Dynasty, were ecstatic singing and dancing shaman who brought rain, exorcised evil spirits, and acted as mediums for ancestor spirits. (LaBarre 188)

As we see reasons for Paleosiberian Shamanism spreading westward Asia, so we also see reasons for it spreading eastward towards the Americas, and into Europe. It is possible to consider that Paleosiberian Shamanism spread to the Americas, explaining the link between Paleosiberian and Native American ways. There has been much documentation of ascent into the spirit world, or the otherworld. The mention of the otherworld comes up quite often in Celtic traditions, including Celtic Shamanism and the Faery traditions (specifically those that follow the Tuatha de Danaan, ancestors of Ireland sometimes called the bright shining ones). Hence, the ideology of animism remains strong in the Celtic traditions, just as they do in Native American traditions, and in those of the Australian Aborigines.

It is important to note Shamanism rests not only on ecstatic spirit-possession but also on persistent, arbitrary motifs: the ‘bird-man’ of Easter Island and the spirit-possessed etua of the Marquesas in islands of Polynesia remain specifically shamanic. Toradja shamanism in Celebes embodies mijapi withdrawl into the woods, head hunting ideology, transvestitism, and the shaman’s ascent into the spirit world. (LaBarre 187)

In a special tradition of Paleosiberian Shamanism known as Chukchee Shamanism is a particular type of transformation process to enable the Shaman to transcend his known boundaries. This transformation is called transvestitism. First, the shaman braids his hair or the hair of the sick man to mimic that of a woman. The purpose of this practice is to change the appearance and become unrecognizable by malignant spirits. Second, the shaman adopts a woman’s garment, specifically a dress, which has been ordered by a spirit in a dream. The shaman for medico-magic reasons sometimes prescribes transvestitism, in order to cure some congenital diseases. Third, the shaman abandons all manners of his sex and takes up those of a woman. He abandons the objects or tolls that represent his masculinity and learn to use the tools representative of woman. Attributes such as physical strength and the psyche of the male are left behind as well, accepting the female attributes with the assistance of guiding spirits. The shaman, in turn, becomes a woman with the appearance of a man. (LaBarre 179)

This transformation enables the Shaman to excel in all branches of Shamanism, including areas in which ordinary woman are not proficient. Shaman who have not yet transformed themselves often dreads this advanced form of the Shaman. The accompanying spirit of the transformed Shaman, or spirit consort, wastes no time to retaliate against those who act with aggression towards the transformed Shaman. Transformed Shaman do not participate in such rivalries themselves, for they have been made into ‘soft-men’, or essentially, brought forth the ‘woman’ inside). (La Barre 180)

The elaboration of transvestitism holds importance, in that it serves as an important link between spirit possession and asceticism, two major ideologies of the Shaman. The inclusion of transvestitism from an ascetic approach, clearly evident, in that the Shaman denies acknowledgement of his masculinity and abandons it, in order to transcend beyond his spiritual limitations.

The simultaneous theme of ascension into the heavens and descent into hell lead the shaman through death and rebirth. Upon rebirth the Shaman becomes endowed with great secrets, becoming an intermediary between the physical & non-physical. Practice and experience lead the Shaman through his training, in both inner visions and practical preparations. Much solitude and asceticism are part of the practical preparations. We find a great deal of discipline similar to this in the practice of Yoga and other ideologies of ancient India Asceticism channeled in the direction of hunting motifs may have manifested into the concept of Ahimsa. (Smart 191)

The idea of Ahimsa, a possible offshoot of a reverence for animals so elaborate, the Shaman gains the guardian spirit of the animals or maitre des animaux. This master of animals is believed to be the spirit of the Shaman, himself, who has a special affinity with animals. Apparently, Fragments of the game-guardian complex is also evident in Paganism with the Lord of Animals depicted as a horned hunter of the wilderness, known as Cernunnos. (LaBarre 163)

There are references in other forms of Paganism as well. The myth of Odin exhibits many shamanic aspects: “His body lay as though he was asleep or dead, and he then became a bird or beast; a fish or a dragon, and went in an instant to far-off lands." (Agrippa 632)

The dragon and phoenix of Taoism suggest comparison with the serpent and bird of Paleolithic shamanism; note also "the whole animal world is affected by a character of a benevolent ruler.” Paleosiberian shamanism, indeed, is greatly suggested in the origin of Japanese Shintoism. (LaBarre 188)

Asceticism is a deep part of North American culture as well, especially within the Lakota Indians. Among the Ogala Lakota, participants may dance for four days without food and water, at their respective Sun Dance rituals. This is an ideal example of asceticism, which remains a strong part of indigenous culture. (Fisher 72)

"The sun dance tests your sincerity, pushes your spirit beyond its limits. As the dance goes on, many dancers transcend their physical agony and go through an increasing sense of euphoria." (Fisher 73)

With mind-altering drugs, euphoric states attained, similar to that experienced from the sun dance, in order to reach even higher states, sometimes for reaching the spirit world.

"Some shamans eat narcotic mushrooms, and in their hallucinations visit the world of spirits, where they get the answers to questions posed to them." (LaBarre 178)

There has been much experimentation in the Americas as well. The more modern approach to experimentation with drugs is clearly a more open-minded view.

"Especially in the Americas there has over a long period been experimentation with psychedelic drugs, notably mescaline, and tobacco. Naturally, early attitudes to such plants differ rather from modern ones. The visions are attributed to the divine nature of the plants themselves. It is more modern to think that their effects come from being windows, so to speak, of vision - as though the mind is already at some level in touch with transcendental powers to which drugs can clear a pathway." (Smart 192)

Personally, I feel as though mind-altering substances are a very useful aid in enhancing the transcendental powers of the mind and would play an ideal role in the study of the mind. Furthermore, the misuse of such substances would severely ill affect any research in such a study.

With evidence that Shamanism is a large part of every culture’s past, we see the indigenous ways surviving throughout the aeons and in some ways, reconstructed throughout the world religions. Elements of animism, communication with spirits and spirit-possession, and asceticism have been the basis of nearly all types of practices, as we know them in modern times. It may well be the one thing that ties every path back to the source, as it has been described in the beginning paragraph, ‘there were shamans before there were gods.


Smart, Ninian. 1996. "Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs." Spartan: HarperCollins

Fisher, Mary Pat. 1999(1991). "Living Religions." 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Gibson, Clare. 1998. "Goddess Symbols: Universal Signs of the Divine Female." Barnes & Noble.

La Barre, Weston. 1972(1970). "The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion." Dell: Doubleday & Co.

Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy: The Foundation Book on Western Occultism. Llewellyn.
Translated by James Freake
Edited by Donald Tyson 1998(1992).



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