Shamanism: Religion or Rite?

by Michael Ripinsky-Naxon

Reprinted with revisions from
Journal of Prehistoric Religion, Vol. 6 (1992); pp. 37-44.
All Rights Reserved ® 1999

ABSTRACT: The development of research on shamanism is discussed in regard to the original relationships between this form of spiritual experience and prehistoric religion.

When Sigmund Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920, he frightened many of his followers away. Being unaccustomed to their mentor's new metaphysical tenor, they dispersed in confusion across the psychoanalytical stage. In this treatise, Freud reaffirmed his strong belief in unity within the living world, and advanced a theory about the existence of a life force together with a death wish in all living things. Death occurs when Thanatos overwhelms Eros, both the 'wish' and the 'will' being expressions of an instinct force.

Two years later, through work with the chacma baboons in Africa, Eugene Marais formulated a novel hypothesis about the human mind. He postulated in The Soul of the Ape (written in 1922, but published only posthumously in 1969) that the development of the intellectual reasoning faculties in man had screened out the real psyche - the original primitive mentality based on instinct - and had delegated it to another realm in the brain, where it has survived as our subconscious mind. The conflict, as suggested by Marais, between reason and the instinctive psyche bears profound implications for the genesis of religion, birth of the Magna Mater, and the rise of shamanism.

We would have to go back in time tens of thousands of years in order to examine the nature of the religious impulse in man. This is particularly true if we want to understand the transcendent qualities of numinous and preternatural experiences in terms of mystical and phenomenological processes, rather than viewing them merely as separate pieces of the intriguing and colorful, but vitreous, glass. If beheld, in their substantive and functional contexts, and through the lens of a skillful technique of an ethnologist or a student of comparative religions, these properties can appear as a newly integrated whole. The resulting outcome will create a mosaic, a stained -glass masterpiece with its own intrinsic powers to transport. Therefore, we must consider a time when early Homo sapiens, with their diversified subspecies, had shared analogues of evocative experience that we can term supernatural, and which also provided a framework for structuring their awareness of the great procreative force.

At the early stages, this awesome and vital force had been manifested to human creatures in the cyclical birth and death of nature, probably as the Great Mother or some other close kindred. These hominid progenitors, in all likelihood, shared less a common set of beliefs than a pool of common emotional and 'religious' experiences. The biosocial and psychological factors contributed to the formation of a special transcultural (perhaps even pan-human) expression that we recognize today as the existential quest for meaning. From thus enriched soil, nourishing a common existential root, sprouted a new universal belief system, where the role assumed by mankind as part of nature's chain of being became less passive and more articulate. This new order of understanding can be viewed as the first systematic attempt to understand and influence phenomena which fall within the domain of human experience. It is known as shamanism.

Presently, it seems impossible to ascertain the true character of this proto- or Ur-religion. We can only resort to conjectures and analytical constructs. Although shamanism is not infrequently elevated to a proto-religion in the literature, my own views tend to lean in the direction of deep caves, where supplications of the Great Mother Goddess, with all her awesome and forbidding mysteries of birth, had been ritualized into a protoreligious cult. In all probability, such ceremonies were performed in conjecture with other propitiatory rites connected with a Nature religion. A religious impulse, after it had been internalized, induced the propitiation of the supernatural in early human societies. Such psychic energy needed to be satisfied by an instant affective response. It could not anticipate or await the development of the more complex ritual techniques associated with shamanism.

It seems to me that shamanism and hunting magic arose as almost inescapable developments. I am not treading on cultural determinism, but pointing out that a pre-existing set of conditions can ultimately give rise only to a finite number of possibilities, favoring some at the expense of others. Shamanism and hunting magic constituted a natural step (not the only step) in a world where food sources were, and are, among the main keys to natural selection. There also appears to be a fine line between the shamanistic initiations in places like the Franco-Cantabrian caves, and those connected with the worship of 'Venus' goddesses or the cult of the cave-bear. Shamanism appears to be an outgrowth of the Mother-Goddess and nature cults. Effective shamanistic techniques are epistemologies, and as such they must be built on previous cognitive (empirical) and emotional (affective) experiences derived from earlier observations and accumulated knowledge. Such an intricate lore cannot be acquired ex nihilo; its development requires an extended period of time.

The widespread global distribution of the Late Lower Paleolithic populations can be attributed, according to the eminent scholar Andrzej Wiercinski (1989, pp. 20-21), to the "release of the potential of humanity." This release, explained in terms of psycho-cerebral characteristics possibly resulting from certain chromosome mutations, was manifest in the inherent transformation of man and in the intensification of hunting and gathering activities. Subsistence patterns based on hunting and gathering of the mobile bands of early man led to role differentiation and division of labor between the sexes, as well as age groups. Introspective and reflective consciousness, already innate, allowed cognitive discrimination and abstract modes of thought. This led, in turn, to 'thinking based on figurative analogizing," which, in this particular case, is evidenced by the awareness of the potential benefits to be derived from the observation and understanding of the natural environment, as opposed to passive acceptance. Rightly Wiercinski (1989, pp. 21-22) links the origins of shamanism with the development of cognition and symbolic differentiation somewhere along the course of human evolution. Epistemological factors became fused with social and economic needs, leading to the development of more complex shamanistic initiations and techniques.

The shamanistic systems, arising largely from the male-oriented traditions of the Paleolithic hunters, form one of the central point in Father Wilhelm Schmidt's thesis in his monumental twelve-volume work, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (The Origin of the Idea of God). In a nutshell, he asserted that the idea of a sky-god is derivative from older, shamanistic deities. The patriarchal theme of the sky-god, which recurs in the cosmogonies of diverse shamanistic and archaic contexts, had evolved into the single JudeoChristian godhead.

The rise and development of shamanistic practices marked the threshold where we begin to notice mankind's efforts to arrive at a systematic understanding of the supernatural world. In the course of its long cultural history, shamanism endeavored to unravel the universal enigmas: the origins of the cosmos, the earth, men, animals, and plants. It endeavored to illuminate the proverbial paradox: the existential quest for the meaning and the sense of life and death. Shamanism modified the character of religious practices by evolving techniques through which a select group of individuals could acquire the esoteric knowledge of the universe. The visions of the cosmic worlds were perceived by means of the psychodynamic processes activated through the ritual techniques of ecstasy. The latter were frequently aided by use of hallucinogenic substances.

Thus, when we take into account the effects of shamanistic ideology in organizing the universe into a meaningful order, we must also consider the role played in these attempts by hallucinogenic substances. With the help of trance inducing psychoactive alkaloids, the different magico-religious credos strove to forge a key capable of unlocking the doors to the cosmic arcana. Enhanced consciousness and cognitive abilities prompted model-oriented images by conceiving and organizational paradigms for the cosmos. One good example can be found in the concept of the imago mundi. It is also known as the archetypal image of the world that mirrors a cosmic blueprint to be found in the divine model envisaged by a given culture. Such perceptions often reflect the recognizable imagery derived from psychotropic experiences. By understanding the cognitive experiences which interrelate the various dimensions of supernatural reality with that of the ordinary, we can better grasp the ethnogenic causalities for cultural origins and growth (Ripinsky-Naxon 1989).

Essentially, the 'supernatural' experience of the cosmic order was only a reflection of the sociocultural system known at a particular phase of cultural development, while the secular knowledge of the supernatural was the shaman's version of his visionary experience. In the process, the physico-biotic environment was observed, and the ways of plants and animals were studied, as were the movements of the celestial bodies, and the properties of metals. The healing potencies of divine plants became understood, and meanings were given to dreams and visionary experiences. Thus, we find the beginnings of rationalistic epistemology. The signification of a need of a particular society to relate causality (input) to the shaman's worldview, and to offer a response through the mode of a visionary context (output), is the nexus of cause and effect, interfacing as a complex system in a dynamic process that we perceive as cultural change. This process is, in itself, only an abstract modality, and, among others, a culturally encouraged product of quite early and extensive adventures with the ethnoflora. In other words, it is important to consider the role of hallucinogenic agents in the shaman's experience and techniques that are applied to the formulation of cosmological concepts.

The antiquity of ecstatic techniques in shamanistic practice is duly underscored by Weston La Barre (1972, p. 161) in his erudite and stimulating study on the development of religion:

...the ancestor of the god is the shaman himself, both historically and psychologically. There were shamans before there were gods. The very earliest religious data we know from archeology show the dancing masked sorcerors or shamans of Lascaux, Trois Freres, and other Old Stone Age caves. The worldwide distribution of functionaries recognizable as shamans - in the Americas, north Eurasia, Africa Oceania and south Asia, as well as ancient east and central Asia - testifies to their antiquity. The basis of all religion in both North and South America is the shaman or medicine man - as Boas long ago observed - so that the aboriginal New World, seen in its common essence, is a kind of ethnographic museum of the late Paleolithic-Mesolithic of Eurasia, whence came the American Indian in very ancient times. Indian religious culture is of the same date and origin as their material culture, and it is copiously documented.

Clearly, the theme of transformation is a very dominant feature in shamanistic belief systems. The ecstatic rapture transforms the individual into a god, and in this state of ecstasy the essential knowledge of the divine can be attained. Only through the state of being a god can the ineffable mystery that is 'god' be comprehended. A Tantric saying helps illuminate this transcendent idea by telling us: nadevo devam arcayet ('by none but a god shall a god be worshipped'). Eliade (1964, p. 7) affirmed that "Their (the shamans') ecstatic experiences have exercised, and still exercise, a powerful influence on the stratification of religious ideology, on mythology, on ritualism." The mythologist Joseph Campbell repeatedly stressed this point, too, as did others working with this problem. Vilmos Dioszegi (p. 1031), the late Hungarian authority on shamanism, included mythic traditions among the nine significant characteristics of this belief system.

Valuable field observations concerning this question are offered by the respected Colombian anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff. They touch upon wider ramifications of this issue, and help in our appreciation of its considerable complexity. In a section entitled 'Shamanism as Religion,' he comments (1987, p. 18): "In summary, Tukanoan shamanistic art and religion attempt to use neurally inbuilt images in order to achieve consciousness, to organize life, and then to guide man's soul back to the Beyond..."

Another respected source (Furst 1982, p. 4) sheds more poignant light on the nature of the shamanistic complex:

Now, as we know from ethnology, the symbolic systems or religions of hunting peoples everywhere are essentially shamanistic, sharing so many basic features over time and space as to suggest common historical and psychological origins. At the center of shamanistic religion stands the personality of the shaman and the ecstatic experience that is uniquely his, in his crucial role as diviner, seer, magician, poet, singer, artist, prophet of game and weather, keeper of the traditions, and healer of bodily and spiritual ills.

Undoubtedly inspired by Eliade, Joan Halifax (1979, p. 3) begins her book with the already familiar point:

Shamanism is an ecstatic religious complex of particular and fixed elements, with a specified ideology that has persisted through millennia and is found in many different cultural settings...They [the shamans] can be found...wherever hunting-gathering peoples still exist and wherever this ancient sacred traditions has maintained its shape in spite of the shifting of cultural ground.

To Mircea Eliade, too, the ecstatic states associated with shamanism formed part of a religious complex: "Shamanism in the strict sense is pre-eminently a religious phenomenon in Siberia and Central Asia...Later, similar magico-religious phenomena were observed in North America, Indonesia, Oceania, and elsewhere" (1964, pp. 4-5). Then, "Discovering a shamanic symbol or rite...begins to have meaning only in the degree to which one is led to see shamanism as a clearly defined religious phenomenon" (Eliade 1964, p. 7 n.). In an earlier article, he had written (1950, pp. 299f.):

An important distinction is to be made between the religions which are dominated by Shamanistic ideology and techniques (as is the case of Siberian and Indonesian religions) and those where Shamanism constitutes rather an isolated phenomenon, limited to certain peripheral groups (Indian and ancient China, etc.).. Shamanism is a complex phenomenon whose morphological and historical study has scarcely begun.

Notwithstanding, Eliade (1964, p. 8) suggests that shamanism might be better classed "among the mysticisms than with what is commonly called a religion." His was a historic-textual approach, and according to current research, such a view would not be acceptable without serious qualifications. It did find, however, an inflection in the Swedish scholar of comparative religions, Ake Hultkrantz, who prefers to view shamanism as "a religious configuration" (a mythico-ritual system) instead of a genuine religion (Backman and Hultkrantz 1978, pp. 10-11). "The religious pattern" in North and South America, states Hultkrantz in another book, is "somewhat inappropriately called shamanism," owing to the crucial role played by the medicine man, or shaman, in the spiritual and ceremonial life of the community. Yet, not all medicine men in the New World are shamans, in the strict definition of the word that assumes ecstasy to be the main technique in achieving communication with the spirit world. He feels that this term should be used to signify the shaman's worldviews and ritual performances instead of denoting "an entire religious pattern" (Hultkrantz 1979, pp. 85-86).

The essential core of shamanism or any religious institution, for that matter, can be described by the fact that it consists of a system of rituals and beliefs - not necessarily a codified corpus of dogma which defines its mystical character. This point is critical for the understanding of the problem. Ancient and classic shamanism was not characterized by a common object of worship (e.g. a sun-god or a Buddha) or by a codified body of scriptures. Traditional shamanism has consisted of specific techniques and ideologies that could be used to address issues and problems of spiritual concern. What makes classic shamanism also different from the conventional world religions is the absence of regular hierophants (priests) in favor of ritual practitioners (shamans).

The basic elements of shamanism describe multiple functions reflected in the roles of its practitioners, the shamans. As individuals specializing in the performance and the enactment of the rituals, they are also the tribal time-keepers, or custodians of the calendar. In hunting magic, the shamans foster and consolidated a vital relationship with the Master of the Animals, or an equivalent figure, thus assuring bounty for their people. As healers, they employ various methods recognized by their cultural norms, including the ability to see the causes of disease and augur the future. No less important is the shaman's function as a guide, or psychopomp, for the souls of the dead. He ascertains that these do not become dispersed in the universal vastness, but are assured proper passage to their destinies in the spirit realms. Last, but definitely not least, in the shamans' extensive knowledge of the sacred and powerful plants. The vital importance assumed by hallucinogenic substances in shamanistic rituals and imagery, as crucial factors in cultural dynamics, must be duly underscored. The experience acquired in drug-induced visions, and later integrated through socially approved cognitive channels, serves as a major key to culture change. The dynamics of the force intrinsic to shamanism constitute a pervasive note in such a process.

Moreover, the shaman's intellectual abilities are of real social consequence, particularly as they apply to issues involving the culture-environment system. Equipped with an impressive corpus of empirical knowledge (ethnoscience) and a profound grasp of human behavior, the shaman fulfills the vital role of a psycho-cultural adaptive mechanism, not merely as a healer of diseases, but as a harmonizer of social and natural dysfunctions and imbalance. He strives for harmony and balance in nature. In view of his ecological significance, the shaman's role as an agent in transcendental and existential tends to be underplayed by those who regard cultures as systems of more pragmatic and functional configurations. The importance of the latter is undeniable, but to de-emphasize symbolic (religious, spiritual, etc.) considerations if to misunderstand the full integrative potential inherent in shamanism as a dynamic factor in the cultural process.

From time to time, a voice is heard challenging shamanism as a religion on the grounds that it lacks a body of scriptures and a priestly hierarchy, in contrast to the recognized world religions. Such claims, however, cannot divest genuine shamanism of its ritualism, spiritualism, magico-mythic elements, and eschatology - all the essential ingredients of a bona fide religious complex. Its transcultural parameters delineate the second most, if not the most, enduring ritual tradition in human history. Undeniably, certain differences in shamanistic practices can sometimes be attributed to syncretism with another religion coexisting in the given culture. Other differences result from diversity of cultural contexts, and correspond to those encountered among distinct peoples with their own religious practices.

The idea, however, that a religion must possess a codified corpus of dogma is a more recent and arbitrary convention. It is based on an ethnocentric premise which characterizes more 'Westernized', and historically later, world religions than it does ancient and tribal societies, where myth and religious dogma (if the latter exists) do not function as disparate components. Fortunately, it is not widely favored among anthropologists and students of comparative religions. Its subjectivity imposes Western values on a process much older that today's existing cultures and civilizations. If the possession of scriptures, or their equivalent, were to become a criterion that defines religion, then we would be compelled to ignore the dynamics of the historico-psychocultural processes which have been ongoing for the last 200,000 - 100,000 years.
In this vein, how are we to interpret the religion, or belief-system, of the Paleolithic dwellers of the painted caves? Of the Uralic tribes of Siberia? Indeed, what can be said about the indigenous religion of the Amazonian Indians, or the dreamtime of the Australian aborigines? None of them have had a demiurge, or a codified corpus of dogma. Have they had a religion? Myths become the effective cultural expressions for religious and ethical cultures. They are of great significance to shamanistic rituals and ideology. Anyone who has studied the phenomenon of shamanism realizes immediately the key function of myths in the shaman's repertoire.

Many of the shamanistic ceremonies worldwide are validated by myths attempting to explain the creations of such rites, as well as of cosmic paradigms. These myths often rationalize the enactment of rituals in terms of cultural materialism or social pragmatism. The essence of social existence is centered around mythic imagery, which lends an existential dimension to life. Pure rational thought is no more an objective reality than the myths whence such a concept is derived. Myths make up, in part, the fundamental responses to the basic human need for meaning. This is an inescapable condition of human existence, pervading all areas of interactions: from techno-mechanical and sexual to highly symbolic and creative. The quest for the existential metaphor, in the mythico-religious realm, conditioned human societies along the lines which are interpretable by a cognitive approach - a paradigm - germinal to a theoretical model. The attempts to understand the worldviews and daily dramas of aboriginal cultures must take into account the roles of the diverse factors exerting an impetus on the developmental process (Ripinsky-Naxon 1989, p. 223).

To ensure survival, man learns and devises cognitive meanings. These can be found in the parallel extensions formed by the antipodal worlds, and available through the diverse techniques utilized by the shamans. It is the shaman's task to organize and impart coherence to the inveterate journey of existential quest, thus affording ideological purpose and ecological possibilities to the human condition. Shamanistic states of consciousness are not regarded as extra-ordinary occurrences; neither are these alternate states viewed as separate realities. It is all part of a larger monistic whole. In contrast, the well-established Western myth (a philosophico-scientific metaphor), developed by Descartes through dialectic reasoning, demonstrates the existence of dichotomous systems, indicating a 'real' disparity between antipodal cosmic entities - mind and matter.

Any genuine numinous and mystical experience of the preternatural, be it highly personal or structured by codices, must be recognized as part of a religious phenomenology. As such it must fall within the domain of religion. Of course, it is understood that religious syncretisms have taken place between shamanism and other belief systems in many parts of the world. The persistence of shamanism can be noted in the modern world, as some of its features have managed to survive integrated into the frameworks of world religions. They exist in northern Europe and Asia; in Poland, Greece, and even Egypt; among the Catholic branches and missions throughout Asia and South America, as well as among the evangelical Protestant sects in Central America (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993).

In my experience, I have tried to avoid the genre of New Age pop-shamanism, generated by 'alternate mode shamanic counselors' whose practical experience consist generally of interfacing with their followers in the setting of a hired conference room, or other such place. Quite frequently, the 'urban' pop-shaman views shamanism as a tool - a vocational wand for popular psychology and mass-market self-help programs. To such groups, shamanism appears to represent an ancillary aspect of a cultural trend. Few of them grasp or even realize the agons of physical deprivations, the prolonged ordeals, inner personal crises, and near-death encounters connected with genuine shamanic callings. To learn the techniques employed by a shaman does not make one a shaman. True, shamanism can sometimes be defined by certain techniques, as well as by a characteristic state of consciousness. However, it becomes meaningful only if the definition encompasses the appropriate cultural context and behavior. One can attend school to acquire knowledge, but to acquire wisdom is quite another matter. By the same token, one can learn shamanistic methods in an effort to shamanize, but one cannot matriculate as a shaman. To become a shaman is altogether different. It calls for a serious psychological and spiritual transformation on the part of the individual. Consequently, I am of the opinion that New Age shamanism fails to represent accurate dynamics of the sociocultural situation, both historically and phenomenologically. Its preoccupation with the integration of shamanic elements into the social fabric, where shamanism has not figured as an institution, is accompanied all too frequently by a tremendous lack of awareness, insight and sensitivity into the true shamanic experience.


Backman, L., and Hultkrantz, A. 1978. Studies in Lapp Shamanism. Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion, 16. Stockholm (Almquist & Wiksell International).

Eliade, M. 1950. "Shamanism" (In): V. Ferm (ed.), Forgotten Religions. New York: Philosophical Library.

Eliade, M. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Bollingen Series 76. Princeton University Press.

Furst, P.T. 1982. Hallucinogens and Culture. Novato, Calif. (Chandler & Sharp).

Halifax, J. 1979. Shamanic Voices. New York (Dutton).

Hultkrantz, A. 1979. The Religions of the American Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press.

La Barre, W. 1972. The Ghost Dance. The Origins of Religion. London (George Allen & Unwin).

Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. 1987. Shamanism and Art of the Eastern Tukanoan Indians. Colombian Northwest Amazon. Iconography of Religions IX, 1. Leiden (Brill).

Ripinsky-Naxon, M. 1989. "Hallucinogens, Shamanism, and the Cultural Process: Symbolic Archeology and Dialectics", Anthropos 84: 219-224.

Ripinsky-Naxon, M. 1993. The Nature of Shamanism. Substance and Function of a Religious Metaphor. Albany, N.Y. (State University of New York Press).

Wiercinski, A. 1989. "On the Origin of Shamanism", in M .Hoppal and O.J. von Sadovsky (eds.), Shamanism: Past and Present. Budapest-Los Angeles (ISTOR Books)




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