Shamanism is the world's oldest and most enduring religious, medical, and psychotherapeutic tradition. For tens of thousands of years and across the world, shamans have functioned as tribal general practitioners and have offered a means for understanding and dealing with death and the dead.
Shamanism is a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entities from whom they gain knowledge and power in order to serve their community. Shamans often undergo a rigorous training program that may involve apprenticeship, solitude, asceticism, and spirit guides. When trained, they function as tribal physicians, counselors, priests, and spiritual practitioners.
Shamans' relationships to death and dying are multifaceted and involve both their training and their healing work. Shamans may sometimes be chosen because they unexpectedly cheat death by recovering from severe illness. During their training they may undergo one or more powerful death-rebirth experiences in which they experience themselves dying and being reborn, often finding themselves healed and strengthened by the process. In contemporary terms this can be understood as an early example of a profound, archetypal process that has been valued and sought in multiple cultures and religious traditions for its spiritually transformative potential. During training, the shaman is also expected to develop the capacity to see and relate to "spirits," some of whom are thought to be ancestors and ancient shamans, and some of whom may become helping guardian spirits that guide and empower the shaman.
Once shamans are trained, several of their practices relate to the dead. The spiritual entities that shamans interact with may be the spirits of the living or the dead. Sick individuals may lose their spirit—the term dispirited is still used—and face suffering and death unless the shaman can recover it. Spirits of the dead may be lost, troublesome, or malevolent, and the shaman must intervene by guiding, healing, or vanquishing them. Others might be troubled by spirits, but the shamans alone are masters of them and their realms.
Techniques such as fasting, solitude, drumming, dancing, and using psychedelics may be employed to induce altered states of consciousness in which spirit vision is enhanced for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. These techniques may especially be preludes to, and inducers of, the shamanic journey: a controlled out-of-body experience to other realms where shamans may meet, mediate with, learn from, and heal spirit entities.
The tradition of shamanism has much to teach contemporary researchers and healers. It demonstrates an ancient form of medicine, spirituality, and thanatology; the power of disciplines such as solitude, asceticism, and spiritual practice; the responsible use of psychedelics; the potentials of altered states of consciousness and controlled out-of-body experiences; and the use of all these for dealing with death and serving one's community.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask. London: Arkana, 1989.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam, 1982.
Walsh, Roger. The Spirit of Shamanism. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1990.
ROGER N. WALSH