Shamanism – Concept, characteristics, origin and functions

We explain what shamanism is, its characteristics, origin, history and functions of the shaman. Also, shamanism in Mexico.

For shamanism, it is possible to contact the spirit world through rituals.

What is shamanism?

Shamanism is the belief in the spiritual power of shamans, figures linked to animism and that are common in primitive tribal communities. These shamans are ancestral healers who believe they can contact the spirit world through rituals, to request them to intervene in favor of their will, in such a way as to perform some kind of mystical or religious feat.

In early mankind, shamans played an important role as tribal priests, and they were at the same time healers, priests, herbalists. From time to time they were also military or political leaders, depending on the organization of the community, since medicine, religion and politics were, initially, part of a disorganized cultural whole, at least by modern standards.

Shamanism, well, has been practiced since prehistoric times in all geographies of the world, and in many it survives to this day, accompanied by the belief in a world populated by spirits with whom contact can be made, through the appropriate rituals.

To do this, shamans usually wear specific clothing, often with the skins of totemic animals or guardians, whose spirits they often invoke to carry out special tasks. Thus, for example, a shaman could invoke the spirit of the jaguar to bring fierceness to the warriors of the tribe before a battle, for example.

The word “shaman” comes from the Turkic and Mongolian tribes of central Asia, and is roughly translated as “he who knows.” Its use in certain contexts may be equivalent to “witch” or “witch doctor”.

On the other hand, its use in anthropology designates certain modern religious tendencies (neo-shamanism or neo-paganism) and has been strongly questioned by those who consider that it constitutes a cultural appropriation that erases the true meaning of the original term.

Characteristics of shamanism

shamanism characteristics
Dancing, music, hallucinogens, and trance can be part of your usual practices.

Broadly speaking, shamanism is characterized by the following:

  • It consists of the practice of a spiritual or magical healing, at the hands of an animist priest called “shaman”.
  • Shaman deal with real-world situations through rituals, dances, or invocations, whose purpose is to attract suitable spirits. It is also common for them to lead rituals and procedures of the tribe, for legal, political, military or social purposes.
  • As a doctrine, shamanism can be understood as a form of animism. Nevertheless, It is practiced only by the shaman, as a spiritual leader of the community.
  • Despite being spiritual leaders, shamans are not part of a recognizable institution, but rather pass on their knowledge from one generation of shamans to the next, orally and in particular.
  • The position of shaman can be reserved for men or women, depending on the culture, and usually gives the person the right to wear special clothing, such as skins or ritual clothing. Dancing, music, hallucinogens, and trance can be part of your usual practices.

Origins of shamanism

Shamanism it is common to the different ancestral or prehistoric cultures of humanity. Their presence, with different names, responsibilities and modes of intervention in the community, is part of the common tendencies of the primitive modes of organization of humanity.

In that sense, is the antecedent of all organized religions, whose beginnings date back to the Upper Paleolithic period, before the invention of agriculture and sedentary lifestyles.

Many of their mystical and symbolic practices were maintained in one way or another in the polytheistic religions of ancient cultures, although they were later persecuted and marginalized by the rise of monotheisms in Europe and the Middle East. The witch hunt may have been the end of many forms of traditional European shamanism.

Functions of a shaman

The shaman traditionally fulfills some of the following roles in the tribe:

  • Medicine man and medicine man, through spiritual healing.
  • Spiritual and religious leader, in charge of the traditional rituals of the tribe, such as ritual sacrifices or initiation rites.
  • Compiler of stories and traditions of the community, as well as to recite them and pass them on to the younger generations, as a spiritual teacher.
  • Guess the future and interpret the signs (omems) of the gods, often as a collective method of confronting danger or making a political decision.
  • Prepare the dead and lead the funeral rites, if any.
  • Prepare warriors spiritually for hunting or for war, and sometimes accompany them as a kind of chaplain.
  • Serve from mediator in the internal conflicts of the tribe and as an advisor to the caudillos.
  • Distinguish allowed foods from prohibited foods, identify beneficial herbs and deal with the spirits of the animals after the hunt.
  • Celebrate wedding rituals, if any.

Shamanism in Mexico

shamanism mexico
Shamanism is part of the Mexican cultural baggage.

Many forms of shamanism inherited from pre-Columbian cultures survive in Mexico, and that are part of the cultural baggage of each of the ethnic groups or nations that make up part of the Mexican culture. Shamans predominate in rural areas, and they tend to preserve many of their ancestral practices, as carriers of a traditional medicine, marginalized by modern knowledge.

There are, however, traditional healers who ensure the preservation of their traditions. There are modern cases of shamans rescuing their legacy in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Morelos, Sonora and Mexico City itself.However, to reach them it is necessary to have privileged information, since not just any upstart or scammer can provide the true experience. of the legacy of shamanism.