Modern Shamanism is perhaps the most diverse of all the forms of Pagan practice and is less clearly defined as a tradition than other Pagan paths. Shamanic practices are an underlying aspect of all expressions of Pagan religion and there are those who would describe themselves as Wiccan, Druidic or Women's Mystery Shamans. Bearing this in mind, there are, however, a growing number of men and women who see themselves on a specifically Shamanic path.
Those who see themselves as Shamans place great emphasis upon individual experience. Shamans may sometimes work together in groups, but the ethos of this way of working is more of a solitary path. Shamanic practice is characterized by seeking vision in solitude and is deeply rooted in the mysteries of Nature.
Shamanism is an ecstatic religion with an essential belief in the reality of the spirit world. The Shaman, through training or calling, is one who is able to enter that world and work with the unseen powers. The Shaman acts as an intermediary between the spirit world and the everyday lives of men and women. He or she may also guide others to experience the spirit world for themselves and so deepen their spiritual lives. Through contact with the spirits, the Shaman can work acts of healing, divination and magic - revealing by way of vision, poetry and myth the deeper reaches of the human spirit.
'Shamans are healers, seers, and visionaries. .. they are in communication with the world of gods and spirits. Their bodies can be left behind while they fly to unearthly realms. They are poets and singers. They dance and create works of art. .. they are familiar with cosmic as well as physical geography; the ways of plants, animals, and the elements are known to them. They are psychologists, entertainers, and food finders. Above all, however, shamans are technicians of the sacred and masters of ecstasy.'
Joan Halifax, Shamanic Voices , E P Dutton, NY, 1979.
The Shamanic practice of today ranges from those trained in the paths of traditional societies such as the Native American tribes, to those reconstructing Shamanic practice from historical accounts and from their own experience. Shamanism in its pure form, as practised in tribal society as a part of tribal religion, is less accessible than other Pagan paths, but modern reconstructions are growing in popularity.
Underlying beliefs of practice
The shaman plays the role of healer in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens. Even in western society, this ancient practice of healing is referenced by the use of the caduceus as the symbol of medicine. Often the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiar helping entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans. In many shamanic societies, magic, magical force, and knowledge are all denoted by one word, such as the Quechua term "yachay".
While the causes of disease are considered to lie in the spiritual realm, being effected by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman will "enter the body" of the patient to confront the spirit making the patient sick, and heal the patient by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimen is often prescribed as treatment. In many places shamans claim to learn directly from the plants, and to be capable of harnessing their effects and healing properties only after obtaining permission from its abiding or patron spirit. In South America, individual spirits are summoned by the singing of songs called icaros; before a spirit can be summoned the spirit must teach the shaman its song. The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit. Such practices are presumably very ancient; in about 368 BCE, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the "first prophecies were the words of an oak", and that everyone who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to "listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth".
The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many shamanic societies. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, and is renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.
By engaging in this work, the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from any enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can be fatal, and the failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to physical death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.