History of Shamanism

A cultural perspective of views on shamanism

Shaman (pronounced Shah-maan) is a word from the Tungus people of Siberia. It has been adopted widely by anthropologists to refer to persons who were previously known by such terms as ‘witch, witch doctor, medicine man, sorcerer, wizard, magician and seer.’ The adoption of this definition is partly due to our preconception to terms such as witch and sorcerer, due to the permeation and ultimate dominance of Judeo-Christian culture over the last two thousand years. The Jewish God Yahweh was the first deity to issue the command, “ye shall suffer no witch to live”, although Jewish history is devoid of memorable witch hunts.’ It was not until much later that Christianity, encompassing the Jewish tradition within its old-testament, acted upon these words. Powerful organised religions emerged, such as the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which interpreted the teachings of Christ as an indictment of the material world. Developing a culture that perceives the material world, including our bodies, as sinful and that indulging in such would prevent us from achieving a state of grace. This led many people to aspire to the churches perceived ‘heavenly’ qualities of the mind, such as logic and reason. Although this logic was little concerned with the pursuit of truth, more a dogmatic protection of the logic of one book. Anyone who was educated was suspect and ignorance was praised as this was said to engender piety as well as fear and admiration for those who could read and understand the bible.

Thus although it had been proved many centuries before that the world was round, the church maintained that it was flat – and so flat it became. Anyone who believed otherwise was a heretic. It was taught for example that mice were generated asexually from decaying earth; that wasps emanated from the carcasses of dead horses; and bees from dead calves.’

This created what has been termed the mind-body split, where righteous people’s actions should be directed by planning, obedience and devotion, while drives associated with the body such as spontaneity and instinct are seen as the workings of Satan. Indulging in the bodily functions, they suppose, is synonymous with depravity and loss of control. Although not all Christians shared this belief, most especially the Gnostics who ‘promoted dance as a spiritual exercise. In the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip Jesus intoned,

To the universe belongs the dancer. If you do not know the dancer, you do not know the dance, and if you do not know the dance, you do not know the universe. He who does not dance does not know what happens. Now if you follow my dance, see yourself in me who I am speaking, and when you have seen what I do, keep silent about my mysteries.

As Witchcraft often uses a non-rational, imaginative and self-expressive approach within its rituals and practice, some Christians subsequently demonised it, the gods of the old system becoming the new devils. They believed that their truth was the only truth and therefore could not tolerate an alternative belief system. Believing that any system that appeared to miraculously heal others or cause harm that could not be attributed to the work of god and his angels must be the work of the devil. The church aggressively protecting its ideological monopoly with horrific torture and execution, therefore forcing the ‘old ways’ to go underground. Subsequently in the west, witches and sorcerers developed a shadowy and dangerous reputation.

Since Darwin’s theory of evolution, in the nineteenth century, and the psychedelic explosion of the 1960s there has been an increased acceptance of what have now become ‘alternative’ belief systems. This is reflected in film and television with shows such as Harry Potter, Sabrina the witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: but although these characters are positive representations, they still tend to be outsiders and live on the margins of society and the fantastical portrayals have little grounding in reality. These shows are reflective of a ‘ New-age’ sub-culture that has developed, involving people who are attempting to rediscover a ‘magical’ awareness through various books and courses, generally outside academia. They usually learn the techniques of an extinct or subdued shamanic culture, such as Native American, aboriginal or Celtic. Unfortunately for them, after completing these courses most people will view them with suspicion, leading to there sub-cultural marginalisation like a ‘ witch’ or ‘wizard’ of the middle ages. These practices may have been highly respected in other cultures, with practitioners in a position of authority within a tribe, but they have little relevance to most individuals in today’s technological society. They may be successful in their application of technique and engage in all the practices associated with the craft of the shaman: but they cannot be considered to be a shaman (in the modern sense of the word), in my opinion, unless they hold a relevance and influence to mainstream culture.

I have discussed how the church gained a monopoly on practices previously associated with a shaman. Indeed the belief that the Catholic Church is the medium between man and god is similar to the belief that the shaman is the oracle to the spirit world. The aim of this thesis is to argue that film and television has taken on the dominant shamanic role within society, with certain directors and producers acting like shamans. Being both an agent for self-discovery and empowerment, as well as being potentially manipulative and soul destroying. I will define the multi-faceted role, traditionally associated with the shaman and then relate this to the function and influence of film within our current society.


M.Harner (1990), The way of the shaman, New York: Harper and Row

E. Brooke (1993), Women healers through history. Womens Press ltd: London

E. Pagels, (1979) The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage books

Although science with its distrust of spiritualism and mysticism continued the churches hatred of women and the forces of nature associated with shamanism. ‘The early scientific community allowed no women within its hallowed halls. Science did not have much use for beauty, either, and it treated nature as an enemy. Francis bacon, author of the scientific masterpiece ‘Novum Organum’, consistently used metaphors derived from the witch hunt torture chamber to describe how scientists should force nature to relinquish her secrets.’ L. Shlain (1998) The alphabet verses the goddess.London: Penguin Books ltd