What is shamanism?
Many of the products on our website have a long history of use, though in very different contexts. The herbs, mushrooms and cacti that are available worldwide nowadays were traditionally ingested during indigenous rituals focused on healing or religious purposes.
On every continent, humans have developed methods to alter their normal state of consciousness. Drumming, singing (chanting) and dancing are common techniques that are often combined with the ingestion of psychoactive plants or plant preparations. The medicine man or woman, who functions as the spiritual guide of the tribe and knows how to prepare and mix the plants for the purpose of contacting the gods or entering the world of spirits is often referred to as ‘shaman’. The various methods and belief systems are likewise called ‘shamanism’.
The word shaman derives from the Siberian Tungusic languages. Historian Mircea Eliade said: "A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = a technique of ecstasy." According to him a shaman is able to cure illnesses, perform miracles and serves to guide the souls of the deceased to the afterlife. During his or her initiation a shaman experiences death and rebirth, a process which is rehearsed any time the shaman’s soul leaves the body in order to travel the axis mundi; either to visit the heavens or the underworlds. Following Eliade, a shaman might also function as a priest, mystic and poet.
Eliade’s idea that all these traditions share a common and unique structure is contested by other scholars, who point out the large differences between traditions that aren’t historically connected. Many of the characteristics of a shaman as described above haven’t been reported (or just partially) by anthropologists conducting more in-depth research with specific tribes.
Shamanic cultures worldwide
Many shamanic cultures have been eradicated by the Inquisition, missionaries or the forces of capitalism. Others have intrinsically changed due to globalisation and the course of time. Though remnants of and new variations on the ancient rituals remain to this day.
In the Amazon basin, for example, the most common plant mixture used is ayahuasca, a combination of Chakruna or Chalipogna leaves and the bark of the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine. Ayahuasca is just one of the plant preparations available in the excessive botanical collection of the Amazonian shaman. Another plant widely used is Datura (Toe, Brugmansia).
A bit more west, in the Central Andes of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia we find shamanic rituals devoted to the mescaline containing San Pedro cactus. The Peyote cactus is traditionally used in ceremonies of the indigenous people of Central America. Take the Huichol, who are known for their colourful clothing and art inspired by the Peyote experience: as they have never been completely colonized, their rituals remain relatively ‘original’.
Another well-known shamanic plant from this area is Salvia divinorum, which is endemic to the Mazatec region of Mexico and has been traditionally used for divination and healing. This is the same region where R. Gordon Wasson encountered the psilocybin cult of Maria Sabina. Through his publication ‘Seeking the Magic mushroom’ in Life magazine in 1957, the existence of psychoactive mushrooms became known to a wide audience for the first time.
Magic mushrooms have been found all over the world; though it’s not clear to what extent this means they’ve also been used in a ritual way. Archeological findings led to speculations about mushroom cults in regions as varied as Australia, Thailand, Algeria, the Sahara desert, Tanzania, Greece, India and China. It’s known that in Central and Latin America the use of psychoactive mushrooms was wiped out by the Spanish colonists. Maria Sabina’s ceremonies, as observed by Wasson, suggest this type of ‘shamanic use’ was much more common. At least it inspired generations of hippies and beatniks to develop their own ‘neo-shamanic’ mushroom ceremonies.
Siberian shamans were known to consume another mushroom; the Amanita muscaria (Fly argaic). In western Siberia, its use was restricted to shamans, in eastern Siberia both shamans and layman partook and it was used both religiously and recreationally.
In India sadhus (holy men, especially those devoted to the ascetic god Shiva) regularly smoke cannabis using a chillum and some ingest plant mixtures containing Datura. The same two plants play a role in the shamanic traditions that have been absorbed by Tibetan Buddhism.
On the African continent, a multitude of herbs, seeds, root barks and other plant derivatives are used. Most of them have only recently been discovered by Westerners. The psychoactive Iboga root bark and a variety of dream herbs like Silene capensis and Calea zacatechichi gained most attention so far.
This overview just shows the most well-known practices and is in no way meant to be complete. Christian Rätsch lists more than 400 psychoactive plant species worldwide, and many of them have some kind of ‘shamanic’ use.
Though contested, Eliade’s idea of a ‘universal’ shamanism has been proven very influential. Anthropologist Michael Harner follows up on this idea when deducting ‘the core methods of shamans worldwide’. Though previously acquainted with drinking ayahuasca with Amazonian tribes, he developed a drug-free method for shamanic journeying (mainly through drumming and ritual dance), which he started promoting in the early 1970s. His workshops, books and Center For Shamanic studies became the main pillar for contemporary neoshamanism: the modern day practice of so-called shamanic techniques by non-indigenous (Western) people.
The term technoshamanism is used when modern technology, like electronic dance music or synthetic drugs (but also psychotherapy), is integrated into shamanic practice. This forms an important element of modern rave and Goa trance culture. It’s based on the idea that a mystical experience is at least partially biological in nature and therefore the use of biological and mechanical means to induce these kinds of experiences is appropriate. An important proponent of technoshamanism is Terrence McKenna who stated that reality actually is a shadow of extradimensional patterns and shapes. McKenna advocated psychedelics as a way to open the mind to those hidden patterns.
-Christian Rätsch. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants. Ethnopharmacology and its applications. 1998, 2005.
-The use of entheogens in the Vajrayana tradition: Vajrayana.
-On Mircea Eliade: Znamenski, Andrei. Quest for Primal Knowledge: Mircea Eliade, Traditionalism, and “Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”. Shaman, vol. 17, Nos. 1-2. 2009. Znamenski.
-Michael Harner: Shamanism.org.