Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Shamanism

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106541Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) — ShamanismJohn T. Driscoll

(From Shaman or Saman, a word derived by Bantzaroff from Manchu saman, i.e., an excited or raving man, by van Gennep and Keane from Saman a Tungus word; others say a later dialectic form of the Sanskrit sraman, i.e., a worker or toiler.)

A vague term used by explorers of Siberia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to designate not a specific religion but a form of savage magic or science, by which physical nature was believed to be brought under the control of man. It prevails among Turanian and Mongolian tribes and American Indians, and blends with their varied religious beliefs and customs. Thus the Turanians believe the shamans were a class created by the heaven-god Tengri to struggle for men's good against the evil spirits. The Buddhist Mongols call Shamanism shara-shadshin, i.e., the black faith, the Chinese tjao-ten, i.e., dancing before spirits. The shamans are variously designated, e.g., by Tatars kam, by Samoyeds taryib, by Ostjaks tadib, by Buriates boe, by Yakut Turks oyun, by American Indians medicine men, In the Bhagavata Purana the Jains are called shramans. In Persian-Hindu the term "shaman" means an idolater. In Tibet Shamanism represents a Buddhism degenerated into demonology. Thus the Mongols say that shamans are closely allied with Odokil, or Satan, who will not injure any tribe that obeys its wizards.

(1) Shamanism rests for its basis on the animistic view of nature. Animism (q.v.) teaches that primitive and savage man views the world as pervaded by spiritual forces. Fairies, goblins, ghosts, and demons hover about him waking or sleeping: they are the cause of his mishaps, losses, pains. Mountains, woods, forests, rivers, lakes are conceived to possess. spirits, i.e., the itch-tchi of the Yakuts, and to be living, thinking, willing, passionful beings like himself. In respect to these, man is in a state of helplessness. The shaman by appropriate words and acts uses his power to shield man and envelops him in a kind of protective armour so that the evil spirits become inactive or inoffensive. His rôle is that of antagonist to the spirits and of guardian to ordinary man. The Esquimaux believe all the affairs of life are under the control of malignant spirits who are everywhere. These minor spirits are subject to the great spirit. Tung-Ak, yet must be propitiated. The shaman alone is supposed to be able to deal with Tung-Ak, though not superior to him. Tung-Ak is a name for Death, who ever seeks to harass the lives of people that their spirits may go to dwell with him. Ellis says that spirits far from friendly compassed the lives of the Polynesian islanders on every side. The gods of the Maori were demons thronging like mosquitos and ever watchful to inflict evil; their designs could be counteracted only by powerful spells and charms. In Kamchatka every corner of earth and heaven was believed to be full of spirits more dreaded than God. The Navajo, Ojibwas, and Dakotah Indians have a multiplicity of spirits, both evil and good, filling all space, which can be communicated with only after due preparation by the persons who have power to do so, i.e., medé or jossakeed.

(2) The main principle of Shamanism is the attempt to control physical nature. Hence the term embraces the various methods by which the spirits can be brought near or driven away. The belief that the shaman practises this magic art is universal among savages. To this art nothing seems impossible; it intimately affects their conduct and is reflected in their myths. In some cases initiation is required. Thus with the Navajo and Ojibwas they who have successfully passed through the four degrees of the medéwin are called medé, and are considered competent to foresee and prophesy, to cure diseases and to prolong life, to make fetishes, and to aid others in attaining desires not to be realized in any other way. They who have received instruction in one or two degrees usually practise a specialty, e.g., making rain, finding game, curing diseases. For this women are eligible. Again the jossakeed, or jugglers, form a distinct class with no system of initiation, e.g., an individual announces himself a jossakeed and performs feats of magic in substantiation of his claim. Among the Australians the birraark were supposed to be initiated by wandering ghosts. The Dakotahs believe the medicine men to be wakanised (from wakan, i.e., godman) by mystic intercourse with supernatural beings in dreams and trances. Their business was to discern future events, lead on the war-path, raise the storm, calm the tempest, converse with thunder and lightning as with familiar friends. Father Le Jeune writes that the medicine men of the Iroquois enjoyed all the attributes of Zeus. Tiele says that the magical power is possessed by the shaman in common with the higher spirits and does not differ from theirs; in religious observances the magician priests entirely supersede the gods and assume their forms (Science of Religion, II, 108)

Most commonly the shaman is a man. Among the Yakuts, the Carib tribes, and in Northern California there are female as well as male shamans; and in some cases, e.g., the Yakuts, male shamans have to assume women's dress. Every Maori warrior is a shaman. In Samoa there is no regular caste, but in other Polynesian groups the shaman is the exclusive privilege of an hereditary class of nobles. With the Yakuts the gift of shamanism is not hereditary, but the protecting spirit of a shaman who dies is reincarnated in some member of the same family. To them the protecting spirit is an indispensable attribute of the shaman. They believe that the shaman has an ãmãgãt, i.e., a spirit-protector, and an ie-kyla i.e., image of an animal protector, e.g., totemism. Hence the shamans are graded in power according to the ie-kyla, e.g., the weakest have the ie-kyla of a dog, the most powerful that of a bull or an eagle. The ãmãgãt is a being completely different, and generally is the soul of a dead shaman. Every person has a spirit-protector, but that of the shaman is of a kind apart. With the American Indians the guardian spirit, from whom the novice derives aid, is more generally secured from the hosts of animal spirits; it can also be obtained from the local spirits or spirits of natural phenomena, from the ghosts of the dead or from the greater deities.

In the practice of his art the Shaman is regarded as:

  • A healer, hence the term "medicine man", and the secret medicine societies of the Seneca, and of other American tribes; the Alaskan Tungaks are principally healers.
  • An educator, i.e., the keeper of myth and tradition, of the arts of writing and divination; he is the repository of the tribal wisdom.
  • A civil magistrate; as seers possessing secret knowledge with power at times of assuming other shapes and of employing the souls of the dead, they are credited with ability to detect and punish crimes, e.g., the Angaput wizards among the Esquimaux. In Siberia every tribe has its chief shaman who arranges the rites and takes charge of the idols; under him are local and family wizards who regulate all that concerns birth, marriage, and death, and consecrate dwellings and food.
  • A war-chief; thus with the Dakotahs and Cheyennes the head war-chief must be a medicine man. Hence the shaman possesses great influence and in many cases is the real ruler of the tribe.

The means which the shaman uses are:

  • Symbolic magic, on the principle that association in thought must involve similar connexion in reality, e.g., the war and hunting dances of the Red Indians, placing magical fruit-shaped stones in the garden to insure a good crop, to bring about the death of a person by making an image of him and then destroying it or rubbing red paint on the heart of the figure and thrusting a sharp instrument into it.
  • Fasting with solitude and very generally bodily cleanness and incantations usually in some ancient or unmeaning language and with the Yakuts very obscene. Thus the song that salved wounds was known to the Greeks, e.g., the Odyssey, and to the Finns, e.g., the epic poem Kalewala. Among the Indo-Europeans the incantations are known as mantras, and are usually texts from the Vedas chanted over the sick. With the New Zealanders they are called karakias. In ancient Egypt, according to Maspero, the gods had to obey when called by their own name. At Eleusis not the name but the intonation of the voice of the magician produced the mysterious results. In calling on the spirits the shaman imitates the various sounds of objects in nature wherein the spirits are supposed to reside, e.g., the whispering breeze, the whistling and howling storm, the growling bear, the screeching owl.
  • Dances and contortions with use of rattle and drum and a distinctive dress decked with snakes, stripes of fur, little bells. Among the Ojibwas at the sound of the sacred drum every one rises and becomes inspired because the Great Spirit is then present in the lodge. The frenzy and contortions lead to an ecstatic state which is considered of the greatest importance. In South America drugs are used to induce stupor. The spiritual flight in search of information is characteristic of the Siberian shaman; it is rare in America. Vambéry cites a whole series of shamanistic ceremonies, e. g., tambourines and fire-dances, practised by the ancient sak-uyzur. Shaman incantations are found in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Medes at Suze. Sacrifices, gifts of beads and tobacco, and a few drops of the novice's blood form part of these rites with the American Indians.
  • Possession; thus in Korea the pan-su is supposed to have power over the spirits, because he is possessed by a more powerful demon whose strength he is able to wield. This is also the belief of the Yakuts.

(3) Shamanism is closely akin to Fetishism, and at times it is difficult to tell whether the practices in vogue among certain peoples should be referred to the one or to the other. Both spring from Animism; both are systems of savage magic or science and have certain rites in common. Yet the differences consist in the belief that in Fetishism the magic power resides in the instrument or in particular substances and passes into or acts upon the object, whereas in Shamanism the will-effort of the magician is the efficient factor in compelling souls or spirits or gods to do his will or in preventing them from doing their own. Hence in Fetishism the emphasis is laid on the thing, although fasting and incantations may be employed in making the fetish; in Shamanism the prime factor is the will or personality of the magician, although he may employ the like means. Therefore we cannot admit the statement of Peschel who refers to Shamanism everything connected with magic and ritual.


(a) The reasons which prove Animism to be false destroy the basis on which Shamanism rests.

(b) Shamanism takes for granted the theory that fear is the origin of religion. De La Saussaye holds that the concept of God cannot arise exclusively from fear produced by certain biological phenomena. Robertson Smith teaches that from the earliest times, religion, distinct from magic and secrecy, addresses itself to kindred and friendly beings, and that it is not with a vague fear of unknown powers but with a loving reverence for known Gods that religion in the true sense of the word began (Religion of the Semites, 2nd ed., p. 54). Tiele says "worship even in its most primitive form always contains an element of veneration" and calls sorcery "a disease of religion" (Science of Religion, II, 136, 141).

(c) Shamanism is not a religion. The religious priest beseeches the favour of the gods; the shaman is believed to be able to compel and command them to do his will. Hence de La Saussaye regards Shamanism not as a name for a principal form of religion but for important phenomena and tendencies of Animism.

D'HARLEZ, La religion nationale des Tartares orientaux in Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique, XL (1887); ACHELIS, Abriss der vergleichenden Religionswissenschaft (Leipzig 1904); TYLOR, Primitive Culture (3rd Amer. ed., New York, 1889); FRAZER, Golden Bough (London, 1900); Jesuit Relations, ed. THWAITES (Cleveland, 1896-1901); MÜLLER, Contributions to the Science of Mythology (London, 1897); LANG, Myth Ritual and Religion (London, 1887); ABERCROMBY, Preand Proto-historic Finns (London, 1898); KEANE, The World's Peoples (New York; 1908); FURLONG, The Faiths of Man (London, 1906); SIEROSZEWSKI in Revue de l'hist. des religions, XLVI; VAN GENNEP in Revue de l'hist. des religions, XLVII; STADLING in Contemporary Review (Jan. 1901); DIXON in Journal of American Folklore (Jan., 1908); American Anthropologist, I, IV.

John T. Driscoll.