Detail of ‘Shaman’, (1930) by Arman Manookian.

The Real Story of Shamanism: No Need to Don a Headdress or Take Hallucinogens

(Read the article on one page)

Over the centuries, many of the world’s natural mystics have succumbed to pogroms of elimination or the steady erosion of traditional practices – witches burnt at the stake, indigenous peoples forced into Western schools, healers accused of perpetuating diseases. More recently, a growing sense of modernity’s shortcomings has led to a renaissance of traditional or “pagan” practices. One of the most popular resurgent belief systems is known as shamanism. Interestingly, shamanism is also humanity’s oldest means of connecting with ‘Creation’ as well as one of the most globally prevalent. Fortunately for seekers, you do not need to wear a headdress or take peyote to live a shamanistic life.

What is Shamanism?

Today, many people closely associate shamanism with Native American peoples; however, anthropologists have studied evidence of shaman practices on all six habitable continents, some of which date to the Paleolithic era. Put simply, shamanism is a means by which humans have tried to understand the universe and our place in it. It does not force adherence to any particular deity or dogma. Rather, a shaman concerns him or herself with nature and uses insight to heal (physically, mentally, or spiritually) and to promote communal prosperity. What this means in practice runs the gambit from herbal knowledge to contact with supernatural forces, from cool-headed logic to prophecy.

A North American Indian shaman or medicine man healing a patient.

A North American Indian shaman or medicine man healing a patient. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

The word shaman derives from the Tunguso-Manchurian word saman. The Tungus people were reindeer herders in the Lake Baikal region of southern Russia. The word stems from their verb sa, which means ‘to know’ (Rutherford, 1996, 2). Shaman came into popular usage thanks to the Russian anthropologist Sergei Mikhailovich Shirokogorov, an early explorer of eastern Siberia and northeast China. In Psychomental Complex of the Tungus (1935), Shirokogorov wrote:

“In all Tungus languages, this term (saman) refers to persons of both sexes who have mastered spirits, who at their will can introduce these spirits into themselves and use their power over the spirits in their own interests, particularly helping other people who suffer from the spirits.” (Shirokogorov quoted in Rutherford, 1996, 2).

Tungus shaman. Drawing 17th century.

Tungus shaman. Drawing 17th century. ( Public Domain )

The term shaman caught on and was applied to a wide spectrum of traditional figures, including: witches, medicine men and women, spiritualists, and fortune tellers. By now, “the term shaman has been broadly & sloppily, [applied] to a vast spectrum of ‘religious’ practitioners. Unfortunately, there is little consensus among researchers, scholars, or laypersons as to exactly what a shaman is &/or does, and some definitions are somewhat culturally biased” (Smith, 2013). Nonetheless, certain traits shine through the confusion, most notably the connection with nature and the desire for personal and communal betterment.

Ceremonies Associated with Shamanism

These qualities have led to a renewed interest in traditional healing practices. The most important part of shamanism is the feeling of connection, both to other members of the community and to the universe at large. Oftentimes, this connection is established through ritualized ceremonies that include chanting, drumming, rhythmic dancing, sensory overload, and occasionally, the consumption of mind-altering substances. Together, these quiet the chattering mind and allow for mental relaxation, rejuvenation, and possibly revelation.

A man of high rank modelled in lotus position. His headdress with great horns and the snake-shaped necklace are typical of a shaman from the Bahia (500 BC-500 AD) culture of Ecuador. Artifact at Casa del Alabado: Museo de Arte Precolombino, Quito, Ecuador. (Credit: Alicia McDermott)

A man of high rank modelled in lotus position. His headdress with great horns and the snake-shaped necklace are typical of a shaman from the Bahia (500 BC-500 AD) culture of Ecuador. Artifact at Casa del Alabado: Museo de Arte Precolombino, Quito, Ecuador. (Credit: Alicia McDermott)

A ceremony can also be invented. For example, “you may make up an 'I want a job I can really enjoy' ceremony. You could meditate for five minutes, write a wish-list of all the things you want from a new job on a piece of paper and then burn it, symbolically sending your message to the spirit world. Performing this ceremony won't guarantee you a new job next Monday, but it will signal to the spirit world and to yourself that you are ready for something new” (Almond, 2000). The idea of smoke carrying a message or intention to the heavens is held by many religions - consider the incense burned during Catholic and Orthodox Christian ceremonies.


No need to take Hallucinogens! These are very wise words and I totally agree with them.
We should never forget that no plant or animal has the intention to teach humans spiritual lessons or give us 'wisdom' or something. The substances that all these plants and animals produce only are there to help the plant or animal to get food, against natural enemies, in the communication in symbiotic relations or in procreation...
You must allways remember that everything you experience when you take these substances: the producer of these substances most of the time wants the reciever to have illusions or sensations of things that aren't actually there!
So be very critical of everything you experience or even better: don't take these substances at all!

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Ancient Technology

All Giza Pyramids in one shot.
Ever since humans could look up to see the sky, we have been amazed by its beauty and untold mysteries. Naturally then, astronomy is often described as the oldest of the sciences, inspiring people for thousands of years.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article