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Everything is distinct in the shaman’s secret world. Source: Ammit /Adobe Stock

The Shaman’s Secret World: Living in Light and Darkness

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Shamanism is described in Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy as a every ancient coherent system of esoteric beliefs and practices that attempt to organize and explain the interrelationship between the cosmos, nature, and man (Eliade, 1972). It has been practiced by many cultures and historically spans thousands of generations, from around the first ring of fire to our days. Yet shamanism is linguistically and locally specific, hence there are multiple rituals and cosmologies. We will focus here on the shaman’s role and functions in traditional indigenous communities of the Americas.

The ring of fire was the first awakening of hunter-gatherers to a world beyond their awareness. In the dark of night, the fire lit a circle beyond which was an unknown and dangerous world. The ring of fire was the first realization of what will later be referred to as the “field of opposites”, the narrow line between light and darkness, the known and the unknown. This realization of a hostile world lies at the heart of the nature-culture dichotomy, a key aspect of shamanism.

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers around a fire. (Public Domain)

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers around a fire. (Public Domain)

Cosmology and the Nature-Culture Duality

The cosmological perception of ancient cultures was necessarily of a binary nature, inherited from the observations of the natural world. It is traced from the Upper Pleistocene through Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. By then, and probably before, the nature-culture dichotomy was already well-grounded in pre-modern human communities’ customs and rites. This ancient dual perception of the world was inherited by the modern humans who co-habited the territory of the Neanderthals during the Late Pleistocene.

Ancient societies named themselves in accordance with their immediate environment, the feeding space of the group. Their location drove their binary interpretation of the nature-culture duality. In the rainforest of Panama, the generic name for the Guaymí comes from the Muoi dialect (a branch of the Guaymí family, now extinct), that means “ man.

The name does not refer to gender but stresses the exclusive prominence of the group to the exclusion of any others. These “others” are not considered “ man” owing to their differences in individual and group perception of the cosmos and nature, as expressed through customs, symbols, and rites. Besides, the gateway to beliefs and initiations is first and foremost language; because it is believed that malevolent forces can take the shape of people, but cannot speak their language.

In traditional communities, individuals are selected to communicate at the esoteric plane of the group’s mythological universe; they are generally referred to as the shamans. The name, of Siberian origin, came to the Americas with the first migrants from the Eurasian continent during the last phase of the Wisconsin Glaciation.

Layers of the Shaman’s Secret World

The spatial organization of the shaman’s world is multi-layered. Both the upper and under worlds are made of a number of layers, that vary from culture-to-culture and reflect a representation of their cosmology. The upper world is regarded as home to ancestors, beneficent spirits, light, and life. The underworld is identified as the place of malevolent spirits, darkness, danger, and death.

The link between these worlds is the middle world, or field of ordinary perception. The place where the observer, the community, or the clan lives. It is the center through which the tree of life, or axis mundi, passes to link the three worlds and their various layers. And, it is understood that there is only one “tree of life,” theirs. It can be an actual tree or a feature in the community’s environment, such as a mountain or a cave, exclusive to that group.

The shaman worldview is based on the seven-point observation of the spatial universe and its endless repetition. They are the four cardinal points, the zenith, the nadir, and the center, or intersection of the all the points where the observer stands. This universal worldview is based on the observable continuum of the sun, moon, and stars traveling through both the upper and under worlds. The celestial bodies cross the visible world during the day on an east-to-west path. They are then logically perceived to continue their course at sunset from west-to-east through the underworld at night, to start a new cycle again the following dawn.

Ancient Shamanic Carvings. (©

Ancient Shamanic Carvings. (©

For each individual culture, this perception is at the root of an unshakable certainty that their spatial location and their beliefs are what sets them apart from other human groups. Furthermore, it establishes the absolute uniqueness  of their community and beliefs – to the exclusion of others.

The multi-layered world implies communication and is based on the belief that every lifeform within the field of ordinary perception has its counterpart in the “other” worlds. The gateway between the middle world and the two others is the human mind. Through learning, ritual, and esoteric exercises, the shaman can roam through these upper and under worlds.

Who is a Shaman?

But, who is a shaman, and how do shamans communicate and enter into the various strata of their worlds? According to shamanic beliefs of indigenous tribes, the echeloned worlds lying beyond the field of ordinary perception correspond to a micro-worldview, consisting of a sequence of dimensions of the individual’s own interior world, or inner scale of human consciousness. The shamans claim that in their hallucinations, induced by psychotropic drugs, they penetrate into the different strata of the otherworld as though through narrow openings.

The name is by definition gender neutral, since it applies to men and women alike. Their respective initiation rituals and tasks, however, are gender specific, since they answer to their respective physical and emotional particulars. They may however, act in concert for particular situations where both are called to ward off malevolent male and female deities.

Native American woman performing a ritual. (topshots /Adobe Stock)

Native American woman performing a ritual. (topshots /Adobe Stock)

In the Americas, it is relatively common in a couple that husband and wife are shamans. The role of shaman is performed by intelligent individuals who fulfill a number of important functions in their communities. Shamans heal and direct prayers, puberty rituals, and major ceremonies for the community and individuals’ life cycles.

They are keepers of the genealogies of the tribe, recite myths, dance, and chant during traditional events. They are very also knowledgeable about nature and influence decisions on crop planting and harvesting, hunting, and the conservation of resources. Their function as mediators in situations of social conflict is very important. However, shamans are first and foremost mediators between this world and the supernatural world.

The Shaman. (©

The Shaman. (©

According to the culture and the tribe, the position of shaman may be inherited or revealed in a vision or dream. Someone may also become a shaman simply by following the vocation. Apprenticeship, under the guidance of a practicing elder, takes years and extreme hardships that will end with initiation. For example, the Kogi require a double cycle of nine years each before initiation. It is practically a universal rule that the neophyte must die symbolically, to later be reborn and endowed with certain supernatural powers.

Communing with Ancestors and the Supernatural World

In past and present traditional societies, ancestor worship is a key constituent in peoples’ lives. The shaman, upon request, may assist in communing with ancestors, but it is the descendant alone that shall address his/her own forefathers to intercede in the resolution of family or individual conflict. The common denominator to ancestor worship is grounded in the popular respect and affection owed to ancestors in the “other” world, where they intercede with deities, or with other ancestors for unfinished business in this life.

Descendants are keenly aware that they are merely a link in the precious chain of life, from grand-parents to grand-children through parents. In the past, the burial of an ancestor below the floor of the house, or in proximity to it, meant that the ancestor was still “socially alive” - thus justifying claims to family resources by the descendants. Ancestor worship is grounded in an age-old stern but inescapable logic: No ancestor = No descendant = No Life.

Pleading for a New Life.  (©

Pleading for a New Life.  (©

The shaman’s main communal function involves establishing and maintaining contacts with the supernatural world through altered state of consciousness. Altered states vary among cultures and are achieved, among other means, through deep meditation, sensory deprivation, or sudden visions of supernatural beings or situations. In most parts of the Americas, however, ecstasy is more frequently attained by means of psychotropic plants. The vegetal world is regarded as a gift from the gods for the food and medicinal plants human survival depends on.

Taking the Shamanic Flight

Among hallucinogenic plants used by indigenous communities in lower Central America, northern South America, and the Amazon basin, there are different species of wild vines of the genus Banisteriopsis caapi, commonly called ayahuasca or yaje, also called “vine of the soul.” Diverse species of stramonium or thorn apple ( Datura), and Morning Glory ( Ipomea violacea); seeds, mushrooms ( Psilocybe and others); and the bark of several species of trees of the genus Virola.

Such plants may be used singularly or mixed according to a shaman’s secret recipe. The use of hallucinogenic drugs is an ancient worldwide cultural phenomenon. In the Americas, it is closely related to the so-called “shamanic flight,” the feeling of disassociation during which the ch’ulel or soul of the shaman as the Maya call it, is believed to separate from his body and penetrate other dimensions of the cosmos.

At that time, the shaman will acquire his familiar totems, the spirit of animals that will become his auxiliaries; chiefs among them are the jaguar, the eagle, and the serpent. The “Yucatec Maya of Quintana Roo called the nawal the supernatural guardian or protector that share ch’ulel or soul with a person from birth” (Freidel,1993:182). For the Zinacantecos today, “chu’lel has the same roots as ch’ul or k’ul, a word used by ancient Mayas to describe “holiness” and “divinity” (Vogt, 1976).

During these “flights,” the shaman calls on supernatural and ancestral beings about present and future events, learns new spells, chants, and dances, or searches for cures to ward off diseases. He will also search for remedies to cure the souls of very sick people and help those who are dying through the difficult paths to the underworld.

The idea of other dimensions, of “ other worlds,” as dwelling places of the spirits of the dead or fantastic beings, is based on the experience of the ecstatic journey of the shaman. The image the shaman forms of these dimensions and the description he/she gives of them depends on the projective process of his/her psychological personality and experience as a practitioner, as well as on the cultural and religious tradition of the tribe and its environment.

Animal Totems and Archetypes – Knowing Over Seeing

What is known therefore, is more important than what is seen, since only a member of the tribe who fully shares a mental and emotional make up with that group, can understand the significance of the symbols and archetypes surrounding the group’s shamanic world. Among numerous themes represented in pre-Columbian ceramic and metal artifacts of central American cultures, the most representative is the single or double-headed bird depicting the shamanic flight.

Double-headed Eagle. (©

Double-headed Eagle. (©

The raptor is shown with outspread wings and tail. It is generally made of metal (gold or tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper), even though it is also well-depicted on ceramics. The bird may be the Swallow-tailed Kite, a symbol that probably migrated from northern South American cultures. It is represented with one or two heads, a powerful beak, its talons projected forward, and is frequently found in pre-Columbian artifacts of Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica.

In the mythologies of many Amazon tribes, the Swallow-tailed Kite figure as the ornithomorphic personification of the shaman, connected with many traditions that refer to the ethnohistory and origin of certain rites. The Dayak shaman of Siberia, who escorts the souls of the deceased to the “other” world, also takes the form of a bird (Eliade, 1972). For the Tunebo, the Swallow-tailed Kite is a shamanic bird of great importance. In their tribal traditions, it was the shaman-kites who acted as guides to the ancestors in their prehistoric past, to bring them from far-off lands to their present location.

Swallow-tailed Kite. (Andy Morflew/CC BY 2.0)

Swallow-tailed Kite. (Andy Morflew/CC BY 2.0)

Among Maya cultures past and present, individuals of traditional communities are endowed with the spirit of an animal companion, called a nawal, a spirit-companion or co-essence from the animal world. With the assistance of the shaman, the chuchqajaw in Maya-Quichè, a nawal is ceremonially selected for an individual at each major step of his/her life, from conception to death. The nawal is understood as an essential life force, an alter ego, granted to humans and still held at their passing. A spirit companion identifies with the animal, selected for particular abilities by the shaman.

These abilities may be speed, vision, agility, stealth, intelligence, power, grace, fierceness ,or other attributes, and they span across species from mosquitos to jaguars in the Americas. The nawal is language-specific and may have different attributions with other Maya linguistic groups. The overriding function of the spirit-companion of an individual however, remains the same. The alter ego of a human must be cared for with prayers and ceremonies at dedicated times, since the life of the spirit-companion is believed to coexist intimately with that of the person.

The shaman’s auxiliaries in the animal world can be classified into several broad categories. Namely those that help the shaman to “fly,” which in the Americas, besides the Swallow-tailed Kite, include the harpy eagle, the king vulture, and the toucan, among other birds. Night tasks are mostly entrusted to owls and bats.

There are also companions that help the shaman to diagnose and cure diseases, are his executioners, and those that serve as his messengers. The executioner animals carry out a shaman’s order to assault an enemy, near or far. They are the jaguar and various venomous snakes and insects. Among shamanic messengers are the hummingbirds, certain “talking” birds, such as macaws or parrots, as well as dragonflies, bees, and butterflies.

Hummingbird and Bee. (Public Domain)

Hummingbird and Bee. (Public Domain)

The selected animals are dedicated to specific tasks that are related to their shape, color, and behavior. What is seen is not the animal in a zoological sense, but principles and qualities considered by shamans to be embodied by these animals. These principles or qualities may be flight, speed, sharpness of sight or hearing, ability to undergo metamorphosis, to camouflage, to simulate death, or to live in two worlds, such as frogs, turtles, and other amphibians. For the Yanomami of the Upper Orinoco, river otters are auxiliaries of women shamans and protectors of the tribe’s womenfolk.

Shamanism Remains Strong in Today’s World

Through history societies evolved and became more complex, while secular and religious symbols and archetypes also evolved as carriers of new realities. It took thousands of generations, trials, errors, and blind alleys to build creeds grounded in faith; the corner stones to building societies and secure their inherently unstable cohesion.

Scientific discoveries allowed us to reach remarkable degrees of success in human lives. But unbridled demographics, with science and technology among other factors, led to the fragmentation of societies, identities, and faiths, often leaving an unbridgeable void between communities. Shamanism, as old as mankind, coerced by history to bend to new truths and realities, still defies the test of time.

Top Image: Everything is distinct in the shaman’s secret world. Source: Ammit /Adobe Stock

By George Fery


Linda Schele & David Freidel – A Forest of Kings – William Morrow & Co., 1990

Mircea Eliade – Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy –– Princeton U., 1972

Claude Lévy-Strauss – Totemism –  Merlin Press – London,1964

Mircea Eliade – The Myth of the Eternal Return – Princeton University Press, 1965

G. Reichel-Dolmatofff – Indians of Colombia – Villegas Editores, Bogota, 1991

David Freidel, Linda Schele, Joy Parker – Maya Cosmos – W. Morrow & Co., 1993



Mary Madeline's picture

I loved this article and it took me to many different places, thank you George Fery!

Mary Madeline


Tri-lingual freelance writer and photographer based in Dallas, Texas. Travelled extensively over the last 35 years from Europe to Africa and the Americas. His web site  focuses on the history of the Americas up to the arrival of the... Read More

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