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Shamanism is an ancient religion that includes belief in animism, deities, and demons. The shaman, or priest/medium, is believed to have special powers that allow him to communicate with ancestral spirits, the gods, or their evil counterparts. Shamanism is still practiced by indigenous peoples in Siberia.
The term "shaman" has come to refer to any priest or priestess who uses magic and superstition to heal the sick, exorcise demons, or communicate with spirits. Shamans are thought to possess magical powers and have esoteric knowledge, especially regarding the healing powers of certain plants. In Malaysia, the shaman is called "the bomoh." In Indonesia, the shaman is called "the dukun."
Shamanic healing centers, books, and programs are common New Age developments, growing in proportion to the complexity of the modern world and the longing for a simpler past. For some people, shamanism is a window to a glorious, if illusory, past, when humans lived in harmony with nature and with each other. Shamanism offers not only an alternative medicine, but an alternative reality.
Some contemporary folks have been attracted to shamanism because of its association with altered states of consciousness induced by drumming, fasting, wilderness vision questing, sweat-lodges, and especially by hallucinogenic plants. For such people, shamanism offers the hope of an experience that will not only give meaning and significance to their lives, but will also erase from consciousness, at least temporarily, the horrors of a world that at times seems to have gone mad.
Neither New Age shamanism nor Native American religions have any direct connection to the ancient religion of Siberia.
A Tale of Two Shamans
Once upon a time, there were two shamans who lived on opposite sides of the earth. Both shamans were loved by their respective tribes. One shaman discovered that no matter what medicine he used, most of his patients recovered. He discovered that it wasn’t the medicine that gave relief to those who beat a path to his hut. He knew he was tricking them. He may have figured out that what gave relief to his patients were his rituals, the confidence he exuded in his ability to contact the spirit world, the expectation of healing that his community shared, the power of his suggestions, or that most illnesses resolve themselves in due time. He may even have been wise enough to recognize that most of his patients were scared and that fear was, in some important way, related to their symptoms. Reducing fear helped his patients recover. The medicine was usually irrelevant. Calming down his patients—what we call reducing anxiety—was the important thing.
The other shaman was not so enlightened and he believed it was his powerful medicine and contacts with the spirit world that healed people. He was a good shaman and had many satisfied customers. The enlightened shaman made a conscious decision to continue with the traditional rituals and medicines because they worked even though he knew they weren’t efficacious. After all, if he told his fellow tribe members what he’d discovered, he’d destroy their faith. Rather than be grateful for knowing the truth, they might turn on him. So, he continued with the deceit, justifying it by telling himself that he was, after all, helping people and if he didn’t do it, somebody else would. His decision was made easier knowing that if he revealed what he knew, he’d have to spend the rest of his days as an outcast, jobless and hated. Like the unenlightened shaman, the enlightened deceiver could always come up with a satisfying narrative to explain why his failures weren’t really failures. He could blame the patients: they weren't living right; they'd offended some spirit and were being punished; they didn't perform a ritual correctly. He could rely on people’s gullibility and their willingness to believe just about anything magical, mysterious, and involving powerful spirits from another world.