Article 2: The history of Shamanism – what is a Shaman?

Shamanism is one of the oldest forms of spiritual practices known to man. Artifacts have been found dating back to the Paleolithic era about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.

It was discovered that Hominins lived together in small societies such as bands. They collected plants, hunted and fished together, and scavenged wild animals. Paleolithic is characterized by the use of ‘knapped’ stone tools – but they also used wooden and bone tools.

Humanoid figures, Kimberley, Australia.
Supernatural Realms – Cave Art – The Earliest Folklore.

The Prehistoric Shaman

The roots of Shamanism can be found in regions around the world throughout history. Many religions have adopted certain practices from Shamanism.

The word Shamanism was first used to describe ancient religions of Turks, Mongols, and neighbours close to the Tungusic and Samoyed-speaking people. The word shaman derived from “saman” meaning “he/she who knows”.

It’s impossible for me to explain all the aspects of Shamanism in one blog post. I have been studying the art of Shamanic practices for nearly twenty years (off and on) and so, I’ll be writing up a series of articles for you over time to share my experiences and knowledge gained from various sources.

‘The Sorcerer’, Trois Frères, France
The Sorcerer – Trois Freres, France

What is a Shaman?

It is said that Shamans have been touched by the spirits and engage with the Numinous. The Numinous to have a strong religious or spiritual quality. A possible connection to the greater divine.

Related image
Moab, Utah

Shamans from around the globe have different names. Some are called sage, saints, healer, medicine worker, and even witch doctor.

Shamans are called into crisis emergencies such as death, serious illness, or psychotic snap. A shaman is often seen as the pillar of the tribe and ranked highly among his people.

Shamans are initiated by forces of nature. In prehistoric times, they were often forced to choose their own fate. To either become a shaman for their people, or in some tribes, face death for turning down their calling.

Shamans are great map makers. As they become familiar with the different spirit realms, they create maps and images of the different worlds they visit in their journeys.

The Shamanic Drum as Cognitive Map
The Shamanic Drum as Cognitive Map – Open Edition Journals

A shaman’s power comes from the ability to embody joy and harmony. What makes a shaman trustworthy, is when he is able to share that knowledge and use it to lead his community towards greatness.

Psychedelics Influenced the Origins of Prehistoric Cave Paintings ...
Ancient cave paintings

Spiritual Realms

A shaman is said to have knowledge of the different spiritual realms and is able to communicate with ancestors and deities in these realms. A shaman is often referred to as “a walker between the two worlds – the living world and the spirit world.”

The three realms in Shamanism are;

  • The Lower Realm – to connect with your power animal
  • Middle World – clearing negative energy where someone has died, spirit work, connecting with ancestors
  • The Upper World – to connect with a mentor or spirit guide, much of the shaman’s teachings and knowledge will come from visiting this world in journey work.

Shamanic Cosmology

  • Circular time – non-linear
  • Pantheism – all encompassing God presence
  • Animism – spirit interaction in all things

All time exists at once and becomes circular. The three worlds of Shamanism ascend on a vertical axis, Axis Mundi. The Axis is used to connect the shaman to the spirit realms.

Vertical axis, spiritual ascent of the three worlds, interconnection of spiritual realms. There is also a sacred centre or source of power – Mother Earth and Father Sun – are the “Mother-Father” of all things.

The Six Directions

There are six directions used in invocation for opening sacred space. These directions are:

  • South
  • West
  • North
  • East
  • Mother Earth
  • Father Sun
Michael Looking Coyote – Native American Meditations

Shamanic Practices

The shaman of the tribe is responsible for many practices. There are practices that are common to regions around the globe. These include but are not limited to:

  • Journeying into spiritual realms through perceptual shift or altered states of consciousness.
  • Direct personal spiritual experience, revelation and divination
  • Working in partnerships with spirit guides and power animals
  • Animistic relationship with nature “Mother Earth”
  • Beating of drums, using percussion instruments such as rattles, consuming of psychotropic plants for journey work.
  • Rites of passage through ceremony and ritual practices
  • Learning and sharing various healing and empowerment techniques.
The Sacred Story of Shamanism - Joshua Hehe - Medium

Sacred Objects and Tools

  • Drum, rattle
  • Dance and sacred postures
  • Sacred plant medicines

Alberta Pow Wow – official ceremonies held in First Nations communities

Shamanic Journeying

Everything has energy. Everything in this universe is connected. The shaman is said to be a mediator between the spirit world and the human world. Teachings, knowledge and healing practices are passed on to the shaman by entering a state of altered consciousness.

The shaman can travel between these realms while in this altered state of consciousness.

A drumming circle is often held in a sacred space to help the shaman enter this altered state. The steady beat of drums and rattles are used during this ritual. In some drumming circles around the world, people will dance and sing to create energy that is used in journey work. Shamans may also use psychedelic drugs or plants during these rituals.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find footage of these circles. Drumming circles are often held in temples or spiritual spaces and filming is usually, not allowed.

Here is a video from youtube recorded in 2016.

The Nierika

The Nierika is a cosmic-like passageway between the human and spirit world. It acts as a barrier between the two worlds keeping the dead and the living apart. It is often called the Face of Deity.

Much like Christians, when they appear before god at the gates of heaven, a shaman will appear before the Nierika when he dies and his spirit leaves the living world.

Nierika Offering at Sacred Site - Photograph ©Juan Negrín 1979 - 2018
Nierika – Juan Negrin (Wixarika Research Center)

Soul Retrieval

Soul retrieval is one of the most important practices of Shamanism. It involves healing of the spirit from illness. This practice is just too complicated to explain in a short paragraph. I’ll dive more into it in a later post. For now, I’ll leave you with this video from Sandra Ingerman.

The work for soul retrial is done in the Lower World – where a soul part has taken refuge, often in the company of a spirit animal. When that part of the soul is retrieved, the spirit animal is often brought back with the patient.

A lost soul located in the Middle World may be found with an ancestor or loved one who passed on from the living world. A lost soul in the Upper World may be found with its guardian angel, or “soul family”.

The Medicine Wheel

The Medicine Wheel, is a tool or metaphor, with a variety of concepts. In early history, wheels were found constructed by laying stones in a particular pattern that matched the four directions.

The four Four Directions (East, South, West and North) are typically represented by a distinctive color such as red, black, yellow and white.

Here are the meanings of the four directions (

  • Stages of life: birth, youth, adult (or elder), death
  • Seasons of the year: spring, summer, winter, fall
  • Aspects of life: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical
  • Elements of nature: fire (or sun), air, water, and earth
  • Animals: Eagle, Bear, Wolf, Buffalo and many others
  • Ceremonial plants: tobacco, sweet grass, sage, cedar
What is an Indigenous medicine wheel?
Indigenous Medicine Wheel

I’ll go more into the Medicine Wheel as I learned about it from local elders in 2018 when I traveled to St. Paul for work related training. That’s around the time I started getting really sick from the sage and pipes.


As you can see, Shamanism is a complex subject to write about. There are many practices involved and the history behind Shamanism is vast and varied.

The reason I feel passionate about sharing my learnings with you is that I feel so connected to the ways of the Indigenous peoples. Even before I took my job working with the First Nations, I felt a connection. I don’t understand why. my heritage is very European.

Perhaps, like shamans around the world, I’ve been blessed with a bit of the healer’s gift. I’m excited to share more of my experiences studying spiritual practices with you.

Shamanism is not evil. Shamans use their techniques and skills to heal others through traditions that are different compared to modern medicine. These are traditions that have been around for tens of thousands of years. I hope you enjoyed this lesson as much I enjoyed writing it for you.

I think magical practices like Shamanism are considered evil, because people do not understand what a shaman does. History has proven again and again, that people fear the unknown. I choose to embrace the unknown and because of that, I’ve been on many wonderful journeys in this life.

shaman, art, shamanism, symbolism, surrealism, symbol, art, judaism, native american, gracedivine
Grace Divine – – consider supporting artists

Recommended Readings

  • Animal Speak – Ted Andrews
  • The Way of the Shaman – Michael Harner
  • Soul Retrieval – Sandra Ingerman
  • Shamanic Journeying – Sandra Ingerman
  • Earth Magic – Steven Farmer

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