The Revival of Shamanism: Exploring an Ancient Role in a Modern World

The History of Shamanism
Possibly the earliest depiction of a Siberian shaman, produced by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen, who visited the area in the early 1690s. This shaman was in Tunguska, and is described in the caption as a devil priest. Date: 1692

Shamanism, a practice that spans thousands of years and countless cultures, is making a comeback as people today are valuing natural health and self-improvement more than ever.

At its core, shamanism is the practice of connecting with unseen realms, communicating with spirits, and harnessing the healing power of the natural world. This practice is as old as humanity itself, starting as a key part of our ancestors' lives and changing with time. Shamans use methods like drumming, prayer, and sometimes psychedelic substances to heal by reaching different states of consciousness, acting as a link between the spiritual and physical worlds.

As folks look for more holistic ways to take care of their health and find deeper satisfaction in life, this ancient way of life is gaining attention for its deep roots in human culture and spirituality.

The reason shamanism remains relevant, even in our modern world, is simple: it taps into our enduring desire to understand ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Shamanism invites us to explore beyond the obvious, encouraging a deeper look into our existence and what lies beyond our daily lives.

This is a glimpse into how shamanism has changed over time and how it can be used today for healing, improving well-being, and making our lives richer.

Where Does Shamanism Originate From?

Since the very beginning of human history, in the distant past of prehistoric times, people developed practices and beliefs that would form the basis of what we now call shamanism. Evidence from archeology, like cave paintings and old objects, supports the idea that shamanism started back in the Paleolithic era, or Old Stone Age. This was when our ancestors who hunted and gathered moved around a lot, living closely with the natural cycles and the animals they relied on to live. They dealt with their world's challenges not only with physical ability and smarts but also by tapping into the spiritual world they believed in.

Inside dark, ancient caves, these early humans made incredible art showing shamanic scenes - people wearing animal skins, figures looking like they're in trances, and animal images. These paintings seem to show shamans entering the spirit world, possibly through rituals, dance, and the use of mind-altering substances. Also, objects found at old sites show that shamanic practices were a part of these early societies.

Shamanism first appeared in Siberia and Central Asia among tribes of hunters and gatherers thousands of years ago. The shamans from these areas were thought to have special powers to connect the human and spirit worlds. Their practices, like drumming, chanting, and using plants that change consciousness, allowed them to talk to spirits of nature or ancestors for healing, guiding hunts, predicting the future, affecting the weather, and more. These shamanic beliefs in the spirit of things and ancestors, along with methods like drumming and dancing for spiritual visions, spread from northern Asia to other places over centuries through trade, moving people, and cultural exchange.

In these early days, shamanism's foundations were laid, and from these beginnings, a wide and varied tradition of spirituality grew, reaching every part of the world. As we look into shamanism's history, we see how this old spiritual way changed and adapted across different cultures and times.

Cave Painting Showing Female Shaman
Female shaman depicted in an early cave art.

Shamanism Across Cultures

Shamanism in Siberia

Shamanic traditions are found all over the world, but Siberia holds a unique place in the history of shamanism. The word "shaman" itself comes from the Tungusic Evenki language of North Asia and was originally used to describe the spiritual leaders who were central to Siberian cultural and spiritual life.

In the cold, vast landscapes of Siberia, shamans have been key figures in society and spirituality for thousands of years. The Siberian shaman, or "saman" as it's said in Tungusic, wasn't just a spiritual guide but also served as healers, fortune-tellers, and bridges between humans and the spirit world.

Their ceremonies, filled with the steady beat of drums and their songs' eerie tunes, were thought to let the shaman enter a trance. In this different state of mind, they were believed to visit various spiritual worlds, meet with spirits, and bring back wisdom, advice, and healing for their people.

A special aspect of some Siberian shamanic rituals is the use of the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, also known as 'Fly Agaric,' recognized for its mind-altering effects and believed to help induce visions and trances. Siberian shamans have a long history of using this mushroom in their traditions. Since the mushroom can be poisonous, shamans had a unique way of using it: they would drink the urine of reindeer that had consumed the mushroom. This process allowed the reindeer to filter out most of the dangerous toxins but keep the psychoactive elements. This way, shamans could experience the mushroom's spiritual effects without the bad side effects.

Amanita Muscaria Mushroom

The infamous Amanita Muscaria Mushroom

From the Evenki people in the east to the Samoyed tribes in the west, the roles and practices of shamans varied, but their crucial importance to the spiritual and social fabric of Siberian communities was a consistent theme. The Siberian shaman symbolized a deep connection between humans and nature, a core feature of shamanic traditions worldwide.

By looking at the role of shamans in Siberia, especially how natural elements like the Amanita Muscaria mushroom play a part in their practices, we gain a deeper understanding of how this ancient spiritual tradition has manifested in various cultures and how it has influenced and been influenced by the diverse societies it has become a part of.

The Shaman's Drum, Siberia
Ket people living in the Yenisei River area of central Siberia. The Shaman's drum and an iron crown featuring reindeer totems.
Shaman's iron crown featuring reindeer totems.

Shamanism in North America

Shamanism has deeply influenced the cultural and spiritual traditions of the Americas. From the cold Arctic to the mild forests of North America, Native American tribes have developed a rich and varied tradition of shamanism over thousands of years.

Although the practices and beliefs differ greatly between tribes, there's a common belief in Native American shamanism that the universe is filled with spiritual forces and beings. People can communicate with these spirits through shamans. This communication often happens in the form of healing ceremonies, divination rituals, and rites of passage that mark important events in an individual's life.

The vision quest is a key practice that shows how shamans act as bridges between the physical and spiritual worlds. It's a spiritual journey taken by someone, often with a shaman's help, that involves being alone in nature, fasting, and sometimes using natural substances that affect the mind. The goal of the vision quest is to gain guidance, understanding, or healing from the spirit world.

In many Native American traditions, natural substances like peyote, known for their mind-altering effects, are used in sacred ceremonies. Shamans or medicine people lead these ceremonies, aiming to help participants have spiritual experiences that lead to healing and change.

From the Inuit of the far north to the many tribes across North America, shamanic practices have been a major part of Native American cultures and continue to be important today. Despite the various forms shamanism takes in the Americas, it shows the ongoing human need to connect with the spiritual world, seek answers to life's big questions, and find healing and completeness, especially in times of difficulty.

Native American Doctor, 1800's
Native American doctor treats a patient with medicine pouch and pencil of sunlight from the book 'The Song of Hiawatha' by Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-1882

Shamanism in South America

South America, especially the Amazon Rainforest, is home to a vibrant array of shamanic traditions. Here, tribes like the Shipibo, Ashaninka, and Katukina have developed profound connections with nature and the spiritual world over thousands of years. Their shamanic practices are vital to their culture, health, and worldview.

Amazonian shamans, known as ayahuasqueros or vegetalistas, have a deep understanding of the rainforest's plant and animal life, particularly those with medicinal and psychoactive properties. Ayahuasca, a potent psychedelic concoction made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis), plays a central role in their spiritual rituals. These ceremonies, aimed at healing, fortune-telling, and spiritual discovery, are led by shamans who use icaros or holy chants, believed to be taught by spirits or the plants themselves, to navigate and direct the ceremony's spiritual and healing energies.

Shamans also serve as healers, as illustrated by the Katukina tribe of Acre, Brazil. When their community was struck by an unknown sickness, their shaman found a cure through an Ayahuasca journey, which led him to use the Kambo frog's poison for healing, showcasing the deep bond between Amazonian shamans, nature, and the spirit world.

Kambô frog at the Yawanawá tribe, Acre, Brazil.
Kambô frog at the Yawanawá tribe, Acre, Brazil.

Moreover, the extensive use of a wide range of plants and animals in their practices, each with unique purposes and spiritual meanings, demonstrates the vast traditional knowledge held by Amazonian shamans. This knowledge, passed from generation to generation, highlights the significance of South American shamanic traditions within indigenous cultures.

Shamanism in South America beautifully illustrates the interconnectedness of humans, nature, and the spiritual realm, emphasizing the universal value and significance of shamanic practices across different cultures.

Men from the Tucano tribe drink Ayahuasca
Barasana elders chant as Bosco, the headman, rests after a ritual dance. Cristo, an elderly shaman, leads the chant, clutching a hardwood prayer stave. All are in a heightened state of consciousness following the ceremonial intake of the potent Yajé juice (Ayahuasca)

Shamanism and European Traditions

Although we often associate shamanism with indigenous tribes of the Americas or the vast landscapes of Siberia, it's important to recognize that shamanic-like practices are also part of medieval Europe's folk traditions. These European traditions, sometimes linked to witchcraft and herbal knowledge, share a fundamental aspect with shamanism: a strong bond with nature and an insight into its healing powers.

In the Middle Ages, the community's healers, midwives, and spiritual advisors were known as wise women or cunning men, roles that mirror the shaman's responsibilities. Their expertise in the healing virtues of plants and herbs was handed down from one generation to the next, similar to the transmission of shamanic knowledge. Mugwort is a prime example of a plant used in this tradition, believed to have magical properties. It was utilized in dream pillows to encourage vivid dreams, in smudging rituals for purification, and as a remedy for various health issues, reflecting the shaman's practice of employing sacred plants for healing and spiritual quests.

These traditions were often misunderstood and persecuted, especially during times of religious conflict, yet they represent a native European expression of shamanic practice, deeply entwined with the land's natural rhythms and seasonal cycles. Reexamining these practices today allows us to embrace a wider perspective of the global spiritual heritage and deepens our understanding of the universal human desire to connect with both the natural and the mystical realms.

Shamanic Practices and Techniques

Altered State Induction

At the heart of shamanism is the practice of using various techniques to reach different states of consciousness, allowing for journeys into the spirit world. Shamans engage in drumming, shaking rattles, chanting, fasting, depriving themselves of senses, and dancing to induce trance-like states. The use of psychedelic plants and mushrooms, which contain substances like DMT and psilocybin, has a long history, including the use of Fly Agaric mushrooms, Peyote cacti, and Ayahuasca. Other methods such as lack of sleep, meditation, and spending time alone in nature are also widely used by shamans to achieve mystical states and communicate with animal spirits, gods, or the souls of ancestors.


In many cultures, shamans are recognized as healers who have the ability to identify and cure illnesses within their communities. Their techniques involve going into a trance to discover healing plants, performing massages, doing energy work, praying, conducting rituals, and using divination to find out the spiritual roots of an illness. Shamans work to remove negative energies, bring back missing soul parts, talk to plant spirits to find herbal remedies, and lead individuals on quests to discover their power animals for healing strength. They may also recommend practices such as drumming, dancing, or going on vision quests for those in need of significant healing changes.

Divination and Prophecy

Shamans often use divination to offer advice and uncover knowledge for people or their entire community. They employ various methods such as interpreting dreams, analyzing smoke patterns, casting bones or shells, looking deeply into flames or water, and traveling in spirit to seek advice from spiritual entities. Divination serves to gain understanding on subjects like weather predictions, hunting guidance, travel advisories, and resolving issues. Additionally, shamans might predict future happenings by interpreting signs and messages received from the spirit realm.

Rituals, Offerings and Sacrifices

Shamanic rituals are designed to deepen the connection between participants and the spirit world, along with the forces of nature. These ceremonies often celebrate life's milestones, such as births, weddings, deaths, and seasonal shifts. To honor and thank benevolent spirits, shamans present offerings like flowers, food, bones, milk, and sometimes blood. Additionally, sacrifices might be made to pacify spirits that are not as benevolent. Activities such as dancing, drumming, chanting, and wearing masks or costumes are integral to these rituals, serving as bridges between the physical world and the realm of spirits.

Mediumship and Ancestral Communion

Shamans act as intermediaries, enabling communication between the living and spirits, ancestors, and the essences of plants and animals. They often channel the spirits of the deceased, allowing these souls to provide guidance through them. Ancestral veneration is a significant aspect of numerous shamanic traditions, with a deep respect for deceased elders. Shamans assist in connecting with ancestors to pay homage, seek wisdom, or address unresolved matters. They also guide the souls of those who have recently passed away, helping them transition smoothly into the spirit world.

Community Functions

In tribal communities, shamans often occupy leadership positions, responsible for guiding spiritual practices and ceremonies. They are the keepers of oral traditions, including myths, legends, and ancestral wisdom, ensuring that such knowledge is passed down through generations. By employing divination and offering advice, shamans play a pivotal role in resolving conflicts within the community. They offer emotional support during challenging periods, acting as a source of solace and guidance. Furthermore, shamans impart practical knowledge in areas such as herbal medicine, animal care, and crafting tools, drawing upon insights gained from their spiritual experiences to educate others.

Shapeshifting and Soul Flight

The mystical side of shamanism includes the ability to transform one's physical form to take on the energies of animals or spirits. During trances, shamans may experience astral shapeshifting, imagining their bodies morphing into those of animals. They also embark on journeys through dreams or visions, where their soul or consciousness travels to mythological realms to gather wisdom. Such soul flights often navigate symbolic landscapes like the World Tree, tunnels, rivers, or the Cosmic Axis, leading into other dimensions. It's common for shamans to describe sensations of their soul departing or flying during these profound mystical experiences, highlighting a deep connection with the spiritual and natural worlds.

Power Animals and Spirit Guides

In numerous traditions, power animals are fundamental, emerging in visions to impart guidance and wisdom. After deciphering the meanings of dreams, a shaman might call upon power animals such as the Bear, Eagle, or Jaguar during rituals to draw upon their strength. Besides these animal spirits, shamans are also supported by a variety of spirit guides, which can include ancestors, spirits of plants and animals, angels, or even deities. These guides offer knowledge and insight that shamans use to benefit their communities. For many shamans, cultivating relationships with their power animals and other spirit guides is crucial in enhancing their spiritual skills and abilities.

Shamanism and Nature

Shamanic practices around the world are deeply entwined with the natural environment, showing a deep respect for and understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. Earth and its cycles are seen not as distant or separate but as central to a holistic system that includes humans. This view goes beyond just a philosophical outlook, offering a practical and direct understanding of our deep connection to the natural world.

Rituals and ceremonies often align with the Earth's cycles, like the change of seasons, the moon's phases, and the shift from day to night. These events are more than just symbolic; they are active engagements that help align individuals and communities with nature's rhythm.

Through practices like rhythmic drumming, dancing, and the use of sacred plants, shamans build a connection between humans and the wider natural community. The journey to the spirit world, often guided by animal totems, highlights the strong bond between humans and nature in shamanic cultures. Shamans are viewed as guardians of this sacred relationship, tasked with preserving the knowledge that emphasizes our connection with the environment. Their role extends beyond mediating between the human and spirit worlds to include preserving harmony between humans and nature.

A key aspect of the shaman's duty is to discover and share knowledge that benefits their community, especially insights into nature's complexities. This wisdom can reveal the healing properties of plants and animals or provide guidance in difficult times. Through trance states and sacred rituals, shamans can venture into the spirit realm and interact with its inhabitants.

Thus, shamans play a crucial role in linking not just the human and spirit worlds but also bridging problems with solutions, sickness with health, and the known with the unknown. Their journeys to the spirit world and back underscore the profound insight and practical advantages shamanism brings to its followers and their communities.

Shamanism offers a spiritual framework that promotes sustainable living, environmental responsibility, and profound respect for nature's gifts and wisdom. In an era of ecological challenges, the shamanic viewpoint provides essential lessons on living in harmony with the Earth and its cycles.

The Waorani tribes-people of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The Waorani tribes-people of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Photo by Andrew Rowat

Modern Shamanism

Shamanism, a spiritual practice with ancient roots, has adapted and flourished in the modern era. Today, shamanic practices have moved beyond their original cultural confines, evolving into a global spiritual movement known as neo-shamanism. This contemporary form of shamanism blends various shamanic traditions from around the world, breaking through geographical, ethnic, and traditional barriers.

Neo-shamanism draws from indigenous rituals and combines them with modern psychological, philosophical, and spiritual ideas. It includes the use of sacred substances like Rapeh (a sacred tobacco blend), Kambô (the powerful secretion from the Giant Monkey Tree Frog), and Sananga (potent eye drops with healing effects), merging ancient wisdom with new practices to make shamanism relevant and approachable for those seeking a direct, personal connection with spirituality in the current era.

Modern shamanic practices utilize time-honored techniques such as drumming, journeying, and calling upon power animals for purposes of healing, personal development, and transformation. This approach emphasizes firsthand, personal encounters with the sacred and fosters an individualized spiritual journey. While neo-shamanism might be viewed critically by some traditional shamans and indigenous communities as cultural appropriation, others regard it as evidence of the widespread appeal of shamanic practices and the deep human desire for spiritual depth and healing.

The widespread acceptance of modern shamanism highlights the enduring significance and adaptability of these ancient practices in a world in desperate need of healing and spiritual connection. Despite the drastic changes humanity has undergone since the days of the Paleolithic, the shamanic path continues to be a vital part of our spiritual heritage, offering insight, healing, and wisdom to help us face the complexities of contemporary life.

Dancers and Drummers at the Venice Beach Drum Circle
Revelers drum, dance, and chant at sunset during the renowned Venice Beach drum circle in California.


Following the ancient paths of shamanism has taken us from the earliest cave paintings through the diverse traditions of Siberia and the Americas, culminating in the globally integrated practices of our modern era. Throughout this journey, the continuous thread has been shamanism's lasting influence, a spiritual practice that has bridged the human and spiritual realms for countless generations.

The persistence and vitality of shamanism echo a deep, universal human longing—the need for a profound connection with the spiritual aspects of life. Even with our species' significant advancements and changes, this deep-seated desire remains a core aspect of what it means to be human.

Shamanism's heritage provides us with precious insights and methodologies for dealing with today's complex world, offering a way to comprehend and engage with nature. It calls us to a deep, personal interaction with the sacred, cultivating a sense of unity and spiritual depth that enhances our existence.

From its ancient origins to its present-day expressions, shamanism endures, grows, and captivates. It stands as a living symbol of our continual search for spiritual depth, healing, and connection, underscoring the timeless nature of our quest for meaning in the tapestry of existence.


  • Harner, M. (1990). The Way of the Shaman. HarperOne.
  • Hutton, R. (2001). Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. Hambledon Continuum.

  • Krippner, S. (2002). The epistemology and technologies of shamanic states of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(3), 17-32.

  • Schultes, R.E. (2001). Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia. Synergetic Press.

  • Winkelman, M. (2002). Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Bergin & Garvey.

  • Luna, L. E., & Amaringo, P. (1999). Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman. North Atlantic Books. 

Suggested Reading

If you want to learn more about shamanism, including its history, how it's practiced, and how it's used today, here are some book recommendations that cover all of that in detail.

  • "The Way of the Shaman" by Michael Harner: This classic text on shamanism, penned by anthropologist Michael Harner, provides an excellent introduction to the core shamanic practices and principles.
  • "Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination" by Ronald Hutton: A scholarly exploration of Siberian shamanism and its impact on Western spiritual and intellectual thought.

  • "Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing" by Michael Winkelman: This book provides a fascinating intersection of shamanic practices with neuroscience, offering insights into how these ancient practices influence consciousness and promote healing.

  • "Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia" by Richard Evans Schultes: An in-depth look at the use of sacred plants in shamanic rituals among the indigenous tribes of the Colombian Amazon.

  • "Shamanism As a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life" by Tom Cowan: This accessible guide brings shamanic practices into modern daily life, teaching readers how to find their spirit animals, journey to the otherworld, and integrate shamanic teachings into their everyday routines.

  • "Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge" edited by Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley: This is a comprehensive anthology of writings on shamanism, covering its historical development, cultural variations, and contemporary relevance.

Each book gives a special way to look at and learn about the wide world of shamanism. They cover both general ideas and specific details, making them great for both people new to shamanism and those who already know about it.