Cross Cultural Perspectives on Shamans

The problems of a definitional approach to shamanism (e.g., see Jakobsen, 1999; Townsend, 1997) are overcome by a cross-cultural approach that provides an empirical basis for characterizing shamans. Cross-cultural research reveals an etic shamanism world-wide in hunter-gatherer societies and universal practices using ASC for healing (Winkelman, 1986a, 1990, 1992; see Winkelman & White, 1987 for data and methods). Shamanism was an ecological-psychobiological adaptation of hunter-gatherer societies to biological structures, psychosocial processes, and therapeutic needs (Winkelman, 2000). This psychobiological foundation for the hunter-gatherer shaman also provided the basis for the persistence of similar ASC-based healing practices in more complex societies; these have been referred to as shamanistic healers (Winkelman, 1990), recognizing their continuity with shamanism.

The foundations of shamanism are derived from: (1) ASC induction activities that elicit the relaxation response and produce theta wave synchronization across levels of the brain; (2) analogic and visual symbolic systems involving a presentational symbolism and other innate representational modules for self, "others," mind, and nature; and (3) socioemotional and psychodynamic ritual processes and their physiological, social, psychological, and cognitive effects. Shamanistic ASC involve a biological mode of consciousness with many adaptive physiological consequences directly related to healing (e.g., relaxation, psychological integration, opioid, and serotonin-mediated effects). Shamanism uses presentational symbolic systems (Hunt, 1995) and analogical thought processes produced through integration of innate representational systems of the brain, specialized adaptations for processing perceptions of social relations (self/others), their intentionalities ("mind reading"), and animal knowledge (natural history representations)

(see also Mithen, 1996). Shamanic universals of animism, animal spirits, totemism, soul flight, and the guardian spirit complex involve manipulation of information regarding personal, social, and natural identities through analogical and visual representations (Winkelman, 2000). These use innate brain processing modules for knowledge about mind, self, and others to understand nature; and reciprocally internalizes these natural models for development of self and social representations (Winkelman, 2000). These community ritual activities manipulate and strengthen social identity, using psychosocial processes for emotional healing.


Cross-cultural research (Winkelman 1986a, 1990, 1992) indicates a core set of characteristics associated with healing practitioners of hunter-gatherer societies. In addition to the ecstasy (ASC), spirit world interaction, and community relations emphasized by Eliade, other characteristics of shamans include soul journey or flight, soul loss and recovery, death and rebirth, hunting magic, and other therapeutic processes.

Shamans are found among hunter-gatherers and societies with limited agriculture or pastoral subsistence patterns and political integration limited to the local community. Shamans provide healing, divination, and charismatic leadership. Shamans are also capable of malevolent acts, or sorcery. Characteristics of shamans include: training and professional practice based upon the use of ASC; a soul flight ASC and soul recovery; their transformation into animals and control of animal spirits; death and rebirth experiences; and the provision of hunting magic and assistance in food procurement. Predominant shamanic illnesses result from soul loss, attacks by spirits and sorcerers, and the intrusion of foreign objects and entities into the body. Shamanic world views include a multileveled universe including upper and lower worlds connected by an axis mundi, often a "sacred tree" through which the shaman travels between worlds. The shamanic ritual was the most significant social event in these societies. In an all-night ritual attended by the entire community, the shaman engaged in ritual interactions that brought the community into direct experience of the spirit world. Shamans are selected through the outcomes of spirit encounters that occur in deliberately induced ASC (e.g., vision quests) or through spontaneous or accidental ASC experiences interpreted as signs of selection by spirits. Shamans often come from shaman families, but in most cultures anyone may be selected by the spirits through successful training experiences. These often involve an extension of vision questing experiences undertaken by the entire population (or all males) during the adult transition. Shamans are mostly males, but most cultures also allow females to be shamans before or after child-bearing years (Winkelman, 1992).

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