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Shamanism: lost in translation, part 3

Tenggerese shaman makes an offering to an Indonesian volcano
Tenggerese shaman makes an offering to an Indonesian volcano
Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

When you read an article or book or listen to a TV or radio, how do you know if the terms shaman and shamanism are being used accurately? Because if not, what you are reading or hearing may be grossly misleading.

If anything you read, here or see that touches on indigenous people and spiritual practices and beliefs, especially shamans and shamanism, seems amazing, odd, or unusual, do a little research.

Research is easy and it can be fun, especially when you discover that some of the amazing things are true---or that the reality is far more interesting and exciting than the fictional portrayal.

Here are some guidelines, tips, questions to ask (or look for the answers to):

What does Wikipedia say?

Though not the most accurate source, Wikipedia is easy to find and better than nothing.

Doing a web search, on the other hand, usually brings up a lot of websites full of misinformation. Stick to professional anthropologists and archeologists for information if you can.

What kind of culture is it?

How do the people make a living? Shamanism comes from hunter-gatherer cultures and seldom survives once people turn to farming.

There are cases, though, where a nomadic culture has been persecuted and forced into towns or camps and retained a from of shamanic practice, as in some of the Siberian territories occupied by the old Soviet Union and in parts of Africa and North America.

For more information on the evolution from gathering-hunting cultures to farming cultures, see

What does the so-called “shaman” actually do?

There are hundreds of kinds of spiritual practitioners in thousands of cultures around the world. All shamans are healers; but by far the most healers are not shamans.

Shamans and other kinds of healers often exist in the same culture. It’s not a hierarchy---just different skills, talents, methods and abilities.

Does the so-called “shaman” serve the specific, particular community to which they belong? (rather than, for example, offering services to anyone/everyone for a price, which is sorcery).

Does the “shaman” travel to the spirit world to do her work? If not, by definition, that person is not a shaman.

Spirit possession is not shamanism.

Being possessed and having a spirit speak through you is quite different from journeying to the spirit world, though a shaman may sometimes give voice to spirits.

In fact, a shaman may do many things to help the people who depend on her, including making herbal remedies, reading oracles, teaching, leading, and training others.

Shamanism is very practical. It’s about getting results. Shamans use whatever they have.

Modern-day shamans in displaced or occupied cultures may also have modern jobs to support their families.

This article Part 3 of a four-week series, “Shamanism: lost in translation,” that discusses some of the ways in which the terms shaman and shamanism are misused in publishing, broadcasting, and casual conversation, and the problems that misuse causes for those trying to understand what shamanism is.

The topics of the four parts are as follows:

Part 1: Appropriation of a Technical Term for Popular Use
Part 2, Careless or Sloppy Translation
Part 3, How to Tell When the Terms Are Misused
Parr 4, How TV, Books, and Movies Often Misrepresent Shamans and Spiritual Practices

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