Return to Main Home Animation Go To: Book1 / Northwest Coast Go to: Book 2 / Arctic Go to: Book3 / Woodlands Download PDF of Book 1, Northwest Coast
An Introduction

Dr. Peter T. Furst Ph.D

A man does not become an angakoq (shaman) because he wishes it himself, but  because certain mysterious powers in the universe convey to him the impression that  he has been chosen, and this takes place in a dream.

Knut Rasmussen, Across Arctic America:
Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924   

Shamanic religions are animist, with a belief that everything in the environment has a soul and is sensate, including humans, plants, animals, rain, mountains, rocks, rivers, thunder, lightning, stars and planets, even man-made tools.

The terminology of shamanism is Siberian or Central Asian, as were, of course, the ancestors of Native Americans, who ventured from their Asiatic homelands in small bands of hunters and food collectors as long ago as 35,000-40,000 years, traveling on foot or in primitive but water-tight boats of animal skins stretched over driftwood or bone across ice-free coastal or near-coastal waters.

Siberia bequeathed us the terminology and the basic definitions (“shaman” came into German, English and other languages by way of Russian, from the Tungus saman, with earlier roots in Sanskrit, for the technician of the sacred and Master or Mistress of ecstasy and the spirits. This was because it was encountered and studied there earlier than anywhere else by educated travelers and natural historians, who witnessed its practices first-hand and described them as though they were primarily a northern Arctic phenomenon that had no comparable beliefs and practices anywhere else.

They did discover that the practitioners of shamanic techniques of treating illness  functioned primarily in societies that valued the ecstatic-visionary trance, even regarding it as the primary religious experience. They treated the shamanic cosmos as though it was stratified, with varying numbers of cosmic levels, but nowhere less than three that are accessible to him or her in out-of-body travels of the soul, in other words, in the ecstatic visionary trance.      

Notwithstanding the shaman’s mastery of ecstatic techniques, there are varieties of religious ecstasy that do not properly belong with shamanism, hence, not every ecstatic is a shaman. As the late Mircea Eliade, professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago and author of the classic Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964), put it, what sets the shaman apart from other mystics or ecstatic is that he or she specializes in an ecstatic trance “during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky, or descend into the underworld.” Another distinction concerns the special relationship the shaman has with the spirits. Many people claim to have such an intimate connection, whether in the form of controlling them or being possessed by them. But the shaman’s affinity with the spirits is of a different order: the shaman recruits his helpers from among the spirits of animals, plants, and other phenomena to assist him or her in encounters with the extra-human sphere, with the supernatural masters or mistresses of game and plants, the rulers of sky or underworld, and the ghosts of the dead. The helping spirits accompany shamans on celestial or chthonic out-of-body journeys, assist them in overcoming obstacles and dangers, do battle on their side or in their place against demons and sorcerers, help locate and retrieve lost or stolen souls, and so on.  

 Shamans are recruited by various means: they may inherit their vocation or receive a supernatural call, most commonly through a serious illness that responds to no treatment until the candidate agrees to obey the summons to shamanhood. Others may decide to take up shamanising of their own free will, or they may be designated for the purpose by family, lineage or clan (as among the Tungus). However, almost always the individual has been “chosen by the spirits”

Future shamans may also believe to have been selected by virtue of having survived some dramatic event, after being struck by lightning, falling from a high tree, or successfully undergoing an ordeal that can be homologized with an initiatory ordeal. As an example of the latter, Eliade (1987:203) mentions the case of an Inuit (Eskimo) who spent five days in icy water without his clothes becoming wet.

The one thing sign that can definitely be ruled out is psychopathological or neuropathic sickness. Eliade (ibid) rejects it absolutely. It is not true that shamans are or have to be neuropathics, he writes, on the contrary, those among candidate shamans who have displayed aberrant behavior “have succeeded in healing themselves.” Indeed, he writes, the shaman’s initiation is frequently precisely the solution of the psychic crisis brought on by the first symptoms of election or call.”

What is clear from the cross-cultural evidence is that the shamanic vocation often implies a crisis that simulates the symptoms of madness or, in the case of the Inuit, what has been wrongly called “Arctic hysteria.” But, according to Eliade, one cannot become a shaman until one has resolved this crisis, usually by overcoming sufferings that are exactly like the ordeals of passage from youth into adulthood, or into a new status in the society. “Just as in puberty rites or rites of entrance into a secret society the novice is ‘killed’ by semi-divine or demonic beings whom he sees dismembering his body and putting it back together. Recovery from the ordeal, then, is tantamount to a cur, and. one cannot become a shaman until one has also recovered from one..

This element of dismemberment by an initiatory demon is found in many indigenous shamanic cultures, from Siberia to the Canadian Arctic, and in the Americas southward from the Northwest Coast through the southwestern desert and the tropical forests of Amazonia to the Tierra de Fuego. In his classic work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques f Ecstasy (1964), Eliade effectively demolished the oft-repeated notion that the Arctic shaman’s spontaneous ecstatic trance could be explained as a form of “arctic hysteria,” a condition that according to  Ake Ohlmarks (1939), a Swedish author and historian of religion, is supposedly brought on by the environment of extreme cold, desert-like solitude, long nights, and vitamin deprivation, giving rise to “cosmic oppression” especially acting on those, especially shamans, with a nervous constitution. In the sub-Arctic, in contrast, according to Ohlmarks, the shaman is no longer subject to the stresses of an Arctic environment and so has to satisfy himself with a semi-trance with the aid of what he calls “narcotics.”  

Whatever the route by which the shaman may have come by his office—and shamanic training more often than not requires years of perseverance, deprivations and self-sacrifice—to be recognized as such he or she must have undergone two different kinds of instruction. First is the ecstatic route, in which the candidate is taught by the spirits and ancestor-shamans through dreams and ecstatic-visionary trances, and second, instruction by a master shaman in the shamanic curing and ritual techniques, the multitude of spirits of plants and animals, the sacred geography, the mythic history of the shaman’s society, magical songs, the special language to which only shamans are privy, and so on.

Of course, an experienced shaman already knows the sacred geography, the path to the center of the universe, the opening in the sky through which he or she must pass safely, or with minimal injury, on their way to the highest heaven . (The pulsating aperture through which shamans must pass and make it back with only slight injury to remind that they are human and not spirit, have their analogy in the Symplegades, the clashing islands of Greek mythology that bar the way for Jason’s Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. There is a whole string of related myths in world literature whose message is that only spirits, heroes, and the dead, can make it safely to the Otherworld and back to tell the story.  

So, for example, in one Eskimo tale, an angakok on his way to plead with the goddess in charge of sea animals to release a few to be hunted by his people, who are starving because of a tabu violation. First he must make it safely down a furious whirlpool, and then pass through a pair of rapidly pulsating icebergs at just the moment when they open up. Only after these ordeals does he reach the goddess in her abode at the bottom of the sea.  He makes it safely, but to remind him that he is a man and not a spirit, the ice crushes the stern of his fragile kayak. When he sees the goddess, she is filthy with the sins of humankind, and unkempt because she can’t comb her hair,  because her fingers were turned into flippers when her father cut them off to lighten the kayak in which he tries to return her to her husband. He is really an Arctic tern, a bird Ekimos often blame for making storms worse. Transformed into a seal, the goddess travels to the bottom in company with her father, who has been transformed into a dog that guards her animals, and the storm subsides.    

 In an Iroquois myth, the lone survivor of a party of young warriors attempting to go to the end of the earth must pass a giant pair of clashing rocks To reach his goal, he must cross clashing masses of ice evade injury to his fragile skin boat. He paddles furiously to reach the dangerous islands at the precise instant when the way opens and he slips through as fast as he can, lest he be injured or crushed by the falling ice. The hero or heroes of this Native American version of the Classic Greek myth of the Symplegades, the clashing islands that stood in the way of Jason and the Argonauts. The mythic travelers are not explicitly shamans, or even candidate shamans, but the Indian art historian and historian of religion Ananda Kentish Coomeraswami has made the Symplegades, the clashing islands of Classic Greek mythology the “type motif “ for the virtually world-wide quest through what Eliade called the “paradoxical passage.”                 

 With respect to the erroneous but persistent equation between shamans and the mentally ill in some of the older literature, Eliade points out that shamans tend to have a sometimes astonishing capacity to control even ecstatic movement, and often have more mental and physical endurance than other members of their social group—as guardians of the rich traditions and esoteric knowledge, and as performers of a vast corpus of sacred and magical songs and evocations—often also command a much more extensive vocabulary than their compatriots. Thus, the poetic vocabulary of a Yakut shaman contains about 12,000 words, while the ordinary language of the rest of the community has only about four thousand. The same applies to the shamans of other indigenous societies. Anthropologist Johannes Wilbert, who for nearly four decades has worked with shamans of the Warao of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela, has found the same differential between the vocabularies of the Warao specialist in the sacred and that of ordinary Warao.  


 In both village Asia and the Americas, a shaman considers sickness intrusion and soul loss common causes of illnesses that require intervention. Sickness intrusion, the shooting of a projectile bearing an illness from afar into he victim by supernatural means, either by a human enemy or a sorcerer whose services have been secured against payment, or even by an offended god or spirit. There are also instances where the shooting of a such a projectile an have the purpose “killing” of a novice shaman and his or her subsequent revival with newly acquired powers. Thus, Alfred L. Kroeber (1929:274) writes of master shamans  of the Southern Maidu in California shooting novices with magical objects called ci’la as part of their training. The novices would fall to the ground as though dead and be revived by the shaman who, against payment of a fee, would suck the magical projectile from their bodies and continue to treat them for several days until the novices had regained their full strength Shamans also shot each other in contests or demonstrations of their magical power: “the shaman would smoke,” writes Kroeber, “then take his arrow-like ci’la and, looking between the novices’ legs, shoot it from a miniature bow of quill with a woman’s hair, at a man perhaps ‘a mile off,’ who dropped. The shaman then  revived him, and he was new, stronger than before.” Brushing the intrusive pathogen to some central place and sucking it out in the form of a physical object—a thorn, perhaps, or a seed, or a pebble.

  It used to be assumed that soul loss and sickness intrusion were mutually exclusive, but the literature shows that although the one may predominate over the other in some instances as the primary cause of illness, more commonly they coexist. According to Eliade, in Siberia and Central Asia, “rape of the soul” is by far the most widespread among the several conceptions of the cause of illness, hence its recovery is one of the principal aspects of the shaman as healer. In fact, the curing of sickness, which required the discovery an neutralization of its supernatural cause, and not just the removal of symptoms—sometimes through great expenditure of psychic and physical energy on the part pf the curer—is surely one of the primary and most immediately apparent functions of shamans in traditional societies, whatever other roles they fulfill.