Shaman, religious specialist, originally found in hunter-gatherer cultures, which are loosely structured, technologically simple, and homogeneous. The word shaman is derived from a word in the Tungus language of Siberia, one of the areas in which the classical form of shamanism is found. Several forms of shamanism have been observed in widely distributed non-literate societies located in Central Asia, North America, and Oceania. Shamanistic phenomena are also sometimes observed in the religions of more highly organized cultures, such as Chinese religion or Japanese Shintoism, though it is uncertain whether these can be properly classed as shamanistic.
Although a shaman can achieve religious status by heredity, personal quest, or vocation, the recognition and call of the individual is always an essential part of that individual’s elevation to the new status. The shaman, usually a man, is essentially a medium, a mouthpiece of the spirits who became his familiars at his initiation, during which he frequently undergoes prolonged fasts, seclusion, and other ordeals leading to dreams and visions. Training by experienced shamans follows.
The main religious tasks of a shaman are healing and divination. Both are achieved either by spirit possession or by the departure of the shaman’s soul to heaven or to the underworld. Accounts exist of the shaman effecting miraculous resurrections by travelling to the land of the dead to fetch back the deceased’s spirit. Shamans also divine the whereabouts of game, the position of the enemy, and the best way of safeguarding and increasing the food supply. Shamans may occupy an elevated social and economic position, especially if they are successful healers.
Attempts to explain the shamans and their cures have been numerous. Some scholars have drawn parallels between shamanistic healing and psychoanalytic cures and have concluded that in both instances efficacious and therapeutic symbols are created, leading to psychological release and physiological curing. Several anthropologists, rejecting a theory that shamans are basically neurotics or psychotics, have suggested that shamans possess certain cognitive abilities that are distinguishably superior to those of the rest of the community. Other scholars simply explain shamanism as the precursor of a more organized religious system or as a technique for achieving ecstasy.