The growing spiritual movement and neo-shamanic community are hotly debating a number of questions, such as: What is the role and relevancy of shamanism in our modern world? Who is a shaman? What function must a person perform to be called a shaman?
There is also the question of who can be initiated to become a shaman, and by whom? Is it only by an indigenous elder from an old lineage, by birth, or by the hands of spirits? Or perhaps a download during a plant medicine ceremony, through prophetic dreams, or near-death experiences?
These heated debates can be confusing as we all struggle to understand and deal with our rapidly changing social and environmental realities, and our individual and community roles in it.
Who is a Shaman?
“Shaman” is a relatively new word on the world stage. It originates with the Tungus people of Eastern Siberia, a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers that spread across the taiga’s vast land. In the seventeenth century, as the Russian empire reached the Tungus, Russians adopted their word saman (the s pronounced as sh), which described their Earth-based elders-healers. The word eventually took hold worldwide, after anthropologist’s Congress on that subject that held in Russia.
In many of the now classic books and essays, the term of a shaman may mean “The one who sees in the dark,” “Miracle worker,” or “One who knows.” Other interpretations are “One who can fly,” “Messenger between the worlds,” and “A wise man or woman.” The definition varies depending on the tribe, cultures, and genders. It also could describe the shaman’s abilities—for example, the ability to speak with spirit, perform healing, lead ceremonies and rituals, or provide spiritual, psychological consulting. There is no one exact translation as there is no precise definition of what a shaman is or does.
‘Shaman’ has become a generic word just as Aspirin, originally a Bayer trademark brand that is now used to describe all medications with Acetylsalicylic acid. ‘Shaman’ is now a universally recognized term to describe all men or women who are employing traditional folk medicine, natural medicine from Earth, or spirit. There are as many names for this vocation as there are tribes and languages, and some cultures have different names for male and female shamans. Using the word shaman for all people who practice this medicine has its benefits. It has transformed the derogatory connotations many Western cultures and organized religions have stamped on witchcraft and witches, sorcerers, faith healers, and pagans since the Middle Ages in an effort to eradicate ancient spiritual traditions and replace them with the new church doctrines and hegemony. Today, even in the furthest places on Earth, in the Amazon and on the high mountains, traditional healers use this word. Maybe it is a sign we are becoming one small village or a sign of cultural globalization.
Some years ago, I attended a special healing ceremony held by an elder Tungus shaman in full heavy attire in a New Jersey private house, with a diverse group of people, mostly Russian speaking. At the end of this transformative evening, I gathered the courage to ask him for the true definition of the word shaman. His translator, an elderly Russian anthropology professor, replied briskly, “The keeper of the fire,” and turned his back on me. I was surprised; I wasn’t expecting to hear that—and also taken aback, wondering if he just wanted to get rid of me. But although this definition was not what I had been told, nor had read in many sources, it made a lot of sense and broadened the meaning of the shaman—as a person of service, the keeper of the community’s soul and well-being.
Although a shaman has many roles in his community—teacher, healer, and bridge between the seen and unseen worlds—his central task is to be responsible for the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of his community.
According to this definition, the shaman is in charge of keeping the sacred fire, the burning embers in the bonfire, if you wish, of his community’s life going. Literally and symbolically, we see Fire as a symbol of the source of life. Fire is the principal element that brings warmth, energy, and passion and provides for survival or destruction for the community. It is around the sacred fire, during dark nights, the community gathers to hear their ancestors’ stories, to listen to myths, to sing songs, celebrate their togetherness and plan for the future.
As keeper of the fire, the shaman has a broad and vital role as a community sustainer. We can say a shaman needs the community as much as the community needs him. It puts the community at the core of any individual life. Shamanism isn’t about one’s powers; it’s about the strength of the community.
Today we are enjoying a rebirth of shamanic practices precisely because of the destruction of the family unit and the high mobility of people who are yearning to be part of a supportive, heart-based community.
Dreamer or Doer
There are those in our communities who say that our role is to meditate and offer prayers of love and healing in the face of the draconian human abuse and environmental policies of current regimes and multinational corporations. They distaste any polarizing political or social activism, claiming that this is not our role. It seems to me that complacency, under the guise of spirituality, allows governments to continue their oppression by normalizing their un-moral actions.
After all, I know the shamans of Ecuador who organized the indigenous uprising and protests the attempt to privatize their water by burning tires and blocking the roads. Some of them are now running for political office, just like one of our spiritual leaders who is now in the running to become the first woman US president. I met the Amazonian shamans who are mobilizing their community to fight loggers, oil and agro-corporations who destroy, spoil their environment and mobilize for indigenous women’s rights. I saw the Peruvian shamans who made bonfire ceremonies against theirs and other international leaders.
I also know an American shaman who previously worked for multinational corporations and has since confessed and blown the whistle on the CIA and US government. Shamans from all corners of the world are taking an active role as Keepers of the Fire. The shamanic teaching is not a mere spiritual one; it is action-based, practical, to effect change. Any healing and prayer must show demonstrable results that manifest the cosmic balance. If you have a seed, you must plant it, and nurture it to grow an ear of corn that can feed you. Sadly, praying over the seed would not do it.
The Shamanic Initiation
Shamanic Initiation is not an end for itself or perhaps a medal for hard work. In my experience, it is just merely a beginning. Initiation into shamanism is best when an elder teacher that comes from a long lineage chooses a person to be his initiate. The elder must have recognized some characteristics which will make the initiate a fully responsible Keeper of the Fire, including: intentional life purpose; a deep commitment to bringing people together; humbleness; respect for wisdom keepers; the courage to face adversity; s sense of higher justice and moral values; the ability to resolve conflicts; nurture from the heart; and ‘seeing’ or communicating with spirit effectively.
For the initiate, the initiation rite is a life-changing moment – a test of some sort. It is a time in which the initiated accepts the weighty responsibility the shaman put on his shoulders and the realization that he is entrusted with being the keeper of his teacher’s tradition. It is a painful moment of shedding the old familiar, well-known skin and leaping into the void, the unknown future. It is a magical moment of truly experiencing becoming one with all, a divine moment of higher realization, in which every action has consequences in the cosmic matrix of life without fear.
Joining the ancient lineage could give the initiate the needed support and assurance in his future work. To be initiated by a spirit in a vision or a dream can be qualified to that effect. However, in my experience, it lacks the grounding and certainty that ancient traditions so beautifully cultivated for millennia.
Many people experience other ways of initiations through plant medicine visions and messages, life long sickness, life-threatening events, and deep depressions. We call it ‘The Dark Night of the Soul,’ which is a way to overcome challenges, shed the old ego or skin, and gain teachings of higher mindfulness that might help them become a compassionate and powerful shamans.
I also know some people who are sure they deserved to be initiated and not shy of asking for it. Usually, those are not the ones the shamans trust. They may ask indigenous and Western elders, whom they recently met and hardly knew to initiate them. I also know shamans who gladly perform mass initiations for a fee, and some teachers who give initiations plaques after each workshop. This practice is not the traditional way, and it may not benefit either one of them as it comes perhaps from overinflated or weak egos and fear of scarcity.
The Eagle and the Condor
We are living in an exciting era of tremendous consciousness shift. We all feel it. It’s a time of awakening humanity heeds its calling. A new Pachakuti begun around 1993, as foreseen by the ancient Andes prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor, a 500-year period of time/space correction. This is a time that calls for harmony, unity, and collaboration between the Masculine energies of action and logic–North, with the Feminine energies of the heart-based societies–South. In this era, we must use them both to create a more balanced world for the sake of the next generations. And that begins with The Keeper of the Fire.