Shamanism has probably been practiced for over 20,000 years, and was used exclusively in Indigenous cultures. But it has now made its way into the mainstream. As spiritual evolution becomes more prevalent, those looking for a deeper connection to self and spirit are leaning toward shamanic guidance. It’s important to understand what a shaman is and does before seeking one out. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, we recommend beginning with our Shaman Guide to broaden the scope of your understanding before diving into this piece on shamanic initiation.
For some people that have worked with shamans, the next step on their journey is to become shamans themselves. Or perhaps shamanism is in your bloodline, with ancestors whose history is entrenched in spiritual teaching. Alternatively, you may wish to begin forging a new path of spiritual wisdom. perhaps have been called to lead others on their journeys to healing.
Becoming a shaman requires a devotion to one’s higher self and connecting with the earth and the spirit world. Many shamans are intuitively entwined with the plant kingdom, and have an active relationship with spirit guides and other beings. We will explore some of the rituals and traditions behind shamanic initiation and what the responsibility actually entails. Consequently, you may discover that there is much more evidence of shamanic symbolism in modern religion than you had previously known.
What Is a Shamanic Initiation?
How does one become a shaman? There is no single definitive way to perform a shamanic initiation. Each culture or lineage may have different traditions, and even those traditions could have shifted over time. What remains true is the experience a person must undergo to become a shaman. Shamanic initiation launches a person out of the ordinary into a realm of the unseen. To elaborate, it is a delicate dance where you are tethered to the earth while catapulting into other worlds.
There are three primary ways you would begin the process: Asking to become initiated by another elder; having a spontaneous awakening calling you to the practice; or choosing to undergo the process alone. This last way typically would involve spending three days and three nights alone in the wilderness with nothing but a blanket and a small, sacred token, which could be a pipe or another form of medicine. During this quest, you ask for a vision to be revealed to you showing your life’s purpose. The path you choose will need to be meaningful to you.
Shamanic Initiation Process
The meaning of the word initiate is “to start,” and there will be many ongoing initiations on the path to shamanism. To provide a practical view of the shamanic initiation process, we will detail the three main steps that a person will experience. Joseph Campbell explores these stages in great depth in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. We’ve summarized these stages below.
Separation or Severance
This involves a type of crisis that rattles you to your core. It can be the death of a loved one, a serious injury or illness, the dismantling of a belief system, or the loss of a meaningful relationship. As you navigate this process, something will shift in your worldview that cannot be put back together again. This is the process of letting go of old feelings and beliefs that no longer serve you. It forges a stronger connection to self and the life path you are on. This process will inevitably lead you to greater awareness and appreciation for life’s challenges. You will see that these challenges are here to help you level up to your fullest potential.
Dealing With the Unknown
With great awareness comes deeper lines of thinking. This is where you begin to question the truths you’ve been fed and further dismantle linear thinking. The universe is opening you up to a vast array of possibilities. Because of this, you might feel as though you are going mad or losing your mind as you circle through thought patterns looking for something to latch on to. Questions will arise that you cannot answer right away, and this signals that it’s time to surrender. This is when the healing begins.
Integration or Rebirth
The third and final phase is perhaps the most uncomfortable. After you’ve been wandering in the void of the unknown, now you must integrate these lessons into your daily life. It might feel overwhelming to see all of the flaws and imperfections of the world that still exist, especially since you have just trudged through experiences and realizations that have had a deep impact on you. It might feel like things should be easier somehow. And they are. There will continue to be challenges and struggles and pain. But now you will have the tools to navigate the world with more grace and compassion. And so, this is where you come into your power and charge through life with calm confidence.
Shamanism vs. Other Traditions
Many other systems of tradition maintain similar elements as shamanism, but vary in their approach and practice. This doesn’t mean that shamanism is a superior tradition or that any of the practices mentioned are incorrect in their rituals and traditions. They are simply different. For example, when shamans connect to the spirit world, it is with focus and intention. However, when a psychic or medium communicates with spirits, they allow spirits to come to them. The shaman seeks, the medium allows. For the shaman, the relationship with spirit is ongoing and provides continued information and learning. Nevertheless, both practitioners have a valuable place in the world and have been enriching many lives for centuries.
Consider a discipline like yoga. It is a physical and mental practice aimed at reaching a state of transcendence. This happens by achieving nirvana, or samadhi, which is considered the ultimate end goal. Shamanism does not seek transcendence; rather, it praises the integration of spirit and body. While shamans journey into the upper spirit world, their purpose is to download messages to bring back down to earth. While rooted here, they can integrate these lessons into daily life.
Like yoga’s goals, psychotherapy also aims to reach a state of transcendence. This occurs when a person has devoted enough time to navigating his or her own mind, working through mental and emotional blocks. In this way, the goal is to replace past patterns with new habits and thought processes. Typically, psychotherapy works through one problem area in a person’s life at a time. The process of walking through a shamanic initiation will certainly dismantle old beliefs and replace them with new ones. However, the shaman does not just focus on one area of the person’s life. Shamanism features a more holistic approach and works towards integrating sacred rituals into the whole of life’s journey.
Perhaps the most different tradition from shamanism is the most widely known across the world: the ministry or priesthood. While members of the clergy devote a large amount of time to prayer, they do not place an emphasis on entering an altered state of consciousness. Usually, they perceive practices like shamanism to be workings against God, something that deviates from their narrow worldview. Shamans know that they have the power and awareness to navigate a spirit world. Alternatively, the clergy tends to rely on beliefs that they themselves do not experience in a tangible way.
Impacts of Colonization
Initiation in urban Western societies is going to look very different than it does in the Amazonian jungle or the frozen tundra of Siberia. As discussed, initiation shares common themes but varies by culture. Many Western initiations are devoid of ceremonial and ritualistic aspects found in Indigenous cultures, but they still hold a deeply spiritual component. The participants are committed to the spiritual path, but the initiation itself is missing ancient practices. There is little to no shamanic foundation in Western culture, and there is no one universal test to pass. Keep in mind that “shaman” is not a word in Native American culture, though most Native American tribes hold their medicine men and women in high regard.
For the purpose of this example, consider modern North American society. More and more, Western cultures have adopted shamanism and tailored it to fit their societal needs. This has perverted some aspects of shamanism that Indigenous cultures worldwide consider sacred. For example, there is the Western practice of “mystery schools.” These often involve a secret society of some kind, where many initiates will undergo a particular study. It will often involve various rituals, some that draw on elements of witchcraft and plant medicine.
Initiation Here and There
Think of an urban shaman in North America who is inundated with city life and a fast-paced technology-dependent world. The initiation process might be more difficult to navigate due to the lack of natural resources and support from elders. However, it is certainly not as physically difficult as some tests given to initiates by elders in Indigenous communities. For example, a Westerner looking to become a shaman may have to travel to retreat centers and seek out individuals to learn from on their journey. Deep in the jungle, an initiate may be buried alive with nothing but a tube poking through the soil to breathe through for a period of time. This is meant to test his or her commitment and fortitude.
Shamanic Rituals and Traditions
The word “shaman” universally refers to someone who may be a wise man or wise woman. This person works with both light and dark energies, and uses natural medicines and Earth’s elements to treat and heal a host of ailments—mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual. There are many rituals and traditions that can be used during a shamanic initiation. Some have held true to their Indigenous origins, and others have evolved to keep pace with the ever-changing wave of spirituality in the modern world. Other rituals and traditions are kept secret and revealed only as necessary, in order to preserve the sacred integrity of the initiation.
The Keeper of the Fire
What is a keeper of the fire, and how do you become one? Keepers of the fire bridge the gap between the ego and the eco. The role of a shaman is to navigate the spirit world and share this wisdom in order to teach, heal, and transform his or her community to maintain optimum well-being. Fire is the source of life, and it is around the fire that many families and communities will gather to share stories and weave the fabric of the future together. The shaman holds the community together. With that responsibility, a shaman must be prepared to fight not only for the people, but for the land that they inhabit.
One example of these eco-warrior shamans is in the Amazon, where large oil companies and loggers are trying to destroy rainforests and sacred land for financial gain. The Amazonian shamans organize community members to actively fight against these motives and protect their land. Similar efforts have been made in Ecuador and Peru to protect land and Indigenous rights. These keepers of the fire not only pray for their manifestations to come true, but they take action toward their dreams as a community.
This kind of shamanism is best when an elder in the community chooses an initiate to mentor in their ancient ways. The ritual initiation will be similar to the three-step process outlined above. However, since the shaman chooses the initiate, the first step might be to place a test upon the new shaman, rather than an event occurring independently of the initiation. The entire initiation can last for many years, perhaps decades, as the elder puts the initiate through many tests. These tests can be difficult and dangerous and will ensure that the next shaman has earned his/her place in the community.
Ayahuasca is native to South America and is used and administered strictly by shamans. Within this ceremony, shamans are said to transform into jaguars, and are more like chiefs to their villages and communities. South American shamans administer ayahuasca and often consume it themselves during the ceremony to commune with spirits. For some, an ayahuasca ceremony is a catalyst for initiation into shamanism. This powerful plant medicine has the potential to shatter long-held belief systems and patterns of thought. Many users describe the experience as ten years of therapy downloaded into a single event.
A truly psychedelic drug, ayahuasca can reveal elements of the divine not seen through any other medium. It also holds the potential to reveal darker aspects of one’s psyche. This can oftentimes bring up uncomfortable feelings and lead to a physical purge of these emotions. This heightened state of awareness often leads to the death of the ego, followed by bringing you to a place of complete surrender and wonder. Ayahuasca, for some, is a quick kickstart into an initiation process. However, since a true shamanic initiation occurs over a long period of time, the ayahuasca ceremony itself is not the sole initiation.
Shamans in Siberia
Shamanism is purported to have its origins in Siberia. In Northern Asia, a language known as Tungus uses the word saman, meaning “one who knows or knows the spirits,” to refer to their wisest elders. Throughout Siberia and Mongolia, shamans specialized in various disciplines, from the ability to heal to practicing magic. The shamans were powerful and highly respected. Here, shamans either initiated other shamans or pursued a personal spiritual quest. Their preferred plant medicine was the Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric mushroom. Though the plant is poisonous, the shamans had figured out how to consume this psychedelic mushroom. Their method involved feeding it to their reindeer, and then drinking their urine. This deactivated the poison, resulting in a profound psychedelic experience.
Shamanic Symbols Seen in Modern Society
Perhaps one of the most recognizable pieces of shamanic symbolism exists within the origins of Christmas. For example, those Siberian shamans that were consuming Amanita muscaria via reindeer urine? In addition to the riding of reindeer, they would harvest the bright, red-capped mushrooms and lay them across the branches of spruce trees that they grew underneath. It surely resembled bulbs on a Christmas tree! When they were done harvesting, the shaman or harvester would put them into a big sack to take them to the village. Sound familiar?
What Christians call baptism is also known as “waterwork.” This is a ritual you can perform alone, and there are many ways to do this. One example is by anointing yourself with oil and reciting prayers, or mantras, in the shower. You might also set up a small altar of earth elements near a river or lake, and take a cold plunge to symbolize rebirth. In other words, waterwork is performed in order to align yourself with the element of water.
The North Star, also known as Polaris, has been a symbol of hope and certainty for thousands of years. Once known as the Pole Star in Paleolithic times, the Pole Star is visible directly above the North Pole; and as we know, Santa—the shaman—resides there.
Shamanic work often includes a vision of animals and the connection between the spirit of humans and animals. This is evident in many vision quest reports, as well as in ancient artwork. For example, consider the totem pole. A totem is an emblem representing a family, tribe, lineage, or individual. A totem holds spiritual significance and is sometimes seen in a family crest. A small statue of a totem is often worn or used in shamanic work to protect and guide the shaman.
A Great Awakening
There is so much more to discover and explore about shamanic initiations and the deep spiritual knowledge held in Indigenous cultures. While the expansion of shamanism into Western society is controversial for some audiences, it can also be seen as evidence of the global awakening that is taking place. Human beings everywhere are being called to align with a spiritual path, and practices like shamanism will become more and more common. It is best to thoroughly research any healers or teachers you choose to work with and ensure that their methodology and practice align with your intentions.
RS Contributing Author: Holly Crawford
Holly is a lover of the written word. She enjoys using language to tell stories about people, products, and ideas. With her roots deeply entrenched in the cannabis industry, she gravitates towards all things psychedelic with open-minded curiosity. If she isn’t musing in one of her journals, you can find her talking to her plants, studying business and spirituality, and performing all kinds of kitchen witchery. Holly lives in Oregon with her husband and their three dogs and two cats. You can follow her on Instagram @m_sungreen.