Practice and Method of the Shaman
The shaman plays the role of healer in shamanic societies; shamans gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens. Even in western society, this ancient practice of healing is referenced by the use of the caduceus as the symbol of medicine.
Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiar helping entities in the spirit world; these are often spirits in animal form, spirits of healing plants, or (sometimes) those of departed shamans. In many shamanic societies, magic, magical force, and knowledge are all denoted by one word, such as the Quechua term yachay.
While the causes of disease are considered to lie in the realm of the spiritual, being effected by malicious spirits or Witchcraft, spiritual methods as well as what we would consider physical methods are used to heal. The shaman often will enter the body of their patient to find the spirit making the patient sick, and heal by removing the infectious spirit by the patient.
However, many shamans have expert knowledge of the plant life in their area, and an herbal regimine is often perscribed as treatment. In many places, the shamans claim to learn from the plants directly, only being able to determine the effects of a plant and use it to heal after meeting the spirit of the plant and getting permission.
In South America, individual spirits are called through singing icaros; to call the spirit, the spirit must teach you their song.
The use of totem items such as rocks is common; these items are believed to have special powers and an animating spirit.
Such practices are presumably very ancient; in circa 368 bc, Plato wrote in the Phaedrus that the “first prophecies were the words of an oak”, and that everyone who lived at that time found it rewarding enough to “listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth”.
The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is prevalent in many shamanic societies.
Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have the power to both cure and kill; that is, shamans are in some societies also thought of as being capable of harm. The shaman usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, renowned for their powers and knowledge; but they may also be suspected of harming others and thus feared.
In engaging in this work the shaman exposes himself to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from any enemy shamans, as well as from the means employed to alter his state of consciousness. Certain of the plant materials used can kill, and the out-of-body journey itself can lead to non-returning and physical death; spells of protection are common, and the use of more dangerous plants is usually very highly ritualized.
Generally, the shaman traverses the axis mundi and enters the spirit world by effecting a change of consciousness in himself, entering into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens. The methods used are diverse, and often are used in conjunction with each other.
Some of the methods for effecting such altered states of consciousness are:
- Sweat lodge
- Vision quests /or vigils,
- Dancing or Spinning Games
- Fly Agaric
- Psychedelic Mushrooms Alluded to euphemistically as “holy children” by Mazatec shamans such as Maria Sabina
- San Pedro Named thus (St. Peter) by Andean natives because he’s the guardian of Gates of Heaven
- Ayahuasca Quechua for “Vine of the Dead”