Shamans were some of the most influential figures in their time. The social function of the shaman was oracle, healer and spiritual guide all in one. Their job was to maintain a connection with the spirit world. Shamans were able to communicate through the Earth-spirit and they were often associated with an animal. The essential characteristics of a shaman are mastery of energy and fire as a medium of transformation.
Shamanism connects traditional beliefs and practices that involve the ability to diagnose, cure, and sometimes cause human suffering forming a special relationship with spirits from other worlds. Shamans have been credited with the ability to control the weather, divination, the interpretation of dreams, astral projection, and traveling to upper and lower worlds. Shamanistic traditions have existed throughout the world since prehistoric times.
According to archaeologists, shamanistic practices are thought to predate all organized religions, and certainly date back at least to the Neolithic period. Aspects of shamanism are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices.
“Whether we find its traces in Australia, Asia, Africa, or Europe, it is simply impossible to overstate the uniqueness and peculiarity of the evolutionary event by which we were drawn into fully modern consciousness and the fully modern capacity for symbolism and culture, religion, and art. No ancestor in the human lineage had ever made use of any form of symbolism before, and needless to say, no other animal species had ever done so either. But the switching-on of humanity’s symbol-making capacity between approximately 100,000 and 40,000 years ago was the change that changed everything,” writes Graham Hancock in his book, “Supernatural”.
Generally, the shaman enters the spirit world by effecting a transition of consciousness, entering into a dream state, ecstatic trance, either auto-hypnotically or through the use of intoxicants. The methods employed were diverse, and are often used together. Some of the methods for inducing such trances are fasting, drumming, dancing, and psychedelic drugs.
The shamanic practices of many cultures were virtually wiped out with the spread of Christianity. In Europe, starting around 400 CE, the Christian church was instrumental in the collapse of the Greek and Roman religions. Temples were systematically destroyed and key ceremonies were outlawed. Beginning with the Middle ages and continuing into the Renaissance, remnants of European shamanism were wiped out by campaigns against witches. These campaigns were often orchestrated by the Catholic Inquisition.
Most shamans were men, but there are societies in which women could have been shamans. In Old Norse Religion, shamanism was seen as un-manly and practiced mainly by women. However, in Old Norse mythology, the supreme god Odin was also seen as the foremost shaman. In some societies shamans exhibit a two-spirit identity, assuming the dress and attributes of the opposite sex from a young age, this may include a man taking on the role of a wife in an otherwise ordinary marriage; this practice is common, and found among the Chukchee, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Aruacanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navaho, Pawnee, Lakota, and Ute, as well as many other Native American tribes. Such two-spirit shamans are thought to be especially powerful. They were highly respected and sought out in their tribes, as they would bring high status to their mates.
It is clear that shamans played an important role in ancient societies and they have been a fundamental part of the transformation of human consciousness.