Who is a Shaman?

It should come as no surprise that the definition of shamanism is profoundly contested terrain. One of the problems has been that definitions of shamanism have been entangled in our own political and cultural concerns. We see in the figure of the shaman what we need to see — cultural resister, compassionate healer, master of ecstasy, psychotherapist, embodiment of indigenous wisdom. Shamans — irreducibly individual humans — thus become petrified, mute objects of our own imagination, stripped of language and voice; we face the shaman and repeat what postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak calls the “obsessively self-centered” question, Who are we? How are we?

After all, the term shamanism is simply an anthropological construct; there was no –ism to it until anthropologists put it there. Religious scholar Daniel Noel calls the concept of shamanism “fantastic, fictive, a work of imagination”; anthropologist Michael Taussig calls it “the Western projection of a Siberian name”; historian Andy Letcher calls it an “orientalist construct.” Like other anthropological constructs — think of terms such as totem, taboo, fetish — a word and practice found in one particular culture is used to label more or less similar practices in other cultures which are more or less distant, geographically or conceptually, from the original. It is, of course, in the more-or-less that the trouble lies, for four reasons.

First, it is inherently problematic to analogize across cultural lines. An American tattoo and a Tahitian tatu share ink pushed under the skin with a needle, but have such different — and often shifting — social meanings that we can question whether it is appropriate to call them by the same name; similar arguments would apply to generalizing the idea of shamanism outside the Siberian-Arctic complex. Second, the labeling of a practice in one culture with a word from another can be — or be construed as — a political act of imposition or appropriation; many Native Americans, for example, object strongly to having their traditional healers called shamans, as a term imposed from outside by the dominant culture. Third, calling someone a shaman is what Gayatri Spivak calls a catachresis — a linguistic error that subsumes the particular histories and lives of individual shamans under what she calls a master word, thus naming and defining their ineluctably unique experiences. And, fourth, defining the exotic other is a form of what Jean Baudrillard calls museumification, a way to label and then shelve the living specimens of our inquiry.

So what can we do? Part of the problem lies, perhaps, in how we think about defining things. Lawyers often break down a concept such as ownership into a metaphorical “bundle of sticks.” Ownership, for example, consists of a bundle of rights in property — rights to sell, lease, share, bequeath, donate, alter, repair, alienate, or destroy. Owning different things, or owning the same thing under different circumstances, may alter the number or type of sticks included in the bundle. So what I propose is a a shamanic bundle of sticks.

  • The shaman has a special relationship with the spirits, different from that of people who are not shamans. Relationships with these other-than-human persons, like relationships with human persons, are often subject to renegotiation, and may involve different and shifting amounts of power on either side. Relationships with different spirits may involve different degrees of trust, persuasion, control, or subordination. These other-than-human persons, like human persons, may be helpful, harmful, callous, malicious, indifferent, or tricky, and they may unilaterally terminate their relationship with the shaman. Such relationships with the spirit world may be considered demanding, dangerous, and exhausting.
  • The shaman has a special way of interacting with the spirits, different from that of people who are not shamans. The means of contacting, visiting, or inviting the spirits include, but are not limited to, ingesting psychoactive plants and mushrooms, fasting, dreaming, drumming, dancing, and undergoing states of pain, deprivation, and isolation.
  • The shaman interacts with these other-than-human persons on behalf of human persons, either individually, as clients, or as a community. The shaman may interact with the spirits as his or her own client as well, as when, say, seeking revenge against another shaman; but the actions of the shaman are embedded in community values, beliefs, and expectations.
  • At least some of the shaman’s performances are public, and involve the elements of dramatic performance — props, costumes, music, movement, players, audience, plots, comedy, suspense, stagecraft, conjuring, poetry, and dialogue. The shaman’s performance very often has a rhythmic accompaniment — a drum, a rattle, a maraca, a bundle of leaves tied together by a cord.
  • The shaman shares with the community a belief system, very frequently animistic, which constitutes a theoretical justification of the shamanic performance, although the shaman may have more elaborate metatheoretical constructs, as well as a greater knowledge of mythology, history, genealogy, rules, and plant and animal lore than people who are not shamans.
  • The shaman has a distinct social role in the community, and this social role may have a specific name.
  • The shaman sees things that people who are not shamans cannot. The shaman may be able to find lost objects, know where game is plentiful, discern who has cast a curse, diagnose the location or cause of an illness, persuade the animals to give themselves for food, or heal the sick by retrieving a lost soul or by removing intrusive objects from the body. The shaman may perform one, a few, or many of these functions.
  • The shaman’s relationship with other-than-human persons is usually achieved only after arduous training. A person may become a shaman willingly or unwillingly, sometimes after a life-threatening accident or illness, or may inherit or purchase the role.
  • The shaman’s power may be encapsulated as a physical object — a stone, a crystal, darts, phlegm, poison — kept hidden inside the shaman’s body. The shaman’s power may be manifest as one or more songs which the shaman has been taught by the spirits, and which may be in secret, archaic, or unintelligible languages.
  • The shaman can use the same techniques and objects to harm or kill that can be used to help or heal.

People may have a few or many of these sticks in their bundle; different people may have different bundles, with many, or few, or even no sticks in common. Yet they may all be shamans, or we may decide that one has just too few sticks, or just the wrong combination of sticks, to be included.

Now we can — I hope — engage in constructive discussion about these sticks. Perhaps I have left out some important sticks; perhaps some of the sticks I have included are only of marginal importance. But this approach has the advantage of directing debate toward specific features of the complex rather than toward a search for its single defining feature.


  1. In another post (I saw it in the past few days, but I couldn't find it again), you stated that modern ayahuasca-based religious movements are not shamanic. Could you explain how you came to that conclusion?

    I was introduced to the drink called ayahuasca through the Santo Daime movement and have become familiar with it. I tested its 'shamanity' against the items in your bundle (of joy?). I checked eight of the ten items with a 'yes, participants do that or have that.' The two that didn't fit were #6 'special role in the community' and #10 'harm as well as heal.'

    The main difference between that movement and traditional practices with the drink -- as far as I can tell and I will happily defer to your erudition -- is that it is a collective practice in which the creation of a group 'current' of energy is important. I was told by another expert on Amazon cultures that it is virtually never drunk collectively with that purpose in traditional practice. There are a lot of other surface differences, most having to do with the prominence of Catholic motifs and symbols. And of course the drink itself is experienced as sacrament with obvious reference to the Catholic mass. But as you noted yourself abundantly, ayahuasqueros tend to be syncretic and inclusive anyway.

    I would appreciate your comments on this.

  2. You raise a very interesting question, and I will have to think about it. Indeed, my inconsistency goes even deeper. As you know, there are numerous structural similarities between Santo Daime and the Native American Church; yet I am inclined to see Native American Church ceremonies as being shamanic, or at least as having significant shamanic components. Perhaps I am more heavily weighting the idea of the shaman as being the active agent of healing and the patient -- or the community -- as being relatively passive in the healing process; perhaps I am privileging the sucking shaman as being paradigmatic of the role. Hmmm.

    I always enjoy receiving your comments. Thank you for giving me something to think about. :-)

    -- Steve

  3. I think the issue of playing a specialized role in the community deserves attention. Santo Daime fardados are church members, parishioners, and hold all kinds of occupations in society. They do not offer shamanic services to 'clients.'

    There is, however, such a thing as praying for others -- translation: performing healing work. And, even beyond that, the difference may be less clearcut than it looks.

    I am a Northern resident of one of the large, cosmopolitan cities of the North. In your universalist vs. indigenist dichotomy, I would definitely be a universalist. My main motivation is keeping my head above water and if someone throws me a buoy, I am not going to make sure I grab it in the properly prescribed traditional way. I am just going to grab it.

    One thing I have been discovering over a year and a half of practice is that I often find myself performing a role in my own culture (Northern, urban, cosmopolitan) that would be easy to call shamanic.

    How do I define that word? Well, I am really afraid to do that in such expert company, but I will say that it has to do with perceiving consciousness and therefore society as a malleable medium that can be acted upon deliberately. Getting less vague than this would be a careless move. The point is this: there is a specialized learning that takes place, and, like it or not, it transforms your role in your interactions with others.

    So, are members of the Santo Daime in the cities of the North shamans? Is there such a thing as an urban shaman? Some people define themselves as such, even get business cards printed and offer consultations. In some cases, this reaches the border of silliness -- and boldly crosses it. Yet it seems to me that, to the extent that traditional shamanic tools have become available to outsiders in very secular environments, the definition of a shaman in terms of his relationship to his broader social community deserves to be framed in more general terms than the client/practitioner relationship.

    How much of that perception is valid in Brazil? I am heading there for the first time and I will let you know.

    " 'Cause something is happening here
    And you don't know what it is
    Do you, Mr. Jones?"

    Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man

  4. More on who might be a shaman:

    Bia Labate is a Brazilian anthropologist specializing in the study of ayahuasca-based syncretic religions, neo-shamanism, urban shamanism and other recently evolved hybrid phenomena. She brings intellectual rigor and a wide-open curiosity to the understanding of these developments that don't fit established categories.

    If you can read Portuguese, here is a good interview of her:,1.shl

    And this is a link to Alto das Estrelas, the institute she founded:

    The site has some stuff in English and a large archive, including presentations on visionary visual artists.

    Bia is active in NIEP, a coalition of Brazilian academics to bring sanity to the study of sacred plants:

    She has been a consultant to various film and TV projects on these topics but I haven't got those links yet.

  5. Even more:

    A chapter from an e-book on the NEIP website dealing directly with the continuities as well as discontinuities between mestizo shamanism and the Santo Daime practices. The rest of the e-book is interesting too, but this section is right on the topic of who might be, should be or shouldn't be called a shaman.

  6. with all due respect to your essay on who is a Shaman, I would like to add another rite of passage on becoming a shaman which is sadly overlooked perhaps due to others ignorance about it. and this is the trangendered individual who is a shaman. This type of shaman was
    created with having the male & female spirit, and is capable of walking in both worlds in the physical dimension and the spiritual dimension. a powerful shaman indeed.

  7. I hope the Anonymous that posted that message could see that reply.
    The transgendered individual having the male & female spirit and becoming a shaman is the big "missed topic" in the discussion about shamanism.
    I feel this has something to do with the definition of "nagual" in spite of the known defintion of "double" as referring to the animal double.
    I wish you, and the knowledgeable Steve if he wish, could expand on the subject.
    I also believe that the sacred liar Castaneda refers to the "Naguals" as "double spirit" individuals (not necessary male+female but just double energetic body individuals) but, at the date, is the only one talking about it that i came across.
    Intriguing subject....
    By the way, Steve, congrats for the way you approach shamanism, very few like you. But then with such a curriculum.....

  8. Dear Steve,

    To begin with, it is great to have you back posting after your break, with your trademark sharpness and eclecticism, and, it seems, a renewed appreciation for your visitors’ contributions. Your writing is outstanding. It is unique and quirky, but at the same time it shows your commitment to accelerating the flow of information and being useful within the global evolution we are all experiencing. I am grateful that your blog exists.

    Congratulations on your book’s publication. I can’t wait.

    This is a follow-up to my comments from last year under “Who Is a Shaman?” I hope this place is appropriate for it. If not, please post it where you think it belongs.

    [Digressing: is there any way to index – by date? by topic? alphabetically? – your now abundant list of articles?]

    I think the question of whether the ayahuasca-derived organized religions deserve to be called shamanic hinges on another issue: is shamanism something that happens only in traditional cultures and disappears in the modern world, or is it a universal product of all human societies? I do not know if any learned opinions about this question exist. Maybe you do…?

    You can guess where I stand on the issue. I think that, beyond all the culture-specific activities and the local color, shamanism is simply the set of all the practices that seek to affect life by consciously acting in the invisible – “astral” or “spiritual” – realm. Within that definition, in North America, traditions like Christian Science, Religious Science or even “Think and Grow Rich”-type systems could be viewed as forms of Western shamanism, albeit primitive ones from the point of view of a practitioner from a “primitive” culture. The notion of “treating” a problem by changing the way one perceives it strikes me as eminently shamanic.

    Are there shamans in New York City? I don’t mean shamans from South America leading workshops or dabblers who put that word in their resume. I mean people who act upon the collectively created reality called New York City the way a traditional shaman affects his village’s culture. Here again, I’d say the answer depends on whether one believes that there is indeed an invisible, astral or spiritual realm. Questions within questions within questions… An Amazonian Russian doll.

    My own answer is yes (and yes and yes). There is a fabric which is made of the combined worldviews of human beings. We call that fabric the world. We all influence it through our thoughts and perceptions, and the only pertinent distinction is whether we do so deliberately or unconsciously. In that perspective, the person who reads the “Daily Word” in the morning and sets out to spend the day with a – for example’s sake – grateful attitude IS a shaman. Obviously, I cannot prove it because it depends on how one defines the term. But I offer as supporting evidence the fact that it would not occur to a member of a traditional culture to do that kind of thing. On the other hand, our society does not acknowledge this hypothetical person with a special name or function and that scores a point for “no”, because the question “who is a shaman?” is essentially a sociological or anthropological one.

    I am a Daimist. As I posted here before, I believe the main difference between something like the Santo Daime and shamanic use of the tea is the collective “current” in the ceremonies (“corrente” in Portuguese) which has no equivalent in traditional Amazon cultures. Yes, the moral ambiguity of the shaman’s role gets lost in the Daime’s Christian manicheism. Yes, some specific practices like darts and phlegms are not part of it. But the attitude towards the invisible, the visible and their interrelationship is the same. And let me assure you, Santo Daime people take the issue of healing or curing quite seriously.

    Sorry for being so long-winded. I had to get it off my chest.