So there’s a little thing that’s been miffing me. It’s the use of the word “shaman”.
Shaman is a noun, describing a person who does Shamanism. But what is Shamanism? Merriam Webster has an idea:
Definition of shamanism
: a religion practiced by indigenous peoples of far northern Europe and Siberia that is characterized by belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to the shamans;also : any similar religion
Any similiar religion, huh? Shamanism is used very broadly, then. A quick glance at the Wikipedia article reveals that there are several different groups of Siberian people.
Linguistically the word specifically refers to the Tungusic people. But who are the Tungusic people? It’s actually a larger term to cover several different ethinicities/nationalities across Northerneastern Asia. It’s a lot like what we do with “Germanic people” to refer to people who speak the Germanic languages. We also assign a “Germanic Religion” to them/us. While Germanic mythology certainly has its tie-ins, I’d like to believe that most pagans understand that each one is different from the next. However, I feel that the acknowledgement of Tungusic groups being different is a more of a fleeting admittance among pagans; just as it is amongst all other marginalized/indigenous groups. There’s a more healthier, intricate understanding when it involves white Westerner’s bloodlines. And not because they did their research.
The modern usage is different, though. It seems that any white Western person who uses a mixture majik or “traditional” (from where?) practices is a shaman. Or any person who follows a closed-culture/indigenous religion:
If I say “African shaman”, a few select ideas and images fill up in your imagination; even though there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of religions in Africa.
If I say: Native American shaman”, you also have loads of (slightly different) stereotypes in your head. Most of me readers will probably see a Native American shaman as good (one with nature!) while an African shaman as bad (helps spread malaria and promotes child genital mutilation!)
A shaman seems to be anyone who does magick and medicine who isn’t a witch. So, what’s the difference?
“A witch does spells and is less likely to be trained!”
Well, I’m pretty sure lots of Modern Shamans(TM) aren’t trained outside of books, but alright. But how are spells any different from what shamans do?
“Spells require certain procedures, invocations, and certain items”.
…Okay, that sounds exactly like shamanism. When an Native American “shaman” blesses the meal by fanning a feather fan, reciting an invocation for their deity that’s bless the food; how is this any different from a spell?
“Yes, but a Shaman also uses music, and drumming, and chanting in their majik. They use generations old types of music and instruments and saxres objects. And they ritually dance, too!”
*Looks to the nearest Wiccan coven*.
I think there is arguably certain je nais se quoi going on with the term “shaman”. People get this image of a half-wildman in their heads. A witch is more sophisticated, more “magical”. To express it in emojis: 🕸🌱⛺🦃🏹 VS ⛤🕯🔮🍄✨
A Shaman in more Earthy and community-oriented, whereas a witch is more individual and more…young feminine. A shaman is deemed old and wise, whereas a witch is young but powerful.
But this is also untrue. There are many young people nowadays who label themselves as “Shamans”, especially people in Western cultures. And there are plenty of witches who are either male, community oriented, or just flat out an Earth witch.
So why is there a distinction? Why do we have these words? I think a huge part of it lies in our need for whites to appropropriate from other cultures in order to gain a foot in the cultural leveling field. There’s a sad emptiness most white people seem to have (including me).
When one decides to label themselves a “shaman”, one decides to take a more…”deep into the heart of mother & human nature” approach. When one decides to label themselves a witch, one takes a more “independant and fulfilling to myself” approach.
The sad thing is, is that neither of these actually fulfill their cultural needs without appropriating from others. And the ironic thing is is that they can already find all of these in the colonial side affect they tried hard to break free from: Christianity.
Ritual music? Check.
Ritual Dancing? Uncommon, but still Check.
Praying to a deity for assistence? Check
Praying to spirits or ancestors for assistance? Yes, they’re called angels. Check.
Having religious leaders assist in medicine? Check.
Religious leader to discuss religious issues with? Check.
People to repent to? Check.
You could say, “that’s just religion though!” And, you’re not wrong. Most religions have these elements to them. My question is, “How come a Christian Shaman is a “preist”?
Why is what a Christian priest (or rabbi, or does so different from a shaman?
“Oh, stop it. A shaman is a person who uses religious methods in their medicine and cures! A shaman is someone who is well versed in ancient religions!”
Oh really? You mean like how Christian priests advocated bloodletting? Like how my Native American tribes’s (Osage) shamans also advocated bloodletting? Or how both African shamans and rabbis demand circumcision for their religions? Or how Shamans will use incantations and even beatings to expel a demon out of someone, just like Christian priests?
It’d also like to point out that I have never heard of a modern Chinese Traditional Doctor being described as a Shaman. But I can certainly tell you it’s a mix of science and religion.
I personally believe that the term “shamanism” is used as a way to distance oneself from Christianity. It’s used by Christian-influenced culture to describe un-Abrahamic religious leader/doctors (“uneducated heathens”). It’s also used by self-identifying pagans to reveal themselves as being a “religious leader/doctor that definitely isn’t like a Christian priest!” In this sense, it’s almost a reclaimed word. Almost.
Except that everyone uses “shaman” as a synonym for uneducted religious leader-doctors that they dislike. See commentary on African shamans. They also use it as a term for people who cannot or would not describe themselves as pagans. Ironically, I don’t think the Tungusic people identify with the Western definition of “pagan”. Perhaps “indigenous” and “not!Christian”. But over here in the U.S, pagan here mostly means “Wiccan and others” which I don’t think they’d like very much. No more than the Native American communities here, surely.
I truly think the word “shaman” should go except in terms of the Samans (not a typo) of the Tungusic people. Regardless of how earthy or polytheistic you are, a religious leader-doctor is just a priest. Language evolves, and within a few decades, we can get “priest” to lose its Christian skin. Wiccans are already doing it.
“I am not doing Priestanism.”
Ah, that. Look, as I mentioned before, Shamanism doesn’t even describe anything particularly unusual to religions. Lots of religions do the things you do. It’s just that the aesthetic is a bit different. And for some weird reason, you lump aesthetics across the globe as being one aesthetic– which is called “not!Christian”. (The reason why actually probably relates to colonialism. It definitely relates to colonialism).
I highly suggest that you realize that the spirits, music, dance, words, and clothes involve of many not!Christian cultures do not constitute Religious Leader-Doctorism as a whole. While you may personally use them and acknowledge that other religious leader-doctors use different things, you ought to recognize that many of the things simply don’t fit into the same bunch. You might do chakras, but please acknowledge that the Religious Leader Doctors who traditionally used turkey feather fanning did not believe in the chakras, and many had no concept of them. Of you’re going to culturally appropriate, then at least acknowledge the history behind it. It would also be great if you acknowledged the modern side of it. Alas, most Native American “shamans” are actually part-Christian. And trust me, many of those priests do not believe in chakras, and many of them would be openly shunned and scorned if the did believe in it. (“uhh…wrong indian? 😂”)
If you’re going to be eclectic, just call yourself an eclectic pagan priest/ess.
“I identify as a Shaman, but I am not an eclectic. I only use practices from X culture”.
Well, is there any reason why you’re not calling yourself by the traditional word for a Religious Leader-Doctor/Priest? If for translation’s sake, then I recommend “priest/ess”.
“A Nahua priest; an Asatru priest, a Druid priestess”.
There’s my salt for today. I hope you enjoyed it. And more importantly, I hope you learned something.