shaman (shäˈmən, shāˈ–, shăˈ–) [key], religious practitioner in various, generally small-scale societies who is believed to be able to diagnose, cure, and sometimes cause illness because of a special relationship with, or control over, spirits. Different forms of shamanism are found around the world; they are also known as medicine men and witch doctors. Shamanism is based on the belief that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. Shamans are not, however, organized within full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests. Shamans enter into trances through such methods as autohypnosis, the ingestion of hallucinogens, fasting, and self-mortification, during which time they are said to be in contact with the spirit world. Shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities, which are often thought to be obtained through heredity or supernatural calling. Among the Siberian Chukchi, one may behave in ways that Western clinicians would characterize as psychotic, but which they interpret as possession by a spirit demanding that one assume the shamanic vocation. Among the South American Tapirapé, shamans are called in their dreams. In yet other societies, shamans choose their career: Native Americans of the Plains would seek a communion with spirits through a "vision quest," while South American Shuar, seeking the power to defend their family against enemies, apprentice themselves to accomplished shamans. Shamans often observe special fasts and taboos particular to their vocation. Oftentimes the shaman has, or acquires, one or more familiars, usually spirits in animal form, or (sometimes) of departed shamans. Shamans can manipulate these spirits to diagnose and cure victims of witchcraft. Some societies distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm; others believe that all shamans have both curative and deadly powers. The shaman is usually paid for his services, and generally enjoys great power and prestige in the community, but he may also be suspected of harming others, and may thus be feared. Most shamans are men, but there are societies in which women may also be shamans. In some societies, a male shaman may assume the dress and attributes of a woman; such shamanistic tranvestism has been found among the Chukchi and some North American tribes. See Dyak, Araucanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute.
See M. Eliade, Shamanism (tr. 1964); M. J. Harner, ed., Hallucinogens and Shamanism (1973) and The Way of the Shaman (1980); M. Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.