Neoshamanism refers to “new”‘ forms of shamanism, or methods of seeking visions or healing. Neoshamanism comprises an eclectic range of beliefs and practices that involve attempts to attain altered states and communicate with a spirit world. Neoshamanic systems may not resemble traditional forms of shamanism. Some have been invented by individual practitioners, though many borrow or gain inspiration from a variety of different indigenous cultures. In particular, indigenous cultures of the Americas have been influential.
The word “shaman” originates from the Evenki word “šamán“. The Tungusic term was subsequently adopted by Russians interacting with the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and then applied very broadly by western anthropologists to many, diverse spiritual systems that share some kind of practice of calling upon, and mediating with, spirit beings.
Neoshamanism is not a single, cohesive belief system, but a collective term for many philosophies and activities. However, certain generalities may be drawn between adherents. Most believe in spirits and pursue contact with the “spirit-world” in altered states of consciousness which they achieve through drumming, dance, or the use of entheogens. Most systems might be described as existing somewhere on the animism/pantheism spectrum. Some neoshamans were not trained by any traditional shaman or member of any American indigenous culture, but rather learn independently from books and experimentation. Many attend New Age workshops and retreats, where they study a wide variety of ideas and techniques, both new and old.
Some members of traditional, indigenous cultures and religions are critical of neoshamanism, asserting that it represents an illegitimate form of cultural appropriation, or that it is nothing more than a ruse by fraudulent spiritual leaders to disguise or lend legitimacy fabricated, ignorant and/or unsafe elements in their ceremonies.
According to York (2001) one difference between neoshamanism and traditional shamanism is the role of fear. Neoshamanism and its New Age relations tend to dismiss the existence of evil, fear, and failure. “In traditional shamanism, the shaman’s initiation is an ordeal involving pain, hardship and terror. New Age, by contrast is a religious perspective that denies the ultimately [sic] reality of the negative, and this would devalue the role of fear as well.”
The 2011 United Kingdom census made it possible to write in a description of one’s own choosing for “Religion”. The figures for England and Wales show that from just over 80,000 people self-identifying as Pagan, 650 wrote in the description “Shamanism”.
“Core Shamanism”, which formed the foundations for most contemporary neoshamanism, is a system of practices synthesized, invented and promoted by Michael Harner in the 1980s, based on his reading of anthropological texts about indigenous peoples in the Americas, primarily the Plains Indians. Harner, who was not himself indigenous to the Americas, asserted that the ways of several North American tribes share “core” elements with those of the Siberian shamans. Many non-Native American readers believe that Harner’s ideas were representative of actual traditional indigenous ceremonies, when they were not actually very accurate according to subsequent critics. Some members of these tribes assert that Harner’s ideas or representations were not in any way accurate, nor do they call their spiritual leaders “shamans”.
Harner professes to describe common elements of “shamanic” practice found among indigenous people world-wide, having stripped those elements of specific cultural content so as to render them “accessible” to contemporary Western spiritual seekers. Harner also founded the Foundation for Shamanic Studies which claims to aid indigenous people preserve or even re-discover their own spiritual knowledge.
Core shamanism does not hold a fixed belief system, but instead focuses on the practice of “shamanic journeying” and may also rely on the novels of Carlos Castaneda. Specific practices include the use of rapid drumming in an attempt to attain “the shamanic state of consciousness,” ritual dance, and attempted communication with animal tutelary spirits, called “power animals” by Harner.”
“Power animal” is a concept that was introduced in 1980 by Michael Harner in The Way of the Shaman. While Harner took inspiration from his study of animistic beliefs in many different cultures, his concept of power animals is much like the familiar spirits of European occultism, which aid the occultist in their metaphysical work.
The use of this term has been incorporated into the New Age movement, where it is often mistaken for being the same as a totem in some indigenous cultures. The concept has also entered popular culture in various forms, such as in the 1999 film (and earlier novel) Fight Club, when the narrator attends a cancer support group. During a creative visualization exercise, he is told to see himself entering a cave where he will meet his power animal. When he does, he imagines a penguin is speaking to him.
Controversy with Core Shamanism
Critics Daniel C. Noel and Robert J. Wallis see Harner’s teachings as based on cultural appropriation and a misrepresentation of the various cultures by which he claims to have been inspired. Geary Hobson sees the New Age use of the term “shamanism” as a cultural appropriation of Native American culture by white people who have distanced themselves from their own history. Critics such as Noel and Wallis believe Harner’s work, in particular, laid the foundations for massive exploitation of indigenous cultures by “plastic shamans” and other cultural appropriators. Note, however, that Noel does believe in “authentic western shamanism” as an alternative to neoshamanism.
- Harner, Michael The Way of the Shaman. 1980, new edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, ISBN 0-06-250373-1
- Hobson, G. “The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism.” in: Hobson, Gary, ed. The Remembered Earth. Albuquerque, NM: Red Earth Press; 1978: 100-108.
- Aldred, Lisa, “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality” in: The American Indian Quarterly issn.24.3 (2000) pp.329-352. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Eliade, Mircea (1964, reprint 2004) Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. p. 4.
- Hutton, Ronald (2001). Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. London and New York: Hambledon and London. p. vii.
- Karlsson, Thomas (2002). Uthark – Nightside of the Runes. Ouroboros. ISBN 91-974102-1-7.
- Hagan, Helene E. (September 1992). “The Plastic Medicine People Circle”. Sonoma County Free Press. Archived from the original on 2013-03-05.
- Hobson, G. (1978). The Remembered Earth. Red Earth Press.
- Shaman on the Stage (Shamanism and Northern Identity) by Tatyana Bulgakova
- York, Michael. “The Role of Fear in Traditional and Contemporary Shamanism”. Bath Spa University College. Archived from the original on 20 January 2012. Retrieved 23 January 2012.
- Office for National Statistics, 11 December 2012, 2011 Census, Key Statistics for Local Authorities in England and Wales. Accessed 12 December 2012.
- May, James (18 Feb 2002). “Man claiming to be Northern Cheyenne “Shaman” convicted on eight felony counts”. Indian Country Today Media Network.: “A letter from the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council obtained by Indian Country Today and signed by three tribal council members, said that Cagle is in no way associated with the tribe…The letter further stated that the Northern Cheyenne do not use the term “shaman” when referring to their religious leaders”
- Foundation for Shamanic Studies. “Michael Harner Biography”. Foundation for Shamanic Studies. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
- The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. “About the Foundation for Shamanic Studies”. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
- Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. HarperCollins, New York, 1980, pp. 57-72, 76-103.
- Palahniuk, Chuck (1996) Fight Club. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03976-5
- Noel, Daniel C. (1997) Soul Of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities.Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-1081-2
- Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. 1959; reprint, New York and London: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0-14-019443-6
- Richard de Mille, ed. The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1980.
- George Devereux, “Shamans as Neurotics”, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 63, No. 5, Part 1. (Oct., 1961), pp. 1088–1090.
- Jay Courtney Fikes, Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties, Millennia Press, Canada, 1993. ISBN 0-9696960-0-0
- Joan Halifax, ed. Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives. 1979; reprint, New York and London: Penguin, 1991. ISBN 0-14-019348-0
- Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman. 1980, new edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990. ISBN 0-06-250373-1
- Graham Harvey, ed. Shamanism: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-25330-6.
- Åke Hultkrantz (Honorary Editor in Chief): Shaman. Journal of the International Society for Shamanistic Research
- Philip Jenkins, Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-516115-7
- Alice Kehoe, Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking. 2000. London: Waveland Press. ISBN 1-57766-162-1
- Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, eds. Shamans Through Time: 500 Years- on the Path to Knowledge. 2001; reprint, New York: Tarcher, 2004. ISBN 0-500-28327-3
- Daniel C. Noel. Soul Of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities.Continuum, 1997. ISBN 0-8264-1081-2
- Åke Ohlmarks 1939: Studien zum Problem des Schamanismus. Gleerup, Lund.
- Kira Salak, “Hell and Back: Ayahuasca Shamanism” for National Geographic Adventure.
- Piers Vitebsky, The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul – Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia to the Amazon, Duncan Baird, 2001. ISBN 1-903296-18-8
- Michael Winkelman, (2000) Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
- Andrei Znamenski, ed. Shamanism: Critical Concepts, 3 vols. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0-415-31192-6
- Andrei Znamenski, Shamanism in Siberia: Russian Records of Siberian Spirituality. Dordrech and Boston: Kluwer/Springer, 2003. ISBN 1-4020-1740-5
- Andrei Znamenski, The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and Western Imagination. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 0-19-517231-0
- The Plastic Medicine People Circle by Helene E. Hagan
- Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality by Lisa Aldred
- Swedish forum on shamanism (Trolltrumman, Sweden’s biggest forum on shamanism)
- Shaman on the Stage (Shamanism and Northern Identity) by Tatyana Bulgakova, writing about some Nanai shamans who experienced performances on the stage as dangerous, believing that inappropriate (untimely, superfluous) invocation of the helping spirits can raise their anger.
- Society of Shamanic Practitioners An example of Contemporary Shamanism Organizations