Shamanism and Neo-Shamanism


The debates surrounding shamanism and neo-shamanism are far from being over. Experts in this field continue to argue about the superiority or inferiority of one from the other. Despite the diverse or similar arguments in some scenarios, there are particular ideologies that seem to bring some form of basic ground to this line of spiritual study. Shamanism originated from Europe and although term “Shamanism” or “shaman” emerged in the late seventeenth century, shamanism was overall identified as the practice of some acts. By the dawn of the twenty first century, shamanism had more than four definitions to it. Unfortunately, diversity in the definitions affected the people’s perception towards it. Neo-shamanism emerged as an attempt to correct some practices/beliefs that some followers of the religion felt uncomfortable practicing or believing. Nevertheless, there are some ideologies and politics that have influenced the diversity in these perceptions of the religion. The ideologies and politics as presented by any scholars and believers of the religion seem to give the stand of the individuals rather than the general spirit of the religion.


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Shamanism, regardless of the type (native or neo), encompasses the relevance of the ancestral systems and beliefs. While shamanism promoted the traditional ways of communicating with the gods through sacrifices and other practices, neo-shamanism embraced more modern ways of promoting this religion. Unfortunately, the native shamans are constantly in discord with the neo-shamans thus the emergence of these diverse debates. As indicated earlier, the native shamans were not directly referred to by the term “shaman”. Their reference emerged from the kind of practice they undertook at the time. As indicated by Boekhoven, Castaneda made use of the term “‘brujo, ‘nagul’, sorcerer’ and ‘worrior’ instead of the term ‘shaman’” (Boekhoven 206). Castaneda is listed as one of the first people to have written about Shaman in the twentieth century. He only started using shamanism in the 1990s when the term became more popularized. This presents some form of ideology.

Castaneda was one of the earlier influential people in the study of the religion. Although he did not get a thorough breakthrough in the education field as he had anticipated after some information was published regarding his falsified background on the religion, he brought forth various facts about the culture of those who practiced shamanism. Reading his works gives the reader some clear reference of what the culture/religion entails. The religion seems alienated and more sacred that the others in existence. Like other religions, there was some form of order or special groups for various tasks. However, the religion was not meant for everybody. In fact, Castaneda states that one had to be called for him/her to be part of the religion (Castaneda 38). As indicted, Castaneda ended his career in education at some point and stated his own movement. It can be argued that Castaneda emphasized on the restricted entrance to the religion because he believed in perfection and the reality of the ideal being.

 It is clear that Castaneda wanted to be a leader at some point. Just like in politics, one has to convince the audience that he stands for the truth. This also includes his actions. He had to give the perfect background of his life in order to show that he could give the true teachings relating to Shamanism. Although many of the scholars and students of shamanism state that Castaneda’s teachings were factual, his own life was based on a lie, as politicians are perceived. He later taught made a movement that taught the devotees a mixture of Tai Chi and kung fu which was also known as Cleargreen. The important aspect of Castaneda’s teachings was leadership as was in another scholar of the same culture known as Michael Harner. Castaneda wanted to lead people into the knowledge of shamanism as he perceived it, but when he partly failed to accomplish this task, he found other ways of being a leader (Boekhoven 207).

As stated, Harner is another scholar in the same field of shamanism. However, many perceive Harner presenting another angle to the knowledge of this religion. A number of his ways contradict those of Castaneda’s. For example, while Castaneda feels that shamanism is meant for the called, Harner feels that the religion is meant for everyone interested in its practices. Harner’s interests lean more to the presence of the percussion instruments with the inclusion of drums. In his works, Harner states “My research also led me to conclude that percussion sound was far more widely used than plant “medicine” to achieve what I later called the Shamanic State of Consciousness” (Boekhoven 220). At some point, Harner suggests that he can teach people the various levels of shamanism he has learnt at a fee.

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Harner wanted to be more inclusive, unlike Castaneda. He felt that this religion should be as inclusive as the other religions and should be taught as the other religions are taught. Harner’s ideology can be identified as that of equality. He wanted to give everybody a chance to enjoy the benefits or the experiences that come with practicing or learning the religion. This perception or ideology may also align with the one promoted by Mircea Eliade, another known scholar in the field of shamanism. He felt that every person was religious, whether consciously or unconsciously, but only differed in the direction of practices he took (Eliade 15). Therefore, giving a person the chance to learn shamanism or neo-shamanism was only the fair thing to do.

If Castaneda is put as a shaman, Harner can be put as a neo-shaman. The former places emphasis on the role of the various subjects who include sorcerers, warriors and medicine people. The latter on the other hand, is has his focus on more identifiable objects such as percussion instruments and their role in the cohesion of the unconscious and the conscious/ecstatic state of being. Neo-shamanism emerged as a way of amending what the present could not fathom. One major difference evident between native and neo-shamanism was the presence or absence of fear. While the former placed emphasis on fear, the latter felt that devotees of the culture could not live around fear. The traditional shamans uphold fear more than the neo-shamans. For example, the diverse groups practicing the religion have fear for the dead. Majority, if not all of the groups believe in sorcery and have great fear of it. The group known as Shipibo does not believe in the life gained after death (Castaneda 44). This same group also fears death so much that their fear their dead relatives. On the other hand, the neo-shamans try to place as little emphasis as possible on matters of sorcery (even though they believe in it), death or other forms of evil.

Through the observance of the belief systems of the people representing both sides of the religion, it is relevant to note that each of the representatives brought forth what he perceived to be the true and conformed practices of religion. Harner is known as the founder of core shamanism. This entails a combination of diverse practices as found relevant from diverse cultures into a single practice. This is a form of neo-shamanism. On the other hand, Castaneda felt it right to follow the practices as taught by a single teacher who he called Don Juan (Castaneda, 5). Neo-shamans found it relevant to adopt modern ways in order to fit the religion and practices into the modern times. For example, the existence of a medicine person or healer would be overruled by the presence of the ever-changing diseases and pharmacology. Some forms of sacrifices and the practice of sorcery had its limits in these modern times.         

Equality and leadership are most profound in the ideologies and the political aspect of the various positions taken by the subjects of the religion. Some perceptions and debates on the practices of the religion were more related to the need for leadership. These subjects wanted to be seen as the true leaders and scholars of the religion (Boekhoven 255). This is evident through Castaneda. When he stopped writing about shamanism, he stated his own movement. It as though his main interest was on where he would be a leader rather than his beliefs in as far as shamanism was concerned. On the other hand, Harner’s bent towards liberalism. He wanted to embrace the present as much as the old religious practices were part of us. His main focus was not on sorcery or being warriors (something that seems archaic), but rather he dwelt on instruments and the practices that were more cohesive with modern practices.

Initially, as put in various books, the women acted as mediators between tribes and gods. At some point, as some of the issues changed (agriculture, the perception of the psych), shamans engaged in fights with the demons placed in the sky. As the changes and the battles continues to take, the mediator position also changed. Men took over as mediators. This is only part of the changed shamanic practice. Although some changes have been forced into place by the changing times, some practices and beliefs are rather irrelevant. Traditional shamanism states that a true shaman is called by the environment and the genes in him/her. On the other hand, neo-shamanism stresses that the practice is for everybody as long as one follows the right practices. This brings the question addressing the right practice to be followed. According to some, picking a practice from a culture and dropping the others because the chosen practice is suits him/her should not be the right direction (Eliade 63). If one is to choose shamanism, he should pick a culture and follow all its practices. Neo-shamans believe times have changed. Some practices conducted in some cultures do not suit modern times and so they should be discarded. As person should be allowed to choose a practice from whichever culture as long as it is within shamanism.

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I prefer the equality advocated by the Harner and Eliade in as far as neo-shamanism is concerned. Although Castaneda explanations are clearer than in other books and his works are embraced by many scholars, limiting a person to the traditional times does not concur with the modern times. A religion should be followed by all those who believe in it. If Eliade beliefs that all people are religious, then a person should not be restricted as to the religion he/she should follow. Neo-shamanism encourages the combination of modern practices with the consideration of the new ones. For example, it makes sense to focus on positive energy rather than focusing on negative energy such as the presence of evil or fear.

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