“Shamanism, the Faith of experience, marks mankind’s transition from dreamtime into experiential-self-reflective time, and is the common source of all Religions, and psychoactive plants played a pivotal role in this relationship.” – Chriss Bennet, Cannabis and the Soma Solution
What is Shamanism?
I’m not sure the debate will ever reach an end, as researchers and scholars argue over everything from the definition of the word itself to what defines religion and whether shamanism can fit within that definition. Regardless of the debate, one inescapable truth will always remain: Before recorded history began and clear through to the present day, throughout the entire world, throughout history, and across virtually every culture where psychoactive plants (entheogens) were available, they’ve been used in rites and rituals to connect with the spirit world. It’s clear that shamanism is as inherent within our human coding as is the universal desire to seek altered states of consciousness, so to deny shamanism is to deny much of our own mutual humanity, history, and evolution.
As is required in any discussion of shamanism, is where the term “shaman” actually came from. It’s truly a purely academic term that was a modern invention, purportedly taken from Evenki reindeer herders’ in Siberia. The spiritual practitioners of their tribe were called “saman”, and oddly enough, this term was reportedly the discovery of a dissident Roman Catholic priest exploring this territory in hopes of converting anyone he found to Christianity. He wrote extensively about the saman and their practices until he was executed for heresy in 1682.
So, different ethnic groups who share similar practices, have completely different names for their shaman: To the American Indians they’re “angakuk”, to the Mongols they’re “kami”, to Haitian’s they’re “houngan”, to the Zulu they’re “sangoma”, to Hawaiians they’re “kahuna”, to the Korean’s they’re “mudang”, to the Thai’s they’re “ma khi”, in the Peruvian Amazon they’re “curanderos” and so on. For me, the word shaman simply becomes a convenient synonym to discuss a relatively unified set of rituals and traditions across multiple cultures and times throughout the world.
Although the word shaman has covered broad range of people and practitioners throughout history, and although the definition of “shaman” is endlessly debated, especially when scholars and researchers argue over whether it can be called a religion or not, there are a few features that seem to find universal agreement. In alignment with Louise Backman and Ake Hultkrantz’s Studies in Lapp Shamanism , these basic common features are:
1. Undergoing some type of initiation to become a shaman.
2. Entering an altered state of consciousness or “trance state.”
3. Using sound to help induce the altered state of consciousness.
4. Taking a spiritual journey during this altered state of consciousness.
5. Working with an external spiritual energy or entity while in the trance state.
Other than those basics, it’s difficult to find a consensus among researchers, but the fact that virtually every form of shamanism throughout the world share even these few features is remarkable in itself. In fact, the practice of shamanism may be the only universal mystical system known to humans, predating any religion (including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or any other). Shamanism places the power and responsibility for connection to the spirit world squarely in our own hands; giving us more power over our own lives than we are taught is possible within these frames. And, since there are such remarkable similarities, it seems natural to explore the possibility that shamanism is not only a natural evolution of human’s belief in and desire to connect with god or gods, but that it forms the foundation for religious systems in the future.
And, it’s not only the commonalities (rather than the differences) that are important to me; it’s the core feature of shamanism–that of entering into altered states of consciousness and the methods employed to enter these states, that’s the focus of my interest. In fact, the shamans I am most interested in are the shamans who use plant-based tools (also known as plant allies or plant teachers) to help them travel to and negotiate with the spiritual realm, although that’s certainly not a requirement to enter the trance state. Despite the research biases that have diminished or ignored the use of entheogens in shamanic ritual throughout the world and throughout history, modern research is revealing that more often than not, psychedelics and hallucinogens were used to aid the shaman enter the trance state.
This is an extraordinary discovery, yet anyone brave enough to reveal this to the mainstream can kiss their careers goodbye. Look at luminaries like Jean Clottes; when he came out with his work on Shamanism in the Paleolithic Caves, he was ridiculed. Or, for an even more extreme example, look to John M. Allegro; a researcher who was hand-picked by the Vatican to help translate the Dead Sea Scrolls. What he reportedly found, was supposed to have had the power to turn the Catholic Church upside down, partly because he found evidence of the use of psychedelics by early Christians. He knew he was ruining his career by revealing his discoveries, and the Vatican promptly responded by discrediting him, saying that he had gone mad, and would not publish his translations. Yes, the Vatican is withholding information that they have no right to withhold, but that’s the power of the Roman Catholic Church; they will hang on to power at any cost.
Oddly enough, modern research has also revealed that even Rome itself used entheogens as described in vivid detail in book like “The Chemical Muse” by David Hillman , or “Drugs in History and Anthropology” by Andrew Sherratt. Funny how the Roman Catholic Church eventually demonized and alienated itself from its own roots. This then only begs the question as to why the true importance of shamanism and the tools used to help gain access to altered states of consciousness is typically glossed over, consciously ignored, or even demonized when it comes to religious, archaeological or scientific discussions on the topic. There is no denying that the whole of shamanic tradition shaped the very essence of humanity itself throughout history.
Part of the reason for this minimizing is the well-known bias in both the anthropological and religious worlds. Both have made it clear that they believe there could have been no valid religion before Christianity. the ones they found, even though Christianity itself is a “pagan” religion, were labeled as primitive, the work of the Devil, as well as pagan. This attitude becomes abundantly clear when reading numerous first-hand accounts of missionaries’ work with “heathens” and the “heathen religions” these primitive cultures practiced. One such account is Thomas Gage’s “Travels in the New World” where his job is to convert Mayans to Christianity. Another perspective is offered in one of my personal favorite books on shamanism by Louise Backman and Ake Hultkrantz titled Studies in Lapp Shamanism:
“It is a well-known fact that the terminology and definitions of most religious manifestations in so-called primitive cultures are a matter of great disagreement among scholars. Technology, kinship relations and political institutions have been successfully analyzed and theoretically reduced to functional units, becoming parts of more or less generally accepted scientific systems. However, phenomena like totemism, animism, fetisism and shamanism are today highly debated both as facts — do they occur at all? — and as concepts. Is not shamanism a fairly well documented and circumscribed religious complex, is not the shaman himself a key-figure in ‘primitive’ religions?” (Backman & Hultkrantz, 1977)
In the aftermath of Lapponia, the Russian czar Peter I could no longer turn a blind eye to the evils of witchcraft in his empire. Like his Swedish and Danish counterparts, he came to view it as essential to wipe out the non-Christian practices of Siberian peoples.
Words like “witch trials”, “The Crusades”, “The Inquisition”, and “missionaries”, as well as the burning of the entire Library of Alexandria often bring up only a vague sense of the early Catholic Church’s efforts to eradicate any religious peoples and practices that weren’t in alignment with Christianity. The true degree of brutality and systematic genocide of entire cultures is often lost on many of us, as literally millions were exterminated in the Church’s efforts to have a unilateral belief system across the entire planet. This alone provides key insight in understanding why we continue to get such a skewed version of history, especially in relation to shamanism (a heathen practice) and the use of psychoactive plants (the Devil’s work) by mainstream academics and scholars the world over.
And this brings up a critical detail: Another word for the psychoactive plants that shaman use is entheogens. Entheogens are interchanged with the term”hallucinogen” or even the more inaccurate “hallucinogenic drugs.” The term hallucinogen, by definition, infers that what is experienced in the hallucinogenic state is not real, immediately discarding the experience itself…something critical to trick us into believing if any of us are to buy into any modern religious system. Either way, it’s critical to also understand the vast difference between “drugs” and “entheogens” as we continue our journey. (For an exhaustive discussion on this topic, please refer to my “Entheogens are NOT Drugs“ article.)
Evidence for Altered States
For so many reasons, the discussion of hallucinogens in any context brings up instant and predictable emotional responses, mostly in thanks to the highly effective suppression of the early Christian Church, especially during the time of the Inquisition, and then later throughout history as “psychedelic revivals” occurred in the late 1960′s. The “hippie generation” actually had little to do with the plant teachers and entheogens shamans rely on, and the movement had virtually nothing to do with the true nature and practice of shamanism. It was a mainstream and highly “spun” version of an evolved and powerful paradigm that shaped humanity as a whole since Paleolithic times.
Speaking of, one can read entire books devoted to shamanism, yet there often isn’t a single mention of the use of mind-altering plants within their pages. This is actually changing, and part of my personal mission while in this frame and on this planet, is to help, in some small way, to restore the important plant allies and entheogens to their respective place in historical context, especially as the incredibly important and powerful shamanic tools they are. The effectiveness of these tools has never changed; only the repressive attitude surrounding them due to the conquering nations, and this is an incredibly difficult hurdle to overcome, but I believe in the truth.
As mentioned earlier, there’s actually more than ample evidence showing that entheogens were a far more a common” than a rare feature of shamanic trance and induction. Despite numerous conversations with several leading archaeologists regarding the use of entheogens by ancient cultures, the varied responses of denial to a firm belief that the use of entheogens was just a “shortcut” that most true shamanic practitioners was common. I would have expected more open-mindedness, but they were typically just as reluctant to entertain the idea of shamanism as a core shaping factor for humanity as a whole. And this is part of what continues to perplex me; why the mainstream world is so afraid of what shamanism can teach us about ourselves and our very humanity.
Thankfully, there are more and more authors stepping forward in defense of shamanism.
Mircea Eliade’s “Shamanism“ has become the standard reference for the study of shamanism. When discussing the commonality of altered states as a universal feature of shamanism, she states, “We have termed the ecstatic experience a ‘primary phenomenon’ because we see no reason whatever for regarding it as the result of a particular historical movement. Rather, we would consider it a fundamental condition, known to the whole of archaic humanity.” This is key when investigating the roots and the true nature of shamanism throughout history, especially as a universally similar paradigm that has existed for millennia and across countless cultures throughout the world.
Furthermore, Erika Bourguignon, in “Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change“ found that “in a sample of 488 societies, in all parts of the world, for which we have analyzed the relevant ethnographic literature, 437 (or 90%) are reported to have one or more institutionalized, culturally patterned forms of altered states of consciousness.” This is incredibly significant, yet so little attention is given to this critical piece of the larger picture of shamanism.
And the evidence continues to mount as a sort of renaissance into the true nature of shamanic practices continues. Marlene Dobkin de Rios in “Hallucinogens: A Cross-cultural Perspective“ discusses her 30 plus years of research into how entheogens and other psychoactive substances have actually shown that shamanism has been integral to shaping entire cultures. She firmly believes that much early art was actually inspired by and intended for shamanic ritual, and the incredible insights brought back from the “spirit world” were instrumental in forming value and belief systems for countless cultures. I explore this in detail on other articles.
Shamanism in Central America
I have a particular fascination and passion for the Shamans of Central and South America. We know that the Olmecs, often referred to as the “grandparents of Mesoamerica”, had rich shamanic traditions that spread as far and wide from the Colima culture on the West Coast of Mexico, to the Moche and Mayans, and even down to the rainforests of the Amazon.
All of these cultures utilized a wide variety of entheogens to reach their trance states, and like the American Indian of North America, there are some entheogens that all these cultures shared, despite the fact that some of the plant teachers were indigenous to very particular parts of the world.
Plant teachers (entheogens) such as psilocybin mushrooms (often called “magic” mushrooms), Datura, Jimson Weed, Peyote, Amanita muscaria, morning glory, and the Bufo Alvarius toad were found in places that they were NOT indigenous to, indicating that these plants were important enough to have been traded between cultures. One of the rare exceptions is a hallucinogenic tea known as Ayahuasca which didn’t make it out of South America until much more modern times.
In fact, De Borhegyi (“The enigmatic mushroom stones of Mesoamerica”, Middle America Research Institute) studied mushrooms in relation to the Mayans and found significant evidence of this particular shamanic fungus in many places in their art. The Underworld for the Maya was the place the gods lived, and shamans (who, alongside the gods were awarded their own glyph) had the power to travel there. It’s actually well-known that the Maya employed a number of plant and animal tools (like Bufo Alvarius toad venom) to enter trance states, but as it always seems to be; it’s difficult to get archaeologists and historians to speak on that topic.
There are thankfully a growing number of exceptions:
Dobkin de Rios in “Hallucinogens: Cross-Cultural Perspectives” said that in many parts of the ancient world hallucinogens are used, as well as odiferous plants that play a major role in heightening sensory responses during trance states, and the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms (both psilocybin and Amanita muscaria) appear in art repeatedly throughout Mesoamerica. Moche ceramics feature many figures adorned with mushrooms of different species and genera. Dobkin also states that the use of plant hallucinogens to achieve contact with the supernatural realm in order to serve social goals is extremely important in traditional Moche culture. The significance of these findings cannot be underestimated.
Something that I found personally interesting is how Moche stirrup vessels dated to 500AD (right around the Classic Period of the Maya who traded with the Moche) feature the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus. In fact, there are a number of vessels that are in the shape of San Pedro, as well as vessels that show shamans holding cacti sections, and vessels that show shamans transforming into animals with the help of spineless cacti.
Also, Moche pottery is known for its sexual themes, but according to Elizabeth Benson in “The Mochica: A Culture of Peru”, she states that the “presence of sexual motifs in the ceramics may indicate more than merely a lusty interest in life: specifically, a link to shamanistic activity.” And she goes on to explain how, in 30 years of research, how “archaeologists and art historians have not shown an inclination to deal directly with the effects of psychoactive substances on the belief systems of prehistoric, non-Western societies.” This is stunning that so much of who we are as humans has been systematically repressed, ignored, or flat out denied, despite the blatant evidence to the contrary.
Michael Ripinsky-Naxon speaks of a particularly interesting example found at the Peabody Museum collection at Harvard University in a vessel in the form of a human head. He says, “The headdress has delicate curvilinear waves that turn into bird-head motifs; a large naturalistic mushroom protrudes from the figure’s forehead, and there is no doubt that it represents the hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria.
But, of even more interest to me, is the recorded use in Mesoamerica (which includes all of Mexico to the Honduras www.famsi.org/maps/) of Peyote. Peyote is found in tombs of one of the early advanced cultures known as the Colima of the West Coast of Mexico. Most who research Peyote, associate it with American Indians in North America, but the Colima have extensive evidence of the use of Peyote as well as a number of other entheogens. This is discussed at length in “The Nature of Shamanism: Substance and Function of Religious Metaphor” by Ripinsky.
In my personal collection, I have several figures of bound Colima shaman. Originally, these figures were interpreted as being patients in some sort of surgery that required them to be tied down, but it was later realized, due to the discovery of additional more intricately-detailed figures bearing shamanic costumes, that these were actually shaman undergoing a spiritual journey.
When one is traveling via an entheogen-induced state, it’s not uncommon for the body to get up and wander around, similar to sleepwalking; a state that results in an individual being able to navigate through their world as efficiently as when they’re awake, but unaware of the potential dangers. Taken this way, the Colima provide one of the earliest verifiable records of a practitioner using a “sitter” for shamanic journeys that take one far from their waking consciousness into a completely different reality.
And, the ritualistic use of mutually-used entheogens within differing cultures has many more examples: One of the most ancient entheogens ever recorded, appearing in early Sanskrit and Chinese writing was a plant called Datura. It played a critical spiritual role in both societies, but spread throughout the world’s shamanic cultures. There are numerous Colima sculptures that show plants that have been positively identified as Datura, and one of the “dosing vessels” from my personal collection is in the shape of a spiny seedpot that was mistaken for a fish, but is in fact more-likely a representation of Datura meteloides. Datura has been known to cause the body to convulse during the vision quest of the Shaman, and as might be expected; there are many examples of vessels in the shape of the spiny seedpots throughout the Colima culture.
The modern Western world has most vilified the exploration and use of these types of vehicles for spiritual exploration, and it wasn’t until the Christians started to conquer the entire world, suppressing any practices that did not fit their often violent, culture-destroying paradigms, where a number of important shamanic plant allies such as Datura, Mandrake, Jimson Weed, and a few other were forever associated with witches, especially during the time of the Inquisition.
In fact, most of the information regarding the historical use of these particular plants can be found in the notes that survive from the Inquisition. Many try to write this off a “something that happened in the dark past” but the fact that so much truth since then has so effectively been repressed, including so many important historical rituals that employed plant teachers and plant tools used by shamans across many cultures to connect with the divine is heartbreaking.
And what is more disturbing to me, is that entheogens and plant teachers, critical for the exploration of consciousness for so many, have been successfully, thanks again to the Roman Catholic Church, been grouped with dangerous and addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin. The taboo that has been placed on such gifts from Mother Nature makes it difficult to even speak on the topic of entheogens, and has actually proven to be one of my largest stumbling blocks in my attempts to help remove the stigma that haunts entheogens (incorrectly referred to as hallucinogens).
Music and Shamanism
Something a few have devoted a great deal of research to is the mysterious role Peruvian Whistling Vessels may have played in the Pre-Columbian shamanic practice. When the Spaniards invaded in 1532, these vessels stopped being made, and despite the lengthy and detailed notes that Spanish conquerors kept, there was no mention of these whistling vessels. Perhaps it was far too sacred and personal of a practice for any of the indigenous peoples to reveal to their conquerors, but perhaps it was something much deeper than that. There were many whistles found within the Colima, Moche and even the Mayan cultures, and the simple explanation is that these whistles were simply “noisemakers” to get the attention of the gods, but the explanation is far more curious and interesting than I ever imagined.
Daniel Statnekov rediscovered these whistling vessels in 1972, and I’ve devoted an entire article to my thoughts on this method of inducing altered states of consciousness through sound in my “Whistling Vessels and Binaural Beats” article as a result. I also discuss the significance of other instruments such as the shaman’s drum in my “The Shaman’s Drum: A Portal to the Divine” article for those interested in finding out more.
My Personal Take
We can regard the spirit world as some transcendent creation “out there,” as one that doesn’t actually exist at all, or, as shamanism teaches; imminent creation potentially manifest everywhere. The shamanistic idea nurtures a sense of belonging to the world and to the cosmos, helping us to hold ourselves accountable for the world so delicately wrapped around us.
Shamans are specialists in ecstasy, a state of grace that allows them to move freely beyond the ordinary world – beyond death itself – to interact directly with the gods, demons, ancestors, and other unseen spiritual beings. Shamanic ecstasy can last moments, hours, or even days, but the amount of time spent in trance is far less important than the simple knowledge of its existence.
Pre-Columbian societies were a called “primitive” as an effective way of dismissing the true power of their cultural and belief systems, but the truth is, is that because of such broad suppression and denial throughout history and continuing through today in modern historians, archaeologists, and researchers, the true power of shamanism is still dismissed or outright denied.
Once religion guilt’s us out of knowing, once we let the government make us so fearful that we not only hesitate to explore the depths of your own mind, all will be lost. The only thing that is truly ours in this world is our minds, and if we let those get taken away then we truly have lost the meaning of being human.
The ability to successfully pass back and forth between alternate realities is a fundamental feature of mysticism in general and shamanism in particular. We of the modern world come from a society in which mystical knowledge is typically regarded as irrational or “new age” nonsense. The simple fact is this though: When the Europeans conquered the globe, they had to believe themselves superior in knowledge, insight, morality, and technology to the peoples they came to dominate. But, what our nineteenth-century European and American ancestors took for global destiny – progress and enlightenment of the world through acquaintance with the Western perception of culture, was simply a situation of the more efficient and vicious killers winning the globe. And this has not changed to this day, as ancient spiritual peoples continue to have their cultures decimated and destroyed by what many like to refer to as “progress.”
Western rationales honor power over people rather than power shared between people. And this is because we’ve been taught to identify power with sources outside the human spirit rather than within our own power and minds. There are many pathways to the divine, and our ability to access that spiritual power is a gift that has been systematically incised from our culture and thought. Why? Shamanism fights against the idea that the Divine exists outside of oneself, and works alongside Mother Nature to nurture, heal, and to connect us with more than we’ve been taught we’re capable of within these frames. And this is part of my personal fight to raise consciousness on the validity of the mystical system that predates all organized religions.
NOTE: Please be respectful of the immense effort and research that goes into writing my articles. Do not re-print or re-post any of my work without receiving explicit and express permission from me first. Feel free to cite me or link to my articles whenever you wish, and I am always available for interviews or comments.
01. Shaman tied down to prevent him from wandering or hurting himself while in trance (200 CE).
02. Shaman tied down to prevent him from wandering or hurting himself while in trance (200 CE).
03. Bufo alvarius toad necklaces belonging to an Olmec shaman (1000 BCE).
* Photos from my personal collection of Mayan artifacts, available for publication.
 Described are four prime elements that constitute universal features of shamanism: a cosmology that involves at least 2 or more worlds (not counting our own world) that are the domain of spirits or entities, the use of trance-states for divination or travel to the worlds of their individual cosmologies, the idea that all elements posses souls or spirits, and the fact that the position of shaman occupies a very specific place and role in the individual culture.
DuBois, Thomas A. 2009. An Introduction to Shamanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kehoe, Alice Beck. 2000. Shamans and Religion. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
Lommel, Andreas. 1967. Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art. New York: McGraw Hill
Pearson, James L. 2002. Shamanism and the Ancient Mind. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press
Schefferus, Johannes. 1673. The History of Lapland. Stockholm: Rediviva Publishing House.