Shamanism – health, illness and death

In times gone by, the shaman was a sorcerer, a mediator between man and his mythical world. The ‘work area’ was nature in its full extent, simply because in the early eras the tribe depended on it for survival at all. Hunting is an example of this. The spirit world also belonged to his or her domain. The shaman negotiated with and negotiated between both good and evil spirits, invariably in the interests of his tribe or the village where he lived. To some extent the shaman had ‘a say’ over health, illness and death. Magic or magic was the skill that the shaman had, to cure diseases but also to advise people, to bewitch people for the common good and, if necessary, to kill them. In earlier times and in today’s primitive cultures in Africa, Asia and America, the power of the shaman was and is enormous.


  • Shamanism is from all times and cultures
  • Purpose of shamanism
  • Life crisis
  • The methods of the shaman
  • Trance
  • Drums
  • Mantras
  • Transfer life energy
  • Make pain disappear
  • Suck diseases from the body
  • Interpreting bones
  • False shamans


Shamanism is from all times and cultures

Shamanism has played a major role in the shaping and functioning of small communities on all continents, from the Australian outback to the forests of the Amazon, the prairies of the North American West and the earliest cultures in Asia and Europe. The druids in the Celtic communities, related to the Avalon legends, have always appealed to the imagination in that respect.

Shaman / Source: Benralexander, Pixabay

Stone Age
The origins of shamanism must be sought in prehistory. Worldwide, shamans played an important role in relatively small communities before villages and settlements expanded and became cities. Afterwards the influence of the shamans waned . Etymologically, the term comes from the language of the Evenks (Tungus) in Siberia. Anyone who digs deeper into its origins will arrive at the word sram . It means ‘generating heat’ and is directly related to the trance that the shaman almost always used to make contact between the subterranean, the above-ground and the earthly reality.

Self-heating Evoking inner heat, or self-heating, was of great importance to the shaman to ensure that the magical powers could develop and have influence. The general consensus among anthropologists and other scientists is that shamanism is the basis of religions and can even be considered the first secret society. The broader meanings of ‘shaman’ include ‘witch’, ‘spirit charmer’, ‘oracle’ and ‘priest’.

Purpose of shamanism

Current shamanism is thousands of years old. In fact, it is a remnant from the Stone Age, from the Neolithic (Young Stone Age) to the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and possibly even from periods before that. Man slowly formed (gatherer) communities that later primarily depended on hunting. Due to the important social place that the shaman occupied in those villages and settlements and still has in many primitive cultures in Africa, South America and Asia, the tribe members or villagers were afraid of the power of the shaman, but at the same time they had great respect and appreciation for him.

Seclusion It was very characteristic that the shaman lived on the edge of the village .
That was a powerful symbol, because it represented that he belonged, but also not. He lived in and between different worlds: the earthly, the superearthly, the subterranean and the very extensive world of myths and legends. At village level there was only one shaman. The tribe as a whole, on the other hand, had many ‘wizards’.

Survival The shaman was at the service of the community. He was seen as the one who could bring or maintain balance between the worlds of people, animals, plants, spirits and demons. This was directly related to the fact that the survival of the village or tribe depended on hunting, agriculture, defense against invaders and, by extension, the solidarity of the villagers to work together in all these areas. In short, in current terminology, the shaman had extremely important tasks regarding the social, political, military, psychological and health balance of the community as a whole. The better that balance, the more chances the village or tribe had to survive in good and bad times, such as war and climate-related disasters, volcanic eruptions, floods from hurricanes and exceptional droughts, when agriculture languished and game was scarce.

Shaman among the ancient Aztecs / Source: MirreNL, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-3.0)

Life crisis

The shaman made contact with the different worlds that people thought they were confronted with in their harsh existence. One of his tasks was to ensure good relations between people and the spirit world. In many cultures, for example, there was a belief that the primordial goddess reincarnated the deceased animals at a certain point after she had reunited the souls. Thanks to her, game remained available to the tribe for hunting. In other words, the wild file was replenished again and again. The shaman had special abilities to maintain contact with these spirits and gods.

Struggle It was characteristic that almost every shaman had experienced a personal life crisis. Due to an illness or whatever cause, he had become involved in a violent confrontation with his inner self. He had looked death in the face and emerged stronger after a fierce battle. In this inner chaos he had been able to create order. He had survived the existential calamity physically and mentally and thus gained dominance over others, because he had gone through the worst hell imaginable. In this way he gained insight into the connections and spider web-like links with other worlds. He was able to contact the gods and battle the demons. Shamans were often also poets and singers. They could predict the future, heal people and animals, curse other tribes and sow death and destruction among their own tribe members if it benefited the community. In other words, his power was enormous.

The methods of the shaman

In order to become a transcendental intermediary, so to speak, the shaman had to be very well versed in all knowledge about the world of the gods and the mythical world in which he resided. All this in combination with daily life, the concerns in the villages, such as quarrels between villagers, and the existential or otherwise problems that the community faced individually and collectively. He was able to predict the future and understand the will of the gods and demons on the basis of chance events. A flight of birds that he thought made strange movements high above his head, a disturbingly loud rustling leaf in a barely perceptible breeze, a bizarre knot in a tree. For the shaman, who constantly sought his way in a mythical world, these were just as many omina from the otherworldly world of the spirits or curses from the dark subterranean caverns of horrible demons.


A core concept of shamanism was going into trance. Practically everything happened and took place in a trance. For example, in the trance the shaman received transcendental information about when a period of drought was over. He ‘saw’ the places where the hunters could find game. And he discovered possibilities to heal or bewitch people. To enter a trance, the shaman used drums, mantras and herbs, among other things. He also had the knowledge to interpret bones and fetishes.

From drums to herbs and spells The shaman always went into a trance and then went into ecstasy, otherwise he could not get into the appropriate state of consciousness to make contact with supernatural or subterranean realities. For example, when the village was struck by an epidemic, the shaman went into a trance to mediate between the underworld (demons), the human world to which he in principle belonged, and the otherworldly (spirit and god world). The same applied if it was suspected that the prey animals were repeatedly warned by a demonic influence that the village hunters were coming. Hunters who then returned from the hunt empty-handed. Going into a trance was possible through drum sounds, but also with the help of mantras (spells) and herbs that induced hallucinations. Often in combination with fetishes that in many cultures were regarded as substitutes for the gods and demons during cultic acts and that were said to have a supernatural effect. For the shaman they were so many ‘vehicles’ with which he could travel to the other worlds to mediate, negotiate and settle.

Shaman from the Altai (Russia), early 20th century / Source: Sergei Ivanovich Borisov, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)


Among other things, the shaman’s drums produced heavy bass tones. Usually that sound was enough to go into a deep trance. Scientifically speaking, this has to do with the generation of theta waves in the brain (measured with an EEG), such as those that arise during sleep. The same applies to the rattles used by the shaman, but for the higher brain frequencies, such as the gamma rhythm. The combinations of these brain waves are said to induce evocative experiences, including illusions and hallucinations. A shaman’s drum often contained numerous bells and metal plates that touched each other as soon as the shaman began a rhythmic dance. In this sense too, the combination of theta and gamma rhythms influences the generation of supersensible experiences.


Mantras and other mysterious spells are also said to have a similar effect, as used in Hinduism and by extension in certain forms of yoga that have become popular in the West, such as mantra yoga and transcendental meditation.

Transfer life energy

There were numerous tools that the shaman had at his disposal in times gone by, but also in many current cultures, to be able to tell fortunes, heal people and perform other magical practices. In most shamanic worldviews, life energy (vitality) was considered a spiritual force. A force that as such was in no way perceptible to the senses and that pervaded not only all life (plants, animals and humans) but also matter, from the smallest grain of sand in the desert to the immense rock formations in the highest mountains. Loss of this life force reportedly caused numerous diseases and ultimately death. For the shaman, going into trance meant acquiring the so-called ‘inner glow’, being filled with life energy, which was accompanied by self-heating, or the overflowing of inner heat or life force. In this trance the shaman saw who (relationally) or what made the person ill and he was able to remove the disease from the person in question. However, that power could also be deadly, given its intensity.

Make pain disappear

One of the characteristic gifts of the shaman was that he could, among other things, make the patient’s pain disappear by one of the above methods. One of the assumptions is that the shaman, in a higher state of consciousness, increased his resistance level (immune system), allowing this state to resonate, as it were, in the patient, who was also put into a trance. The endorphins that are then reportedly released are said to have an analgesic and euphoric effect. This view is also the basis of other phenomena, for example that the shaman could walk on glowing coals and even swallow them, or perform other dangerous rituals. The fact that he did not burn his esophagus indicates that the shaman in question may have been a charlatan who used tricks or that his body and mind were not subject to the earthly laws of nature.

Suck diseases from the body

Using magic, the shaman could suck diseases out of the body, which still happens today, such as with Indian tribes in the Amazon basin. The shaman often first went into a trance, dancing around a fire, after which he lay motionless on the ground and during that period undertook a dangerous (flight) journey to dark, transcendental places. He could then fly up along the world tree invisible to ordinary people to the spirit world. Or diving into dizzying depths to haggle with demons and other evil spirits about why his patient was ill and what could be done about it. After getting back to his feet, back from his magical journey, he miraculously sucked the disease out of the body, in the form of a pebble or an insect, poisonous or not. Usually the villagers knew it was a trick, which in most cases the shaman agreed. What mattered was that the disease had been removed in a tangible, visible way and the patient’s self-healing powers were now given space.

Shaman / Source: Natalia Kollegova, Pixabay

Interpreting bones

In addition to the shaman’s drum, the interpretation of bones appeals most to the imagination when it comes to the methods the shaman used. Except that bone interpretation was often used to predict the future by interpreting the position of the bones once they were thrown on the ground. However, a special bone was also used to bewitch and kill people. People suspected of bringing disaster, disease and death. For example, if a child had died during the night from malaria, cot death or other causes, but with which the villagers could not make peace.

Socially undesirable Often the finger was pointed at people who were not in a good place socially or otherwise in the community or with the shaman. In many early shamanic cultures, after ‘demonstrating’ the person’s guilt, the shaman would kill that person from a distance by concentrating on the unfortunate person with bone in hand and wishing him or her death. He used all the trance energy he had, keeping the unfortunate person in front of his eyes for hours. This ritual was often repeated several times during the victim’s sleep. The person concerned would reportedly die within a few days or weeks of a serious illness.

Stress Scientific research was done in 1942 and 1955 by the American scientists WB Cannon and CP Richter. They suggested that the magical death could have resulted from the activation of the autonomic nervous system by fear, suggesting that the victim was aware that the shaman was supposedly targeting him and despair had taken hold of the unfortunate man. , knowing that escape was impossible. The stress this caused would have been too stressful for the heart, circulatory system and parasympathetic nervous system for many people.

False shamans

Becoming a shaman was a calling, partly as a result of a serious life crisis, such as an illness, from which the person in question had emerged stronger because he had looked death in the eye. He reportedly saw the entire gamut of the subterranean, the otherworldly, the human and animal worlds and all their connecting interactions. However, many did not want to respond to that calling as a mediator between gods, demons and humans. Everything in the earlier, close-knit communities was about obtaining or maintaining the favor of the gods, simply to survive as a community. False shamans, those with little success in protecting the community, were singled out, chased from the village and replaced with a better shaman. After all, success as a supernatural intermediary was the most important thing. The false shamans usually wandered around the country and showed their arts, whether true or not, to the gullible.

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