What is Shamanism? - The Art of World Building
Mar 012021
 
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In shamanism, the shaman communicates with spirits or other beings believed to be in another plane of existence, one that intersects with ours. It often involves an altered state of consciousness achieved through meditation, trace, or hallucinogenic drugs. In SF, we might choose to inject something or more advanced technology such as direct brain stimulation or implants, but in less technological settings, we’re likely using liquids (drinks), solids (food), gas (to be inhaled), meditation and ritual, or a combination. Shamans experience dreams or visions that have messages, but they can also physically, or more commonly, spiritually enter a spiritual realm. A shaman may also try to bring energies from the spirit world into his own. That there can be benevolent and malevolent spirits adds danger and unpredictability to shamanism.

Within a culture or village, different shamans can exist, specializing in specific functions. We can divide these as we wish. Some functions include healing, communicating, fortune-telling, leading souls to their rightful afterlife place, or keeping traditions alive by knowing and relating stories that teach, instruct, and bring the community together. Reasons for such divisions can include the difficulty or danger inherent in certain tasks. Perhaps a younger and physically stronger shaman should do certain things, or if a shaman dies performing a function, only some of their knowledge dies with them because other shamans perform other duties. Another shaman can always contact them in the afterlife for that information, assuming another can do it.

To become a shaman, someone is expected to become so sick as to risk death, and possibly die, before returning to life. This will assist their later ability to access the afterlife/underworld. The thought is that, to understand sickness and heal others from all ailments, they must have experienced something as severe first. It should come as no surprise that some would-be shamans don’t survive this. Others might be scarred physically or another way from the ordeal, though being of sound-mind and not having “a demon” would be required; if they haven’t healed their mind/soul from the ordeal, how can they do so for others?

A spirit guide may help a shaman, who can acquire more than one. These acts as guides, messengers, or protectors. As world builders, we can choose the form and power a guide may take, including animals of our invention. These spirit guides can lend strength to the shaman on his journey and even provide the power needed to enter the spirit realm. The guide’s form, such as a duck, is sometimes chosen as one that is comfortable both below and above water (including flying), which symbolizes the ability to navigate both the normal world and underworld.

Goals

The goals of shamanism vary but include:

  • Communication
  • Divination
  • Bringing otherworldly forces into ours
  • Healing

Communication with the undead allows access to what ancestors knew when alive or knowledge that they gained in the afterlife. This trope gives our characters another way to learn something about the world or current situations (in other places or the earthly one). Whether that intel, or the person providing it, can be trusted is another matter, and this creates another storytelling dynamic.

Divination, the practice of gaining knowledge of the future, can come through visions or direct interaction with spirits who may know, or claim to know, what is to come. When ancestors are contacted, a presumption of truth telling and well-wishing toward the living may give confidence in the answer. This will still depend on the ancestor contacted, for as we all know, not everyone gets along.

Bringing forces from another realm into ours requires more power, experience, possibly training, and maybe a stronger connection to the ancestors, possibly through increased interaction as a shaman; this is unlikely to be a task for a novice. A willing force is much different from an unwilling one. Either may require compensation.

Healing via shamanism is an alternative to supernatural healing by priests. Perhaps the latter invokes the [consistent] power of gods while shamans invoke the unpredictable, potentially evil power of spirits, who might exact a price from healer or healed. Moreover, if an ailment is considered to arise from one’s soul, that’s the kind of illness that shamanism is thought to heal, as opposed to a physical matter. In a world where wandering spirits (or something else like a weapon) can cause supernatural damage, perhaps such a wound is on one’s spirit in a literal sense, not just the figurative.

The latter means someone has “a demon” that causes bad behavior. For example, a trauma in childhood could create a demon that leads to alcoholism. The demon is a metaphor, not something literal, though in SF and fantasy, we often make it so. Similarly, we may say their spirit is wounded. Thus, on Earth, a shaman attempts to heal this figurative wound. Or in our invented world, it’s a literal wound, maybe one that doesn’t respond to other means of healing.

This conjures a philosophical debate for figurative wounds of the spirit. Is it better for an external source, like a shaman, to fix us, or should we self-heal, possibly by forming a better understanding of ourselves and our psychology, growing as a person and overcoming our demon without such outside assistance? The former offers a quick and easy fix for the wounded. Where would modern psychology be today if shamans could wave their metaphorical magic wand and my demons, and yours, could be vanquished so that I’m just a happy, productive member of society instead of argumentative, boozing, and generally screwing up my life because a demon haunts me? Am I stronger because I grew as a person, the hard way? Yes. Am I stronger because a shaman “fixed” me the easy way? Not really. I only lost a problem that made me weaker.

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