Towards a New Model of Shamanism

Towards a New Model of Shamanism

by Michael Berman

Existing models of shamanism have tended to focus upon particular skills or states of consciousness exhibited by shamans and are therefore framed with reference to outcomes, rather than by attending to the processes of development leading to them. David Gordon Wilson, New College, Edinburgh in his paper “Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans: Towards an Apprenticeship Model of Shamanic Practice,” (BASR Conference 2010) proposes an apprenticeship model as the basis of a new definition of shamanism. This, he argues, offers a distinctive, clearly-structured approach to understanding the acquisition and nature of shamanic skills, without being unduly prescriptive as to which particular shamanic skills should be anticipated in any given cultural setting. Not all shamans, however, necessarily accept apprentices – the nayogh [which translates as “people who are looking”] in Armenia today certainly do not, to give but one example. This is because it is believed that a person can only become a nayogh if they receive a calling, and not by becoming an apprentice to one. They will, however, sometimes pass on prayers that they use, though only through a member of the opposite sex. So if a married woman wanted a prayer, for example, it would be given to her husband by the nayogh to be passed on to her. Therefore, unless the apprenticeship can be regarded as taking place through what might consist of nothing more than a single vision, using such a model to describe the acquisition of all shamanic skills would not seem to be particularly helpful.

Another problem that arises when attempting to arrive at a satisfactory definition which can encompass all the different forms of shamanism is that in some cultures each practitioner develops his or her own approach to healing, which may include going into a genuine trance state, going into an imitative trance state, a demonstration of tricks, or a mixture of all three practices. And once again, this applies to the Armenian nayogh. So any definition of what being a shaman entails clearly needs to take such differences into account too. The following definition is therefore proposed:

A shaman is someone who performs an ecstatic (in a trance state), imitative, or demonstrative ritual of a séance (or a combination of all three), at will (in other words, whenever he or she chooses to do so), in which aid is sought from beings in (what are considered to be) other realities generally for healing purposes or for divination-both for individuals and / or the community.

As for the practice of shamanism, it is understood to encompass a personalistic view of the world, in which life is seen to be not only about beliefs and practices, but also about relationships-how we are related, and how we relate to each other. In shamanism the notion of interdependence “is the idea of the kinship of all life, the recognition that nothing can exist in and of itself without being in relationship to other things, and therefore that it is insane for us to consider ourselves as essentially unrelated parts of the whole Earth” (Halifax in Nicholson, 1987, p.220). And we now have proof of our interdependence:

[I]t has been shown that during mystical ecstasy (or its equivalent, entheogenic shamanic states [states induced by ingesting hallucinogens]), the individual experiences a blurring of the boundaries on the ego and feels at “one with Nature”; the ego is no longer confined within the body, but extends outward to all of Nature; other living beings come to share in the ego, as an authentic communion with the environment, which is sensed as in some way divine (Ruck, Staples, et al., 2007, p.76).

Further justification for the belief that all life is connected can be found in the fact that the elementary particles that make up all matter, by their gravitational, electromagnetic or nuclear field, are coextensive with the whole universe, and as man is composed of these particles, he must therefore be in union with the entire cosmos.

The phrase “a religion of ritual observance” has been used in particular to describe Shinto-“a religion not of theology but of ritual observance” (Driver, 1991, p.38).
However, other religions, apart from Shinto, could also be listed under this heading, Wicca for example. As in the case of Shinto, there is no one bible or prayer book in Wicca and the primary concern is not ethics, dogma, or theology. Rather, it is a religion of ritual practice. These practices include marking eight holiday “sabbats” in the “wheel of the year”, falling on the solstices, equinoxes and the four “cross quarter days” on or about the first of February, May, August and November. Many Wiccans also mark “esbats,” rituals for worship in accordance with a given moon phase (such as the night of the full moon). The same clearly applies to shamanism too.

Additionally, shamanism can be seen to be a kinship-based religion, in which kinship is not only understood to involve extended family links between members, but also, in the case of neo-shamanism, links between people who regard themselves as members of a particular community – neo-shamanic practitioners who regularly participate in a drumming group, for example. To complicate matters even further, though, there are also those who choose to work entirely on their own.

So what we are in effect dealing with is a kinship-based religion of ritual observance that in different cultures takes on different forms, and one that can even take on a variety of different forms within the same culture, as is the case in present-day Armenia.  And the definition being proposed here, unlike one based on an apprenticeship model or one that requires the shaman to perform an ecstatic ritual of a séance, has the advantage of being a comprehensive one; for it not only embraces all the forms of shamanism that have been practised, but also all the forms of shamanism that are being practised today.


Berman, M. (2007) The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. (For the definition of Shamanism)

Berman, M, (2010) Guided Visualisations through the Caucasus, Pendraig Publishing. (For the information on neo-paganism in Armenia)

Driver, T.F. (1991) The Magic of Ritual, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Halifax, J. (1987) “Shamanism, Mind, and No Self” in Nicholson, S. (comp.) Shamanism: An Expanded View of Reality, Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Ruck, Carl A.P., Staples, B.D., Celdran J.A.G., Hoffman, M.A. (2007) The Hidden World: Survival of Pagan Shamanic Themes in European Fairytales, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.
Michael Berman works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus for O-Books, and All God’s Creatures: Stories Old and New for Pendraig Publishing. To and from the Land of the Dead, his latest work, is due to be published by Lear books in 2011. For more information please visit

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