Shamanism has a long and storied history, considered by some to have originated in Siberia where members of indigenous tribes would gather the sometimes poisonous and highly psychoactive fly agaric or Amanita muscaria mushroom. But when this practice was recognized and classified as shamanism, it became apparent many cultures around the world conducted similar practices.
It might just be the oldest spiritual practice in the world – one that is not necessarily based on faith in a particular god, but rather based on animism, the belief that everything is living and has a spirit. Shamanism has persisted all over the world since its inception in ancient native cultures, including Siberian, Indian, Native American, and South American Shamans. Shamanism has had to fight oppression from governments and religions worldwide that perceive it to be a manic and primitive tradition. But its mysticism and continued practice remain strong throughout disparate tribal cultures, many of which had little to no contact for centuries, despite their very similar traditions, beliefs, and rituals. So what is shamanism? Shamanism is thought to be the key to existence — as long as shamanic rituals are practiced we will continue to exist. Shamans are a link between our plane and higher planes of existence. They link to the spirit world in order to heal, contact deceased ancestors, influence the weather, and uplift consciousness.
Duties of the Shaman
A shaman is concerned with the health and well being of the entire community, not any one individual or privileged group, and this extends to all plants, animals, and the whole environment. Shamans traverse the spirit worlds by inducing an ecstatic state, which leads to states of trance and spiritual, or sometimes physical, transformations. This state is achieved through different methods, depending on the traditions of the particular culture. North American shamans, like those in Native American tribes, are known to induce an ecstatic state through deprivation techniques like fasting and isolation. South American and Siberian shamans are known to use hallucinogens and intoxicants to induce the ecstatic state, including mushrooms, peyote, Ayahuasca, or alcohol.
South American Shamans
South American shamans, located primarily in the Amazon, are chief-like figures in their tribes. The South American shaman is associated closely with jaguars and often the word used for a shaman is similar to the word for jaguar. Shamans are thought to be able to transform into jaguars at will, and jaguars are thought of as not actual animals, but either a transformed shaman or the soul of a deceased shaman moving through the physical realm. Disparate tribes with little to no interaction have almost universally associated shamans with jaguars and believe in this ability to transform. Many South American shamans perform Ayahuasca ceremonies in order to invoke the ecstatic state by creating a tea from the Banisteriopsis caapi plant, often referred to as yagé. This plant contains the psychoactive compound DMT, which produces one of the most intense psychedelic experiences known to man. Consumed alone, the DMT in Banisteriopsis caapi is negated by an enzyme in the stomach known as monoamine oxidase. That’s why yagé is mixed with another plant containing an MAOI, or monoamine oxidase inhibitor, the same compound contained in many antidepressants. How shamans knew to mix these two particular plants out of the seemingly infinite possible combinations of the 40,000 different plant variants in the rainforest is a bit of a mystery. But if you ask them, they’ll tell you the plants themselves told them. Shamans administer this compound to seekers and often take it themselves to connect to the spirit world. Other shamans in South America use the psychoactive mescaline from Peyote, San Pedro, and other cacti to induce the shamanic state.