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The History Of Shamanism Theology Religion Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Theology
Wordcount: 2458 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Shamanism is a huge factor in most traditional religions, some of which include the Africans, Native Americans, many parts of Asia, as well as other cultures. Although the definition of a shaman differs from one region to the next, the general dictionary definition of a shaman is “A member of certain tribal societies who acts as a medium between the visible world and an invisible spirit world and who practices magic or sorcery for purposes of healing, divination, and control over natural events.” The term “shaman” originated in the Mongol and Turkish area and is translated literally as “one who knows” which connects to their knowledge of the ways to manipulate spirits and magic. With Shamanism being involved in so many different cultures, it’s difficult to give it just one definition, so in this paper I will go through a few of the cultures and explain their specific definition of shamanism and the different aspects involved in African traditional religions.

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African Shamanism

There are many different aspects to African shamanism. The main definition of shamanism in Africa has a good connotation and usually involves manipulation of spirits or earthly substances to heal, direct, or do beneficial work for others. Some of the specific names of these shamans are rainmakers or heaven herders, herbalists or medicine men, and diviners. Not all people use their sources for good works, and when a shaman begins using his or her techniques for evil doings, they then acquire the name of witch or sorcerer. Such is the case in most other cultures as well.

There are two distinctive traditional religions in Africa-Zulu and Yoruba. They have many similarities as well as differences. The Zulu stick mostly to the hills because of their geographical location, and in turn consider hills to have spiritual significance. Because hills have such special meaning, the Zulu build their towns, or kraals, on the hillsides in a circular formation with the gates facing east (do to significance of the sun), the herd in the center of the kraal, and the headman, known as the umnumzane, is on the west side of the kraal. The umnumzane has a lot of influence on the tribe. He holds the political, social and religious leader roles over the whole tribe, and is often a diviner.

“The headman of each Zulu kraal is the chief official of the village and also that person most directly responsible for the performance of the ritual acts expected of all Zulu, especially those that address the ancestors.” [1] Besides solving disputes or making decisions within his kraal, one of the umnumzane’s main roles is contact with the ancestors. He will perform all the rituals and such things to please the ancestors for everyone within his kraal. The ancestors play a huge part in Zulu beliefs and so the role of the umnumzane is very important. The people want to keep the ancestors happy so that they will continue to have good fortune in their lives. According to most African traditional religions, the ancestors do not cause misfortune, but other people do.

The authority system is quite similar in the Yoruba tribes. Their political, social and religious leader is one and the same, but rather than having a settlement on a hillside where the rituals involve all of the community under one leader, the religious obligations are put on the head of the family, or the olori ebi, and that person does the communication with the ancestors, and keeps them happy and such. Each family has it’s own shrine. The community still gets together as a whole to perform religious ceremonies, but it is more focused on the family.

Divination is used to determine solutions to problems, to depict reasons of misfortune, or even to predict the future. In the Zulu culture, diviners must be called by means of a dream or vision that is followed by aches, pains, or other bodily dysfunctions. Anyone can become a diviner, although typically women occupy the position. Once called, the person will need to be trained by an experienced diviner. The Yoruba are a bit different with their diviner. They have a priestly cast, and one part of the caste called the Orunmila specifically use divination practices to contact one particular god for answers. Like the Zulu though, the one that will become a diviner will go through extensive training from an experienced diviner.

Diviners in both circumstances have many means of doing their work. They can use elements such as water, fire, bones, sticks, etc. to find their answers, and with these objects, they have created means of interpreting the signs from each. In some circumstances, the diviners will allow themselves to be in a trance that allows them to communicate with the spirits, or even be possessed by the spirits in order to find the answers for their clients, but typically the diviners are the ones manipulating the spirits and getting their knowledge rather than being used by the spirits. Once people have determined what their problem is from the diviner, they then go to a herbalist for a remedy. Herbalists could easily be translated to doctors and serve the same role in both the Zulu and Yoruba. They were trained to know well which herbs or remedies worked for the different circumstances. Part of the traditional religions is that spirits live in many of the nature elements, and so herbalists used this theology in their works as well. They would use certain plants or locations because of the spiritual elements involved, and would manipulate the spirits in such a way to cure their client. “Whereas most diviners are women, most herbalists are men. Knowledge of medicine is usually handed down from father to son.” [2] Along with the passed on knowledge, herbalists were always open to new information. This includes realistic information, as well as spiritual insights.

Another form of spirit manipulation in the Zulu is the izinyanga ezulu, or “heaven herders.” Heaven herders are always men, and have to be called in some way by the Sky God. Their job is to control where storms and such go. They are said to be disciples of the Sky God, as well as a medium between the people and the Sky God. With cattle and agriculture being a huge part of the Zulu culture, it makes sense that the sky is handled as cattle are, and that the weather needs to be controlled for the sake of those who own raise crops to feed the people. The Yoruba hold no such position, although they do also worship a similar god with their priestly cast.

“They (diviners) are not the only supernaturally inspired helpers people turn to for advice. Many consuld mediums who communicate with spirits while in a trance. Some may be possessed only once or twice in their lifetime, but others claim to be in regular contact with one or more ‘familiars’ that they can identify by name.” [3] The Yoruba called these people elegun. Among the Zulu, only the diviner could do such, but the with the Yoruba, anyone could be used as a medium; they did not need to be a diviner.

The Yoruba also have people that are called the egungun. The egungun are masked dancers that perform for the ancestors. They have special masks that are connected spiritually to the ancestors and are said to have great power. Only men are allowed to be egungun, with the exception of one woman, who is the director or dresser. One has to earn the title of egungun by going through a certain process.

While most of those positions are very open to the public and or the good of the community, some people misuse their abilities. Such people are called witches or sorcerers. Since the peoples believe that the spirits do not cause any harm, all bad things are supposedly a result from witches and sorcerers. According to the Zulu, someone could be a witch without realizing it. Their very presence would bring misfortune to those around them. In most cases though, in both the Zulu and the Yoruba, the witches are shaman that use their talents for evil. They twist the system from using their powers mischievously. They work secretively, and usually only at nights.

Although trying to differentiate between witches and sorcerers is difficult, there are a few small means of differing them. Sorcerers tend to work alone where as witches will gather together at night and work as a team. Another supposed trait of sorcerers is the ability to shape-shift. There one story of sorcerer luring a woman to fall in love with him. He offered to marry her, and on their trip back to his village the stopped for the night. During the night he transformed into a lion in order to eat her. Luckily for her, her brother did not trust the man and followed them, and proceeded to protect his sister from being eaten. Other stories tell of sorcerers taking on the form of an owl for means of escaping their house silently and unknowingly. Another supposed trait of sorcerers is their ability to use the undead. They can kill a person using their black magic, and then use the person’s dead body for their own use.

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Witches are most often depicted as using voodoo, charms and curses. Voodoo involves acquiring a part of someone, such as a hair, nail, or something of the sort, and it is added to a certain object that the witch makes. The part of the person connects them to the witches object, and the witch is able to toy with the person in this way. Charms could be an object that has been chanted over and “charged” with magic. A charm could be a piece of paper with a chant written on it that could be worn, or a charm could simply be a chant itself used in moments of needed protection or other. Most often, people would get charms to protect themselves from witches’ curses. The last main thing that witches use is curses. Curses, hexes, spells, or whatever you may call them, have been a worry of average people for longer than history can tell. Often it is a chant said with emotion over a person to bring misfortune on them. They can be spoken in an unknown language, which is said to have more impact on the target.

Native American Shamanism

Native American shamanism is similar in a lot of ways, as well as different in a lot of ways. Shamans are viewed in a good way, where their work is for the better of the community. “Each nation had spiritual leaders and healers… each one had different beliefs of what practices were done. The Lakota believed that their spiritual leaders were in constant communication with Wakan Tanka or The Great Spirit. Their role was to seek spiritual enlightenment and secure the tribe’s good graces with the spirit world. They were healers of the mind and body.” [4] They have healers-which is the same idea as herbalists-diviners, and mediators, as well as witchcraft. Native Americans have strong ties with animals though.

To the Native Americans, the medicine men are not so much magical in their works, but they are knowledgeable people who have a greater understanding and like to think. Their natural abilities make them suitable to be medicine men. Medicine men more frequently appeared in tribes that were able to be open and exchange thoughts and knowledge with other tribes. Most often fathers would pass down knowledge to their sons and so the title stayed within the family that way.

The Native American divination practices differed from that of the Africans. They often used stars, and things of nature to determine the answers that were sought. Sometimes they would use a pipe, and the answers would come through their opened mind from the smoke. They still used divination in the same way as the Africans, so use the spirits to find answers for their clients.

Witchcraft, although not the technical title, in the Native American tribes had a much different feel though. Rather than voodoo and curses, the Native American bad shamans worked with charms and animals. The charms again were certain made objects that had been charged with power, and were used to protect the person from evil and misfortune.

The Native Americans had an interesting relationship with animals. “A power animal protects you physically and provides you with emotional support, wisdom, and vital energy. Some people think a power animal is a spirit being that stays with you because it cares for you and enjoys being able to experience life in a physical body. Others think a power animal is a symbol for one’s subconscious wisdom. Almost everybody has a power animal; some have several. (Perhaps you had an “invisible animal friend” as a child or have always been fascinated with a particular kind of animal. This animal may be your power animal.) A person may in the course of life lose contact with the power animal, thereby losing the animal’s protection, wisdom, and energy. If you lose contact with your power animal, you may feel dispirited, you may become sick easily, or you may be accident-prone. The shamanic healing technique of power animal retrieval can restore a person’s connection to a power animal. A person can also journey to find his or her own power animal.” [5] With this emphasis on animals, often the bad shamans could be connected shape-shifters that caused issues.

The main evil in Native American beliefs was evil spirits. With a belief in the ancestor spirits and animism, the Native Americans had to always keep all the spirits happy, and misfortune was often cause by spirits, thus the need for protective charms and shared power of animal spirits.


Despite having minimal contact between these 2 cultures, it is surprising that they share such similar roles. On the other hand, this shows the nature of humans over all with paranoia of spirits and bad luck, as well as the respect for ancestors. Shamanism is a big part of both cultures, and has many different aspects to it.


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