Have you ever wondered about real shamanism? If you read this blog, chances are “shaman” is a term you come across multiple times every single day, and its meaning is likely pretty solidly confined to the caster/melee hybrid class in World of Warcraft, known for its totems, mail armor and distinctive spells such as Chain Heal. But is there a reason for this paraphernalia that we accept as normal? What is shamanism actually about in the “real world”, and does the answer hold any resources for understanding our class better?
The purpose of this entry is simply to be an interesting weekend read for WoW players, not an in-depth study of the techniques or merits of primal religious practices. If you happen to know anything about shamanism you’ll know that I can’t possibly adequately address the topic in a half hour blog post, so please don’t get angry with me when I don’t. OK? Cool.
The word “shaman”
Did you know that the word “shaman” is kind of a sticky subject amongst those to whom it’s actually applied? It came into English through anthropologists studying the Tungus Siberian people, who had a word saman that described a particular kind of spiritual practitioner. Western folks being who we are, we took the word and applied it liberally to anything that seemed similar whereever we found it in the world. Calling Native American religion shamanistic, for example, is like calling a Scottish person English, or a different brand-name tissue a Kleenex: while it might be a helpful association for those of us who are outsiders, it can seem rather misleading and inaccurate to the folks who are having the term applied to themselves.
Given the above you might understand why it’s hard to define shamanism here on Earth; the term is used to describe so many different and specific practices all around the world that to narrow it down is quite daunting. So be aware that I’m talking in general terms from the point of view of a WoW player rather than a religious anthropologist.
Incidentally, because “shaman” is a loan-word in English, the proper plural is “shamans” and not “shaman” or “shamen”.
What is a shaman?
A shaman is a wise person, a spiritual practitioner, whose skill and art lies in the ability to commune with the spirit world. Shamanism is essentially an animistic practice – that is, connected to the belief that the entire world is alive with spiritual reality. Human beings, animals, plants, even the earth and sky itself can have spirits associated with them – not in a dualistic sense, but as an integrated part of the reality of things. That is to say, a goat is as much the spirit of a goat as it is the body of the goat – there is no ontological divide.
Shamans are revered or reviled for their ability to connect to this world, to see this part of reality in a way others cannot, and to use this ability to affect the lives of their tribe. Shamanism is deeply local; a shaman is concerned with the reality of life where he or she lives, the spirits of his or her surroundings and tribe, rather than with a universal principle or system.
Actually, shamans tend to be sort of odd-job people, the sort of person you go to if you have a miscellaneous problem not covered by any of the other specialists. You might go to a shaman for healing, asking them to call back your wandering soul, or you could go to ask for success in the hunt by invoking the spirits of the animals you are hunting.
The reviled shaman
In many cultures, shamans are not the sort of people you want to be around. They’re seen as necessary and inescapable, but unsavoury, dangerous, strange. Their perceived power and mysterious arts make them uncomfortable members of the community and they may even have to carry out their work in near secrecy. This is not the case in all cultures, and in many places shamans are respected and beloved pillars of the community.
But even then, you generally don’t choose to be a shaman; shamanism chooses you. You may be compelled to become a shaman because you are “gifted” (or cursed!) with a proclivity for the spiritual. Or you may have a “crisis experience” that functions as a “call” to shamanism – possibly a serious illness or an involuntary trance experience deemed to be the pull of the spirits. You take on the role as a service to your people because you have almost no choice in the matter: the spirits have chosen you to be a mediator and that is that.
One thing that I find fascinating about some forms of shamanism is that they are held up as healers precisely because they themselves have been ill; they are the diseased doctors, the wounded healers, the cursed decursers. The shaman can deal with your problem because he or she has known its despair themselves; they can heal your disease because they have been afflicted with disease too. There is an empathetic or expiative nature to shamanic healing, where the shaman essentially shares in their peoples’ experience of suffering in order to alleviate it. And frequently the techniques used to deal with problems involve the shaman undertaking a journey into the world of the spirits, a task fraught with danger and never trivial or routine.
Spirits or elements?
The idea of shamans as masters or mediators of the elements is sort of an odd one, as earthly shamans are concerned with spirits rather than elements – and usually the important spirits are represented by or embodied by animals rather than “stuff” like earth or water. Azerothian (well, and Draenorian) shamans get their power by communing with the elemental “spirits”, but the focus is on the elemental more than the spiritual. In fact, the whole elemental thing is more of an Ancient Greek/Ancient Near Eastern phenomenon than a genuinely shamanistic idea – though spirits of the sky (especially the sky), earth, water etc are very important in many forms of shamanism.
That said, there are a lot of words associated with WoW shamans’ talent trees and spellbooks which are at least vaguely familiar, such as the focus on ancestors and astral planes, the idea that everything has an “essential” or “spiritual” nature, or the general sense of closeness to and respect for nature and the wider world.
Update: A commenter informs me that some shamans are “said to be able to work with the weather”, which does tie in with a lot of WoW shaman concepts.
And totems… well, that’s a whole ‘nother story.
I’ve no idea if this sort of thing is interesting to readers of this blog. Is it? Would folks like me to do similar mini-features on totemism, taboo and mana in future weeks or should I just stick firmly to Azerothian concepts? Please do let me know in the comments. At any rate, I hope this has been an interesting read.
I would have used more pictures but sadly there aren’t many good quality non-copyrighted images of shamans around the webz.