This essay is intended to give a short summary regarding the shamanic tradition which is pertinent to the path of Witchcraft (for further information regarding the path of Witchcraft as discussed on this website view my witchcraft essay. It is my hope that I can shed light into the impact and influence the shamanic tradition has in the practice of witchcraft and folk magic traditions both ancient and contemporary.
Shaman is a word derived from the word saman from the language of the Tungus people of Siberia it means "he who knows" the tungus people being the most studied shamanic tradition by Anthropologists soon gave way to the identifying these practitioners as "shamans" all over the world (with the exception of Africa where the shaman is known as (Witchdoctor) known as Medicine man by Native American People.
Shamanism is the great grandfather of all occult magical traditions in existence today, archeological evidence suggests that as far back as 60,000 years ago ancient Neanderthals demonstrated a belief in an animistic or the spirit world “animism” and belief in an after life as evidenced by an ancient grave in Shanidar Cave in Northern Iraq in which grave goods were found. Animism is the belief that all things have a spirit within them such as stones, trees, animals’ plants and of course Men/Women.
It is from these beginnings that shamanic practice slowly starts to take form; to quote Nevill Drury in his book (The Elements of Shamanism) in his chapter Animism and Beyond while discussing the shamanic vocation he says it best “Shamanism is really applied animism, or animism in practice”. After all, the shaman is the specialist that has the knowledge to travel in between the realm of man and the spirit realms to interface with or manipulate these animate forces. A better description of who or what a shaman is will be given shortly and will conclude with why he/she is so important to the path of witchcraft/folk magic.
A shaman is a person that has the power to see the true nature of disease in his patient/s. He has mediumistic powers (which we will clarify shortly) and can at will enter non ordinary reality which allows the shaman direct one on one access to the realm of the spirits this alternate "non ordinary reality" is the reason he is able to see to the true nature of illness and learns the way to battle the illness. The shaman enters non-ordinary reality via altered states of consciousness, brought on by trance states achieved through drumming, rattles, sweats (sweat lodge ceremonies), ecstatic ritual dance, chanting or in some traditions by drinking entheogenic* brews eating entheogenic fungi (mushrooms), cacti or using entheogenic snuffs, even the venom of certain amphibians and reptiles has been used as an entheogenic ally.
The mediumistic powers of the shaman are not like that of the spiritist medium whose conscious awareness is completely replaced by another entity usually the spirit of a deceased person. In addition the spiritist is no longer consciously aware of his/her actions during such a mediumistic trance serving a passive role while the possessing spirit gives either oracular answers to questions or performs the spiritual healing through the medium.
Whereas the shaman's mediumistic powers are not those of the spiritist medium. Rather his “medium like” powers are expressed through the agency of his power animal and spirit allies/helpers known in traditional European Witchcraft as a familiar. The power animal is a shaman’s guardian spirit the force that protects a shaman from harmful forces and is the principal spirit force that gives the shaman the power to heal or bewitch.
Example of this "mediumistic" power can be observed in the Western Apache Medicine Man that controls rattlesnake power also known as a Rattlesnake Medicine Man.1 During a healing ceremony the Medicine Man will call upon the power of the Rattlesnake to flow through him and help him to heal or remove the disease energy in the afflicted. However during this altered state of consciousness it is the shaman that is actively in control directing the energies of his power animal the Rattlesnake to assist in the curing ceremony. In other words the guardian spirit co-operates with the shaman while in the act of a healing ceremony.
The power animal lives with the shaman throughout his life in fact many shamans will have several power animals. In many cases a shaman's power animal will live within the shaman not unlike an “alter-ego” waiting for its strength to be called upon. In this respect it can be said that the shaman has a spiritually symbiotic relationship with his power animal in fact it is necessary for the shaman to actively dance his/her power animal so that it will not wander far. Apart from the power animal, shamans will have several other kinds of spirit helpers and the way they are acquired varies based on individual shamans and their traditions.
Among The Shuar people of the Amazon also known as the Jivaro a shaman will have various helper spirits which are acquired through their apprenticeship with another shaman these spirits they refer to as "tsentsak" or magical darts his first tsentsak will come from his mentor. Before the apprentice can acquire these spirit helpers he must consume the sacred drink known as "Natema" an entheogenic brew prepared by boiling several plants together mainly a sacred vine Banisteriopsis capi and the leaves and bark of certain plants that are in harmony with this sacred vine. In fact some shamans in other tribes use some of the barks, leaves, or seeds that are brewed along with the sacred vine as entheogenic snuffs.
This potion known, as Natema becomes the main ally of the Jivaro Shaman, as it is the vehicle by which the shaman enters the altered state of consciousness, which allows him access to the spirit world. During the influence of Natema the shaman will be able to see and communicate with his spirit helpers; in addition he will learn the identity of an enemy that may be using sorcery against him or his tribesmen. During his apprenticeship the new shaman will collect plants, insects and other objects that will become his spirit helpers and under the guidance of natema he will again learn the essence and powers of these new spirit helpers. Note I have only mentioned the more positive healing aspects of the shaman, however even among the Jivaro there are two types of shamans The Curing Shaman and the Bewitching Shaman, both rely on the strength of their spirit helpers and the power of Natema to cure or bewitch.2
Although the shamanic traditions of the world vary due to cultural norms, there still exist certain concepts that are central to all shamanic practices. For example: Shamans are not limited to communication with the animal spirits or other spirits of the natural world such as the plant kingdom, they also communicate and work with spirits of deceased people, ancestors and even dead shamans that wish to guide living shamans, in addition they have direct access to communicate one on one with the deities of their culture. For that matter let us not forget that even the elements will communicate with the shaman i.e. the wind, the earth, water, fire.
Our great grandfather shaman and his descendants’ have/had a very close relationship with the world around them. For their roots stem in hunting and gathering societies that have been replaced by a large agricultural society in the contemporary age we live in. Yet the shaman’s power is still with us even though missionaries from the various ecclesiastical cults have done their damage to these ancient cultures it still survives today. Albeit through its direct descendant of witchcraft, which although tainted with ecclesiastical practices pendant of nation and culture. Never the less is folk magic rooted in the ancient roots of the shaman. The Brujo, the Strega, the Conjure man or country witch are all remnants of the shamanic bloodline which demonstrate their shamanic heritage in the way they practice their craft. I will use the Brujo from Mexico’s Witchcraft traditions as my example.
The Brujo must learn to be in harmony with the plant spirits to know their virtue in order that he may prepare a potion to cast his spells or know the virtue of an insect or arachnid to prepare an amulet. In various states of Mexico it has become common to find resin cast scorpions on a key chain or a necklace this is unfortunate because they are of old time tradition as an amulet to protect against evil spirits and protect against misfortune. Unfortunately tourists are unaware of their sacred meaning. These scorpions many times are found inside jars filled with alcohol in many homes, in fact some of my relatives carry on this practice some do so just because they been told it is for good luck, others use the alcohol in folk medicine preparations. It is even used in art such as embroidery and many leather wallets have the scorpion design upon them.
The scorpion is a symbol adopted from the Huichol Tribe of North Central Mexico whom believe that the scorpion spirit although deadly is also an ally that protects the people against evil and misfortune. However as many things have a dual nature so too can the scorpion be used in spells of malice and such practices are utilized by other indigenous groups such as the contemporary descendants of the Nahuatl of Tlaxcala Mexico place scorpions near some ones home.2 to cause misfortune. Truly the contemporary Brujo of Mexico has various sources to draw from in Mexico’s rich cultural heritage.
The Brujo may also prepare a potion from the leaves of the Toloache- Sacred Datura or (Datura inoxia), a very potent albeit dangerous entheogenic ally. The Toloache is used in spells to control someone for love, sex, or just domination among other things. Of course Toloache, has other use besides this in the Brujo’s repertoire of magical tools. The Brujo may also perform conjurations with the spirit of the tobacco a time-honored entheogen, to perform spiritual cleansings for himself or his clients. He can even use the tobacco in spells of control and some forms of love magic. For this work he will use a cigar and while puffing clouds of smoke will make prayers to spirit of the tobacco to help him in whatever is needed.
A Brujo will always have the power of his Nagual.3 ( a guardian spirit or familiar) to give him strength and assist him in his work. From here arose the curious legend of Nagualismo in Mexico as it was believed that these witches would turn into an animal and attack or devour their enemies. In reality the Brujo would transform into his nagual on an astral level and those that saw these creatures more than likely encountered these forces in their dreams. This same Brujo also has contact with the souls of the deceased and can call on their assistance in various matters. In the same sense his limpias (spiritual cleansings) are performed in much the same way as the shamans did before him in Mexico.
Not all Brujos are strictly speaking malevolent sorcerers many as stated will serve both aspects healer and bewitcher. The unfortunate separation of these practices was largely influenced by the mentality of the Missionaries that came to convert the indigenous culture towards Christianity; these monks brought with them the idea of Black Magic versus White Magic. This new idea spawned the Curandero the healer that uses white magic and prays strictly to the Saints of the Catholic church and condemns all that is not Christian and therefore of the Devil. He is supposed to be the counter to the Brujo’s malevolent workings.
Ironically older examples exist of the bewitcher and healer in the older models from the Jivaro Shamans that are either bewitcher or healer. Of course among the Jivaro this is an accepted fact of life. Indeed the old model of the shaman is very evident in the Brujo of contemporary times albeit this Brujo will draw from various influences as opposed to the strict code of one tribe and its customs. Mexico’s rich melting pot of indigenous influences has given the Brujo a vast pool of knowledge to tap into for his works.
Grandfather Shaman’s vocation with all the various aspects of his trade have been filtered down into various systems of magic such as natural magic; which uses herbs, roots, leaves and other natural elements to perform magical spells. Elemental magic which calls upon the powers of the elements in nature to perform magic and gain ones desired result; the practice of Necromancy or working with the souls of the deceased for divination or magical influence of the living. Or Religious Ritual or Deific Magic which call on the deities to help with the affairs of life.4.
Natural magic being the most predominant form of folk magical practice tends to filter into other systems of magic like that of Necromancy, or Deific Magic, which will use herbs or resins of the natural world to make its system more effective. Many an herb is powerful in attracting the souls of the dead, as are some herbs sacred and connected to certain deities. Again the shaman learned the properties of many of these plants while in shamanic trance linking to the spirit of a chosen plant. In addition so to does the Natural Magician or Witch link their consciousness with the plant or other natural material to know its virtues and learn to put it to use in their work.
To conclude this essay; in the Brujo we see a perfect modeled descendant, of the ancient shaman whom stays close to the old principles by which his grandfather shaman lived. It is very important for those of us that practice witchcraft in the various traditions to take notes from the ancient shaman. To learn the core concepts of shamanism and integrate its practice into our own will greatly enhance our growth as Magicians and Witches giving us direct accesses to the forces that we seek to manipulate. Shamanism is truly very crucial to our growth as witches, perhaps this essay has given you readers out there incentive to study the shamanic magic path.