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Neoshamanism refers to a "new"' form of what adherents call "shamanism", a modern system of seeking visions or healing. Neoshamanism comprises an eclectic range of beliefs and practices that involve attempts to attain altered states and communicate with a spirit world.[1] Neoshamanic systems may bear no resemblance to traditional forms of shamanism, and may be wholly invented by individual practitioners, though many rely heavily on cultural appropriation from a variety of different Indigenous cultures.[2][3]

The word "shaman" originates from the Evenki word "šamán".[4] The Tungusic term was subsequently adopted by Russians interacting with the indigenous peoples in Siberia,[5] and then applied very broadly by western anthropologists to many, diverse spiritual systems that share some kind of practice of calling upon, and mediating with, spirit beings.

Neoshamanism is not a single, cohesive belief system, but a collective term for many philosophies and activities. However, certain generalities may be drawn between adherents. Most believe in spirits and pursue contact with the "spirit-world" in altered states of consciousness which they achieve through drumming, dance, or the use of entheogens. Most systems might be described as existing somewhere on the animism/pantheism spectrum.[6] Most neoshamans were not trained by any traditional indigenous shaman, but rather base their practice upon books and self-experimentation. Many patronise New Age workshops and retreats.[2][3]

Many members of traditional, indigenous cultures and religions are critical of neoshamanism, asserting that it relies heavily on cultural appropriation, or that it is an excuse by fraudulent spiritual leaders to cover up fabricated, ignorant and/or unsafe elements in their ceremonies.[7][8] According to York (2001) one difference between neoshamanism and traditional shamanism is the role of fear.[9] Neoshamanism and its New Age relations tend to dismiss the existence of evil, fear, and failure. "In traditional shamanism, the shaman’s initiation is an ordeal involving pain, hardship and terror. New Age, by contrast is a religious perspective that denies the ultimately [sic] reality of the negative, and this would devalue the role of fear as well."[10]

The 2011 United Kingdom census made it possible to write in a description of one's own choosing for "Religion". The figures for England and Wales show that from just over 80,000 people self-identifying as Pagan, 650 wrote in the description "Shamanism".[11]

Core Shamanism[edit]

"Core Shamanism," which formed the foundations for most contemporary neoshamanism, is a system of practices synthesized, invented and promoted by Michael Harner in the 1980s, based on his readings of non-Native, anthropological texts about Indigenous peoples in the Americas, primarily the Plains Indians.[1] Harner, a non-Native, asserted that the ways of several North American tribes share "core" elements with those of the Siberian Shamans.[2][3][1] This misappellation led to many non-Natives assuming Harner's inventions were traditional Indigenous ceremonies.[2] However, the peoples of these tribes assert that Harner's creation is not in any way an accurate reproduction of their ceremonies, beliefs or practices,[2][3] nor do they call their spiritual leaders "shamans".[2][12]

Harner professes to describe common elements of "shamanic" practice found among Indigenous people world-wide, having stripped those elements of specific cultural content so as to render them "accessible" to contemporary Western spiritual-seekers.[13] Harner also founded the Foundation for Shamanic Studies which claims to aid Indigenous people preserve or even re-discover their own spiritual knowledge.[14]

Core shamanism does not hold a fixed belief system, but instead focuses on the practice of "shamanic journeying" and may also rely on the novels of Carlos Castaneda. Specific practices include the use of rapid drumming in an attempt to attain "the shamanic state of consciousness," ritual dance, and attempted communication with animal tutelary spirits, called "power animals" by Harner."[15]

Power animals[edit]

"Power animal" is a broad animistic and neoshamanic concept that was introduced into the English language in 1980 by Michael Harner in The Way of the Shaman.[15] In Harner's view, power animals are much like the familiar spirits of European occultism, which aid the occultist in their metaphysical work.[15]

The use of this term has been incorporated into the New Age movement, where it is often mistaken for being the same as a totem in some Indigenous cultures.[3] The concept has also entered popular culture in various forms, such as in the 1999 film (and earlier novel) Fight Club, when the narrator attends a cancer support group. During a creative visualization exercise, he is told to see himself entering a cave where he will meet his power animal. When he does, he imagines a penguin is speaking to him.[16]


Critics Daniel C. Noel and Robert J. Wallis see Harner's teachings as based on cultural appropriation and a misrepresentation of the various cultures he claims to have been inspired by.[17] Geary Hobson sees the New Age use of the term "shamanism" as a cultural appropriation of Native American culture by white people who have distanced themselves from their own history.[2] Critics believe Harner's work, in particular, laid the foundations for massive exploitation of Indigenous cultures by "plastic shamans" and other cultural appropriators.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Harner, Michael The Way of the Shaman. 1980, new edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, ISBN 0-06-250373-1
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Hobson, G. "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism." in: Hobson, Gary, ed. The Remembered Earth. Albuquerque, NM: Red Earth Press; 1978: 100-108.
  3. ^ a b c d e Aldred, Lisa, "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality" in: The American Indian Quarterly issn.24.3 (2000) pp.329-352. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  4. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1964, reprint 2004) Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. p. 4.
  5. ^ Hutton, Ronald (2001). Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. London and New York: Hambledon and London. p. vii.
  6. ^ Karlsson, Thomas (2002). Uthark - Nightside of the Runes. Ouroboros. ISBN 91-974102-1-7. 
  7. ^ Hagan, Helene E. (September 1992). "The Plastic Medicine People Circle". Sonoma County Free Press. 
  8. ^ Hobson, G. (1978). The Remembered Earth. Red Earth Press. 
  9. ^ Shaman on the Stage (Shamanism and Northern Identity) by Tatyana Bulgakova
  10. ^ York, Michael. "The Role of Fear in Traditional and Contemporary Shamanism". Bath Spa University College. Retrieved 23 January 2012. 
  11. ^ Office for National Statistics, 11 December 2012, 2011 Census, Key Statistics for Local Authorities in England and Wales. Accessed 12 December 2012.
  12. ^ May, James (18 Feb 2002). "Man claiming to be Northern Cheyenne "Shaman" convicted on eight felony counts". Indian Country Today Media Network. : "A letter from the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council obtained by Indian Country Today and signed by three tribal council members, said that Cagle is in no way associated with the tribe...The letter further stated that the Northern Cheyenne do not use the term "shaman" when referring to their religious leaders"
  13. ^ The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. "Michael Harner Biography". The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Retrieved 10 September 2015. 
  14. ^ The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. "About the Foundation for Shamanic Studies". The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Retrieved 10 September 2015. 
  15. ^ a b c Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. HarperCollins, New York, 1980, pp. 57-72, 76-103.
  16. ^ Palahniuk, Chuck (1996) Fight Club. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03976-5
  17. ^ a b Noel, Daniel C. (1997) Soul Of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities.Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-1081-2

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