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Neoshamanism refers to new forms of shamanism. It usually means shamanism practiced by Western people as a type of New Age spirituality, without a connection to traditional shamanic societies.[1] It is sometimes also used for modern shamanic rituals and practices which, although they have some connection to the traditional societies in which they originated, have been adapted somehow to modern circumstances. This can include "shamanic" rituals performed as an exhibition, either on stage or for shamanic tourism,[2][1] as well as modern derivations of traditional systems that incorporate new technology and worldviews.[3]


Antiquarians such as John Dee may have practiced forerunner forms of neoshamanism.[4] The origin of neoshamanic movements has been traced to the second half of the twentieth century, especially to counterculture movements and post-modernism.[1] Three writers in particular are seen as promoting and spreading ideas related to shamanism and neoshamanism: Mircea Eliade, Carlos Castaneda, and Michael Harner.[1]

In 1951, Mircea Eliade popularized the idea of the shaman with the publication of Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. In it, he wrote that shamanism represented a kind of universal, primordial religion, with a journey to the spirit world as a defining characteristic.[5][1] However, Eliade's work was severely criticized in academic circles, with anthropologists such as Alice Beck Kehoe arguing that the term "shamanism" should not be used to refer to anything except the Siberian Tungus people who use the word to refer to themselves.[1] Despite the academic criticism, Eliade's work was nonetheless a critical part of the neoshamanism developed by Castaneda and Harner.[1]

In 1968, Carlos Castaneda published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge,[1] which he said was a research log describing his apprenticeship with a traditional "Man of Knowledge" identified as don Juan Matus, allegedly a Yaqui Indian from northern Mexico.[6] Doubts existed about the veracity of Castaneda's work from the time of their publication, and the Teaching of Don Juan, along with Castaneda's subsequent works, are now widely regarded as works of fiction.[7] Although Castaneda's works have been extensively debunked, they nevertheless brought "...what he considered (nearly) universal traditional shamanic elements into an acultural package of practices for the modern shamanic seeker and participant."[8]

The idea of an acultural shamanism was further developed by Michael Harner in his 1980 book The Way of the Shaman.[9] Harner developed his own system of acultural shamanism that he called "Core Shamanism" (see below), which he wrote was based on his experiences with Conibo and Jívaro shamans in South America, including the consumption of hallucinogens.[10][9] Harner broadly applied the term "shaman" to spiritual and ceremonial leaders in cultures that do not use this term, saying that he also studied with "shamans" in North America; he wrote that these were Wintu, Pomo, Coast Salish, and Lakota people, but he did not name any individuals or specific communities.[9][10] Harner wrote that he was describing 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.[11] Influences cited by Harner also included Siberian shamanism, Mexican and Guatemalan culture, and Australian traditions, as well as the familiar spirits of European occultism, which aid the occultist in their metaphysical work.[9] However, his practices do not resemble the religious practices or beliefs of any of these cultures.[12]

Beliefs and practices[edit]

Neoshamanism comprises an eclectic range of beliefs and practices that involve attempts to attain altered states and communicate with a spirit world through drumming, rattling, dancing, chanting, music, or the use of entheogens, although the last is controversial among some neoshamanic practitioners.[13][9][10] One type of spirit that journeyers attempt to contact are animal tutelary spirits (called "power animals" in Core Shamanism).[9] Core Shamanism, the neoshamanic system of practices synthesized, promoted, and invented by Michael Harner in the 1980s, are likely the most widely used in the West, and have had a profound impact on neoshamanism.[10] While adherents of neoshamanism mention a number of different ancient and living cultures, and many do not consider themselves associated with Harner or Core Shamanism,[10] Harner's inventions, and similar approaches such as the decontextualized and appropriated structures of Amazonian Ayahuasca ceremonies,[14] have all had a profound influence on the practices of most of these neoshamanic groups. Wallis writes,

By downplaying the role of cultural specificity, Harnerism and other neo-Shamanisms can be accused of homogenising shamanisms and, worse, ignoring the people whose "techniques" have been 'used' (others may be correct in preferring the terms 'borrowed', 'appropriated', or 'stolen'). While reference to the Shuar, Conibo or other native shamans may be made, it is reasonable to suggest that from the way Harner presents core-shamanism in his book, a neo-Shaman need never know about traditional shamans in order to learn the techniques. Indeed, in a troubling equation, native shamans are merely used to legitimate neo-Shamanic techniques.[15]

Neoshamans may also conduct "soul retrievals", participate in rituals based on their interpretations of sweat lodge ceremonies,[10] conduct healing ceremonies, and participate in drum circles.[5][16][8] Wallis, an archaeologist who self-identifies as a "neo-Shaman" and participates in the neopagan and neoshamanism communities,[17] has written that he believes the experiences of synesthesia reported by Core Shamanic journeyers are comparable with traditional shamanic practices.[10] However, Aldred writes that the experiences non-Natives seek out at these workshops, "also incorporated into theme adult camps, wilderness training programs, and New Age travel packages" have "greatly angered" Native American activists who see these workshops as "the commercial exploitation of their spirituality."[16]

Differences between shamanism and neoshamanism[edit]

Scholars have noted a number of differences between traditional shamanic practices and neoshamanism. In traditional contexts, shamans are typically chosen by a community or inherit the title (or both).[1] With neoshamanism, however, anyone who chooses to can become a (neo)shaman,[1] although there are still neoshamans who feel that they have been called to become shamans, and that it wasn't a choice, similar to the situation in some traditional societies.[10]

Neoshamanic drum circle in the United States, c. 2000

In traditional contexts, shamans serve an important culturally recognized social and ceremonial role, one which seeks the assistance of spirits to maintain cosmic order and balance.[1] With neoshamanism, however, the focus is usually on personal exploration and development.[1][18] While some neoshamanic practitioners profess to enact shamanic ceremonies in order to heal others and the environment, and equate their role in modern communities with the shaman's role in traditional communities, the majority of adherents practice in isolation and the people they work on are paying clients.[19][20][1][8][5][10]

Another difference between neoshamanism and traditional shamanism is the role of negative emotions such as fear and aggression. Traditional shamanic initiations often involved pain and fear,[21] while neoshamanic narratives tend to emphasize love over negative emotions.[1] And while traditional shamanic healing was often tempered with ideas of malevolence or chaos, neoshamanism has a psychotherapeutic focus that leads to a "happy ending."[1] Harner, who created the neoshamanic practice of Core Shamanism, goes so far as to argue that those who engage in negative practices are sorcerers, not shamans, although this distinction is not present in traditional societies.[10]

Although both traditional shamanism and neoshamanism posit the existence of both a spiritual and a material world, they differ in how they view them.[1] In the traditional view, the spirit world is seen as primary reality, while in neoshamanism, materialist explanations "coexist with other theories of the cosmos,"[1] some of which view the material and the "extra-material" world as equally real.[8]

Neoshamanic tourism[edit]

Neoshamanism adherents may travel to communities with Indigenous shamanic traditions, or what they believe are shamanic traditions, in order to view or participate in shamanic ceremonies. Some go to other countries seeking experiences and initiations that they believe will make them "shamans" themselves. However, although those who conduct such ceremonies for tourists might come from communities with authentic Indigenous traditions, the ceremonies themselves have been adapted specifically to a tourist context. As this is a financially lucrative business for poor communities, there is also no guarantee that the people offering these experiences have been trained in any ceremonies, or that the substances being offered are what has been advertised.[22] These touristic ceremonies vary in form. In some cases, they might represent public shamanic sacrifices or mass healings.[2] In Yakutsk, a shamanic theatre has been opened for such performances.[2]

In other cases, tourists are seeking out encounters with hallucinogenic drugs such as ayahuasca as part of neoshamanic ceremonies.[14][22] According to Mark Hay, those seeking out ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon "contribute to the wanton commodification and fetishization of the cultures whose practices they wish to insinuate themselves into...," especially given that there is no one ayahuasca ceremony shared by all the cultures that traditionally used it; each has unique ceremonies and uses of the brew.[23] Additionally, the practitioners, such as Mancoluto, that offer such ceremonies are not regulated and none have proof of credentials.[22] While deaths are rare, they are not unheard-of; nearly a dozen tourists have died in Peru after consuming ayahuasca.[22][23]

New Age retreats that offer experiences purporting to be vision quests, sweat lodges, and shamanic initiations, usually lasting a weekend or a week, are also popular.[16] In October 2009, during a New Age retreat organized by motivational speaker and former telemarketer, James Arthur Ray, three people died and 21 more became ill while participating in an overcrowded and improperly set up heat endurance experience, advertised as a "Spiritual Warrior" sweat lodge ceremony, led by Ray. The nontraditional structure contained some 60 people and was located at a new age retreat center called Angel Valley, near Sedona, Arizona; participants paid approximately $10,000 per person to attend.[24] In 2011, Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide.[25] Spiritual leaders in Indian Country spoke out against these experiences led by untrained, unqualified people, clarifying that "the ceremony which he was selling bore little if any resemblance to an actual sweat lodge ceremony."[26][27][28]


Native American scholars have been critical of neoshamanic practitioners who misrepresent their teachings and practices as having been derived from Native American cultures, asserting that it represents an illegitimate form of cultural appropriation and that it is nothing more than a ruse by fraudulent spiritual leaders to disguise or lend legitimacy to fabricated, ignorant, and/or unsafe elements in their ceremonies in order to reap financial benefits.[20][16][29] For example, Geary Hobson sees the New Age use of the term "shamanism" (which most neoshamans use to self-describe, rather than "neoshamanism") as a cultural appropriation of Native American culture by white people who have distanced themselves from their own history.[29] Additionally, Aldred notes that even those neoshamanic practitioners with "good intentions" who say they support Native American causes are still commercially exploiting Indigenous cultures.[16]

Members of Native American communities have also objected to neoshamanic workshops, highlighting that shamanism plays an important role in native cultures, and calling those offering such workshops charlatans who are engaged in cultural appropriation.[30]

Daniel C. Noel sees Core Shamanism as based on cultural appropriation and a misrepresentation of the various cultures by which Harner said he had been inspired.[12] Noel believes Harner's work, in particular, laid the foundations for massive exploitation of Indigenous cultures by "plastic shamans" and other cultural appropriators. Note, however, that Noel does believe in "authentic western shamanism" as an alternative to neoshamanism,[12] a sentiment echoed by Annette Høst who hopes to create a 'Modern Western Shamanism' apart from Core Shamanism in order "to practice with deeper authenticity".[18]

Robert J. Wallis asserts that, because the practices of Core Shamanism have been divorced from their original cultures, the mention of traditional shamans by Harner is an attempt to legitimate his techniques while "remov[ing] indigenous people from the equation," including not requiring that those practicing Core Shamanism to confront the "often harsh realities of modern indigenous life."[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."[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Scuro, Juan & Rodd, Robin (2015). "Neo-Shamanism". Encyclopedia of Latin American Religions. Springer International Publishing. pp. 1–6. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-08956-0_49-1. ISBN 978-3-319-08956-0. S2CID 239249964.
  2. ^ a b c Bulgakova, Tatyana (2001). "Shaman on the Stage (Shamanism and Northern Identity)" (PDF). Pro Ethnologia. 11 (Cultural Identity of Arctic Peoples: Arctic Studies 5): 9–24. Retrieved 17 May 2021.
  3. ^ Chidester, David (2008). "Zulu dreamscapes: senses, media, and authentication in contemporary neo-shamanism". Material Religion. 4 (2): 136–158. doi:10.2752/175183408X328271. S2CID 143771852. Retrieved 19 May 2021.
  4. ^ Wallis, R.J. (2003). Shamans/neo-Shamans: Contested Ecstasies, Alternative Archaeologies, and Contemporary Pagans. Routledge. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-415-30202-9. Retrieved 2023-03-01.
  5. ^ a b c Sanson, Dawne (2012). Taking the Spirits Seriously: Neo-shamanism and contemporary shamanic healing in New Zealand (PhD thesis). Retrieved 17 May 2021.
  6. ^ Castaneda, Carlos (1968). The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Washington: Square Press Publication. ISBN 0-671-60041-9.
  7. ^ Marshall, Robert (April 12, 2007). "The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda". Salon. Salon Media Group. Retrieved 14 July 2018.
  8. ^ a b c d Braun, Shelly Beth (2010). Neo-shamanism as a healing system: Enchanted healing in a modern world (PDF) (PhD thesis). University of Utah. Retrieved 18 May 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Harner, Michael (1990). The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco, California: Harper. ISBN 0-06-250373-1.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Wallis, Robert J. (2003). Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasies, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415302036.
  11. ^ Foundation for Shamanic Studies. "Michael Harner Biography". Foundation for Shamanic Studies. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
  12. ^ a b c Noel, Daniel C. (1997). Soul Of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities. London, England: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8264-1081-2.
  13. ^ Blain, Jenny (2002). Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415256513.
  14. ^ a b Fotiou, Evgenia (2016). "The Globalization of Ayahuasca Shamanism and the Erasure of Indigenous Shamanism" (PDF). Anthropology of Consciousness. 27 (2). American Anthropological Association: 151–179. doi:10.1111/anoc.12056. Retrieved 24 May 2021.
  15. ^ Wallis, Robert J. (2003). Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasies, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans. Routledge. p. 51. ISBN 978-0415302036.
  16. ^ a b c d e Aldred, Lisa (Summer 2000). "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality" (PDF). The American Indian Quarterly. 24 (3). Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press: 329–352. doi:10.1353/aiq.2000.0001. PMID 17086676. S2CID 6012903.
  17. ^ Wallis, Robert J. (2003). Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasies, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans. Routledge. p. 13. ISBN 978-0415302036. As an autoarchaeologist, I am claiming my own voice. Just as I cannot speak only as a 'neo-Shaman', to speak only as an archaeologist would downplay neo-Shamanic influences in my narrative. And to claim an objective standpoint from either position would ignore the influence of my work on neo-Shamans themselves.
  18. ^ a b Boekhoven, J.W. (2011). Genealogies of shamanism: Struggles for power, charisma and authority (PhD thesis). Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  19. ^ Wernitznig, Dagmar (2007). Europe's Indians, Indians in Europe: European Perceptions and Appropriations of Native American Cultures from Pocahontas to the Present. University Press of America. p. 132.
  20. ^ a b Hagan, Helene E. (September 1992). "The Plastic Medicine People Circle". Sonoma County Free Press. Archived from the original on 2013-03-05.
  21. ^ York, Michael. "The Role of Fear in Traditional and Contemporary Shamanism". Bath Spa University College. Archived from the original on 20 January 2012. Retrieved 23 January 2012.
  22. ^ a b c d Hearn, Kelly (4 December 2017). "The Dark Side of Ayahuasca". Men's Journal. Wenner Media. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  23. ^ a b Hay, Mark (4 November 2020). "The Colonization of the Ayahuasca Experience". JSTOR Daily. JSTOR. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  24. ^ Dougherty, John (11 October 2009). "Deaths at Sweat Lodge Bring Soul-Searching". The New York Times.
  25. ^ Riccardi, Nicholas (June 22, 2011). "Self-help guru convicted in Arizona sweat lodge deaths". Los Angeles Times.
  26. ^ "Native History: A Non-Traditional Sweat Leads to Three Deaths." Indian Country Today. 8 Oct 2013. Accessed 24 May 2021.
  27. ^ Looking Horse, Arvol (16 October 2009). "Concerning the deaths in Sedona". Indian Country Today. Archived from the original on 19 October 2009.
  28. ^ Goulais, Bob (2009-10-24). "Editorial: Dying to experience native ceremonies". North Bay Nugget. Archived from the original on 2011-08-09. Many First Nations people, especially us traditional folks, are up in arms over the misappropriation of our traditional ceremonies in the wake of the deaths of two people in a non-native sweat lodge at an Arizona resort earlier this month.
  29. ^ a b Hobson, Geary (1978). "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism". In Hobson, Gary (ed.). The Remembered Earth. Red Earth Press: Albuquerque, New Mexico. pp. 100–10.
  30. ^ Downing, Suzanne (21 January 2018). "A capital place for shamans and charlatans". Must Read Alaska. Retrieved 21 May 2021. It has come to our attention that a foundation called Dance of the Deer is planning a shamanism retreat in Juneau led by a person originally from New York who claims to be a Huichol shaman mentored by the tribe, which is based in Mexico. ... This is another form of appropriation from Native cultures and societies that began with the taking of our lands and our ceremonial and sacred objects, and now our spiritual practices. Shamans played an important role in our societies in caring for the welfare of the tribe. Shamanism was not a commercial enterprise. SHI will contact this "shaman" and request that he cease the appropriation of the most sacred and spiritual practices of the Huichol Indians. We support the people who have called his practices an exploitation of their people's ancient traditions and we will request that he not come into Aak'w Ḵwáan, the ancient homeland of the Auk people.
  31. ^ Office for National Statistics, 11 December 2012, 2011 Census, Key Statistics for Local Authorities in England and Wales. Accessed 12 December 2012.

Further reading[edit]