Shamanism may be classified as a magic-religious or earth-based spiritual practice, which is deeply rooted in the everyday life of a society. Shamanism is most often associated with hunting and gathering societies or primitive cultures of the past. A traditional form of Shamanism is said to have been the first form of spiritual practice more than 30,000 years ago, but by no means is it unsophisticated or simple. The principals and techniques within Shamanism provide a sense of social order between the world of the spirits, plants, animals and humans. Societies where Shamanism was and is practiced believe that there are different worlds or realities, which are interconnected and interdependent. These worlds may be that of the animals, plants, or elements such as water, air, and fire, which are believed to have humanlike qualities and characteristics. These worlds work together to bring healing and harmony to universal order. There also exist different forces within the worlds that may be positive or negative. These forces are often associated with good or evil in other religious practices. Shamanism therefore serves to bring balance and harmony between the different worlds and positive and negative forces. Many primitive communities in the past and present had to face environmental threats and uncertainty and saw these crises as a sign of disorder or unbalance between the worlds. The practice of Shamanism provides a way to resolve these crises such as famine, disease, and infertility within a given society. Today, as in the past, different forms of Shamanism are found around the world, with the largest concentration of its practices in north and central Asia, as well as in the circumpolar regions.
Shamanism is based on the central belief that the material world in which we live is influenced and pervaded by the world of spirits or invisible forces. Shamanistic practices and techniques are performed by the central figure known as the shaman. The word shaman meaning "one who knows" comes from the Tungus people of Siberia. Mircea Eliade, a religious scholar, defines Shamanism as a practice in the "technique of ecstasy," a form of transformation where the shaman through trance (an altered state of consciousness) is able to access the world of the spirits, communicate with them, and relay the knowledge and information to the community.
The role of the shaman may be held by a man or woman and is dependent on the social order of a given culture. While the shamans of the Amazon are primarily men, women hold the position of the shaman in Korean societies. The shaman is the key communicator with the invisible forces or spirits. Unlike priests, shamans are not organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations. Although the shaman is the primary communicator and healer within the community, he or she must also fulfill other more mundane responsibilities to their family and community. In many ways the shaman serve the community in their ability to communicate, heal, and guide the community on a parttime basis. In general, a shaman may be identified as the communicator and master of spiritual influences, a ritualist of complex methods, assuming a special position within a society, which justifies his or her practices.
In some societies shamans inherit their powers from their ancestors, whereas in others they are "called" or "chosen" through prophetic dreams or near-death experiences. A fundamental experience of the shaman is that of death and rebirth, which reflects this transformation process. A shaman must undergo the death of his or her personal ego in order to break down the internal psychological structures that would hinder his or her ability to communicate with the spiritual forces in the other worlds. While some shaman may acquire special skills and talents through their illness experiences, most must spend years to learn the knowledge of medicinal plants, ritual songs or dances, healing rites, and trance techniques.
Trance or altered states of consciousness are induced in a variety of ways, depending on the social environment and cultural practices. Hallucinogenic drugs or alcohol, fasting, dancing, and drumming may be used to reach a level of trance that provides the altered state needed by the shaman to communicate with the spirits. Three levels of trance states have been identified by anthropologists who have spent many years studying the techniques of shamans. The first level is a "light" trance where the shaman still has partial awareness of the exterior forces and may easily come out of the trance state. The second level is associated with nightly "dreaming," where the shaman is able to receive messages and knowledge from the spirit helpers in their dream state. This knowledge is used to bring harmony, balance, and healing to the community. The third level of trance is a "deep" trance state where the shaman often appears to be dead. In this deep trance the shaman is able to journey to the land of the dead as part of a healing ritual. Shamans are assisted into these trance states in the presence and often with the help of community believers. The believers also serve as judges or evaluators of the shaman's ability and healing power.