[ What is Shamanism? | Core Aspects of Shamanism | The Shaman's Cosmos |
Celtic Shamanism | Shamanism Today | Power Animals]

What is Shamanism?

The practice of shamanism is derived from ancient teachings and is practised throughout the five continents of the planet. Although ancient, (it is estimated that shamanism may have originated over 10,000 years ago) its practice is also contemporary, surviving in areas such as Tibet, North & South America and within various African tribes. Shamanism is used to restore balance and healing to both people and the planet we live in. The practice of shamanism involves shamanic practitioners making journeys or soul-flights to other realities in order to bring back advice, help or soul-parts for the individual/community. As such, the practitioner acts as a medium through which help is channelled.

Shamanism has existed since the beginning of time on every continent of the planet. A shaman/shamanka (feminine) is an individual that can alter his/her state of consciousness and travel at will between this world and otherworlds to find healing, guidance and knowledge for themselves, the community and the environment.

Shamanism makes use of energy and power and the guidance/help of Spirit and otherworldly beings. In one respect, Shamanism differs from other magical and visionary techniques in that part of the shaman's soul makes a spiritual journey/flight between the worlds. Methods of mediumship, divination etc. may contain elements of shamanism, however they are not actually shamanism unless the soul flight takes place.

Aspects of shamanic practice developed according to the way of life of the various races of people, ie. nomadic, hunting, settled etc. In Irish society, as in other "Celtic" societies, shamanism was practiced. However, the role became somewhat fragmented upon various people such as the filidh, healers, the brehon and priests. On the whole, the essential component of shamanism was lost, although certain families retained knowledge and teachings which were held and guarded. Practices such as spiritual healing, poetic invocation, second sight and communication with otherworldly beings have been maintained.

Core Aspects of Shamanism

  • Shamanism is an intentional effort on the part of the practitioner to develop ongoing relationships with otherworldly beings and to keep the lines of communication open.
  • It is a way of perceiving life, nature and Spirit. The shamanistic world-view is animistic in essence, ie. they see life, or rather spirit, is within everything. This also incorporates the invisible world and non-ordinary reality, a realm that contains the spirits of land, ancestors, animals, gods & goddesses, sidhe and other various entities.
  • As mentioned, another core aspect is that of soul flight - journeying to engage with helpers, be they animals, sidhe, or other, for the purpose of returning with some form of healing etc, for those in the ordinary realm. This is not a one-sided relationship. Rather, it is an interaction of spirit - each learning and gaining insight from the other in a mutually respectful manner.
  • Shamanism is practised for purposes that are not self-serving. Although, personally, an individual may journey for self-healing and development, each being's interconnectedness with the rest of life, be it ordinary or non-ordinary, is stressed and explored through regular practice. In this sense we are healing ourselves as one aspect of the whole, and, once healed, will share that knowledge and healing.
  • Shamans throughout various cultures have served as healers, herbalists, dream interpreters, spiritual advisors, among many things. These services may be performed by people other than shamans, but what makes services such as these intrinsically shamanic is the relationship between the shaman and the spiritual helpers/guides in the otherworld. In effect, a shaman's reputation is based on his/her spiritual practice.

The Shaman's Cosmos

In Celtic society the shaman's cosmos may be divided into three levels/tiers: The Upper, Middle and Lower Worlds. These worlds may be accessed through the Tree of Life, or the Great Tree as it is otherwise known. If we view the Tree as being the central pole, the centre and core of the cosmos, and the shaman with sitting with her back to the tree, then it follows on that the shaman is at the centre. Each individual, in fact, is at the centre of their universe, their cosmos. From this point the directions stretch out in eight cardinal points (N,S,W,E,NW,NE,SW,SE) and form the sacred wheel or circle. The circle has long been of importance to the Celts and the Irish, enclosing within it the cross which indicates the four sacred directions (NSWE). When working in a spiritual way, the creation of a circle helps to focus the mind and the spirit of the individual, enabling them to work in a deeper and stronger way. It defines the boundary between the mundane world and the spiritual world, in that the shaman 'leaves outside the circle' that which is not necessary for the work; namely, worries, problems etc. It creates a sacred space within which the shaman is protected. It also acts as a magnifier, as the energy moves to the outer limits of the circle, so does it return back to the shaman, multiplied and stronger.

The Upper World is the spiritual realm which contains the realm of the stars. It is the world where the blueprints of life may be seen. Teachings about healing and identity are derived with the help of guides and the lessons of mutual responsibility are found.
The Middle World is that world in which we live and breathe. This world is shadowed by the otherworld, which constantly overlaps, so that we may move from one dimension to another.
The Underworld
The Under World is the realm of ancestors and spirits - the root of our deepest thoughts and emotions, the depths of our psyche. It is the place where the light within the earth may be accessed to bring healing and growth.

Within Irish tradition these realms are linked, encapsulated within the shell of a hazelnut which stands on the lip of the Well of Segais - from this well the seven rivers of life are said to stream forth, and from it, all knowledge is derived.

Although at times the discussion of the sacred wheel or circle may seem vague or theoretical its incorporation into everyday life is vital. We are all at the centre of the universe, all life moves around and within us, while at the same time we are only one thread in a whole tapestry of life. It is for this reason that grounding is so vital when working with shamanism, being firmly rooted. Work with the four elements of life (earth, air, fire and water) is extremely beneficial and is, in one sense, intrinsic to the practice of shamanism. The relationship, both physical and spiritual, which we maintain with the elements, what lessons may be learned etc., this all leads us towards a deeper understanding of our physical selves and our spiritual role in life, albeit constantly transforming as we change and grow.

Celtic Shamanism

There are may traces and elements of shamanism to be found within Celtic, and more specifically, Irish, Society. One very familiar image is that of the Lord of the Beasts which is found on the Gundestrup Cauldron. This image shows a figure in a posture which is familiar to shamans the world over. He is surrounded by animals of all kinds and wears antlers. This figure has long been associated with Cernunnos, however, on a broader level, he would have been widely known as a walker between the worlds - a shaman.

Within Irish culture there are a wide range of sources to draw on. The Song of Amergin, perhaps, is one of the most obvious. The transformations that he experiences, his power over the elements, all betray a shamanic level of practice. Images such as these would have been easily recognised by other indigenous shamans for their shapeshifting nature. Another famous example is the Voyage of Maelduin, and the later Voyage of Brendan, which describes "immrama" or journeys to the Many Coloured Lands/Islands. By studying these stories the shamanic elements are found immediately (journeys over seas were generally meant to indicate journeys to the otherworld). The lessons to be learned about balance, rejuvenation, respect and honour are all to be found in the descriptions.

The following description comes the closest to describing what I do: "If memory circuits were accidentally erased, these could be retrieved through the shamanic techniques of teinm laegda or "decoding by means of verse", dichetul do chennaib or "psychometric composition' (where the revelation comes straight from the ends of the poet's fingers) and imbas forosna or 'inspiration of tradition"and are the primary shamanic skills employed by the filidh poet. Shamanic methods of trance singing seem to have been particularly widespread in the Celtic world. The filidh utilized a form of vocal tracking called teinman laegda, "the decoding of the poem', which involved trance singing to come at unknown information. The filidh sang over the subject, communing with its soul-life or energy field, and sang aloud the images, impressions and metaphors that came to him: following the thread of the poem/song the filidh was able to arrive at a solution"
. Clay Miller.
For more on Celtic Shamanism click here

Shamanism Today

Although there is a lot to be learned from traditional/indigenous shamanic practices, it is important to realise and accept that we cannot go back in time and exist as our ancestors. So many things have changed ranging from the Industrial Age, the Advancement of Civilisation and the installation of Orthodox Religious practices into society on a broad level.

Shamanism may be in danger of becoming somewhat warped due to these changes. In Western Society we have become so separated from the original life force or spirit that people do not grasp the depth of practice and understanding that is necessary to follow a shamanic path. People feel that if they go to a workshop they can leave having become instant shamans or can integrate shamanic techniques into their therapeutic training without proper understanding of those techniques. You won't leave a workshop as a shaman. What we are trying to do is connect, to develop a spiritual practice that is shamanic in its nature and can bring us to a closer understanding of the nature of Spirit and our connection to it. A firm spiritual grounding is vital as is an acknowledgement of the responsibility that comes with the knowledge.

Power Animals

Animals have played a tremendous role in the life of humans throughout time, whether it be in terms of physical need ie. food, clothing or companionship or transportation. On a psychic level they have also had a huge impact. They live naturally and spontaneously, never having separated from their innate nature. There is an almost unspoken recognition that they have long been here before us.

When we speak of power animals, we are not speaking about physical strength/size but inherent spiritual power which is derived from knowledge, wisdom and understanding. A shaman would understand that an animal would seek out a particular person if there is a mutual lesson/need which may be served, they may offer each other support through the various realms of existence. A power animal guards our power and resonates to our own distinct nature/energy vibration. They are the guardians of human memory, inheritors of wisdom and teachers in their own right.


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