Classic Shamanism And Core Shamanism: Basic Differences

The word "shamanism" has been thrown around a great deal these days, and attached to all manner of things, sometimes with only a vague understanding of its meaning. Most people who go to a class on "shamanic this-or-that" have very little knowledge of what actual tribal shamans practiced in any given cultures, or what sorts of things were and are practiced transculturally among them. A researcher or interested seeker, looking through all the widely varied literature, will notice both similarities and differences between anthropological descriptions of long-ago tribal shamans and modern-day shamanic practitioners. They may also run across specialized terms such as "core shamanism"; "shamanistic practice"; "shamanistic behavior", and so on. It can be rather confusing.

The term "core shamanism" was popularized by Michael Harner in his book "The Way Of The Shaman". It supposedly implies that it contains the "core" shamanic techniques, stripped of their cultural context and teachable to individuals not raised in that culture. On the other hand, the experience of people who work with core shamanism is not identical to that of shamans and their counterparts who come to their work the old-fashioned way, anthropological accounts of which have been gathered for over two hundred years. There are stunning similarities between the experiences of many of these shamans, regardless of their home culture or place in the world. These similarities, and the similarities of the altered-state and magical techniques used by tribal shamans, have popularized the concept of the global "shamanic" spiritual/magical system.

I've chosen to use the term "classic shamanism" to describe the cross-cultural set of experiences described by tribal shamans across the world. It shares with "core shamanism" many of the same tools and techniques of consciousness - journeying, visualization, drumming, ritual, working with animal and plant totems, natural spirits, or ancient gods; natural hallucinogens, cultural symbol systems, and so forth. It isn't the tools that differentiate the two, as core shamanism borrowed those tools from classic shamanism. Instead, it's the central spiritual experience that is strongly different, as can be seen from this chart.

To be clear, however: Not all shamans in traditional tribal societies follow the "classic shaman" pattern. For example, among the Jivaro Indians, as many as a quarter of the men in the tribe may be trained as shamans, and the knowledge can be bought for the fee of a gun and some ammunition. This would make most of them analogous to "core shamans". In other tribal societies, a shaman's son or daughter may be trained in the position; sometimes they are chosen before birth with divination methods (which would suggest spirit-choosing, like the classic experience) and sometimes they are merely selected by their parent when old enough. In some areas of the world, where the tradition has all but died out, a member of the tribe may volunteer to take on the work whether or not they have been contacted by the spirits, in order to keep the tradition alive.

Core Shamanism Classic Shamanism
Is theoretically open to anyone who is sincere. Some people who are more talented in energy- moving techniques may do better, but no one is technically banned from the practice. Is open only to those who are clearly chosen by the spirits. Although one can offer one's self to the spirits, they may or may not accept.
Is generally entirely voluntary. The individual chooses the path, rather than being chosen for it by the spirits. Although the seeker may feel "drawn" to shamanic practices, they are not in danger of illness, insanity or death for refusing to follow a particular path. They may choose their own human teachers, and they may stop at any time; although their lives may be poorer for it, they will not usually be penalized by the spirits unless they have made specific bargains. Is generally entirely involuntary. The individual is chosen by the spirits, often with no warning, and is not allowed to refuse the "gift", or they will suffer illness, and/or insanity, and/or death. They can never stop being a shaman so long as they live, or it will recur.
Is not generally accompanied by severe life-threatening experiences. Is nearly always accompanied in the early stages by severe life-threatening experiences, including but not limited to chronic serious illness, psychotic break, and/or near-death experience.
May engender growth of personality and an empowering change of life path, but is not generally accompanied by a traumatic death-and-rebirth experience. No one specific image, vision, or symbolism predominates across the board in the early stages of shamanic work. Is nearly always accompanied by a traumatic death-and-rebirth experience, after which the personality is radically changed. A visionary experience of being dismembered and rebuilt differently by the spirits is evident cross-culturally in the accounts of many tribal shamans, and is almost a hallmark of the experience.
Causes slow and gradual change to part of the aura and astral body due to working with the various shamanic techniques. The process is usually largely under the control of the seeker. Causes radical, unusual, and permanent changes to the aura and astral body. This process is inflicted onto the shaman by the spirits, and is entirely out of their control.
Shamanic practice can occupy however large a space in the individual's life as they wish. It can be a part-time hobby or a full-time occupation, as they decide. Shamanic practice occupies the main focus, time, and energy of the individual's life for the rest of their existence. All mundane careers, projects, loyalties, and relationships are secondary to the shaman's career of spiritual service.
Primarily taught by human teachers, although in the more advanced stages the seeker may work with divine and/or spirit teachers. Primarily taught by divine and/or spirit teachers, although in the beginning stages the novice is usually taught the cultural context and symbolism by another shaman.
Often taught in groups, or in books. Never taught in groups; always one-on-one as an oral tradition.
Taboos are rare, and taken on only as a deal with a particular spirit. Violation of those taboos generally only result in loss of power, although bargains with powerful spirits may result in traumatic incidents. Lives are bounded with dozens of increasing taboos, violation of which generally brings immediate illness, pain, or other physical and spiritual retribution.
Can work shamanic practices alone, or see clients unattached to any demographic group. Cannot work entirely alone; must be attached to a tribe. If no tribe is in evidence at the time of their shamanic rebirth, one will be provided for them by the spirits. Ability to see clients outside their demographic group varies, usually depending on their tradition and their particular patron spirits.
Can be seen as a path of service, or as a lucrative career. Is almost always seen primarily as a path of service to a particular tribe.
Mental illness as rare or prevalent as it is in the ordinary population demographic, and unrelated to shamanic practice. Mental breakdown or temporary psychosis common to the early "death-and-rebirth" stage, after which shamans have been tested and found to be comparatively extremely sane and stable. Mental illness never returns as long as they continue to do their jobs.
Can draw from any cultural contexts, or create their own. Generally requires one specific central cultural context, although they may borrow from neighboring (and thus not radically different) cultures. The symbolic context seems to be a useful "anchoring-point" for the training of beginning classic shamans, and aids in bonding them with the tribe that they are to serve.
Often seeks to have a relationship with the gods and/or spirits that is "equal", or even "mastery over the spirits" in order to gain access to their powers. Relationship with gods and/or spirits ranges from propitiating/coaxing to being their outright slave, for which the shaman gains access to their powers.

As can be seen from this comparison, the question of who and what is a shaman is fairly complex these days. One could define "shaman" as a job description only to classic shamans, and call folks in the other category "shamanic practitioners", or something of that nature, or one could expand the term to include full-time workers in both categories. Most Americans would prefer the latter, as there are few classic shamans in the white American demographic.

Of course, then one would get into the equally sticky space of what constitutes a "full- time" shaman. Would those who only teach it for money, essentially as a lucrative financial career rather than a service practice, be counted? On the one hand, they are doing something involving shamanic techniques full-time; on the other hand, being a shaman is traditionally a religious service position. A tribal shaman fills a similar function for his/her people that the local priest or pastor or vicar does here; it has a ministerial as well as a ritual/magical side. One ought to be able to go to your local shaman for aid, and be helped at a reasonable price for your wallet, even if that's an empty, broke, unemployed wallet.

This also brings us to the question of why there are so few classic shamans in the white Western demographic. Part of that is need; if a people are getting their spiritual needs adequately met in a non-shamanic context, the Gods and spirits may not feel the need to interfere. A greater reason, however, is sheer risk. Even in shamanic cultures where there is a structure and context to train novice shamans, there is an acceptance of the fact that not all of them make it. The physical and mental stresses of the transformative classic-shamanic experience create a varying death rate even for those who are prepared for it. When refusal of the gift, or inability to get a handle on it, means insanity (often leading to suicide) or death from illness, there is going to be a certain attrition rate.

Additionally, in this culture, we have no tools or context or experienced mentors to lead us through the process. In a traditional shamanic culture - meaning one in which shamanism is an accepted part of the spiritual tradition - the suffering person is identified by and taken on by an already functioning classic shaman. This mentor will teach them the proper techniques, give them a useful cultural context-system to work with (something that is dismissed by most Westerners but seems to be vital to the effectiveness of the classic shaman's work), helps them identify and manage their taboos, introduces them to spirit helpers, and above all provides affirmation that this process is "normal" for what they are becoming. The average American who might get themselves seized as a shaman by the Gods and/or spirits will have none of these things. In fact, they may end up medicated (which will temporarily "abort" the shamanic transformation, only to have it repeatedly recur throughout the person's life until they are insane or dead), or institutionalized, or struggling with life-threatening illnesses that modern medicine is not capable of curing. Often, if an illness contracted as part of a shamanic rebirth is actually cured by medicine, the sufferer will promptly come down with another one.

On top of this, we have little in the way of coherent, easily accessed tradition. The shamanic traditions of our ancestors have been suppressed to the point where they are broken shreds that we are desperately trying to piece back together. The Gods and spirits still remember them, but in order to access that information, we have to have a clear line through to them...something that may not happen until one has already survived the transformation process. The likelihood is that most Westerners who are struck with the shamanic transformation "illness" simply don't make it. No one shows up to help them, and they are told that everything they are experiencing is not real, and is symptomatic of a curable problem. They try their best to make it all go away, and in the process they make it even worse.

This doesn't mean to imply that everyone who gets cancer or pneumonia or goes mad is a potential shaman. Even in shamanic cultures, there are accounts of people who fell physically or mentally ill in ways that resembled shamanic transformation illnesses, and the local shamans came over to check, and declared it to be an ordinary sort of illness. One such incident was recounted by a Western anthropologist living in a small Taiwanese village. A local woman began to have "fits" and talk to unseen spirits. A group of shamans came from miles away to check her out, and declared that she was merely mentally ill; no actual spirits were in evidence.

However, we also have the accounts of white Americans who are "classic shaman" types; who survived their transformation illness and went on to do their job in a way remarkably similar to that of traditional tribal shamans. In each case, they managed to figure out what was going on and either find mentors somehow or embed themselves into some cultural context that worked for them and for their spirit helpers. Although they may have studied core-shamanism techniques, they did not find them to be adequate for their needs without some kind of deeply- understood cultural cosmology attached to them. Some threw themselves into the foreign cosmologies (with the permission of the spirits attached to those cosmologies) and some struggled to unearth that of their own ancestors. Either way, many admit that they almost didn't make it.

There's also the ongoing debate over the appropriation of cultural spirituality by people not of that culture, which is a long and tangled skein with good points on both sides. Perhaps it's wrong to steal the cultural context of someone else's culture....but what if their gods speak to you? Perhaps it's fine to be dissatisfied with a cultural context that doesn't make sense to you...but what if your own genetic heritage is nearly entirely robbed of its ancient shamanic roots? There doesn't seem to be any one good solution to the problem. Some strides have been made, and are being made, by dogged souls who are piecing together the ragged bits of shamanic lore left to Western culture, and this is a good thing. It likely won't come together fast enough to save all of the next generation of future shamans, but it's a start.

One thing that we all have to do is to think critically, and to be asking ourselves these hard questions. When people say that something is "shamanic", we need to learn to ask them what it is that they mean, and not accept a vague answer. When people call themselves shamans, we need to ask them why they feel that this job title applies to them, and not take pop jargon replies. We need to find out if they understand the difference between core shamanism and its various American and European offsprings, and classic shamanism and its traditional and modern avatars.

I don't intend to get into a debate about whether a classic shaman does a better job than a full-time core shaman when you show up for your reading or your healing or your soul retrieval. Frankly, the jury's still out on that one. I'd like to think that a competent and ethical practitioner of any sort would do their best for you, and tell you honestly when your needs are beyond their ability to fulfill. But we need to educate ourselves about what it is that we actually want from the world of shamanism, and wean ourselves off of the romantic images of inspirational novels. Being a real shaman is work, lots of hard work, often for little immediate reward. It's not a hobby. It's a calling, or it should be, at least to some extent. It's not something that you do in order to find yourself....or if you go there looking for yourself, it will show you yourself as a tool of the Gods and spirits, not how you'd like to think of yourself in your head.

So....let's talk about this. Let's bring it out into the open and clear away the fog from the terminology. Let's honor both scholarship and personal experience, at the same time, and see if we can make something useful out of all the ragged bits. Because the next generation is waiting.