By Bill Honsberger
History and Development
Ancient religion of the Siberian tundra or another rip off of native peoples by white frauds? This is one of the major questions in regards to the whole phenomenon collectively and perhaps egregiously called Shamanism. While in some respects this religion or group of individual religions share some practices and ideas, in other ways the groups are very disparate. Analogous to Hinduism, western scholars have tended to clump them together into a “family” of similar beliefs, but the reality of what it “really” is or who is an “authentic” spokesman/woman for Shamanism might be beyond accurate description. Many people instantly compare them to the Native American Medicine man and while there is some important comparative activities, there are also distinctions as well. Part of the problem stems from the fact that this series of faiths has come from a distinct series of oral traditions from virtually all over the world. This means that there are no written records to show development and origination. Some scholars think it is the original paleo – religion of all human beings. Others resist the temptation to universalize it and point to its roots as primarily belonging to the Mongolian and Siberian tribes from thousands of years ago. Even the term “Shaman” is disputed. Is it a wise person or “one who knows” based on tribal languages or is it taken from a Sanskrit term for wondering monk? Many other questions haunt the academic halls on these issues.
However from a Christian perspective there are some things that can be asserted about the collection or family of groups. Whether it is a Shaman, or Medicine man or witch doctor or Bruja, there are parallel beliefs and activities. Each group wherever found in the ancient or modern world, views the world as a place infused with spirits. The ancient word “tenger” is believed to mean “the honoring of spirits” Some have a hierarchy with a chief spirit, while others just see an equality between the spirits of the thunder and the spirits of earthworms. Much like the Hindu’s or so many other religions such as Taoism or Shinto, the Shamanic tribal religions see the world as a spiritual place and the Shaman’s role in it the meditation and education of the local people with the spiritual reality.
One of the struggles with even beginning to accurately describe Shamanism, is again that it is completely an oral tradition. Western scholars and new age flacks have been writing about in the past few decades, but the tradition itself was generally passed along by illiterate Shamans themselves. One role of the Shaman was to tell the history of the tribe/people and thus many divergent stories are told, but none of them connect to any recorded history in the usual way. In this sense then, the Shaman themselves become the authoritative source for the tribe, and their words are generally considered the final foundation for any understanding or situation that arises.
The Shaman traditions have no authoritative source which gives reference to Jesus. Some deeply disputable claims have stated that this reference in this tradition or that group was referring to Jesus, but this states more about the modern interpreter than any authentic Shaman tradition – whatever that might mean. More recent New Age type versions of Shamanism have tried to bring Jesus into the mix by inferring that Jesus is called a wise one and was able to heal and so on.
Technically there is no Supreme being or God in Shamanism. But many of the traditions do have a hierarchy with different gods being asserted as the high one or words to that effect.
The human predicament is that we are all ignorant of the activities going on all around us at all times. We may think that we are sick because of germs or bad food, but in the Shamanic world we are clueless about the spirits in the food, the animal we killed for sport, the plants we forgot to talk to before we harvested them. All activities, especially the negative ones, are reminders that we are in the middle tier of the three tiered universe, and the spirits are constantly moving up and down through our level, granting either blessing or cursing. The right Shamans, whether the black or white ones traditionally, can bring about desired results – healing, protection, cursing of an enemy, appeasing of an angry spirit, prosperity, a son, and so on. This is done by different methods of inculcation on the part of the Shaman for the tribes people. Another important role of the Shaman is that the dead are often confused where to go, and the Shaman will take the dead soul to the appropriate place.
The Shamanic tradition has no real sense of salvation in any analogous way to the Abrahamic religions nor is there a sense of escaping the illusory prison of Hindu and Buddhist faiths. The world is what it is, much like in Shinto and Taoism, and it can be dealt with successfully by listening to the Shamans teachings and trusting the Shamans guidance in dealing with the multitude of spirits. Much like the other eastern faiths, the spirits might be reincarnating and they might be just hanging around or somehow both.
In the same way that other pagan faiths believe, there is no thought of a future time that is not similar to the present, or believed to be so in the past. There are many cycles and the Shaman helps the believer endure and thrive in the present, guides them after death, and so on and so on.
Summary of Basic Beliefs
The Shamanic universe has three tiers. Human beings and the world exist in the middle one. The spirits that are ever present and in everything are also moving up and down through the middle tiers to the upper or lower tiers. These spirits have the ability to curse and or bless, and they can be reasoned with. The role of the Shaman is to get the spirits attention, address the situation at hand, and bring about some sort of satisfactory conclusion. The Shaman has had a spiritual journey into the other world and thus has gained the wisdom to be found there. The Shaman is the historian and cultural guidance counselor. The Shaman is then the “wise one”, who knows the proper words, symbols, chants, songs, incantations, to work with the Spirits. The Shaman is called into this role by the spirits themselves, usually through some extreme health/near death experience, or through visions that occur with the help of numerous drugs. The Shaman uses bells or drums or other tools to invoke the spirits presence and the sacred signs on the drum are good examples of the prowess of the particular Shaman. The Shaman also are known for sleight of hand tricks, ventriloquism and other “techniques” for showing their spiritual abilities.
The interaction between the pagan world and the people of God (both Israel and the Christian church) is long and historic. While there was some conversions of pagans to the Jewish faith, it would be the Christian faith to take this to an entirely different level. When the apostles, in particular Paul, took the faith out from Jerusalem to Samaria and to the entire world, they encountered a number of varieties of pagan beliefs which in one sense all fell into one central category – they all believed in one way or another that there was a multitude of spiritual beings – angels, demons, the Jinn, the Baals, the gods of the different empires, whether Greek or Roman, or Persian, Egyptian and so on. These spirits inhabited or infested all of nature.
The Apostle Paul encountered various pagan religions and sophisticated philosophies during his mission trips. In Acts 17 Paul address the crowd of pagans and philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens. Athens had noted for its numerous deities of every kind and stripe – as noted by one Roman wag who quipped that “it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens”. Paul chooses to teach the assembled crowd the true nature of God and what that means. Paul teaches them that one God created all the universe and that this God could not be localized in this or that building made of stone and wood. He taught them that this God was not needy, in that he did not need to be cleaned or fed. One can still see this in many religions around the world today. But he affirmed that this God was not removed in a galaxy far away, but right here available to all. This God gave all life to the world and from two people brought all people into existence. Paul told them that one day this God would judge the entire world for their behavior. He then told them of God’s Messiah Jesus, who had come and died for their sins and then was resurrected to life again. All of these were a challenge to the treasured traditions of the audience. Paul was not content to let the Athenians to treasure their own sacred tradition nor did he respect their ancient beliefs. Rather Paul taught a biblical world view and trusted that the Holy Spirit would use those words to ignite the faith of members of the audience. This is exactly what happened. Some turned away, but some believed and others wanted to hear more.
In respect to all animistic or pantheistic or panentheistic cultures and beliefs, it is important to teach the true nature of God and show how this Biblical world view is not only rational but true to what the pagan peoples, in this case those following Shamans of one sort or another, already deeply know. The same Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 2 that the Gentiles (goyim – pagans) have the commandments of God written on their heart. They know it is wrong to murder, lie, steal, commit adultery and so on. But like all pagan cultures they have suppressed the true nature of God and replaced it with pagan idolatry (Romans 1). The important thing is to show how the teaching of the Shamans have led to so many egregious actions. Modern Shamans – particularly the new age wannabees – have morphed the Shamanic traditions, ala Joseph Campbell and Prof. Gimbutas, into peace loving wizards who healed the earth and peoples and would never hurt a fly, or kill a person, or say mean things about women, homosexuals and so on. But the reality of the situation is that the great conquering Khans, who ruled that part of the world for over a thousand years, were some of the most bloodthirsty rulers in world history. They were almost always guided by the Black Shamans. Murder is ubiquitous in nature and therefore the spirits are always killing each other, or at least killing their “hosts”. The Shamans have convinced their people that this is their tradition and therefore right, but deep inside their own conscience the people know it is wrong to murder. God’s word can give them the perspective which matches their own conscience. The Gospel can be given to people who understand what good and evil are.
Another important thing when witnessing to people in spiritualistic religions is that the Christian affirms and believes in the one true God, and is not or least should not be afraid. Hundreds of times in the Bible the believers are commanded not to be afraid. Spiritistic cultures are virtually always driven by fear. As we tell our missionaries before entering into pagan strongholds – our Father is in control outside that building, and He is in control inside that building. We fear God alone and that fear brings about wisdom and holiness, and does not lead to personal or cultural paralysis, which is so common in the spiritistic world.
This does not mean being insulting to any one, but rather one can affirm the common image of God in all peoples – therefore murder of a rival tribe, or baby daughter or anyone else is an affront to the Holiness of God. It must be strongly affirmed that God is not in nature, lest one is stuck with god killing god in nature or in Auschwitz or so on. This view affirms the Shaman not as a holy or divine teacher, but as a creation of the true High God, who loves the Shaman and wants him and his people in His heavenly kingdom. This is not cultural genocide, as decried by non-believing sociologists and anthropologists, but a loving teaching that has changed entire kingdoms into better places here and now in this world and brought fruit to the Kingdom of God as well.
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