Why Modern Shamans Are Not Spirit Walkers
I’m not here to tell anyone what to believe or do. Everyone has a right to live their lives they way they want to. And nobody can tell you who you are or what you are. That’s up to you to say. That said, I do want to share why modern “shaman” are not spirit walkers. (The term “spirit walker is the collective term to describe animist holistic healers who provide healing and support services for the community with the aid of the spirit realm).
(You know me. I don’t like the word “shaman” because it’s been co-opted by anthropologists and non-animists to describe animist spirit walker practices. “Shaman” is not a generic term. It belongs to the Tungusian tribes of Siberia to describe their form of spirit walking. If you were Coke, you wouldn’t want to be called Pepsi, or worse Fanta, would you?. If you’re on Metformin or Prozac, you don’t want the pharmacist switching things up on you without warning because details matter. This is why companies use trademarks and service marks. It assures that their product or service won’t become diluted, stolen, or generic Saying they are the same don’t make them the same).
So let’s take a look at why modern shaman are not spirit walkers. I don’t generally talk about my ethnic roots, but this situation calls for specificity, so I am using my culture as an example. This will not be true for all animist cultures.
Modern Shaman do not need any qualifications. They can “become” shamans by declaring it. Some say they were chosen through a near death experience or other trauma. Some take a class and learn some rituals.
In my tradition, the person is chosen by Spirit. In one of my traditions they are almost always men. In the other they are almost always women. I will talk only about the women for clarity.
The chosen ones undergo an intense spiritual initiation. If the initiation “fails,” the initiate loses her mind and never recovers (because you can’t get that close to Spirit and come back the same). If she passes, she’s loses her previous identity and social place and becomes someone who lives in liminal space. She’s between the living and the dead. She is a figure who is held both in awe and in fear. It’s a very tough existence that no one aspires to or volunteers for because the sacrifice is too great.
After the initiation, ancestral spirit guides and other spirit walkers teach her how to do the work that she performs for the tribe.
Being called by spirit is not enough to become a spirit walker. She must also be accepted by the tribe. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Without acceptance, she has no one to serve.
Modern shaman duties appear to include soul retrievals, removing curses, healing ancestral wounds, and leading plant medicine rituals for those who hire them.
The duties of my ancestral spirit walkers are much more varied. They serve as doctor, therapist, priest, philosopher, protector, soothsayer, and historian for the tribe. These titles look very different in my culture than they do in modern society.
As doctor, she may use plants, rituals, or sacrifice to heal the body.
As therapist, she listens and advises. Since there is no separation of mind, body, and spirit in animist culture, doctor and therapist are really the same job.
As priest, she leads spiritual festivals, rituals, and rites of passages. These rituals are highly symbolic with lots of variations (depending upon the moon phase, age of the person, type of life they lead, etc). They often occur in the presence of the gods. So the priest is involved in every aspect of village life.
As philosopher, she cultivates and uses her wisdom to become a better servant and teacher of her people. This wisdom comes from observing the cosmos and having a relationship with the heavens, the land, and the people. Nature is her teacher.
As protector, she prevents danger and does her best to heal any harm that comes to the tribe. There are many reasons why spirits may be offended, so they are regularly assuaged to keep the peace. The people also do this for themselves – usually on a daily basis.
As soothsayer, she warns, gives comfort, or tells seekers know when there is no comfort to be found. Soothsayers are not necessarily spirit walkers. This is a skill that many have.
As historian, she’s the keep of names, lineages, stories, culture, and tradition. Each family also has their own story keeper.
Spirit walking is not a job. It’s a calling. They don’t charge money for their services; however, they do accept gifts. When they are serving, they are not farming or working, so this compensates them for their time and expenses and allows them to survive.
Modern shaman advertise to get clients.
Spirit walkers are humble. They tell no one and have no titles. Since they serve their tribe, here is no need to advertise anyway. Everyone knows who they are.
Modern shaman can take classes from whomever is offering them. They are even available online.
Spirit walkers don’t have classes. This education is not for sale. They learn from their spirit guides through a method that only they know. They don’t share it, nor is it the same from spirit walker to spirit walker. Other spirit walkers teach too, but this is not the primary mode of education.
Modern shaman can be a reflection of any spiritual path or none.
Spirit walkers are animist. They get their power and authority from Nature. They are deeply connected to the land, people, the elements, ancestors, and gods of their peple. All these things nourish them. Their reason for being is rooted in animism.
Modern shamans appears to be here to stay. They fill a void that is sorely needed in today’s world. However, they are not the same as indigenous spirit walkers and are not a replacement for them.