Shamanism does not have a doctrine, a sacred book or even a shamanic church, and therefore cannot be considered a religion. It is rather a cultural form. Shamanism is considered by many as a state of mind and is a fusion of sensibility and religious practice: life is seen as a whole, with therapeutic effects in the communities where it is practised. The word “shaman” originated in Siberia: it comes from the Evenca language, spoken by a group of hunters and Tungu-speaking reindeer shepherds, and merely designated the local priest. As Eliade  points out, despite the specificity of these practices in Siberia (especially the ecstasy techniques from several ethic groups), there is neither a historical or geographical origin, nor a unifying principle for shamanism as we know it. There is reason to believe that shamans were very important in self-sufficient and isolated prehistoric communities, as they had several functions. Shamans were men or women: they were doctors, priests, mystics and social workers. They celebrated ceremonies and rituals, healed the ill and the wounded, communicated with the spirits and the ancestors and gave wise advice. Shamans should guarantee the well-being of the people from their community. As their sapience and ability to discern grew, shamans were able to enter a state of controlled trance, becoming connected to the other parts of Creation .
According to Mircea Eliade, in Central Asia, the shaman was only acknowledged by the whole community after he/she went through initiation rituals. In some cases, these included surviving serious illness, being struck by lightning and dreaming of thunders – a “near-death” experience followed by a strong "appeal" to become a shaman. Also according to Mircea Eliade, these experiences were associated to images which included being carried away into a world of spirits, interacting with those spirits, finding a spiritual guide and undergoing radical transformation processes. On the other hand, the ideal profile of a shaman would be that of a serious person who knew how to convince those around him/her, neither presumptuous nor choleric.
Among other peoples, shamans might also take on the role of singer, poet, musician, psychic, priest and doctor. Due to their experience of suffering before initiation or possession experience, shamans were associated to altered states of perception such as epilepsy, hysteria and psychosis. However, according to Lévi-Strauss, neuroses and psychoses seem to decrease where shamanism exists, as shamanist practices may have a therapeutic effect regarding mental illnesses . As this designation became disseminated during the 20th century, it came to encompass the traditional therapeutic practices of male and female healers from several regions of the world. Inspired in the New Age-type alternative movements of the 1960s, the word currently designates those who are able to keep any kind of contact with the spirits, in order to have a therapeutic role regarding any physical or mental problem (Neo-Shamanism).
William Adcok, O Xamanismo, Lisboa: Estampa, 2001, 64 p. (pp. 6-8).
Mircea Eliade, Le chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l’extase, Paris, Éditions Payot, 1983.
Several authors, “Xamanismo”, in Wikipedia (Portuguese), http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xamanismo [30 July 2008].
Several authors, “Shamanism”, in Wikipedia (English), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism [30 July 2008].
Piers Vitebsky, O Xamã, Evergreen, Taschen GmbH, 2001, 184 p. (pp. 10-11).