Shamanism: The Basics

Shamanism is one of the earliest and most widespread talents of the human experience, and it is one of the foundations of the native spirituality I recount through The Shaman's Cross. What, then, is exactly meant by this concept? It is more than just a tribesman who performs rituals in the village, and it does not match outdated terms like "witch doctor" or "wizard." Here I will cover the basics of the shamanic career: its spiritual purpose, techniques, and calling. I will then explain how they pertain to especially Albín in the book.

The Spirit World

To understand shamanism requires a glimpse of the world the shaman works in: the earth, the moon, the sun, the winds, the animals--all of nature is alive and conscious because the things of the world have souls. Be they gods or spirits, these beings guide natural phenomena like a thought guides a muscle. However, they are usually unnoticeable because they exist in another dimension of existence. These dimensions are found in the realms above and below the earth surface, beyond the world of living humans.

The shaman is a specialist who undergoes an altered state of consciousness in order to interact with the gods and spirits of these realms. The altered consciousness inspires an out-of-body experience, allowing the shaman to travel to the otherworldly dimensions and communicate with the spirits on behalf of his or her community. The shaman breaks deals and offers exchanges to keep the spirits fed and pleased; the spirits will lead the community to food or protect them from harm in return.

The ways to reach these altered states of consciousness are many: hallucinogenic plants, rhythmic drumming, sleep deprivation, and intensive meditation are among the most common. They vary across cultures with shamanic traditions.


Strange Drugs

A point that is often missed about cultures that use mind-altering substances is that they do NOT have a free-for-all. Substance consumption is literally a religious experience and is therefore restricted to ceremonial occasions, under controlled conditions. It heightens perception and reveals the "world beyond the world." With plants such as the Amazonian ayahuasca vine or the Mexican peyote cactus, the experiences come in a blazing array of light and color. The ultimate point is to effectively communicate with spirits in other worlds.

Not all substances are equal. The peyote cactus is sacred to the Huichol of West Mexico, for instance. Other mind-altering plants, such as kiéri (Datura and/or jimsonweed), are prohibited because they induce violence and madness. The Huichol also associate kiéri with black magic. (Substance addictions are a recent phenomenon and are not found in traditional cultures that use drugs for sacred functions.)

The Shaman's Charge

The shaman's work is part-time, based upon demand. His or her work is ordinarily the same as for fellow community members. (The shaman is therefore not a tribal "priest." A priest is a full-time specialist within a hierarchical religious bureaucracy who acts on behalf of the supernatural world, not in direct communication with it. The priest will also receive training through a formal institution like a seminary, but the shaman's preparations may be more like the apprentice to a master.)

Shamans often "discover" their charge early in life through a near-death experience, a grave illness, or another related personal crisis. It is commonly likened to a death and rebirth into a life of new (and secret) knowledge and power. During this period the shaman initiate may receive preliminary messages and teachings from the spirits, choosing him or her to take the career. The shaman initiate will undergo further training and teaching through a long, intensive period. He or she will learn how to focus mental abilities, sing ritual songs, learn spiritual languages, and use ritual tools.

Healing is one of the shaman's main tasks, and he or she works with both medicinal and spiritual aspects of health. Part of the human "souls" could be lodged out of the body under crises such as the Latin American susto 'fright,' which makes the body vulnerable to illness. The shaman must then recover the missing psychic element and restore it to the patient. Companion spirits, acquired through the initiatory period, may help the shaman in these tasks.



Shamanism in the Book

Albín was the exemplar of a shaman in my tale. The elderly man had his own farmlands to raise, which demanded his constant attention, and he also devoted much of his time to his wife and son. He did the same work as all the other men in the Otomí village of Hníní, and he was even an active participant in the community. However, in addition to daily life he had special access to the wind spirits and ancient gods that most others in Hníní did not, and so many sought him out when they needed his appeal to the invisible world. The requests came notably for crops or healing: the well-being of the land and the people, the two keys to communal survival and therefore always the priorities in shamanic religion. He also led community ritual activities such as mountain pilgrimages and New Year's ceremonies.

Albín started his role as a shamanic healer in 1992, after he received dream messages from the spirits who had appointed him. He trained with Hníní elders, the keepers of the native mysteries, to learn how to cut the paper images of the nature gods--and what prayers and offerings were due for them.

Albín thus commerced with a motley gang of supernatural beings: living winds, mountain spirits, earth gods, and Catholic saints among them. (In principle, he could even listen directly to their messages by eating the hallucinogenic Santa Rosa leaves in his repertoire, though I'd never seen him do so.) While many of these divinities have deep roots in Mesoamerican spirituality, Albín's Otomí customs were open to symbols and figures introduced through Spanish Christianity since the Conquest. And yet, despite the occasional nod to Catholic prayer, the theology holds its essentially indigenous shape.

This is the ultimate meaning of The Shaman's Cross: among the Aztec and Otomí villages, I found a native spirituality that has kept its shamanic foundations by adapting to Christianity, not failing before it. To the Otomí shamans Teo and Albín, the cross has sacred power, it amplifies the effects of rituals and prayers, as taught by God. Millions of Mexico's indigenous peoples have followed native and Christian practice as complements, not competitors, in their spiritual life: together they teach the rites and morals to live properly in this world and to prepare for the next. In this way the community acts respectfully, harmoniously with the natural world around them and the sacred forces that move it. The shaman must then speak across the fields of spirit and man.