Shamanism in contemporary culture often evokes stereotypical images of witch doctors, New Age gurus and Carlos Castaneda. Yet this religious and cultural tradition is one of the oldest forms of healing (some estimate that shamanism originated over 10,000 years ago) and is a part of many regions throughout the world. It has been widely practiced in South America, Oceania, China, Tibet and Korea. It is also an important part of many Eskimo, Native American and Celtic cultures.
The distinguishing characteristic of shamanism is the ecstatic trance the healer enters in order to communicate with spirits, rescue souls, battle with ogres or reconcile an offended nature spirit. Traditionally most shamans are men, though some women do become shamans.
To an outsider, the shaman might be perceived as a primitive medical doctor. In reality, he or she is a revered and essential member of the community, acting as physician, spiritual minister, dream interpreter, psychiatrist and elder statesman who serves as a bridge between the physical and spirit worlds. The shaman's healing rituals provide existence with a moral interpretation and meaningfulness. According to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the function of a shaman is to reproduce and restore belief, not physical health
Becoming a shaman is not just a job; it is a vocation. Usually, a young initiate must be "called" through a visitation of the spirits. Often, the call to shamanize is directly related to a near death experience or serious illness. A common experience of the call to shamanism is a psychic or spiritual crisis accompanying a physical illness, so that a shaman can overcome the negative powers of death and disease and heal others with empathy.After the initiatory illness, the novice shaman studies with a mentor for years to master trance states and shamanic traditions. Names and functions of spirits, the mythology and genealogy of the clan and sacred chants must also be studied by the shaman-in-training.
According to Plotnikoff, men, women, and even children can be the “chosen” one. (pg. 30) No matter of what sex or age this person is, they will be chosen by the spirits through long sickness. The shaman who diagnoses the “chosen” one becomes his or her “master shaman teacher” (Rice). After the “chosen” one agrees to become a shaman, the illness is than cured. (Lewis) It takes at least three years to learn of “the sacred chants and the complex and highly elaborated techniques and procedures of the shamanic rites” as well as “the name and nature of the legion of evil spirits who bring harm and suffering to humankind” (Rice). They learn through example and imitation. He or she will follow their master’s words and imitate his or her actions. The instructions are given at night or in the forest (Rice). “They would lie together on the sleeping platform and discuss the mysteries of the spirit world, the power of special chants, the intricacies of ritual technique" (Rice) There are no written books or manuals to becoming a shaman. All of the learning is mnemonic, personal, and experiential” (Rice). Each shaman also maintains teacher spirits who instruct him/her how to perform (Lewis).
The Hmong religion is traditionally animist (animism is the belief in the spirit world and in the interconnectedness of all living things). At the center of Hmong culture is the Txiv Neeb, the shaman (literally, "father/master of spirits"). According to Hmong cosmology, the human body is the host for a number of souls. The isolation and separation of one or more of these souls from the body can cause disease, depression and death. Curing rites are therefore referred to as "soul-calling rituals". Whether the soul became separated from the body because it was frightened away or kidnapped by an evil force, it must return in order to restore the integrity of life
TranceEditA shaman is transported to another world via a "flying horse," a wooden bench usually no wider than the human body. The bench acts as a form of transportation to the other world. Buffalo horn tips are thrown to the ground to determine which way the soul has gone. The shaman wears a cloth mask while he or she is reaching a trance state. The mask not only blocks out the real world, so the shaman can concentrate, but also acts as a disguise from evil spirits in the spirit world. During episodes when shamans leap onto the flying horse bench, assistants will often help them to balance. It is believed that if a shaman falls down before his soul returns to his body, he or she will die.
The purpose of a ceremony is to cure the illness of a person. The shaman will be the one who cures the sick person. A ceremony is held to treat an illness, bless a house, to ease the anger of spirits, to call the soul for a baby three days after it is born, when a person’s spirit has wandered off, or has been taken by a malevolent spirit (Gorrilla, 14). When a malevolent spirit has taken the spirit of a person, it is called “loss spirit” or “Poob plig"(14). This is when a Hmong shaman has to perform a soul calling ceremony.
When a shaman is asked to cure a sick person, he or she has the ability to refuse or to perform a healing ceremony. A few reasons a shaman will refuse to perform a ceremony are: the shaman is tired/the shaman has other appointments with other patients/or the shaman just wants to rest. Sometimes a shaman will do a ceremony only because the patient is a close relative or close a family member. The shaman usually picks the location where the ceremony will be located, which it is always best if the healing ceremony takes place at the sick person’s home.
In order for a ceremony to take place, there has to be specific tools set up. Beside the tools, it is traditional for the shaman to wear a loose and silky outfit. This is because the shaman must be able to jump up and down while in his/her clothes. Besides the traditional outfit, the shaman covers his/her face with a piece of thin, light, fabric for concealment and protection from the evil spirits that shaman will be facing. A pig or a cow will have to be sacrificed at the ceremony in exchange for the soul of the patient (14). When all of the requirements are prepared, the ceremony can begin.
Before a shaman knows where to call the spirit back, he/she has to use the divination horns (horns of a bull) to indicate what happened to the ill person, what caused the problem, and where to go. From that, the shaman will know how and what to do next.
When a shaman goes into another world, or the spirit world, the shaman enters an ecstatic trance, and balances on a beam that represents a flying spirit horse (14). The shaman does not walk on foot in the spirit world. The shaman enters the spirit world through the bamboos and the strings, which are hung up on the ceiling. Shamans use the string as a bridge, which will lead them to where they are supposed to go. The bamboo is the supporter for the bridge.
During a ceremony, there must be at least two helpers behind the shaman’s back. One person is to make sure the shaman will not fall off the bench while performing the ceremony and is also responsible for burning the paper (spirit money) for the spirit. The assistant burns the paper whenever the time comes. The other person is responsible for hitting the gong. The purpose of the gong is to call the spirit (assistant) to help the shaman and to permit the shaman to enter a trance and again to depart from the trance. During the ceremony, no one is allowed to be in front of the shaman, the shaman must always be in front. This is so because they will interrupt the ceremony, which will cause the shaman to go back and start from where he/she had left off. The only time that they can go in front of the shaman is when the shaman drops something from his or her hand.