Reflecting on the literature on becoming and being a shaman in the traditional sense and the literature on neo-shamanic forms, we have identified some specific elements which we could expect to resurface in our material. Regarding both traditional shamanism and neo-shamanism, there seems to be a pattern of particulars, almost tropes, for the narrative of becoming a shaman, as outlined in the introduction. Within traditional shamanism, Wilson
) sets out a clear model of apprenticeship which roughly entails an introduction, the apprenticeship itself, the initiation and the recognition. According to him, the introduction mostly involves some kind of possessory experience (Wilson 2013
) or some kind of physical or mental peculiarity which is recognized by the community as a sign or mark of a potential shaman (Singh 2018
). The apprenticeship is the period in which the individual learns the techniques and skills of shamanism, the most important being the journeying between realms (Blain 2003
) and the ability to make contact and communicate with spirits (Wilson 2013
). The apprenticeship ends with an initiation by means of a trial, mostly constituted by a symbolic death or dismemberment. The period of ‘becoming’ ends with the recognition of the individual’s skills by the community, wherein these skills are seen as valuable to other members of the community (Wilson 2013
). The spirits play an important role throughout the process, as they are responsible for the powers a shaman acquires and uses (Diószegi 1960
). Therefore, a shaman can only be fully recognized as a shaman by the spirits.
3.1. Contemporary Narratives—Tropes and Coherence: Who Is in Charge?
The developed narrative construction analyzing systems, as outlined in the beginning, look at the respondents as autobiographical authors who place the apprenticeship of becoming a shaman in these stories. These analyzing systems access themes of agency
, narrative coherence
, and variations of the ideas of autobiographical reasoning
(McAdams and Manczak 2015
). The respondents were not asked to tell their life story, but were given questions that made them reflect on who they are, how they became this person and how they see themselves in relation to other shamans. While studying their answers according to the narrative construction analysis, we reflected on what the respondents said and how they said it. Some took the opportunity to give us a very detailed narrative of their life story in just one answer, others answered the question more directly and in a few words. However, all these answers given by one respondent form a single compact assembly together. Taking this into account, we looked at the whole narrative per respondent, analyzed it by the themes of narrative construction and put all the different forms of one theme alongside each other, thereby reflecting on the individual and collective levels.
are two concepts originating from J. Adler’s longitudinal study of narrative identity development and mental health (Adler 2012
). His focus on agency and coherence is premised on the dual aims of narrative identity: purpose and unity. Agency in narratives is understood as the manner in which the protagonist can affect their own lives and achieve some degree of control over the course of their experience, and, by extension, their self-sufficiency. Where agency represents purpose, coherence represents unity. Coherence is the degree in which the protagonist sufficiently describes the background information of the story, or details about the setting for the narrative that follows (Adler 2012
). It is also the degree to which the narratives have a causal sequence or a thematic integration (McAdams and Manczak 2015
Among our respondents, the degree of agency of the person differed strongly. Sometimes they did not experience any choice but were assigned by the spirits, like Respondent 1: ‘I first became aware of the spirits when I was 15 and they started teaching me.’ To the question whether they had received an initiation, the participant responded with: ‘[…] I don’t require a shanar [dedication ritual of a Buryat shaman], as the spirits have given me one incrementally over the years.’ Respondent 71 answered that ‘the Earth called, leading to expansive revelation experiences.’ Much more often, it was the person who was exploring themselves by research or practice or suffering a serious illness, who then had a spiritual experience during which the spirits visited, and after which they chose this path. Respondent 24 became very ill and did not expect to live. ‘In my weakened state, [these] same spirits returned and told me I could live if I chose to work with them. I chose life and they taught me.’ While one of the respondents mentions agency in giving empowerment, thus talking about a transition of agency from the spirit realm into the respondent’s; for others, agency is framed in terms of answering to a call and experiencing unexpected results. This element of surprise seems to be present in more accounts. In most cases, the element of surprise is provoked by the choice given by the spirits, considering that it is the person who willingly gives up their agency for a life full of surprises controlled by the spirits.
Considering coherence as the causal sequence evident in the responses, most responses display a high degree of coherence. The question: ‘In what way has your interest in shamanism changed you?’ stimulated people to reflect on their stories and made people think about the causal sequence of their story. This causal sequence manifests itself in two ways: Whereas most respondents talked about the change in themselves, others mentioned perceiving the world around them differently. The changes in themselves included behavioral changes, like in Respondent 9, who stated that their interest in shamanism had ‘realigned [them] to [their] work,’ or in Respondent 18, who felt ‘less tolerant of new age nonsense.’ When coherence is present in the display of the surrounding world, the responses do not necessarily consist of a change. They could also be retrospective, like Respondent 65, who mentioned: ‘throughout my childhood the spirit world was close and continued to be all throughout my life.’
In contrast with agency, communion
is not about the respondent as an individual manifesting her/himself, but about the participation of the respondent in some larger community or organization. For McAdams et al.
), these two categories are the central thematic lines in the stories people construct to provide their lives with unity and purpose. At its core, communion involves different people coming together and having communicative relationships. This concept of communion can be subdivided into four categories: love/friendship
(McAdams et al. 1996
). Especially the category community
as belonging to some larger community, experiencing a sense of unity or solidarity with a group of people or even with all of humankind, reappears in the answers of the respondents. Most respondents feel connected with the spirits or spirit allies, with the whole earth and all of mankind, and sometimes they also feel connected to other shamans through the work they do. Respondent 9, for example, has found shamanism ‘via lineage and past lives,’ and is now ‘of service.’ This work is part of the category care/help
, which all respondents feel to be one of their functions in the shamanic life. Some state to ‘be at service for humanity’ or ‘being a channel for healing others.’ The relations these respondents have are not always equal—some communities are strictly hierarchical. The phrase ‘to be at service’ consists of a submission of the respondent to the community.
Just as life stories can be compared with respect to the salience of the theme agency versus communion, they can also be contrasted in terms of the theme of redemption
). The redemption sequence
is the extent to which the participant is able to transform or redeem bad scenes into good outcomes. The contrasting narrative form of the redemption sequence is the contamination sequence, wherein positive scenes transform into bad or negative outcomes (McAdams 2001
). The idea of redemption is highly visible in the stories of the respondents who experienced an illness or a near-death experience. These events were eventually seen by them as the turning point, which led to the positive outcome of becoming a shaman or a shamanic practitioner. In their weakened state, these respondents were visited by the spirits who gave them the option to live or to choose this path; therefore, this illness or breakdown was seen as a preparatory state. The contrasting sequence, contamination, was surprisingly invisible in these responses.
One of the major characteristics of well-formed life stories is assigning a strong sense of meaning to one’s experiences and oneself. This narrative characteristic has been defined by researchers as meaning-making,
the way that the participant gleans messages or meaning from an event (McLean and Pratt 2006
). Meaning-making is mostly found in narratives that contain any kind of conflicting or tension-filled events, as crises or vulnerabilities tend to be particularly important for meaning-making. Unsurprisingly, meaning-making was found in the stories of the respondents who experienced a form of vulnerability due to a nervous breakdown or a disorder. The category of meaning-making therefore highly corresponds to the category of redemption found in these answers. Respondent 24 was ‘born with very [bad] sight’ and stated that she would sing ‘to spaces to discover where [she] was. This helped me to navigate the world, but it also showed what wasn’t there.’ This eventually led to ‘using [her] voice as ultrasound’, a skill she continues to use with clients. Similarly, Respondent 88 ‘had a nervous breakdown and had entered the spirit world, not knowing how to come back, very psychologically open in many dimensions and not knowing what was reality and what was illusion/delusion. It was very frightening at the time. [He] didn’t understand what was happening.’ Later, this event was described in one of the answers as the respondent’s initiation by the spirits.
is the process of making inferences about who a person is and what their life means. This can vary from identifying lessons learned to insights gained in life experiences. It is the activity of creating relations between the past, present, and future life, and one’s personality and development, marking this development or growth through sequences of scenes (McAdams and Manczak 2015
; Adler 2012
). This category was not present in all the respondents’ answers, but some mentioned that their personality or life had changed because of their experience with shamanism. They either felt more ‘of service’ or ‘more at peace with [themselves]’. Nonetheless, not all of the respondents felt that their life or personality had changed, but they did mention that ‘this [had] always been [their] life’ and it had ‘realigned [them] to [their] work over many lives’; ‘it was a continuation of many things [they were] already doing.’ The latter is still an understanding of or insight into the meaning of their life.
The last two categories, exploratory narrative processing
and coherent positive solution
, were not visible at all or only to a limited degree. The exploratory narrative processing refers to the extent of self-exploration evident in the answers, a development process that enriches narrative identity over time (Pals 2006
). None of the answers consisted of any kind of exploratory narrative processing. The coherent positive solution, however, was apparent in the answers of two respondents: Respondent 24 who declared to be ‘at service’ and Respondent 88 who mentioned ‘[they] had been prepared the whole time.’ These two respondents were also the people who elaborated on their story most extensively. They gave the most detailed answers to the questions, and their responses came closest to a proper narrative-bibliographical life story interview.
After analyzing these responses using the narrative construction model, we can identify some clear patterns: considering the respondents who experienced some kind of crisis in their youth – Respondent 24, Respondent 40 and Respondent 88—there is a clear pattern in the way they experience agency
. These respondents experienced something, overcame it, and now consider themselves at service to the community by having close contact with the spirits. They consider themselves as individuals having their own agency, but also as part of a broader community or a larger organism. It seems that a strict dualism between individualism versus collectivism or community does not apply. For these respondents, both elements of apprenticeship of neo-shamanism and traditional shamanism are combined. Neo-shamanism is an individual phenomenon involving the use of altered states of consciousness and the engagement of other life forms for the purpose of self-healing and finding the true, authentic self (Adler 1979
). Neo-shamanism lacks the social role and purpose of traditional shamanism (Townsend 2005
). Although the respondents do feel part of a broader community, they do not comprehend the same social role as within traditional shamanism. Their community is much vaguer and less defined, and can be anything other than themselves. This is also the reason why these respondents found it necessary to conduct the non-profitable part of their work. Some stated clearly that they do not charge for helping others, as shamanism is a gift which they were given to help others.
When asked to describe whether they have had any kind of initiation, all respondents traced this initiation to another kind of authority: either to the spirits or another shaman.
In other words, the community authorizes the initiation and this is similar to traditional shamanism in which recognition by the community plays a very important part in combination with approval of the spirits. In traditional shamanism, like Singh explains, a person does not find shamanism on their own, and the whole recognition of a person as a shaman, both the start of the apprenticeship and the initiation is often social (Singh 2018
). A person is recognized as a potential shaman by the community, mostly by some kind of marker that identifies the individual as capable of becoming a shaman (Singh 2018
). When the respondents were asked to describe how they found shamanism or how shamanism found them the answers differed from: ‘Quite by accident, had a serious illness and it began there’ (R40) to ‘Tibetan master who was my Vajrayana Buddhist master’(R18). This indicates that some respondents were introduced by another authority while others identified themselves as potential shamans after they experienced self-concluded spiritual markers, such as after suffering from a serious illness or a near-death experience. The respondents, who were spiritually initiated or introduced, had a much higher degree of redemption sequence
and meaning making.
This resonates more with the self-agency and individualism found in neo-shamanism than the kind of individualism found in traditional shamanism (Friedman 1992
3.2. Contemporary Narratives—Images and Identities: Which Shaman Do You Mean?
As a second method of analysis, we compared Mayer’s attributions of a shaman model to the responses of our respondents. The shaman, as we have seen from the previous parts of this article, is a complex and contested figure in modern society, a focal point of increasing interest in today’s spiritual landscape. However, what precisely a shaman is, how one becomes one and what one ‘does’ as a shaman is rather diverse and depends on different cultural perspectives in a traditional sense. Traditional forms of shamanism may have an influence on how contemporary shamans think about themselves and their practices. However, neo-shamanism might also come into play, as one of the available options.
Mayer’s approach to making sense of this diversity is to identify ten elements of the ‘shaman myth which form the popular image of shamanism in Western societies’ (Mayer 2008, p. 70
). These ten elements are considered by Mayer as attributions, based on ‘handed down knowledge on traditional shamans’ (Mayer 2008, p. 71
) which are related to a ‘Western, inevitably fragmented, perspective’ (idem). They are: (1) the healer
, where a holistic view of the human focuses on recreating the balance by keeping the ‘social context, the ancestors, the natural environment as well as the cosmos’ (Mayer 2008, p. 71
) in mind; (2) the master of ecstasy
, where, roughly following Eliade’s ideas, Mayer identifies the centrality of the promise of an intense experience where the shaman remains ‘master’ by using his will; (3) the ‘wanderer between the worlds
’, where the access to extraordinary aspects of reality is central—a person acting with intent, crossing borders and belonging to several cultures and reality realms; (4) the magician
with exceptional skills such as weather-making, divination, psychokinesis, telepathy and miraculous healing based on ‘self-sacrificial readiness-to-suffer and highly determined attitude’; (5) the master of metamorphosis
into different roles and different entities; (6) the interpreter of the world
, who understands omens, talks to different entities and nature—having insight into the way things are connected, and thus able to unravel structures of meaning; (7) the respected outsider
, the anarchist who sees beyond the surface of things and stays in tune with a deeper and more important reality, standing up for true authenticity; (8) the ecologist
with access to ancient, traditional knowledge which sees nature as an archaic power and reminds others of a past when harmony between humans and nature was the norm; (9) the ‘exponent of a non-materialistic cosmology
’, where causality is different, and thus scientific thought is shown as limited; (10) the exponent of an ‘alternative, individualistic spirituality
’ which is anti-hierarchical, where spiritual helpers and guides are personal, ‘found’ and ‘owned’, while the divine principle to which the shaman is subordinated remains abstract (Mayer 2008, pp. 84–86
). Our question is whether and in what way these attributes are present in the narratives of the respondents which identified themselves as shamans?
For this purpose, we chose to look at the responses of respondents as a whole. Narratives from individual respondents are enlightening through the amount of detail they contain. From the 14 respondents discussed in this article, five respondents have answered the questionnaire’s questions in such a detailed way that their answers form a well-formed narrative.
Respondent 1’s story is well-structured, full of detail and chronological in order. This narrative describes the path of life between childhood and present age, highlighting the most important moments, which are worth mentioning with regard to the topic of the survey, shamanism: becoming aware of spirits at the age of 15, when the process of receiving teachings from the spirits starts, complemented at 27 by human teachers. This is highlighted by the respondent as an ‘ongoing’ process which underlines the feeling that ‘this has always been my life’ seen from the perspective of 60 years. This ongoing process is not something that happens to the respondent, but it completely frames one’s experience of life in the sense that it becomes life itself (‘it is my life’). In this account, we also learn that the respondent considers shamanism as ‘work’ and does this in a ‘fairly traditional’ way, following what he calls the ‘Mongolian/Central Asian way’. In this respect, training and initiation is strengthened by ‘traditional Mongolian friends’ and by the use of (authentic) ritual objects from these traditions. These objects are used according to initiation and teachings which target their specific use. An initiation into shamanhood has been received directly from the spirits ‘incrementally over the years’.
In terms of Mayer’s attributions, in Respondent 1’s narrative, we encounter a tendency towards being a respected outsider (7). The respondent identifies human and non-human friends and also takes distance from forms of shamanism that one does not identify with ‘I don’t practice core or new age shamanism, which are very common in the west’, showing a certain degree of anarchy with respect to the ‘west’—this alternative reality of the spirit world which is confirmed by friends belonging to another culture as authentic and ‘traditional’. This respondent also acts as an interpreter (6) through the use of objects from different cultures, seeming to reveal deeper structures of meaning beyond culture, which are taught by and allowed access to by the ‘spirits’. In this sense, the respondent is also a wanderer between worlds (3), human worlds of different cultures and worlds of spirits. An aspect which seems central to the narrative of this respondent but is not captured by Mayer’s attributions is that of apprenticeship and hierarchical subordination to the spirits – this seems to be a narrative of agency willingly given up.
Respondent 24’s story is also chronological and emphasizes the circumstances before the respondent was visited by spirits and the unique skills this respondent acquired both before and due to these visits. Relating and navigating through space are made by the respondent through song as one cannot rely on one sense of sight. Singing was used also to ‘learn’ in ‘darkness’, and this is where spirits start to visit. The precise moment in life when this happened is unclear, but it can be placed with certainty before the age of 20, when a severe and almost fatal illness made the spirits return and offer a deal: keeping one’s life in exchange for ‘work with them’. The respondent actively chooses life and spirits ‘taught’. Initiation takes place after this ‘long illness’, with one’s ‘mistress spirit’ coming into the respondent and embodying herself for a timespan of two hours. This process of entering is then ‘moderated’ by the respondent, in the sense of learning to gain more control over it. The skills and activities that the respondent mentions concern ‘discover what is displaced’ with the help of ‘ancestral and land spirits’, healing through ‘embodying spirits who do the healing’ and ancestral fragmentation. As a skill, singing ‘spontaneously all the time’ is seen as important by the respondent. The respondent has been training with a ‘Scandinavian school’ and was part of a peer group for a longer time. In general, the most important dimension is that of being of ‘service, rather than just here for myself’, which articulates both the importance of forms of community and a certain role within them.
In terms of Mayer’s attributions, in Respondent 24’s narrative, we encounter a tendency towards identification as a healer (1) of others and a ‘mild’ magician (4), who uses the power of one’s voice ‘as ultrasound’ for unexpected purposes. This respondent also speaks of ‘embodying spirits who do the healing’ thus making a link between the attributions of being a master of metamorphosis (5) where one embodies and transforms into different entities and the process of healing (1), which is the main activity of this respondent. Here also, ‘ancestral and land spirits direct’ the respondent to be of ‘service’—however, the will of this respondent is trained through the years to gain control of the (length of the) process of possession (‘I began to learn how to moderate the incoming’), which resembles Mayer’s master of ecstasy (2) attribution.
Respondent 88’s story is also chronological in order but also uses one narrative in order to illustrate a more general point, which is made in the beginning: ‘I believe people are born shamans and that you cannot become one’. The historical narrative begins at the age of 20, with exploration and a sense of being ‘gifted’ and continues with the ‘conspiration’ of spirits to give an initiation at 22. This takes place through a nervous breakdown in which the ‘spirit world’ is entered, from which the respondent does not know how to come back. The respondent described this experience as ‘very frightening’ as one was ‘psychically open’ and ‘not knowing what was reality and what was illusion/delusion’. A diagnosis of schizophrenia kept the respondent wanting to become ‘normal’ for 7 years, ‘ignoring’ being ‘unwell’ (emphasis of the respondent) and now understanding ‘the concept of shamanic sickness’. This changed upon meeting the ‘medicine path’, which ‘makes sense’ and also brings back memories of past lives ‘having walked this path’. Self-healing is done through the use of sacred plants or sacred medicine (Ayahuasca and San Pedro are mentioned). Along with the realization and memory of being a shaman, the respondent moves from a position of self-healing to that of a healer, leading ceremonies. In retrospect, personal difficulties are seen as ‘being prepared’ to ‘navigate the different realms’, although this ‘path’ was never imagined and was ‘not easy to accept’. The relationship with spirits is complex and not necessarily hierarchical; the respondent listens to, barters with and trusts spirits ‘even when you don’t understand’. Being a shaman is not a ‘joke, hoax or a game’, one knows it is at one’s ‘core’ and not an ‘easy path’. The skills the respondent uses are the ‘traditional medicines …, following the cycles of nature and connecting with the elements’ and having most of the time ‘1 foot in the spirit world’.
In terms of Mayer’s attributions, in Respondent 88’s narrative we encounter a tendency towards identification as ‘exponent of a non-materialistic cosmology’ (9), where medical science and its diagnosis of schizophrenia are seen as incomplete and inadequate in establishing the root, cause and use of one’s problems. When a different form of causality is encountered, when the respondent ‘came across the medicine path’, ‘everything started to make sense’ as the respondent was ‘already gifted’ and going through a ‘shamanic sickness’. This makes the respondent a wanderer between ‘different realms’ (3), between the worlds of here and now and the medicine path, with the help of sacred plants but also across time and space, through remembering ‘many lifetimes in various parts of the Americas but mostly southern United States’. Being a healer (1) starts with healing the ‘I’, and according to this respondent it also seems to stop there. Although the respondent leads ‘sacred medicine ceremonies’, the goal is not to heal others but rather to use medicines, follow nature and the cycles of elements by keeping the balance (1). Having ‘1 foot in the spirit world’ points to a continuous access to a different, alternative part of reality (3), where the respondent listens to, barters with and trusts ‘the spirits’. Most importantly, Respondent 88 states ‘if you want to become a shaman then you are probably not one’, referring to the difficult ‘path’ one has to walk.
Respondent 143’s story is less complete, and it also does not necessarily follow a historical linearity. Important moments identified are receiving oracle cards, joining a friend who was taught shamanism, going to a clairvoyant and receiving different types of (not necessarily shamanic) training. The message received from the clairvoyant is described in the most detail, in the vision the respondent is identified as ‘being with’ a person undergoing a death process which is connected to journeying and a ‘psychopomp event’. The respondent can ‘journey to people and give them healing’. Skills involve working for a ‘power animal’, which brings ‘rich rewards’. The path of being a shaman is experienced as a ‘continuation of many things I was already doing’.
In terms of Mayer’s attributions, in respondent 143’s narrative, we encounter a tendency towards identification with wandering between the worlds (3), as the emphasis on the psychopomp experience shows. For this respondent, journeying seems to be the most important experience and tool. Working for ‘power animals’ connects to being an interpreter (6), however, the relationship implied in the respondents answer implies not a neutral stance, as proposed in Mayer’s category, but rather a hierarchical subordination to other entities which are not clearly named.
Respondent 154’s story also follows a historical build-up, with an unclear starting point in time centered around the experience of ‘odd things’ such as trembling hands and visions experienced by massage clients. ‘Coming home’ is experienced during a sweat lodge ceremony and is followed and strengthened by training with ‘allies’ which ‘had been waiting’. ‘Fully committing’ is reached upon the loss of one’s job and is mentioned in relation to a course on core shamanism and a voice saying, ‘now it is time’. Training was followed for a period of 15 years. The skills listed in this account were ‘communicating with my allies, listening, journeying, being a channel for healing for others’, which is made possible by having ‘found my song for healing’ and a different way of seeing nature. Healing is the most important task to be performed in this case.
In terms of Mayer’s attributions, in Respondent 154’s narrative, we encounter a tendency towards identification with a master of metamorphosis (5), changing roles and entities and other ‘odd things’ which started to be reported to the respondent by others – here, there seems to be less agency in the metamorphosis than Mayer’s category suggests. Journeying, communicating with allies and being a channel are all important aspects for this respondent, which resembles Mayer’s categories of wanderer between the worlds (3), interpreter who also has a changed relationship to nature (6), and again as a master of metamorphosis (5). The most important goal is the ‘healing for others’ for which tools such as ‘my song’ are used, which falls under Mayer’s healer category (1).
Comparing the responses of respondents among themselves, we can observe that the attribution most often used is that of being a psychonaut and ‘wanderer between the worlds’ (3), followed closely by the attributions of healer (1) and interpreter of the world (6). Next in line are the attributions of master of metamorphosis (5), and finally the master of ecstasy (2) respected outsider (7) and an exponent of non-dualistic cosmology (9) attributions. The attributions not mentioned by our respondents are those of an ecologist (8) and exponent of an alternative, individualistic spirituality (10). If we compare these attributions to the way the same characteristics are described in the literature about shamanism and neo-shamanism, we can see that the most used attributions of the wanderer (3), healer (1) and interpreter (6) are also categories which are central to the literature about traditional shamanism. Numerous accounts focus on the travels, journeys, movements and the skills needed for shamans in order to move between, to wander between different worlds, different realms of existence (Eliade 1964
; Blain 2003
). This ability to wander between realms also remains central in neo-shamanic accounts, although the ‘methods’ and ‘techniques’ used are therefore different, and are often learned from different sources, making use of tools from more than one shamanic tradition. Among the diverse tasks taken up by traditional shamans, that of healing is mentioned as one of the most important. Especially in neo-shamanism, the importance of healing increases, making it central both for the self and also possible for others. The attribution of being an interpreter has a different connotation in the literature concerning traditional shamans, where the shaman translates foremost between humans and spirits, for the benefit of the community. Our respondents interpret between cultures, using objects and artefacts from different settings, which are being taught and allowed access to by spirits (Respondent 1). They also interpret among helpers or allies and spirits, where interpretation is connected to the ability to understand and act upon their wishes (respondent 143). Interpreting the languages of different realms, translating messages from ‘beyond’ into action (respondent 154) also takes place. Surprisingly, although individualism seems to be mentioned as one of the foremost characteristics of neo-shamanism and one of its main differences from traditional shamanism, Mayer’s shaman as an exponent of an alternative, individualistic spirituality (10) is not found in our accounts.