What Makes a Shaman a Shaman?


Part Two of an interview with Craig Berry as an introduction to Modern Shamanism.

What Makes a Shaman a Shaman?

Starting with the easy questions I see!

There are a few essentials to be a considered a Shaman. An expensive and 'internationally recognised' qualification is shamanism is NOT one of them. Being a member of a shamanic Association is not essential or significantly relevant either.

Before you can even start to consider whether one is a shaman:

  • One needs to have a community that one serves.
  • One needs to work in conjunction with the natural and spiritual world to achieve balance and health for their community at all levels.
  • One needs to be responding cleanly to a true calling, never working form a place of ego or self-importance.

You seem to have something to say on the ‘professional shamanism’ schools. Would you elaborate?

Happily! To become a shaman, one must acquire understanding. The source of this understanding comes from physical teachers, non-physical teachers, spirit and plant maestros. When entrepreneurs offer an ‘internationally recognised qualification in shamanism’; espousing a similar practise for all, teaching the same doctrine, taking personal credit for the teaching, you have a fraught situation.

A shaman is called a shaman when recognised as such, by their community and peers. Show a Mestizo curandero of South America your international qualification in shamanism, and at best, they might feel that you are offering them some rough toilet paper! Only by effective practise and consistent results will a person become recognised as a Shaman.

I have nothing against those exploring their spirituality  through these schools, or even the schools themselves; please don't get me wrong here.  What I am firmly not in favour of is the thought that a single school can represent 'true shamanism' and that through paying enough money and attending for long enough, a person becomes a shaman.  This is nonsensical.  I applaud anyone who is willing to look beyond themselves and seek with an open heart and mind; provided it is tempered by a healthy dose of scepticism.

Is that about the growing number of shamanic schools popping up all over the place?

‘Gringos’ doing Ayahuasca retreats and plant diets in the Amazonian jungle are people exploring a shamanic way of life, but are not automatically ‘elevated’ to claim the title of Vegalista. The very thought of ‘elevation’ is in itself a non-sequitur. In many societies, the shaman is regarded dualistically as outside of the community as well as a central figure within it. The shaman often occupies a dual position of trust and distrust; the potential for harm as well as good is instinctively understood by those who understand the shaman’s role.  When human foibles degrade the shaman’s work into personal gratification and personal power, the shaman becomes a destructive force, spreading fear, dogma and paranoia with another false pseudo-religion.

I would suggest that in many forums and chat rooms, it seems that shamanic retreats are becoming more about the dollar and less about shamanism. No doubt there are excellent facilities and maestros who are helping and teaching many folks, but you don’t get to be a shaman in two or three weeks of jungle life.  Shamanism is a way of life, of viewing the world, of viewing energy and spirit.  Being a shaman is something you are, not something you attain.

The major, saving grace is that if the 'gringo' seekers are studying under Ayahuasca or San Pedro, the plant Spirit itself will take over their instruction. The traditional shaman will simply let the plant Spirit teach the seeker whilst maestro ensures their safety during their learning time. Check out plant spirit shamanism on Google sometime, there is plenty of information out there. The problem is the commercial idealisation of shamanism.

You see, shamans are rarely fully trusted in their traditional societies, as they commune with places and do things that are considered beyond the general population. The shaman has to earn and keep the trust of their people by staying clean and true, not degrading their practise into mean or negative practises; dirtying it – brujo. An industrialised person is unlikely to understand just how hard the role of shaman is within a traditional or semi-traditional society. We tend to see with the 'rose' coloured lenses an unknown but often idealised world. The reality is that shamanic practise holds many temptations towards dirty practise, considered negative by any popular societal measure.

Keeping 'clean' is a constant test, effort and choice. That is the reality of being a shaman. In many cases, the confidentiality required of even traditional practitioners means one is unable to discuss things impacting one's life, much like a doctor or psychologist. Even if discussing a journey, the failure of language to express the information received and experienced is often a frustration. I don't know if those who idealise shamanism in the industrialised world understand this side of it., or even want to know about it.

In traditional societies, a shaman must be called, and work within their calling to remain safe and well grounded. There is no more or less valuable shamanic practise. Many great shaman I know are called chefs, making food taste better than the ingredients allow by adding intent and love, both very real, physical things in the shamanic way of thinking.

OK, we’re off on a tangent, back to ‘professional shamanism’?

There is no ‘legitimate’ International Committee of Shamans adjudicating over applications from those wishing to join their ranks. There are plenty of ‘professional associations’ and guilds and clubs who often see what they do as something above the normal, often adding airs and dogma to their practise, becoming just another quasi-religion. Simple shamanic circles are held and the folks that are meant to find them generally do. In these, discussions and sharings build understanding and learning. That is not to say that there are not some very talented shamanic practitioners within those more organised groups, just that they are not in a position to say whether someone is or is not a Shaman. The best they can do is say whether or not someone can join their club.

Let me pose the answer in this way: Can we agree that those recognised as shaman within their traditional societies are really shaman? OK, now those shaman recognise each other, just as many who meet a ‘real’ [genuine] shaman can feel it, even in our modern world (albeit to a lesser extent). Shaman have shared experiences and practises that each recognise as common. They've normally served apprenticeships, produce results and with-stood significant trials to become recognised by their community as a shaman to their people, just as their duty is to train those called after them.

A really fast aside: The shaman’s life is not their own, they belong both to themselves and the spirit world they represent. When I say it is their duty, it is exactly that. Typically, a shaman knows an apprentice is coming, often when told or shown by a spirit guide. The calling has gone out, and if answered, that apprentice will present to the shaman. For a shaman to deny that duty would be to go against the very spirit world he or she serves.

So back to our traditional shamans. What credence do you think they’d give to a piece of paper? A membership card to a society of shamans would bring an incredulous look, I am guessing. To be a shaman is to be a shaman. Responding to a call is like me being a male or my dog being a dog; there is simply nothing else one can be. Shamans do not need pieces of paper to legitimise their experience, understanding or efficacy. A shaman recognises another shaman by their presence, their personal energetic, their signature in their world, the spirits they hold on behalf of their community, the weight and mass of those spirits.

Think of the last time you met someone who had an uncanny level of ability at their chosen service, and it will be a service for sure. Did they seem to understand what you needed, often even more so than what you thought you wanted? If they made you a sandwich, did it just taste better than it should? If they met you, did they look at your soul without judgement? These are the marks of those who have followed their calling. Not necessarily shamanic, but a calling. We all have one; the ‘unlucky’ ones, more than one.

So what makes a Shaman a Shaman?

A shaman follows a calling to investigate, experience and learn about the shamanic realities that over-lay, under-lay and make up our world; often following a master=apprenticeship type of relationship with one or more teachers. A Shaman is defined by their manner, their understanding and by the recognition of their shamanic peers and community. A shaman does not have need of a piece of paper to legitimise something that is their birth-right and their calling, nor a licence to practise or anything else. You just have to walk lightly in this spiritually magnificent world of nature to experience the shamanic beauty [truth] in the world. Listen for the call to your place in the world. When you follow your calling, you have fulfilment, and there is nothing – nothing – more worthy than that.

Next: Defining and Describing ‘The Calling’ of a Shaman


  11 Responses to “What Makes a Shaman a Shaman?”

  1. […]  Next: What makes a Shaman a Shaman? […]

  2. I think Craig hits a home run here in Part II of this article on what it takes to be a shaman and be called a shaman. I have studied directly with te Q’eros of Peru for over a year. As part of my documentary on Shamanism “The Path of the Sun” http://www.thepathofthesun.com I have visited Q’eros twice, have another trip planned and have spent much time in the Amazon with various shaman. Regarding the Q’eros – I have participated in all initiation ceremonies (Karpays), countless despachos and limpias, and many hours recording their senior spiritual leaders. Do I call myself a shaman? NO, and you can bold face and underline that NO as well. What I am is someone along the path and an initiate a trainee, one who has learned, but one who does not practice. I was recently in the US and was introduced to a 20 something who described himself as a shaman in Q’eros tradition. He said Q’eros with a spanish accent. The Q’eros speak Quechua and hte accent is very different sounding than spanish. He had never met a Q’eros, he had never been to Q’eros, and he coud not name the spiritual leader of what he called his lineage. That’s a cool word, but there is no lineage – you have a maestro, but the maestro’s for the most part work together. The term shaman these days gets thrown around way to easily. And, IMHO it is a dangerous practice. Working within the spirit world to effect a positive outcome is no easy task, and if done improperly can cause the opposite affect. People should realize also that many so called shamanic schools practice derived shamanism using this practice from one group and another practice or ritual from another. This is not shamanism – it is “New-age shamanism” and its practitioners are not shaman – they are “shamanistas”

    Seti Gershberg


  3. Thank you Seti. Shaman is a term which has little meaning unless used respectfully by the people who recognise and witness a practitioner’s efficacy and impeccability of practice.

    It is disturbing to think people with no shamanic background can be sold an instant curandero course like a Shake-and-Bake mixture. What tradition can there be grounding the knowledge and understandings in a few weeks of retreat?

    I do feel that the forest shaman is a critically endangered species, loss or habitat and gaining of money is seeing the process accelerate. The uptake of traditions by industrialised people may well be a mechanism of preservation of the efficacious skills of indigenous groups worldwide. My only concern is that of sufficient training and calling. A single mentor is needed to set foundations through which other information may be filtered.

    Glad you took the time to drop by and reply. Have a great ‘now’ 🙂 Craig

  4. […] ShamansHearth has a great post that looks at the callings of traditional shamans and the idea of what makes a shaman a shaman: […]

  5. […] has a great post that looks at the callings of traditional shamans and the idea of what makes a shaman a shaman: In traditional societies, a Shaman must be called, and must work within their calling to remain […]

  6. Thank you for this wonderful post. Everything you say resonates with me – I have recently accepted what I feel is my true path, that of Shaman, though being in England I understand I can never claim the knowledge of ‘true’ Shamans. Yet the call to walk this path is strong, especially after several recent experiences, however there does not seem to be any practising Shamans in my area, which makes the work hard for me, as I understand I do not know enough about this complex, dangerous path. I want to learn – I am a healer, and now I feel/am told I am a protector – but I know I need further information to keep safe, for myself and for those I work for,

  7. Thank you for a wonderful article.

    I especially liked this sentence from this article: “The shaman’s life is not their own, they belong both to themselves and the spirit world they represent.”

  8. Are some people shamen without knowing it? Or does it require the elevation of the title of shaman?

  9. No. A person may be called without understanding, but with my clinical background, I would compare the intensity and discipline require to pass an apprenticeship as equivalent to an undergrad degree in anatomy and physiology. I have met ‘naturals’, but without the structured skills and training that only comes with a brilliant maestro, I’ve never met a shaman who hasn’t had extensive training and is effective in these realms.

  10. thank you 🙂

  11. I’d recommend travelling to areas where practicing shaman with integrity can still be found. It is a path that must be in response to a calling, and when called, use your discernment to wisely choose a teacher.