Contemporary Shamanism

Leo Rutherford 2019
Leo Rutherford 2019

With Leo Rutherford

Shamanism is a path to wisdom which is gained through experience of many facets of life, through rituals, ceremonies, prayer and meditation, trials and tests.  It is not a belief system, it is a way of knowledge – that which is known from inside – that which stands up to tests and to the test of time, something that is proven to work, unlike beliefs which are something taken on from outside and not personally tested in the laboratory of life.  Wars can be fought over beliefs, dogma and doctrine, never over knowledge.


The origins of shamanism go back at least 40,000-50,000 years to stone age times. Shamanism is the oldest way in which humanity has sought connection with Creation.  All of us have evolved from shamanic cultures – shamanism is not imported, it is our roots wherever we live.

All over the world there is evidence of shamanic practises from as far back as the Palaeolithic period.  From ancient cave drawings and such records it seems that all indigenous peoples shared a similar cosmology, a similar understanding of how the universe works.  Today shamanism survives on all inhabited continents in less ‘developed’ regions in spite of the relentless onslaught of Western scientific materialism, the treatment of the Earth and nature as something to be dominated and exploited, and dogmatic male dominated religion.

As the insatiable and unsustainable nature of Western civilisation is becoming visible, more and more people of the industrial world are turning to the old cultures for help and guidance in finding a way back to a greater balance with nature, with Planet Earth, and with themselves.  Will we be in time?  How can we do enough to change our polluting and desecrating ways?


The word shaman comes from the language of the Tungus reindeer herders of the Lake Baikalregion of Russia. From the Encyclopaedia Britannica it seems it is derived from the Tunguso-Manchurian word saman, formed from the verb sa- meaning ‘to know’ as in the French word savoir and the Spanish saber.  Western anthropologists researching indigenous healing practises the world over have applied the term shaman to indigenous healers, visionaries, seers, prophets.  Hence what we know today as shamanism.

The anthropologist S. Shirokogoroff who was one of the earliest to explore the Tungus people stated,  ‘In all Tungus languages this term (saman) refers to persons of both sexes who have mastered spirits, who at their will can introduce these spirits into themselves and use their power over the spirits in their own interests, particularly helping other people who suffer from the spirits.’ (Ref: S.Shirokogoroff, 1935, ‘Psychomental complex of the Tungus’. Routledge, Kegan, Paul, London).

The words witch and wizard come from the indo-European root meaning ‘to see’ or ‘to know’ and are found in the French voir or the latin videre meaning to see, or the German wissen meaning to know.  In the history of Britain, witchcraft, wicca, wyrd, were all shamanic ways. Witchcraft in particular has many centuries of bad press and witch has come to mean something very different from ‘to know’, ‘wise one’ or ‘wise woman’ .  Wyrd has been changed into weird-strange.  All this was partof the destruction by Christian church teaching of the ancient spiritual ways of this land to facilitate the imposition of this Middle Eastern-Judao-Greco-Roman religion.

Power, knowledge, vision, prophetic abilities are in themselves beyond morality.  A shaman is someone who uses these abilities for healing and wholeness (holyness). Someone who uses these same abilities for gain at others’ expense, for evil, is often called a sorcerer, (although the original meaning of that is simply ‘one who connects with the source’). Witchcraft was originally a ‘white’ path of healing but became corrupted by some and is remembered in the cultural folklore mainly as ‘dark’.  It is important to remember at all times that power is just power, an ability is just an ability. It is what we humans do with power and with our abilities that makes good or evil.

The meaning of shaman is sometimes quoted as ‘to heat up, to burn, to work with heat and fire’, and sometimes as ‘Wise One’ or ‘One Who Knows’, ‘One Who Sees’.  In the words of Mercia Eliade, a shaman is a ‘Master of Ecstasy’ – a master of ex-stasis (from the Greek) meaning outside the normal stasis of consciousness.  They are masters of altered states of consciousness in which the normal rules of Newtonian three dimensional existence are no longer valid, and in which travel to other worlds, pre-cognition, distant seeing and healing, communication with the dead, are all possible and natural.

A very good definition of shamanism is this one by Roger N. Walsh taken from his book, ‘The spirit of shamanism’:

Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) travelling to other realities at will, and interacting with other entities in order to serve their community.

‘Ordinary’ people, in the words of the Armenian teacher Gurdjieff, live in a state of ‘waking sleep’.  The shaman is someone who has woken up to true reality, the reality of the ‘nagual’, the ‘spirit world’, the reality behind apparent reality, the reality of imagination. (I-mage-a-nation…I-the Mage.)  The commonplace statement ‘Oh it’s only imagination’ is a gross denial of not only the whole realm of the magical but of the any understanding of how the universe really works.  It is in the imagination, the thought or dream realm where all is conceived and of which this familiar third dimension of gross material reality, the ‘tonal’, is but a reflection, and it is there in the realm of cause that the shaman works.  For example – consider the room or building you are sitting in, or a building nearby. What came first, ‘reality’ or the thought?  Surely the thought…


In tribal cultures, the shaman is the ‘doctor of the soul’ for both the community and individuals. He/she is concerned with the health – the Spirit – of the community and with keeping the vision alive of who they are and where they are going.  The shaman’s primary task is to keep the people as a whole ‘in spirit’ – inspired – and secondarily to assist any individual who suffers from loss of spirit/soul, in modern day language who becomes ‘dispirited’.

The shamanic understanding of sickness is loss of power.  Power as energy, not might. It is power over oneself, being power-full. When we are full of power we are unlikely to get sick and from a classical shamanic point of view, bad spirits, intrusions, or darts sent from another person will not succeed in harming us.  From a Western point of view this is the same as saying that we are vulnerable to sickness when we feel bad, when life is emotionally challenging and we are depressed or dealing with grief, jealousy, rage or major emotional upheaval.

Shamans say the main cause of illness is ‘separation’, meaning separation from nature, from community, from the Source, from Oneness.  Interestingly the original meaning of ‘sin’ is to be separated from god, to ‘miss the mark’.

From a shamanic point of view, unaware ‘separated’ people cause damage when their hostility, bad vibes or dark thoughts penetrate others. We send out thought forms all the time and when we send good thoughts, they bless and when we send bad thoughts they can harm.  In the great web of life all things influence all things.  Shamanic work is about contacting the powers of the universe directly, about ending separation from nature, from the Source, and therefore we can say it is about healing ‘sin’!

There is a great need now to make our own individual connections with the Source and re-empower ourselves.  To accept responsibility for our lives, our connection to spirit, our health, our actions in the world, and most importantly our actions regarding our home, Mother Earth.  The shamans say we are supposed to be the Caretakers of the Earth.  We are the one species with the knowledge of Self, and thus the power of conscious choice. We are now challenged as never before to awaken to our Oneness with All Things, to our relationship to each other as cells in the body of The Creator manifest in and on the Earth, and to use our vast power wisely.


Religion Shamanism
Belief in one god. Trust in Existence.
God is separate. God is everything, everywhere.
Set of beliefs. Set of tools to discover knowledge.
God is good, devil is evil. Good and evil are two aspects of creation.
Priests elected by hierarchy. Shamans acknowledged through ability.
Repetitive dogma/structure. Constantly tested by ‘what works’.
Masculine principle dominant. Feminine & masculine principles in balance.
Earth seen as planet to be exploited. Earth is a living being and is our Mother / nurturer

Further information:

Principles of Shamanism 3rd Edition
Principles of Shamanism 3rd Edition

Leo Rutherford is a teacher, author and pioneer of shamanism in the West.  He was one of the first to bring Medicine Wheel teachings to the UK and founded the Eagle’s Wing Centre for Contemporary Shamanism in 1987. Having worked in industry for 20 years, he was suffering from acute stress and depression by the age of 40, and set out find a path with more heart. He discovered the ancient wisdom of indigenous shamans, a path which has been transforming him ever since.

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