Q & A regarding Core Shamanism, Traditional Shamanism, and Initiations

A few weeks ago, I was asked to respond to different questions surrounding a range of issues in Modern Shamanism today: the apparent dichotomy between "core shamanism" vs. traditional/indigenous shamanism, initiations from priests vs. initiations from Spirits, and how to find an effective Teacher.

I am asked these questions often by different students and clients, and I suspect that many others are as well. Working with the wonderful search engine of Google (sometimes laughingly called, "the new version of the Library of Alexandria"), I can find hundreds of articles about the above-mentioned debates, using both academic and experiential data to inform their theories.

Using my ongoing studies, as well as my seven years of public healing work, I have formed my own opinions as well! Here are some of the highlights from my interview with a new researcher:

Q: "Many scholars have distinguished between traditional shamanism and 'core' shamanism, the non-denominational practice started by Sandra Ingerman and Michael Harner. It's my understanding that while shamans within some traditional cultures voluntarily choose the path, many are chosen by the gods/spirits, and begin their initiation with a "shamanic crisis" that involves seeing visions, hearing voices, having mood swings, and experiencing a lot of the same types of phenomenon our culture would label as mental illness. They are then approached by the elder shaman, usually a relative, and taught how to navigate and make sense of those intense experiences, and use their unique sensitivities to help others. On the contrary, those who practice core shamanism in our culture typically choose to do it voluntarily, without the type of intense and often terrifying initiation that you find in traditional shamanism (at least what I've seen). However, I do think there are people in our culture who are called to shamanism by the spirits, through the same type of initiation found in indigenous cultures. However, because we don't recognize them as such, they are not taught how to use their gifts, and are instead often labelled as having a pathology. What are your thoughts?"

A: "There is a lot to unpack here! Academia presents "traditional" vs. "core" shamanism as a false dichotomy-- each culture has its own initiation practices, and although the rituals may differ, it is always the Spirits that initiate a person. Currently, many different shamans from many different cultures are opening up their practices to the greater world, because there is such a need for healing. Core shamanism was created by Michael Harner back in the 1970's as a result of his meta-analyses across continents. Many basic skills are the same, such as journeying via drum/rattle, working with Helping Spirits for knowledge, etc., but the Spirits know the difference between folks who voluntarily learn these skills to help out friends and family vs. folks who dedicate their lives to healing all who come to them. Core shamanism has taken off in the USA because of the trend away from seeking out spiritual guidance from priests, pastors, and other humans, and instead going directly to the Spirits themselves. That doesn't mean that it's not valid, but it does need the framework of a religion in order to conceptualize the information.
With regards to the symptomology you described, you may want to check out Lukoff's work on Visionary Spiritual Experiences. Shamanic crisis is the death of one's old life, and while it may be a physical near death experience, it can also be the death of the personality structure, etc. There is a significant difference between that type of initiation crisis vs. mental illness, and most of the time, especially in America, it is truly mental illness. Most biological/genetic mental illnesses start around second puberty, 20-26 years old, and personality disorders (as a form of mental illness) are shaped from a person's experiences since childhood to their current age. There are very few truly "indigenous" cultures left in the world, sadly. Within those smaller populations, the need for shamans would start the Crisis much earlier in life (when it was difficult to judge whether or not it was mental illness), because there may have only been one in a community, or one may be near death, etc.  In America, many shamans are called to work in their late 40's and 50's, when there is a drastic life change, or retirement, or the kids have left the house, etc. In that way, the shaman can be born from the "death" of that old life, that old role.  Of course, there are always exceptions to these generalities, but much has changed in the world since Michael and Sandy wrote their books 30-50 years ago!"

Q: "Do you think someone who practices core shamanism and has not had an initiatory crisis could be a suitable mentor for someone called to shamanism by the spirits who has experienced intense visions and altered states (while not in journey)? Or do you think that the best mentor would be someone who also has these experiences and can teach them how to process, understand, and cope with them?"

A: "Just because someone started learning within 'core' teachings doesn't mean that they have not had an initiatory crisis! However, asking a potential mentor such a personal question would most likely be crossing a boundary, as these things are incredibly private. In all honesty, I would evaluate someone the same way one does a doctor, therapist, etc.  What education do they have? How many years experience working with the public? Do they offer any lectures or trainings, to get a sense of their teaching methods?  Essentially, "shaman" is the job title, and each shaman works within different religious frameworks, so evaluating folks until you find one that 'fits' is a good thing!  The Spirits will give guidance through Divine Inspiration, but they can only use the information & concepts within someone's mind (i.e., life experiences, book learning, etc.). So if you are speaking with a mentor that perceives the Worlds via engineering concepts & systems, and you communicate your ideas within the framework of the human condition/archetypes, then that may not be the best fit long-term, but you'll definitely learn something!"

What are your thoughts to these highly-debated concepts in Modern Shamanism? If you are interested in learning more, I will be presenting on this very topic at Free Spirit Gathering, in Darlington MD, next week. Hope to see you there!


  1. It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for, and I am glad to came here! Thanks for sharing the such information with us.


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