Although a popular practice throughout Central and East Asia, shamanistic healing and divination was ridiculed and harshly repressed throughout the twentieth century, particularly in communist countries. The anti-religious repression throughout Soviet regimes, which resulted in the destruction of nearly 600 Russian Orthodox monasteries and convents in the Soviet Union (Smith, 2019), resulted in the complete disappearance of shamanism in some parts of Russia today. For example, Dr. Sundstrom notes that when it comes to shamanism among the Altaic people of Southern Siberia, “what remains are legends and reminiscences, but these can no longer be told by people with personal experiences of Altaic ‘shamans’ and their rituals” (Sundstrom, 2014). Yet, despite 70 years of atheist repression, missionary work and the transformation of society under the Soviet system, shamanism is in revival, not only in modern-day Russia but also throughout Eastern Asian countries such as China, Japan and Korea. To understand why shamanism is resurging, it is important to examine the history of shamanic practices, and its influence on religion and culture across the globe.
The word ‘shaman’ originated from the language of the Evenkis, an ethnolinguistic group who come from north-east Russia, and it refers to a holy person who can communicate with spirits (‘saman’). The term can be applied to practitioners who live outside of Siberia and greater Russia, for instance, the bomoh in Malaysia and dukun in Indonesia, as the main function of these healers and holy people remains the same: (1) to heal, sometimes with the help of a spirit guide; (2) to perform divination, which includes revealing events that were unknown in the past, helping find lost objects, and predicting/changing the future; (3) to escort souls to the their new life; (4) to charm and communicate with animals and their spirits; and (5) to perform sacrificial rites, but only in exceptional cases (Hultkrantz, 2004, p. 148-49). Walter and Fridman (2004) add to this definition by noting that shamanism itself is an experience, which includes dismemberment and regeneration of the soul and body, and spirit flight (out-of-body experience) through trance. Indeed, a prevailing opinion in the literature on shamanism is that a key component of shaman practice is ecstasy, which refers to a specific mental and physical trance state that is achieved through a combination of techniques and the timing of cosmic events that allows the soul of the shaman to leave his or her body and go to another world or far away into space (Lifshitz et al., 2019). For the shaman, the practice of ecstasy is integral to their human condition and is experienced just like any other mental state, for example, a dream or imagination.
While shamanic practices are often seen as disjointed, mysterious, and based in superstition, shamanism exists in a larger cultural framework that puts forward a very specific worldview. As Kalweit (1984) states, in shamanism all beings and objects have meaning and share the same essence or animus. Thus, there is no difference between nature and culture as there is in Western philosophy. Instead, there is continuity and unity between different worlds, including the unseen world of the spirits. By accessing these other worlds and breaching the borders between the seen and unseen, the known and unknown, shamans, acting on behalf of humanity, create a system of exchange between the human and natural-spiritual worlds which can relieve psychological and social tensions for both the shaman and the group of people he or she talks represents.
Bowing to the Spirits in Ancient East Asia
One of the first recorded mentions of shamans exist in Chinese historiography. Michael (2015) points out that the title of WU 巫 was first used to describe very unusual people in the Shang Dynasty (1554-1046 BCE) oracle bone inscriptions and then later in various ancient texts dating back to the Warring States period (480-221 BCE). Thus, although Confucian classics such as the Zhouli and Liji tend to put forward an image of a monolithic early Chinese state religion based on Confucian thought, historical texts and archeological findings show that there were divergent forms of religious traditions and most of these were based on wuistic/shamanistic practice. Chinese poet and archeologist Chen Mengjia even goes so far as to state that “the ancient kings were wu” (Chen, 1936, p. 535), which implies that the wu were religious figures that often took on the roles of priest-rulers throughout ancient China. While Michael (2015) critics Chen’s claims by arguing that Chen fails to recognize the tension between shamanic authority and centralized authority by identifying ancient shamans with early kings, wuism would have certainly influenced the cultures of both the authorities and the masses. For instance, Sarah Milledge Nelson’s (2011) study on feminist theory and archeological interpretations in early East Asia highlights that archeological sites from Neolithic China show a number of traits consistent with shamanist practice. For one, music, which is used for entertainment and for calling spirits in shamanist rituals, is evident by the presence of flutes, chime stones, drums and bells in various ancient dig sites. By the Late Eastern Zhou period, the literature states that shamanism was widespread. In that state of Chu, for example, shamans were practicing out in the open as superstitious rulers often turned to female religious figures and astrologers to tell them the future.
Beyond ancient China, historical records indicate that shamans were also important figures in Korea and Japan. According to Nelson (1991, 2003), a number of queens from Korea’s Silla Kingdom were buried with a crown and belt made of gold that was inscribed with shamanistic symbols. Such findings suggest that leadership and shamanism was intertwined in Korean culture. Kim (1997) also states that female shamans appear regularly in Korean dynasty records up to the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), when Confucianism became the dominant state religion and women began to lose authority and status in public life. In Japan, shamanistic rituals were evident as early as 13,000 BCE and women shamans were noted to have influence over authorities during the Yayoi period (Fairchild, 1962). Women priests, soothsayers, magicians, and prophets all played shamanistic roles in Japan’s history and were first called “himikos”. As Fairchild (1962) writes, these women “interpreted the will of the gods and knew the art of dealing with the spirits. [They] divined and used ecstacy” (p. 57). He also notes that female shamans would perform divinations by shooting arrows and burning deer bones and turtle shells which would allow them to communicate with the gods and spirits and ask for help during difficult times. Because of these widespread practices, the word “miko” was later used to symbolize heaven and earth and a connecting link between them. The connecting link was often depicted as two hands and two dancing figures since shamans would regularly perform ‘violent’ sacred dances to entice the gods to come out of hiding and brighten the world again. Even Japanese Buddhism was significantly influenced by the popular shamanist beliefs in evil spirits or goryō. As a result, it was common practice for monks of the Buddhist sects Shingon and Tendai to practice exorcism of goryō spirits. By medieval times, almost all Buddhist monks worked with women shamans who acted as mediums during the exorcist rituals that spoke and sent messages to vengeful spirits (Parac, 2015).
“Black Magic and Superstition”: Shamanism in the Modern Age
Shamanist cultures continue to exist around the world with varying degrees of visibility. For example, the shamans or mudang in Korea are considered a pariah that live in poverty yet actively perform healing and spirit guidance to those who seek them. While shamans were demonized by Christian missionaries and banished from villages by Japanese colonial rulers and later Korea’s military governments, today mudang costume, music, and dance is promoted as “intangible cultural assets” by the Korean government. The resurgence is significant. According to the Korea Worshipers Association, there is an estimated 300,000 shamans, or one for every 160 South Koreans (Choe, 2007). In West Africa, shamanism is present through the griot (also called jeli/jail) figure- a highly respected male member of society that is often the object of personality cults (Arik, 1999). Their extended role includes acting as a spirit mediator, divine healer, story teller, and performer of poetry and music.
Today, while Japan and China are one of most technologically developed countries in the world, the shaman and belief in prophecy and sorcery, which are often attributed to societies in under-developed countries, is still popular. Japanese and Chinese shamans are practiced in mastering the channeling life force (ki or chi), and by understanding the bio-energetic anatomy of the human body, they are renowned for identifying blockages in the patient’s body that are brought on by stressors such as “karmic” disturbances (Arik, 1999). In Turkey, such healing occurs by mastering words and sounds, where the shaman is able to calm the energy of a person through songs, poems, and music (Ekinci, 2016).
The resurgence of shamanism today shows that even though globalization and modernization is associated with rationality, science and modern medicine, there is a resistance in popular culture that embraces what was once considered “false science” or “feudal superstition”. Indeed, in the current age of alienation and isolation, the need for connectivity and physical contact with others worlds makes the shaman play a crucial role in human survival.