Updated: Jan 16, 2022
Something that I see all too often (just as much as self-proclaimed völva, but that’s another issue) is “shamanism”. Shamans everywhere, as far as the eye can see, of all ages and mostly with little to zero initiation or instruction. It is described in general as “working with spirits” and being someone “in tune” with nature. Evoking imagery of Druids (a la Dungeons & Dragons) and horned figures beating drums and shaking rainsticks.
This is not a Shaman
First, let’s look at where the term “Shaman” (and thus Shamanism) comes from. It is derived from the Tungusic word ‘šaman’, which means “one who knows”. The Tungusic people live in Siberia, or what is now Northern Russia near Mongolia. Nicolaes Witsen, a Dutch explorer of the 17th Century, noted in his travels that the term ‘šaman’ was also used by the Saami people, as well as tribes of Western Russia and far northern European peoples. So what does this mean? It means that shaman (and shamanka) are a cultural practice of Northern peoples native to Siberia, Estonia, Finland, and nearby regions.
Buryat shaman on Olkhon Island, Siberia
While Shamanism is similar (key word) to other such roles as witch doctors, sangomas, mungoma, Jhākri, n'anga, or the various names for “medicine-peoples” (though this term is also criticized) of indigenous American tribes, it differs just as much as they do from one another. It is quite common in Western cultures to apply the term “shamanism” to anything resembling the above, but it is not a term used within indigenous American Tribes, African peoples, or Hindu and Buddhist practices. Thus it should not be ill-applied, to avoid cultural appropriation and terminology colonialism.
"Siberian Shaman", Nicholas Witsen, 17th Century
Fittingly, this manner of misapplication has a term: Plastic Shamanism. I see it quite often, both within the Pagan Community (on and off-line) and even driving around town. CBD vendors labeling themselves “American Shaman”, people claiming to be shaman with nothing more than paralleling themselves to Miss Cleo. A Plastic Shaman(ka) is someone who tries to pass themselves off as a shaman(ka) or holy person, and who has no connection to the cultures they’re claiming to represent. Someone who is in it for material gain, rather than spiritual guidance and service. (I would even extend this term to Plastic Goði/Gyðja, Völva, etc)
Now that we’ve established who shaman and shamanka are, let’s look at what they do. There are, among anthropologists, four basic “definitions” of what makes a shaman.
Shamanka of Khakas, Russian Empire, 1908
Anybody who contacts a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness.
Those who contact a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness at the behest of others
Those who (within the above cultures) undertake some particular technique not used by the other individuals of similar function in non-Tungusic cultures
The indigenous religions of Siberia and neighboring parts of Asia.
The third and fourth definitions are problematic. The third is difficult to determine, as some of the practices are similar in function - that is, utilizing lessons from the spirit world to aid the community. The fourth in that shamanism is not a religion, but a practice. This leaves with the first and second definitions, which are practically the same; all that differs is a request. Thus, a shaman is one who works with and within the spirit world, at the behest of others or not, to aid their community.
The biggest issue with people simply claiming to be shaman is that shamanism is an initiatory practice. One does not teach themselves how to become a shaman, as it can - at times - be very dangerous. More than being taught by a shaman, as an apprentice, one must experience the things they set out to heal. This means initiatory shaman must get sick, ill with disease, and even brush with death to cross over to the underworld. A shaman who cannot understand the things that they are setting out to heal is no shaman at all.
Sámi Shaman (noaidi) with his drum
As ones who work with the spirit world, another function of shaman is to help guide souls of the deceased to the underworld. They are not akin to valkyrjur or gods that guide souls to their resting abode, but are rather those on our side of the veil, who bring them to these spirits and deities. Shaman (or those who claim to be one) that cannot offer funerary rites and rituals are, also, no shaman.
The calling that many claim to is not one of glamor and mystery. It doesn’t make one more mystical or knowledgeable (fitting for arguments in which it’s often brought out as a trump-status.) It does not make one an Elder, authority, or a Speaker of the Gods. To be a shaman is to be a servant, and to provide a service to those in need. A shaman is there for the people, not for themselves. A shaman is a role that I don’t think many who claim to be one would be so keen to fill, and perhaps should find another term for what they do.