Shamans practice is not full-time. For the Westerner, it is easy to assume that shaman work their profession full-time. In fact, however, shamans usually spend most of their time doing ordinary work such as farming or hunting, food gathering and processing, and child-rearing. In the evenings, and upon request, they journey and do other shamanic work in a disciplined and controlled way.

Shamanic work

Their spiritual work in an altered state of consciousness is very intense. It is not possible even to eat a meal when doing it. So it is inconceivable that one could be working in this kind of altered state of consciousness all day on a regular basis. Shamans must be part-timers.

Persons may become shamans in many different ways. In Siberia, for example, shaman might inherit the power and knowledge through their families. Elsewhere in Siberia, and in some places in native South America, persons might suffer a serious illness, such as smallpox, and be expected to die but then have a miraculous recovery. Or perhaps it was a freak accident like a lightning strike that one survived. When such a thing happened, the community members characteristically concluded that healing power had come to save the person.

They then sometimes asked the power-blessed person, upon recovery, to help heal someone else who was sick. The recovered person, even if unsure of his or her ability, could hardly refuse relatives and friends in need. If, in response, he or she successfully intervened, a shaman could be born.

In some indigenous societies, children were watched to see if they showed signs of being directly in touch with the spiritual realms, such as when they spontaneously sang a song apparently received from the spirits, as among the Pomo of Native California. If such signs occurred, then the children’s healing powers might be tested by the adults. However, even in such cases the child was rarely recognized as a full-fledged shaman until becoming an adult. Shamanic practitioners worldwide were typically mature adults, usually with their own children.

In certain cultures, it was quite common to pay an established shaman for training. For example, East Greenland Eskimo shamans usually had several paid teachers.13 Among the Shuar in eastern Ecuador, the only known way to become a shaman is to buy the power, in the form of spirit helpers, from another shaman. The usual payment in the 1950s was in shuar kuit, or “Indian valuables.” To pay a well-known shaman for a weeklong period of training and power transmission, a man might have to spend two or three years amassing enough feather headdresses, blowguns, curare blowgun dart poison, perhaps a hunting dog, and maybe even a muzzle-loading shotgun. Today remains strong among the Shuar, but the payment is usually in major amounts of Ecuadorian currency.

There are other ways, too, that one may become a shaman. In the Conibo tribe of eastern Peru, for example, the beginner, under the guidance of a shaman, may learn primarily from the spirit of a tall sacred tree (the ceiba). In the old days among Inuit of the Arctic, usually one of the most valued ways to become a shaman was to be initiated by the spirits in extreme isolation while suffering. To achieve this, an apprentice, under the supervision of a shaman, might spend days alone in a miniature igloo in the dead of winter without any heat, light, food, and little or no water, until the spirits brought enlightenment and healing power.

Perhaps one of the most mysterious and distinctive ways of becoming a shaman has been through experiencing the dismemberment of one’s body in an altered state of consciousness. Accounts of this kind of initiatory experience are relatively common among Siberian tribes and Aboriginal Australian people. Later we will examine this important type of shamanic experience and its significance.

While there are many ways to become a shaman, how is not as important as the strength of the helping spirits supporting a person. In other words, the crucial issue is not whether one pays a shaman, as among the Shuar, or almost starves and freezes to death in isolated darkness on the ice, as among some Inuit in the days before missionization.

Rather, the issue can be stated very simply: does one’s shamanic work produce successful results for those who ask for help? If such results come, it matters little how or where one trained, or if one trained at all in a formal sense, for the people will recognize him or her as a shaman. Shamans are known by their works, and the ultimate judgment is by those on whose behalf they work for healing, divination, and other purposes.