DEATH OF A SHAMAN


Shamanism and Healing

sha·man   n. 
A member of certain tribal societies who acts as a medium between the visible world and an invisible spirit world and who practices… for purposes of healing, divination, and control over natural events.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Mien shaman blows into buffalo horn
A Mien shaman in Northern Thailand

Nepalese shaman holds large drum wearing porcupine quills on his headdress
Jhankri (shaman) in Central Nepal
Photo by J.P. Girolami

Native American female shaman, posing for camera, is adorned in feathers
Native American female shaman
of the Clayoquot tribe from
Vancouver Island, Canada
Photo by Edward S. Curtis,
early 20th century

With practices that date back to 10,000 years ago and roots in regions around the world, the religious and cultural tradition of shamanism is one of the oldest forms of healing. In the tribal villages of Thailand and Laos, shamans hold great power and authority and are revered as elder statesmen. Fahm Fong Saeyong’s father, Yoon, was a well-regarded shaman in his family’s Mien village.

Shamans function as spiritual leaders, doctors and physicians, granting healing through the restoration of belief. For the Mien and other Southeast Asian hill tribes, a shaman functions as a religious specialist who works with spiritual forces, serving as a bridge between the spirit world and the physical village community. Shamans consult spirits regarding problems such as curing the sick and guiding the souls of the dead. The spirits then prescribe a ritual, which the shaman must perform as a solution.

It is believed that a shaman is chosen by ancestors to perform his or her duty, often as a result of a near-death experience or serious illness. Novice shamans then study for years with a mentor, mastering rituals, traditions and trance states. Shamans must also study the names of spirits, sacred chants and the tribe’s mythology and genealogy.

Shamans have the ability to “see” visions, performing experiments to heal and gain knowledge by moving beyond the physical body into an ecstatic, trance-like state. It is at this time that the shaman’s soul is believed to leave the body and travel to the heavens or the underworld. While in this trance, the shaman is possessed by the spirits and gains powers of knowing and healing. In DEATH OF A SHAMAN, a shaman heals the Saeyang family by recovering Yoon Saeyang’s lost and unhappy soul.

Taken from the Tungus of Siberia, the term shaman translates to “he who knows.” Shamanism has roots in other cultures as well, including Native Americans, South American Indians and cultures in Africa, South Asia and East Asia. Among contemporary North Americans, new forms of shamanistic practice include “techno-shamanism,” which uses new technologies to electronically enhance the sounds of music used in rituals, and “neo-shamanism,” a spiritual movement that has grown out of a combination of anthropology and environmentalism.

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