Shamanism in contemporary culture often evokes stereotypical images of witch doctors, New Age gurus and Carlos Castaneda. Yet this religious and cultural tradition is one of the oldest forms of healing (some estimate that shamanism originated over 10,000 years ago) and is a part of many regions throughout the world. It has been widely practiced in South America, Oceania, China, Tibet and Korea. It is also an important part of many Eskimo, Native American and Celtic cultures.
The distinguishing characteristic of shamanism is the ecstatic trance the healer enters in order to communicate with spirits, rescue souls, battle with ogres or reconcile an offended nature spirit. Traditionally most shamans are men, though some women do become shamans.
Becoming a shaman is not just a job; it is a vocation. Usually, a young initiate must be "called" through a visitation of the spirits. Often, the call to shamanize is directly related to a near death experience or serious illness. A common experience of the call to shamanism is a psychic or spiritual crisis accompanying a physical illness, so that a shaman can overcome the negative powers of death and disease and heal others with empathy.
After the initiatory illness, the novice shaman studies with a mentor for years to master trance states and shamanic traditions. Names and functions of spirits, the mythology and genealogy of the clan and sacred chants must also be studied by the shaman-in-training.
Paja Thao followed a similar vocation: at age 17, he became very sick and nearly died. An elder shaman in the village recognized this condition and told Paja that the spirits had chosen him to be a shaman. Paja apprenticed with the shaman for several years before leading rituals on his own.
The Shaman's Many Roles
To an outsider, the shaman might be perceived as a primitive medical doctor. In reality, he or she is a revered and essential member of the community, acting as physician, spiritual minister, dream interpreter, psychiatrist and elder statesman who serves as a bridge between the physical and spirit worlds. The shaman's healing rituals provide existence with a moral interpretation and meaningfulness. According to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the function of a shaman is to reproduce and restore belief, not physical health.