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Traditions and Paths

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What is a Shaman?

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What is a Shaman?

Author: Alfred Willowhawk, DMsc, MS, Shamanic Practitioner [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: March 3rd. 2013
Times Viewed: 8,964

What IS a Shaman? Go ahead; answer the question for yourself. Is it an individual with bad hygiene who lives in the woods, eating berries, nuts, fruit and mushrooms? Is it a person who spends years living in a jungle somewhere whom people fear, muttering questionable words to him/herself while dancing to a tune that only is heard by the person dancing? Is it an individual who spends years eating strange and potentially harmful plants? Is it an individual who talks about having ‘a relationship to all things’ who you bring into your house when every other method of help is tried and has failed?

In one sense, it can be all these things. A shaman is a “Wounded Healer”. It is a person who has lived life a little, been scarred, fell down, stood up again and kept on going. These individuals have been called many things: witch, healer, medicine man, priest, and witch doctor. It is a special personality type as well. The personality of a shaman can look from the outside to some people like a “show off”, a flim-flam man, or a fakir. To others, they look like gurus, god-like individuals, or ‘special’ people. All -- and none -- of these descriptions are true.


A witch is actually the western European version of a shaman. It is an individual who feels a connection with the elements, the plants, animals, and people around them. It takes work, study and mentoring, finding ways to integrate oneself into the world, as he/she perceives it to become at one with the world around them. These individuals are easy to find, even if they do not acknowledge themselves as witches. A witch does not have to be Wiccan. He/she may be an individual who is really good with plants, the person who seems to not only has a green thumb but a whole green body! Or perhaps this is the person who every animal in the neighborhood loves; the person who can sit for hours just looking at the sky and watching the birds and seems to have an affinity for wild things. It is important not to confuse the political reality of Wicca, the religion, with being a witch.


The healer is an individual who can be a doctor, nurse, EMT, first responder, massage therapist, acupuncturist, reflexologist, CTH practitioner, Reiki practitioner, or any other individual who helps others to feel better in different situations. Chiropractic, massage, Reiki and other previously alternative healing disciplines are beginning to be recognized by established medical healers. If an individual questions a doctor or any other healer person about why they do this, the answer will be the same. The individual started on their path with a desire to help others.

Medicine Man

In the west, particularly North America, the medicine man is perceived as an individual of some tribal group who has been somehow tapped to be part of a group of individuals who are responsible for the spiritual guidance of their communities. They also handle some medical issues. Some use herbs and plants; others do “spiritual” healings. These spiritual healings may look silly to some westerners but they seem to work for the patient. There is a sense of awe and respect, tinged with a little fear, when the medicine man/woman is doing their work in the community.


These individuals spend most of their time working on the “spiritual” wellbeing of their chosen “congregation”. It is unfortunate that a few individuals have abused the “power” that is utilized as a license to do things that are, according to the society that the individual is a part of, consider wrong. This situation does not change the fact that a priest or priestess tends a “flock” of some sort. In the western religious structure, they may be part of a fellowship or church, and in Wicca, they may be part of a church or coven. Some of these individuals specialize in helping people at different levels in the community. In fact, there are hierarchical titles that are associated with each of the areas of specialization. There are priests, bishops, monsignors, cardinals, arch priests, arch priestesses, and high priests/priestesses. They may also be called elders, sages, crones, mages, or preachers. In all cases, these titles act as labels for people in the community so that they can understand what that individual’s area of expertise is.

Witch Doctor

This term was coined in the 17th century as European naturalists and later anthropologists came in contact with indigenous peoples in Africa and North America. It was used as a negative term that represented the shamans and medicine people of those purportedly ‘illiterate’ societies. It shows the particular cultural and racial values of the individuals who came in contact with them. It is enough to say here that this type of individual was responsible for both the spiritual and physical health of the society.

Who becomes a Shaman

No one wakes up one morning and says, “I am going to be a shaman”. It is a very difficult path to follow. It requires a mentor who first must recognize that you have the temperament, and ability to learn the necessary skills. It takes years to become a shaman; in my own life, it took over 10 years to even be considered to be on the shamanic path. Yes, I had several experiences that led me down the path, but it took years to recognize myself as a shaman and to have others begin to utilize the term. I didn't introduce myself to someone one fine day by saying, "Hi I am a shaman." Walking the path and learning to see the world in the shamanistic manner led me to the life of community service that is the essential nature of a shaman.

Most of all, shamanism is a calling. Something happens to the individual that changes her/his perspective and helps her/him hear some kind of message that says, “Hey You! Yeah, I am talking to You! Walk this way…” This call comes from inside and outside all at once. It is the feeling that you are doing exactly what you are made to do at exactly the right time and place. This is the call of the shaman. Every individual who is a shaman says the same thing, “I did not want to be a shaman; my experiences brought me to the place where I could be nothing BUT a shaman.”

Copyright: all universal and electronic rights reserved.


Alfred Willowhawk, DMsc, MS, Shamanic Practitioner

Location: West Plains, Missouri


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