What Is A Shaman?
by Larry Williamson
I am using the word shaman because of its popularity: shamans have their own names for themselves depending
on their background and location. I call myself a kupua, which is a Hawaiian word for a shaman found among
the traditions of Polynesia.
There are many definitions of shamanism, but few mention the core of shamanistic belief that I learned from
my teachers. Most definitions talk about what shamans do rather than what shamans believe.
Shamans use whatever tools they know that seem appropriate for the circumstances. A listing of these tools
doesn't constitute a precise meaning of the limits and uniqueness of shamanism.
If a person tries to learn about shamanism by studying what a shaman does, many things will seem to be
inconsistent and illogical. Progress will be slow, especially if the person is a product of modern Western
thought. On the other hand, I have met shamans (who may or may not call themselves that) who do not have a
clear conscious idea of the core beliefs of a shaman, but are successful at applying their unconscious,
"gut" beliefs: One idea shared by many philosophies is that an intellectual belief is not a belief at all
unless it is a part of a persons "core", "center", "gut", etc.
Thousands of years ago someone looked at his or her beliefs and reduced them to a few "self-evident" core
beliefs about the world. A person's world view is the collection of all the logical (and illogical)
extensions of these "self-evident facts". Mathematicians call this an "axiomatic system".
The vast majority of these axioms and extensions are taught to us: Some by other people, some by the "world"
we perceive around us. Some are our own ideas. The extensions are ideas about things, not "what
is". But in every case we made a choice along the way to accept or reject them: We are responsible for who
No one can prove their own axioms to anyone else if the other person has a different set of axioms.
The problem with assuming these "self-evident" assumptions are THE TRUTH is that, if these axioms and ideas
determine one's world view, our perceptions and observations will "prove" the underlying
The problem isn't for a shaman to prove that our beliefs determine and confirm our world. That's unnecessary
because the shaman's point of view is that there are no proofs. The problem for someone who has a
Rational view of the world is to prove that what we experience isn't a result of our beliefs. No
"self-evident" truths allowed! You can't prove or disprove an assumption with another assumption. If you
can't disprove this, you can't logically say the world is such and such. Or even say the world
"out there" is out there.
Until a Rational Man has disproven this, he can't honestly call himself a rational man. He can't
intelectually hold a rational view of the world. Each thinking person must ask "Am I being
intelectually honest with myself?" Anyone who takes a rational view of the world without disproving
that our beliefs determine and confirm our world is living in a dream world.
A shaman says exactly that: the world is a dream.
Everyone has to take his or her axioms on FAITH. That's all we have. There are no other options, even
for people who dislike the word faith.
All this won't come as a surprise to many people: It can all be gleaned from any college course in
Philosophy of Science, even though most scientists think this is a lot of hogwash. They, and most other
people, have an emotional attachment to their World View. It gives them stability and power. Shamans don't
take things so seriously, they are comfortable in a changing world because they don't rely on it: They find
power from within.
But what the shaman thousands of years ago did with this understanding of belief systems was subtle and
surprising: If our belief system is unprovable, can we change our core beliefs and construct another world
Once the shaman gets over the psychological block that "this is somehow cheating", the shaman finds it is
possible to change one's world view. The first shaman probably went no further than this; changed to another
world view and stayed in that other world.
Some time in the evolution of shamanism someone observed that different world views have different
advantages. Some belief systems are more effective under some conditions than other systems. This shaman may
have asked something like, "Why would it be 'cheating' if I were to change world views based on how
effectively they accomplish what I want to do?" This person was the first true shaman.
To the shaman this isn't just an intellectual exercise. If our beliefs determine our perception of the
world, then those perceptions obviously are what is "out there". The concrete unchanging world
changes in step with the accepted thoughts of the people who make up that world. Surprising new discoveries
don't reveal previously hidden facts about the world, they reveal a shift in beliefs. If the concrete
unchanging world, as we KNOW it to be, proves our world view, who can tell the difference between a view of
the world and the real world, "out there".
The most effective world view is often the world view of someone the shaman is trying to help. A shaman is a
healer of mind, body and circumstance: Observe the different tools shamans use in different societies.
A shaman has a background that can't be completely discarded. A shaman has a faith in something that he or
she can't or doesn't want to change. So a shaman doesn't completely switch world views. But to be effective,
a world view only has to be adopted to the extent that results change. Everyone can observe this.
Notice how many people pass by with smiles when you are happy, and how many have frowns when you are grumpy.
Usually shamans view the world as if we are all connected, through telepathy or common backgrounds, so their
world view is affected by everyone else's beliefs. That's why a shaman has better things to do than try to
fly. Doing things like trying to fly is a lot of work (most people believe in gravity) and indicates you
have some need to prove your power. If you have power you don't have to prove it to yourself (you already
know) or prove it to someone else (important only if you lack real power).
However, by shifting into different worlds, a shaman finds freedom; our choices are only limited by
ourselves. The shaman doesn't worry about this being delusion: We call people deluded when they break our
rules. If we could just give up the emotional attachments to our ideas, we wouldn't take things so
Starting from a knowledge of how a shaman views the world, the tools a shaman uses are seen as logical
applications of that world view. You can test my definition of what a shaman is: The things that a shaman
does, follow from working with different world views. Try this by looking at what shamans do from the
perspective of belief systems and you won't have to take my word for it.
So here's my simplified definition of shamanism:
A shaman is a healer who changes world views in order to become more
effective. That says it all.
Copyright Huna International 2001