Totem Talk

Working With The Animal Totems

Origins of Shamanism:

Shamanism is the oldest form of healing. It is a form of religious medicine that originated over 25,000 years ago in the Paleolithic hunting cultures of Siberia and Central Asia. The word shaman is derived from the Siberian Tungus word "saman," which is defined as a technique of ecstasy. The shaman is considered a great master of trance and ecstasy. He is the dominating figure in certain indigenous populations.


Long before there were shamans, there was animism. Archeologists thought until recently that the oldest spiritual belief system was about 50,000 years old, according to evidence found in a cave in Siberia. Recently they discovered a cave in Africa containing a 70,000-year-old shrine to a python spirit.

No one even knows exactly how old animism is, but they do know that fully modern human beings like us have existed for at least 250,000 years. Shamanism developed from animism. And although no one knows for certain just when shamanism arose, there is evidence for it going back about 27,000 years, which means it could be much older.

What Is Animism?

Animism is the belief that all things are spirit and that all spirit is One. There is no separateness, no hierarchy. All spirits are equal, because all spirits are part of the One.

Animism lacks the duality of later belief systems: good/bad, negative/positive. In animism, values exist more along a scale---from less powerful to more powerful, from less harmonious to more harmonious.

Russian Anthropologists Discovered Shamans

Geoffry Ashe describes how Russian anthropologists "discovered" shamanism when they studied tribal nomadic herders in Siberia in the 19th century. After their detailed descriptions of the unique set of practices of the spiritual practitioners and healers they observed, whom the tribesmen called shamans, were published, the term came to be used by anthropologists worldwide.

The term shaman was a useful sort of shorthand for anthropologists. It described a certain role in society that they observed time after time in gathering-hunting cultures. They coined the term shamanism because it stood for a specific set of beliefs and practices that anthropologists began to recognize in gathering-hunting cultures around the world.

Until the late twentieth centure, most people had never heard the terms shaman and shamanism. Anthropologist Michael Harner popularized the terms with his best-selling book, The Way of the Shaman.

In his wonderful book, Dawn Behind the Dawn: A Search for the Earthly Paradise, historian Geoffrey Ashe traces many myths, legends, and beliefs of Europe, Asia, and the Near and Middle East all the way back to shamanic roots in Siberia.

In Dawn Behind the Dawn, Ashe goes on to explain the later findings of Russian linguistic researchers who discovered that those original Siberian tribes had all branched out over thousands of years from one ancient original tribe. The researchers found that the words for a male shaman are actually different in each of the tribes, proving that the words were borrowed or invented long after the tribes branched apart.

Women Were the First Shamans

The startling news about the later Russian linguistic research on the shamanist tribes they first studied in Siberia is that the words for female shaman are very similar in all the tribes. All the words for female shaman are derived from the same root word in the original tribal language, which also means bear.

The most important thing about their findings is that it proves that originally, before the tribes grew apart and went their separate ways, the only shamans were female. Women were the first shamans!

There's a fascinating article by Max Dashu on the history of women as It includes a bibliography for further reading.

Mircea Eliade Was Wrong

Because he wrote one of the first widely read books on shamanism, Mircea Eliade is still considered by many to be an expert on shamanism. In fact, though, he was too much a product of his time and his religious training to be objective. He judged shamanic cultures by his own.

Eliade downplayed the shaman's journeys to the lower world, perhaps associating it unconsciously with the Christian Hell. He emphasized shamanic journeying to the heavens instead. You could say that his world tree was top-heavy: It had hardly any roots.

What is worse, he considered the fact that some shamans were women to be a degradation of shamanism. He considered shamans to be priests, and in his world, priests could only be men. Anything else was sacrilege.

We now know that Eliade was wrong. The lower world has nothing at all to do with Hell. And women were the first shamans, and apparently the only shamans for thousands of years.

Articles, Books and Resources:

Pazyryk ~Nomadic People of the Altai Mountains

Prehistoric Art ~ Early Nomads of the Altaic Region

Woman Shaman:

Olga Kharitidi

Cliffhouse Publications ~ Olga Kharitidi's Official Home Page

Look Inside: "Entering The Circle" by Olga Kharitidi:

Entering the Circle

Olga Yahontova’s (aka - Olga Kharitidi) debut book is a remarkable account of her spiritual adventure in snowbound Siberia. Joining an ailing friend on a spontaneous trip to the Atai Mountains, Dr. Yahontova is taken into apprenticeship by a native Shaman who guides her through bizarre, magical, and often terrifying experiences that open her eyes to a wellspring of deeper learning. On the road to Belovedia, a fabled civilization of highly evolved beings, she encounters revolutionary mystical teachings while discovering ancient secrets of magic and healing. At once a modern odyssey and a timeless dreamscape, Entering the Circle is an inspiring story of personal growth and an insightful work about the limitless potential of human spirit.


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