Shamanism is described in Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy as a every ancient coherent system of esoteric beliefs and practices that attempt to organize and explain the interrelationship between the cosmos, nature, and man (Eliade, 1972). It has been practiced by many cultures and historically spans thousands of generations, from around the first ring of fire to our days. Yet shamanism is linguistically and locally specific, hence there are multiple rituals and cosmologies. We will focus here on the shaman’s role and functions in traditional indigenous communities of the Americas.
The ring of fire was the first awakening of hunter-gatherers to a world beyond their awareness. In the dark of night, the fire lit a circle beyond which was an unknown and dangerous world. The ring of fire was the first realization of what will later be referred to as the “field of opposites”, the narrow line between light and darkness, the known and the unknown. This realization of a hostile world lies at the heart of the nature-culture dichotomy, a key aspect of shamanism.
Cosmology and the Nature-Culture Duality
The cosmological perception of ancient cultures was necessarily of a binary nature, inherited from the observations of the natural world. It is traced from the Upper Pleistocene through Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis . By then, and probably before, the nature-culture dichotomy was already well-grounded in pre-modern human communities’ customs and rites. This ancient dual perception of the world was inherited by the modern humans who co-habited the territory of the Neanderthals during the Late Pleistocene.
Ancient societies named themselves in accordance with their immediate environment, the feeding space of the group. Their location drove their binary interpretation of the nature-culture duality. In the rainforest of Panama, the generic name for the Guaymí comes from the Muoi dialect (a branch of the Guaymí family, now extinct), that means “ man.”
The name does not refer to gender but stresses the exclusive prominence of the group to the exclusion of any others. These “others” are not considered “ man” owing to their differences in individual and group perception of the cosmos and nature, as expressed through customs, symbols, and rites. Besides, the gateway to beliefs and initiations is first and foremost language; because it is believed that malevolent forces can take the shape of people, but cannot speak their language.
In traditional communities, individuals are selected to communicate at the esoteric plane of the group’s mythological universe; they are generally referred to as the shamans. The name, of Siberian origin, came to the Americas with the first migrants from the Eurasian continent during the last phase of the Wisconsin Glaciation.
Layers of the Shaman’s Secret World
The spatial organization of the shaman’s world is multi-layered. Both the upper and under worlds are made of a number of layers, that vary from culture-to-culture and reflect a representation of their cosmology. The upper world is regarded as home to ancestors, beneficent spirits, light, and life. The underworld is identified as the place of malevolent spirits , darkness, danger, and death.
The link between these worlds is the middle world, or field of ordinary perception. The place where the observer, the community, or the clan lives. It is the center through which the tree of life, or axis mundi , passes to link the three worlds and their various layers. And, it is understood that there is only one “tree of life,” theirs. It can be an actual tree or a feature in the community’s environment, such as a mountain or a cave, exclusive to that group.
The shaman worldview is based on the seven-point observation of the spatial universe and its endless repetition. They are the four cardinal points, the zenith, the nadir, and the center, or intersection of the all the points where the observer stands. This universal worldview is based on the observable continuum of the sun , moon, and stars traveling through both the upper and under worlds. The celestial bodies cross the visible world during the day on an east-to-west path. They are then logically perceived to continue their course at sunset from west-to-east through the underworld at night, to start a new cycle again the following dawn.