Wooden shamanic totem poles in Siberia
Wooden shamanic totems in Siberia. Credit: Alamy

Rhonda McCrimmon, from Dundee, has 180,000 TikTok followers. Some of them are doctors, others are teachers, lecturers or social workers. They are all looking for spiritual guidance. McCrimmon is a self-styled Shaman, and posts videos on connecting with spirit guides, power animals and cauldron healing. “One of the beautiful things about Shamanism is that it doesn’t come from anywhere,” she says. “It just is, and has existed for as long as anybody knows. It is not exclusive to one culture or ethnicity.” She is popular, with more than 1.5 million TikTok likes, and expensive too – charging clients £3,500 for Shamanic practitioner courses lasting 20 months. Yet a growing body of opinion would question whether she knows what she is talking about.

In recent years, Shamanism has drawn attention, attracting celebrity followers including Jennifer Lawrence and Daniel Craig. In November, Princess Martha of Norway quit royal duties to focus on a Shamanic healing business with her Shaman fiancé. And this interest is set to increase, if the 2021 UK census is a benchmark. It showed that over the past decade, there has been a 12-fold increase in British people stating their religion as Shamanism, from 650 in 2011 to 8,000 in 2021. Notably, this did not involve ticking a box, but writing their religion into a free-text space. Other nature-based religions also grew, but did not get the same traction. Paganism, which has European roots, increased its adherents by a quarter. The number of Wiccans grew by nearly 8 per cent.

Behind the headlines, however, Shamanism’s complex origins are surprising and rarely understood. Dr Susannah Crockford is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Exeter. She says that the word “Shaman” originated with the Tungusic people of Siberia and referred to that community’s Indigenous spiritual practitioners. When the Russian conquest of Siberia occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans returned to their homelands with stories of Shamans. “But in a very racist fashion, they laughed at them,” says Crockford. “The image of the Shaman became known in European literary circles.”

Fast-forward to the 20th century, and European anthropologists were observing and writing about other cultures. On seeing Indigenous spiritual practitioners in other parts of the world, they labelled them all “Shamans”. “They used this word to describe spiritual practitioners across North America, South America and south-east Asia,” Crockford says. “None of these people used the word Shaman themselves, it was a colonial imposition on global practices that had Indigenous names. That is why you will find a broad diversity of practices under this label ‘Shamanism’.”

The bibles of western Shamanism

For western Shamans, Indigenous spiritual practices from around the world have been conveniently – and questionably – condensed into two books that serve as the bibles for their beliefs. In 1964, the Romanian historian Mircea Eliade published Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Differing Indigenous spiritual practices were merged in this book, yet it developed a following in 1960s America. It was another book, however, which became the blueprint for Shamanic practice in western societies. In 1980, the American anthropologist Michael Harner published The Way of the Shaman.

“Harner translated the Indigenous religions as he understood them, and then mashed them together,” says James L. Cox, emeritus professor of religions at the University of Edinburgh, who has a specialist research interest in Indigenous religions. “Harner turned Indigenous practices – which tended to be about solving community problems, for example, a lack of rain or another person’s illness – into an individualistic practice. In this western 1980s version of Shamanism, you could go to a weekend workshop and discuss your personal problems . . . It is a form of modern therapy where you discuss yourself in a group.”

Harner describes “trance” as key to unlocking the insights of western Shamanism. In this altered state, the individual is alert but experiences ecstasy through drumming, rattling, dancing and singing “power songs”. Later on in the book, readers are guided to communicate with rocks to solve their life problems: by picking up a big stone, asking it a question, and then watching it for visions. According to Harner Shamans in the west can also find their personal “power animal” by shaking a rattle and dancing like an animal of their choice. He writes that Shamans should “experience the emotions of the animal, and don’t hesitate to make the cries or noises of it, if you experience the desire.”

The book relies heavily on detailing the practices of North American and Amazonian tribes. In the opening, Harner recognises this, but adds that those who follow the techniques will not be simply “playing Indian”, but having the same “revelatory” experience, based on “methods learnt from South and North American Indians”.

Shannon O’Loughlin is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, in the United States, and CEO of the Association on American Indian Affairs. “Shamanism itself is a colonial word. It is a misrepresentation and appropriation of Indigenous world views,” she says. “The taking of Native ceremonies and using them for commercial or ego-driven practices is harmful to Native Nations, and to those non-Native persons using them without consent.”

Power animals and lunar energies

Dr Karen Ward disagrees that her Shamanic practice culturally appropriates. She is a doctor of philosophy at Dublin City University, a psychotherapist, and identifies as an Irish Celtic Shaman. “If you can trace your lineage to something then you’re not appropriating,” she says, adding that “people should namecheck the traditions they use” in order to acknowledge their origins. “For me, Celtic Shamanism can be practised by going to Stonehenge on winter solstice, working with lunar energies, or by sitting in a circle – where there is no priest or hierarchy – and connecting with each other, and really listening to one another, giving another person in my circle that time. My ancestors would have done these things, I can trace my lineage back to all these traditions and not appropriate other cultures.”

However, there is little evidence of such ancient European practices, according to both Professor Cox and Dr Crockford. “People will call themselves Celtic Shamans,” says Crockford. “But it is very sketchy archaeologically and historically. We do not know that Druids existed, let alone their spiritual beliefs. So to reconstruct this as an ancient religion is an imaginative process. A lot of the practices that you will find in Celtic Shaman circles are strikingly like those detailed in Eliade and Harner’s books.”

Crockford notes that spirituality has taken off on social media. WitchTok is a spiritual community on TikTok that has received billions of views. “Just look at WitchTok,” she says. “Combined with the celebrity influence, it has become trendy. Those charging for Shamanism courses are like influencers. They are on the same channels – YouTube, Instagram, TikTok. They will get money from ad revenue, and sell spiritual readings over Zoom and Facebook groups. Look at who takes these [courses] and who is making money, though. You cannot help but notice, it is usually white, English-speaking, middle- or upper-class people.”

O’Loughlin adds that name-checking is not enough. “Simply naming, ‘I have stolen this from Native Peoples’ does not resolve or mitigate the harm,” she says. “Alleged traditional teachings from books, websites or from non-Native Peoples are simply not authentic. The value of these ceremonies is questionable and meaningless. Instead of practising ‘Shamanism’, start living minimally. Respect, and stop appropriating – especially for profit – from other cultures.”

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2023 edition. Subscribe here.