Shamans follow what may be the oldest spiritual path in mankind's history. The word shaman comes from the people of the Tungus in Eastern Siberia, but is nowadays applied to those who practice similar methods throughout many different cultures. It must be remembered that each culture will have its own word for its equivalent mystic and the word shaman may not adequately describe them; however for convenience here I will stick to shaman.
In many ways shamanism is like traditional witchcraft in that it is largely religion independent and some of its techniques may be adopted for other paths; indeed witches may use some shamanic tools and I have drawn parallels between the role of a village witch and a shaman in the section on witchcraft.
A shaman in simple terms is someone who learns how to alter their state of consciousness and to travel in the psychic plane to retrieve knowledge and overcome obstacles in the waking world. The methods employed by shamans to achieve this vary but can include the use of chemicals, meditation or rhythm.
One thing I must say at this point is that when shamans use chemicals they do so with care and only to the point of achieving their desired state of mind; it is not a case of getting doped up for a high and is always done with great care and with a definite purpose in mind. I must at this point to state that I do not condone the use of illegal substances and that while some practitioners may make responsible use of such methods it is not something that I would indulge in - meditation works well enough for my journeys.
Probably the most common method and certainly one less dangerous than imbibing strange substances, is the use of rhythm by dancing, chanting, singing or drumming. In fact shamans are often described as riding their drum, and that is an apt description of the use of repetitive beating patterns to carry the mental self into the desired level of consciousness.
Once the desired mental state is achieved the shaman will 'leave' his physical self and journey into the psychic realm. Once there he will work with 'power animals' and other spirits to achieve his mission and then return to his body. The spirits encountered may be what some would class as gods, others as angels/demons and others still as elemental forces. Of course whether this journey takes place anywhere outside of the semiconscious mind of the shaman is something that is open to your own interpretation. However whether the spirits encountered are real entities or simply race memories and subconscious archetypes is largely irrelevant, as to the shaman the experience is real, and as I explain elsewhere on this site, in my own opinion it is better to treat such entities as real than dismiss them as figments of the imagination and risk causing offence.
A shaman sees the world as 'alive' and all things as connected. It is a viewpoint that I and other paths also share, at least to some degree, and could best be described as seeing the world through the eyes of a child; where the sun smiles, the flowers talk and animals are 'human'.
Many would say that a shaman is only a shaman if they are in service of their people, but while that may be true in the strictest sense of things, one must remember that in today’s society while there may be a neo-shaman in the community, the community may not appreciate what that means. One thing is true though, just as all pagan paths require study and practice, to be a shaman takes more than just reading a book.