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Practitioner or Shaman

“I have a question: on another site about shamanism, the teacher there made a definite distinction between a ‘shamanic practitioner’ and a ‘shaman’, saying that they were not the same. Can you clarify this for me? This other person has a three-year curriculum that teaches Celtic shamanism.”

                                               - Tony

There has been an ongoing 'debate' in the world of shamanic training and practice, and I thought that a fair response to this debate might serve to help clear this up. My reply to Tony follows:


Hi Tony,

Not knowing the precise reasons for the distinctions made between ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanic practitioner’ by the Celtic teacher, in my thinking there are several things that encourage this.

There are many terms from different cultures around the world that point to someone serving in what we generally look at as a shamanic function. 'Shaman' was just one of these, and picked up by Michael Harner and others, and used to identify those functions generally. For whatever term a culture chooses to point to this kind of work, these are terms that generally are deeded by the community in which that person lived, worked, and did healings. These were phenomena that the community could recognize and validate. The people who have done this work have not typically made much of a 'to-do' about it. They just did their work and people came to them.

Shamanism is growing up freshly in a world trying to recall it. For many centuries, there has been a huge antipathy following the religious persecutions that led to neglect that became forgetfulness. Now, historically beyond those persecutions, and with the Church no longer in a position with that kind of authority, there is a freedom to remember and bring back the old ways.

Now this creates an interesting situation: the religious persecution of the native spiritualties of the West by the Church for so many hundreds of years not only killed off our practitioners, but left us almost forgetting that we had such practitioners among us! Thus, we have lost the vocabulary to distinguish them. All that has been left in their place are the dismissive and evil-sounding terms that the Church hurled. What does this leave us with today in the West? Just what we have... at least at this point. We have 'shaman', the popularized Tungas word from a particular cultural and geographic area, which has attempted to serve for the recent decades, but which has now obviously come under criticism. 

Thus far, however, we have little else.

There are a lot of people these days who are calling themselves shamans yet do not have the skill, knowledge, ability or experience to claim this. They are part of a sort of ‘wannabe’ group with a kind of ego gratification in identifying themselves as such. 

Then, there are others who are working very hard to be certain of the practices and who do their work with integrity. Interestingly, although perhaps unsurprisingly, for these people there is a great deal more reluctance to introduce themselves to others as such. Like those in this practice who came before, there is a preference for being low key: just doing the work and living the life. There is no need to assume that term. If it comes back to one through the identification by one’s community, so be it. But, no need to do this on one’s own.

Given all of this, the term ‘shamanic practitioner’ evolved, and this circumvents some of the problems and addresses some of the issues. Because there is no broadly based direct line in the contemporary west to these practices due to the many centuries of successful religious persecution, the practitioner is able to self-identify as such as connected to the old, yet clearly is also identifying as something new. Not having to use the same term as the contemporary wanabes (want to be's) who may have an ego-desire to seem 'important', the 'shamanic practitioner' term avoids getting mixed up and identified as someone on an ego-focused path. Moreover, it gives the surrounding community the time to get to know and respect the practitioner for their work, and then can (and then do) call him or her a shaman, just as such validation appeared in the past.

The practitioner can then continue to put him or herself out there in the community and present themselves and their work so that clients can start to come to them, and yet also, continue to work ‘low key’, with integrity and humility.

So, there are definite reasons why the terms ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanic practitioner’ can be distinguished from one another, and at the same time a shamanic practitioner and a shaman may in function be very much one and the same. The ‘practitioner’ term is a contemporary identification that is serving in the resurgence of shamanic practices in the contemporary era.