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Is Shamanism Universal among Indigenous Societies?

James Cox reflects on whether shamanism should be interpreted in a restricted way or as a universal religious phenomenon among indigenous peoples.


Most scholars agree that among indigenous peoples shamans can be defined as religious specialists who are believed to enter a trance, leave their bodies and travel to upper or lower worlds in order to heal, predict the future, influence weather and enlist the help of spirits on behalf of the community. Yet, a fundamental disagreement centres on the distinction between those who are possessed by spirits and practitioners who seemingly incarnate spirits at will. In the former case, the medium appears to be controlled by the possessing spirit while in the latter case the specialist masters the spirits. Many scholars, such as Raymond Firth, Merete Jakobsen and the Russian ethnologist of the early twentieth century S.M. Shirokogoroff make controlling spirits, which is the dominant method of shamanic activity in Siberia and other northern regions, the distinctive feature of a genuine shaman, thereby excluding a vast number of societies, which feature possession as the primary mode of communication with the spirit world.

The problem of an overly restricted definition of shamanism has been analysed by the British anthropologist I.M. Lewis, who argues that shamanism forms a part of a larger phenomenon called ‘ecstatic religion’, and thus in a wider sense incorporates many forms of spirit possession under its remit. Lewis, whose work was done primarily in Somalia, argues that the process of becoming a shaman begins with spontaneous or involuntary possession and culminates with the shaman becoming expert at entering a trance.

Following Lewis, it is possible to suggest that a person who is possessed assumes a position that is recognised by the community as executing functions necessary for maintaining order and stability. As such, the community depends on the successful performance of rituals in which the medium becomes possessed.  In this sense, the medium develops into a reliable ritual resource over a period of time, beginning with involuntary possession. By the time the person has become adept at ritual performances, although still using the technique of possession, the medium is now in charge of events and expresses this power by involving the community in a cooperative effort aimed at ensuring the success of the ritual. In this sense, ‘mastery’ occurs even when the medium appears to be in a dissociative state, ‘out of control’ and amnesic.  

My own research in Zimbabwe confirms that this process occurs in the development of spirit mediums in Africa, who, after a period of initiation, eventually control the spirits, albeit in cooperation with the community whose inducements and participation in the possession ritual ensure that the spirit ‘speaks’ through the medium. Seen in this light, shamanism can be interpreted as a global phenomenon among indigenous societies, applicable equally in Africa as in Siberia and related Arctic contexts.  By extension, this would lead us to conclude that similar processes apply in other parts of the world, making shamanism a universal phenomenon found in most traditional, small-scale societies.


J.L. Cox. ‘Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism’. DISKUS. Online Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions. Vol. 9 (2008).

J.L. Cox Rational Ancestors. Scientific Rationality and African Indigenous Religions. (Cardiff: Cardiff Academic Press, 1998).

M.D. Jakobsen Shamanism. Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing. (Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books, 1999).

I.M. Lewis Ecstatic Religion. A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. (London and New York: Routledge, 1989, 2nd ed.)


James Cox is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh