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The definitions of shaman: Modern English definitions

Module by: Margaret Jones. E-mail the author

Despite its popularity among many late 19th and early 20th century Western anthropologists, during the first part of the 20th century it probably would have been very unlikely to come across the word shaman in the United States outside of scholarly books and universities. Today, however, the word is fairly common.

New shamanic movements bring the word to a bigger audience

During an up-swell in interest over unusual and exotic religions in the 1970s, new shamanic, also called neoshamanic, movements, began to spring up in the United States and accross Europe. Many people with thoroughly European backgrounds began to practice new forms of shamanism under teachers who claimed to have studied under Native American, Australian Aboriginal, Central Asian, or other traditional shamans.

More than any other source, the late American author Carlos Castaneda is probably responsible for shamanism's new-found popularity in the West. In 1968, Castaneda published a book describing his apprenticeship to Yaqui Indian religious specialist don Juan Matus while studying anthropology as a graduate student. Although the book would later be declared a hoax by much of the anthropological community, "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge," quickly became (and still remains) popular cult reading.

Capitalizing on public fascination with Castaneda's story, in the '70s and '80s other Americans such as anthropologist Michael Harner and Lynn Andrews, who also claimed to have studied under shamans in various parts of the world, began to produce popular books, workshops, and classes on practicing shamanism in the modern age.

Though the new shamanic movement is riddled with inconsistencies, intrigue, and accusations of fraud, one thing is for certain: It brought the word shaman out of dusty university libraries and into American pop culture. Today, shamans and similar religious practitioners have appeared in many popular books, movies, and TV shows.

New English definitions

Popular use of the word, it seems, expanded its meaning even further than had the early anthropologists who initially brought the word from Siberia to the West; Today, in English, the word is used almost interchangeably with terms like "medicine man," "witch doctor," and "sorcerer," or to refer to any person who is in some type of contact with spirits. It is also associated with charlatans, trickery, and mental illness, as many are skeptical of shamans' claims that they are indeed communicating with spirits.

Anthropologists who study shamans, however, have maintained stricter definitions of the word, and among scholars a lively debate on the meaning of shaman persists.


"About Lynn Andrews." Web. 2 May 2012.

Marshal, Robert. "The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda.", 12 Apr. 2007. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

"Michael Harner: Founder of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies." The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. Web. 2 May 2012.

Kehoe, Alice Beck. Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking. Illinois: Waveland Press, 2000.

Vitebsky, Piers. Shamanism. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

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