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The definitions of shaman: Summary

Module by: Margaret Jones. E-mail the author

There are basically four categories of definition for the word shaman addressed in these short articles; (1) the original Evenk definition which has also been adopted by some modern anthropologists: a specific type Evenk religious practitioner who serves his or her community by calling on spirits using a hand-held drum; (2) the 19th century European definition: a type of primitive religious specialist who represents the earliest form of human religion; (3) modern common English definitions: a witch doctor, medicine man, sorcerer, or any person who is--or, many would say, pretends to be--in contact with spirits; and (4) modern common anthropological definitions: a person with a specific spiritual mindset, beliefs, and/or practices that may be found in cultures all over the world.

Note from the author:

Conspicuously absent from these definitions is one put forth by an actual practicing shaman from a non-academic/anthropological background, whether it be traditional Evenk or American New Age; All these definitions come from writings by American anthropologists. This is a wrong that I am trying to right.

Although these anthropologists are acclaimed experts on shamanism, as Western academics, it is quite possible that they have a very different view on what shamanism means than, say, a traditional Evenk. I would hazard a guess that many Western New Age shamans might even have alternative opinions.

As of yet, in my research I have not come across a definition of shaman put forth by a practicing shaman who is not also a practicing or former Western anthropologist. So, if are yourself a practicing shaman, if you know a practicing shaman who might be willing to contribute, or if you know of any reliable sources quoting a practicing shaman's opinion on the subject, I would absolutely love to hear from you. You may contact me by e-mail at Thank you!


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.

Walsh, Roger, and Charles S. Grob. "My Path in Shamanism: Interview with Michael Harner." Foundation for Shamanic Studies Founded by Michael Harner, 2005. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

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