Shamanism in Japanese Culture Essay Example

After analyzing several sources, the definition of shamanism, which is most often found in scientific literature and reference books, can be comprehended. Shamanism is one of the earliest forms of religion based on the belief in the existence of spirits that inhabit the surrounding world. This transcendental practice involves a special intermediary – the shaman, who was elected by the spirits. Thus, he is able to establish connection between these spirits and people through immersion in a trance. However, there is still no uniformity in the definition of shamanism. Moreover, the age of shamanism also remains ambiguous since it varies from the Paleolithic Era to the Middle Ages. Until now there are discussions about the location of shamanism: some believe that it is practiced only in Siberia, Central Asia, and Northern Europe; others argue that it is spread almost over the whole world, particularly Asia, North and South America, Africa, and the Caucasus. In Europe, the first information about shamans appeared in the notes of travelers, diplomats, and researchers in the XVII century. During the XVIII-XIX centuries, the number of researches and literature about them was constantly growing. In the XX century, interest in shamanism did not disappear, but intensified. This paper will define the terms of the basic concepts that constitute the essence of a complex multifaceted phenomenon of shamanism. Furthermore, it will reveal its reflection in the ancient traditions of healing, rituals, trance, unusual states of consciousness, as well as its integration in modern Japan.

Etymology of the Term

The term “shamanism” is widespread in many languages. According to one of the versions, the word “shaman” is derived from the Sanskrit «śramaṇa». It means a wandering hermit or ascetic spiritual seeker, which primarily embodies traditions of ancient India. Along with Buddhism, the term has spread across Asia and penetrated Russian and Western languages. According to the other version, the word “shamanism” has a primordial Tungus-Manchurian origin. Every nation has its own names for shamans, which can vary even in one nation depending on the functions and categories of shaman. However, a man was called shaman in any society if he was a mediator chosen by spirits and had the ability to see the other reality and travel in it.

Time of Occurrence of Shamanism

The occurrence of shamanism cannot be determined accurately. The time of occurrence of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam is determined fairly accurately because those religions are connected with the dates of life of their original founders and preachers. Shamanism does not have such a starting point. Perhaps, it arose many times in each part of the world at different times and in various ways. Currently, there is evidence that peoples who lived in Western Europe, particularly in France, knew shamanism. In France, a cave of “Three Brothers” (Trois Frères) was discovered. On its walls, there are several images from the Upper Paleolithic period. Among others, there is the earliest known image of a shaman, which depicts a figure of a dancing man with an animal skin draped over his shoulders, deer antlers on his head, and a horse’s tail. Similar images are often found in Asia and Africa.

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Who Becomes a Shaman

The term “professional shaman” can be found in modern scientific literature. This suggests that a shaman is a profession. Those who believe in shamanism argue that its practitioner inherits a special gift from his ancestors, more often on the maternal than on the paternal side. Moreover, the shaman must be chosen by the spirits. The spirits of ancestors or spirits that inhabit the surrounding mountains, passes, forests, lakes, and rivers choose a particular person to be an intermediary between them and people. In cases when people have some difficulties or troubles (these can be illnesses, loss of property, death of a loved one, or any strange phenomena) or, on the contrary, when the spirits blame people (for example, for intrusion into the habitats of the spirits, or misperformance of sacrifice), the shaman acts as an intermediary, making people and imploring the spirits to do what is necessary. However, an individual must pass an initiation ritual and undergo testing before he acquires the shamanic power that can make people and spirits obey him. The ritual can last from several months to several years. Outwardly, it is manifested in the form of acts that are incomprehensible for other people. A young shaman can be often considered a mentally ill person.

The Concept of Trance or Ecstasy

The shaman communicates with the spirits in a trance state. The French term “trance” is interpreted as stupefaction, detachment, and self-hypnosis. Another term “ecstasy” can be used to describe the condition in which the shaman acts. This Greek word means frenzy and enthusiasm, a special state that is inherent in poets and seers. Those who observe the behavior of the shaman during the ritual notice such things as convulsions, bulging eyes, froth at the mouth, fainting, and seizures. However, as a rule, during the trance the shaman does not lose connection with people who are present at the session. He often explains where he is currently located, and what he sees. The shaman uses self-hypnosis, concentrates his will, and mobilizes his mental and physical powers in order to achieve the state of trance. There is no doubt that a tambourine, from which the shaman extracts different sounds, plays an important role in the shamanic ritual. The shaman often sings to the beat. Some shamans take hallucinogens, substances that can cause hallucinations and contribute to offensive of trance.

Shaman’s Doubles

The shaman has so-called compulsory items, which accompany his actions. They are tambourine, costume, and shamanic tree. Each item has its purpose and function. Shaman’s tambourine is not just a musical instrument. In shamanic practice, it is considered a rideable animal, a deer or a horse, which carries the shaman to the world of the spirits. According to other traditions, a tambourine was conceptualized as a boat on which the shaman sails the mythical river of time. After shaman’s death, his tambourine is not hereditary. It is believed that the power of the owner does not die with him but continues to live, being enclosed in his tambourine.

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The second shaman’s double is his power suit. The full shamanic costume includes a coat, pants, boots, gloves, a hat, as well as a bandage with slits for eyes, which resembles a soft mask over the face. The shaman cannot obtain an entire suit immediately. He receives each part gradually as soon as he proves his proficiency in communicating with spirits. Spirits give their permission for the shaman to gain another item of the costume. It is believed that the shaman’s outfit, similar to his tambourine, is related to his soul and life. Finally, the third shaman’s double is a shamanic tree. The practitioner chose it himself. According to shamanistic mythology, the spirits of birds sit on the shamanic tree. At the request of the shaman, they can fly into the afterworld and learn everything that interests him. Everything is interconnected and spiritualized in the shaman’s world. He is a living person, and his tambourine, suit, and tree are also living creatures. The shaman addresses to the spirit world with their help, and the spirits move into his body through their intermediation.

The Shamanistic Practice and Theory

The shaman performs complex rituals in order to heal sick people, introduce the child’s soul into the barren woman, change the weather, and a plenty of other actions. The religious scholars name these actions a shamanic practice. Furthermore, there is a special shamanic theory. Many scientists affirm the existence of an exceptional shamanic worldview.

The most important components of it are the following:

  1. The whole world is spiritualized. Everything that surrounds us, the forests, fields, mountains, rivers, lakes, trees and even stones, is inhabited by spirits who can help a person if he or she performs a special ritual. However, they can also do much harm if they are forgotten and accidentally or intentionally insulted.
  2. A man is not a wreath of creation, but only a part of this world. The appearance of a man is just a shell that can be changed. The stories of people turning into a bear, fish, deer, birds, marine animals have their origins in this belief.
  3. The insuperable boundary between the world of the living and the dead does not exist. The shaman’s ability to pass through this line in any direction is considered unconditional. Moreover, it is believed that the shaman can restore the soul of the deceased person and regain his life.

These features can be considered as the basis for a general shamanic worldview.

Shamanism in Modern Japan

Japanese shamanism, as we know it today, is different from shamanism in the strict sense. Primarily, it is a technique of spirit possession of the dead, which is practiced by women. Many Japanese shamans are blind from birth. However, they have a wide range of functions and abilities. According Eliade, Trask, and Doniger, the main actions of shamans are the following:
“they can heal illness, interpret dreams, predict the future, and compatibility with husband or wife. Shamans are also able to communicate with the souls of the dead and send them messages from living relatives. They can inform the inquirer about the future happiness and unhappiness or find missing things.” (p. 234)

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The Role of Shamanism in the Traditions of Healing

Shamans play an important role in the healing traditions. Their main function is magical healing. However, in modern society, shamans-healers do not try to take the place of qualified doctors. Their approach to any problem is concentrated on integrity and harmony of a personality. They banish diseases and provide religious cleansing. The methods modern Japanese shamans use are very complex and diverse. However, all these various rituals and beliefs are based on the same idea of injury. It promotes a belief that a person’s soul can be separated from his body if he is dazed and shocked by something. According to Eliade, Trask, and Doniger, many shamans state that “stealing of the soul” is the most common and devastating reason for the huge number of diseases (p. 256). From the shaman’s perspective, the disease is a consequence of the man’s “spiritual captivity”. If in shamanic medicine the illness is attributed to the lost or stolen soul from the body, the process of its treatment is aimed at searching for the soul in order to make it return to its place in the body of the patient. The shaman healers catalyze powerful healing powers given to them by nature in their patients with the help of the bright and impressive rituals. The atmosphere of understanding and support, reinforced by drumming, dancing and chanting, as well as state of ecstasy, creates the environment in which the phenomenon of healing occurs. Besides, shamans can ask their god to name a drug that should be used against a specific disease.

Shamanistic Rituals and Trance in Modern Japan

Nowadays, shamanism almost lost its position, becoming a decorative element of modern Japanese life. Funeral rites of shamanism in Japan can be seen during the folk festivals or national holidays. However, in order to solve complex problems or difficult situations, the Japanese turn to shamans for their help even in contemporary times. During the ritual, shaman communicates with spirits, singing, dancing, and immersing into a trance. The ecstatic state of shaman generated the word “ute”. According to the American researcher George J. Tanabe, this term is derived from the verb “yuyung”, which means “shake” or “tremble”. “The shaman, who does not tremble and shake during the performance of the ritual is considered to be weak, showing no control of his spiritual power”(p. 123). Shamanistic ritual contains three main elements. They are the spirit that personifies an object of worship, the person who invokes the spirit and the shaman as a link between them. There are several main rituals, which are performed in modern Japan. They can be aimed at the prosperity and development of a separate village or township, as well as expulsion of evil spirits. As it was mentioned above, the ritual can be also used to cleanse the soul of the sick person.

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The Role of Shamanism in Human Consciousness and Maintenance of Physical and Mental Health in Modern Japan

Despite the seeming primitiveness of the shamanic culture, its consecrate practitioners perfectly understand human psychology and skillfully use the secrets of traditional medicine. They are the guardians of religious and philosophical worldviews of different nations. The shamanic culture is characterized by simultaneous existence of the reality of the primitive life with a number of troubles and worries and the world of spirits, visions, and ecstatic emotional states. Japanese shamans have strongly contributed to the culture and mental strength of the nation. Moreover, some unusual states of mind, inspired by shaman’s activities through the immersion in trance, helped the people to adapt to conditions of hardship, hunger, wars, epidemics, and disasters. Thus, shamans can be considered the psychotherapists who conduct social work, assisting their compatriots in crisis. They are the intermediaries between the internal life of people and their external occupations. Blacker argues that, “modern shamans can handle all the “rites of passage”: birth, initiation when reaching puberty, marriage and death, as well as “rituals of power”, which , in fact, are the attempts to increase the capacity of the nation with the help of the powerful forces of nature during hardship, calamities and psychological crisis” (p. 231). In everyday life, shamans maintain impact on the psyche of the people within a particular culture, using special tools and procedures during the ritual. This ensures mental stability of people in terms of normal functioning of their consciousness.

Over time, in the framework of modernization and technological progress of society, the traditions of shamanism have changed. However, nowadays, people of different professions, education, and social status still seek help from shamans. They obtain relief, advice, and support. Perhaps, this is a simple answer to the question why the tradition of shamanism is still alive.