Shamans versus Priests

While conducting research for my documentary, I’m frequently asked about the difference between priests and shamans.  While the shaman plays a priest-like role, there are differences between the two.

For some context, let me begin by stating that many scholars have theorized that all of the major world religions have shamanism at their very foundation.   Whether the founder was Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, et al. . .

These religions grew out  of attempts to describe, depict, and explain the supernatural experiences of their founders – who were, by any standard, shamans of the highest order. 1

Shaman's Mask - Shamans of Rock and Roll

Shaman’s Mask

And, as the anthropologist Weston La Barre asserted:

All our knowledge of the supernatural derives de facto from the statements made by religious visionaries and ecstatics (i.e. prophets and shamans) – the Priests only administrate the ecclesia established on this supernatural basis. 2

A further review of the anthropological literature indicates that while some overlap may occur as to what constitutes a shaman versus a priest – shamans primarily obtain their powers from direct contact with spirits – and priests earn their credentials through special training associated with their particular religion. 3

As Joseph Campbell describes:

The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is the one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own. 4

Bottom line, shamans have the direct experience and priests are part of the religious bureaucracy . . . in most cases.


  1. Graham Hancock, Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind, (San Francisco: Disinformation Books, 2007), 309.
  2. Weston La Barre, “Hallucinogens and the Shamanic Origins of Religion in Peter Furst (Ed.), Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972), 2611.
  3. Gerald Weiss, “Shamanism and Priesthood in the Light of the Campa Ayahuasca Ceremony” in Hallucinogens and Shamanism, edited by Michael J. Harner, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).
  4. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, (London: Penquin Compass, 1969), 231.

My Introduction to Shamanism


Carlos Castaneda Cover - Shamans of Rock and Roll - Shamanism MovieLooking back, I can see that my inter­est in shaman­ism began while read­ing Carlos Cas­taneda as a teenager. Cap­ti­vated by the stories of his encounters with Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian shaman, Castaneda’s books gave me a frame­work from which to begin to explain expe­ri­ences I had as a child.

Often while play­ing in the woods around dusk – especially at Girl Scout camp (go figure) – I’d sud­denly feel a shift in my per­cep­tion – with the look and feel of my sur­round­ings altering completely. It felt like I had entered a different world. Even though I was still in the woods, my senses were heightened and I would be in this state for sev­eral min­utes before returning back to what felt like a more ordi­nary real­ity.

Read­ing Cas­taneda gave me the lan­guage to begin understanding some of these experiences. There seemed to be much deeper levels of reality than what I was learning about and experiencing in school or at church. And, Castaneda gave me permission to look beyond that ordinary reality.

Years later, while studying Native American traditions, I had the good fortune to participate in a work­shop with Michael Harner from The Foundation for Shamanic Studies ( that would fur­ther deep­en my expe­ri­ence with shamanic practices. In particular, I learned how to journey into other worlds and make contact with the spirits that I encountered.

Since then, I’ve used journeying and soul retrieval techniques in many heal­ing ses­sions. And, I even got the chance to take a work­shop with Cas­taneda him­self shortly before he passed.

I’ve also been a long-standing practitioner of the Bön Buddhist tradition. Bön is the indigenous shamanistic “religion” of Tibet – and is one of the world’s most ancient unbroken spiritual traditions. While much of its teachings are similar to Tibetan Buddhism, Bön Buddhism retains much of the richness and flavor of its pre-Buddhist roots.
For more information on Tibetan Bön Buddhism please visit

Can you choose to become a Shaman?

Shaman's drum - Learn more about Shamanism in the new Shamanism Movie, Shamans of Rock in Roll

Shaman’s drum depicting symbolic map of the Universe

Well no, not really. A shaman is chosen by the spirit world.

According to the shamanistic worldview – the universe has three levels – an Upperworld, Middleworld, and an Underworld – and it’s full of spirits.  Shamans are adept at traversing these worlds – and contacting and dealing with the spirits they encounter along the way.

Anthropologists have identified several characteristics that are common to most shaman candidates.

A shaman candidate will usually from an early age be a dreamer and they will have “out of the ordinary” perceptions.  Their dreams connect them to the spirit world and will ultimately connect them to the their power.

Consider this description of a young shaman candidate among the Tungus in Siberia

A child who has dreams, different from ordinary ones, who is subject to strong emotions, change of mood, and in general, when his behaviour is not like that of other children, is supposed to be a candidate . . . 1

The shaman candidate will also have suffered “shaman’s sickness” – which is caused by an event or trauma such as family tragedy, illness, or rejection. These experiences force the candidate to become familiar with the spirit world. 2

As they apprentice with an existing shaman, 3 the initiate will learn to journey to other worlds again and again. They will also receive instruction on how to make and use their healing tools: their drum, costume, ceremonies, and herbal remedies. And, they learn healing songs and dances.

Ultimately, as part of their initiation, the candidate must journey down into the Underworld and encounter the spirits associated with their “disease.” If they recapture their soul from these spirits they are healed. Their self-cure ultimately empowers them to act as the healer for their tribe.

So, can you choose to become a Shaman?

No one actually chooses to become a shaman – they are chosen – and they can transform and heal themselves – or suffer the consequences.

By Patrice Hall


  1. Shirokogoroff, S.M., Psychomental Complex of the Tungus, (New York:  AMS Press, 1980), 349.
  2. Mircea Eliade, Shaman­ism: Archaic Tech­niques of Ecstasy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964).
  3. In some cases the shaman candidate will apprentice directly with the spirit world – and not with a shaman in the physical world.

What is a Shaman?

The word “shaman” comes to us from the language of the Evenk, a Tungus-speaking group of hunters and reindeer herders in Siberia – and it refers to a person of any gender 1 who makes journeys to non-ordinary reality in an altered state of consciousness.

Although the word “shaman” originated in Siberia, shamanistic practices exist throughout the world, primarily among indigenous peoples. The practice of shamanism is a method, not a religion – and it coexists with established religions in many cultures.

Siberian Shaman - What is a Shaman? Learn more in new shamanism movie - Shamans of Rock and Roll

Siberian Shaman

The shaman sees the universe as “triple-layered” – consisting of an Upperworld, Middleworld, and Underworld – that’s inhabited by spirits. In their trances, shamans are able to communicate with these spirits – and they serve as mediators between people and the spirit world.

Religious historian, Mircea Eliade, wrote that shamans have “special relations with ‘spirit,’ ecstatic capacities permitting magical flight, ascents to the sky, descents to the underworld . . . etc.” 2

The ecstasy that’s associated with shamanic trance-like states is not the ecstasy that’s familiar to our western experience – but, ecstasy in the Latin sense – meaning states outside of the normal state, emotion, or consciousness including extreme states of anger, joy, and other emotions.

According to anthropologist Michael Harner these esctatic states are achieved

In about 90% of the world . . . through consciousness-changing techniques involving a monotonous percussion sound, most typically done with a drum, but also with sticks, rattles, and other instruments. In perhaps 10% of the cultures, shamans use psychedelic drugs to change their state of consciousness. 3

So, what is a shaman?  Eliade wrote that “the shaman is the great specialist in the human soul: he alone ‘sees’ it, for he knows its ‘form’ and its destiny.” 4 Shamans are public servants working on behalf of the collective.  The shaman guards the community’s soul.  And, if the need arises, society itself can become the shaman’s collective patient. 5


  1. In the Tungus language the word “saman” was gender neutral. The word applied to both men and woman shamans. The words “shamanka” and “shamaness” that are sometimes used to designate female shamans are modern contrivances.
  2. Mircea Eliade,  Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964), 6
  3. Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone – An Interview of Michael Harner by Bonnie HorriganShamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1.
  4. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism,  8
  5. David Browman & Ronald Schwarz, Spirits, Shamans and Stars: Perspectives from South America, (New York: Mouton Publishers, 1979, 140.