The origin of shamanism: what do the sources say?

Those who at least once and in passing touched the problem of shamanism, inevitably faced a significant range of unsolvable questions concerning terminology, the time of its origin, its place and role in the history of human society.
There are several hypotheses about the origin of the word "shaman". Here are some of them:

  • the word comes from the Tungusic "saman", literally translating a person in a state of excitement, rise, movement. Its analog is the Tungusic verb "to know" - in all Tungusic tribes this concept denotes a person who received power over the soul or over the spirits. This power enabled him to arbitrarily apply "power over other spirits to his own interests, in particular, helping people suffering from spirits".
  • "Shaman" comes from the Manchu term "Saman," meaning literally "leaping," that is, an extremely excited person in a state of ecstasy. Shamans can protect the environment from various kinds of social ills through hypnosis and self-hypnosis. By entering a special state of ecstasy, the shaman receives knowledge from the spiritual realm about the root causes of distress and how to eliminate it.
  • The word has the same root as chramana, which in Sanskrit means "monk, ascetic" from the Pali word samna
A painting by Khakass artist Alexei Ulturgashev
A painting by Khakass artist Alexei Ulturgashev
Written sources

Chinese chronicles mention shamanism among the Xiongnu (Huns) - in the 5th century the name ata kam (father-shaman) was recorded for the supreme sender of the cult. Shamanism of Turkic-speaking peoples of Sayano-Altai and other peoples of Siberia is recorded in Chinese and Byzantine sources.

The reports of travelers contain the XIX century data on the existence of Mongolian, Turkic, Sayano-Altaic shamans with one of the most important attributes of the codification complex - the drum. From Russian reports, we know that in the XVI century the Loparians almost every family had a drum.


Shamanic legends tell about the origin and history of shamanic clans, shamanic miracles, competitions, feats; about the birth of the first shamans, about receiving the shamanic gift. They allow us to identify a number of common features of the shamanic mythology of the peoples of Siberia:

  • shamanic tree,
  • anatomical anomalies of the shaman,
  • manipulations with organs and bones,
  • shamanic metamorphoses and predictions,
  • shaman's invulnerability,
  • resurrection of the dead,
  • control of the elements,
  • counteracting spirits,
  • shamanic combat.

But they, as well as records of shamanic chants, cannot shed light on the time of the emergence of shamans and shamanic practices.
Rock carvings (petroglyphs)
Rock paintings. Oglakhty mountain range, Middle Yenisei
Rock paintings. Oglakhty mountain range, Middle Yenisei
Already at the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. a mixed Caucasoid-Mongoloid population (Okunev archaeological culture) made stone sculptures and left petroglyphs.
In drawings on slabs and rocks, images with horns, wearing masks, often with cult objects in their hands, as well as people in animal costumes and masks appear.
A plate from the Kamyshinsky Big Ring (Askizsky district, Khakassia). It was used as an overlap of the burial in the mound
A plate from the Kamyshinsky Big Ring (Askizsky district, Khakassia). It was used as an overlap of the burial in the mound
The appearance of shamanic petroglyphic images on vast territories from the Urals to the Sea of Okhotsk is dated to the end of the 2nd - beginning of the 1st millennium BC.

A separate group of petroglyphs consists of signs-symbols characteristic of the Upper Paleolithic period: circles with a point in the center, concentric circles, as well as circles with cross-shaped filling or with diverging rays.

Most scholars interpret them as solar symbols. However, it is possible to connect the semantics of many images of concentric circles directly with shamanism.
For this purpose it is necessary to refer to ethnographic data. It is known that shamans of many peoples of the world used any opening, both real and symbolic, to enter the netherworld. The special veneration of caves as entrances to other worlds may be connected with this. Such representations - "hole - entrance - exit" - can be considered one of the universals contained in shamanism.

Thus, speaking about the early period of the existence of shamanism, we can only rely on the data of archaeology, which indicate that shamans began to stand out as a special social group in the Bronze Age, and later formalized into a complete religious system
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