Shamanism vs Schizophrenia

The shaman is by no means the chief of the tribe. He is the one who is somewhat removed, even commonly living separately from the rest of the community. This person has the responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the group. Shamans are intermediaries between the human world and that of the spirits. Shamans treat individuals by healing the soul, alleviating traumas and removing foreign bodies that afflict the spirit and restoring the physical body to balance and well-being. Shamans may visit other worlds or dimensions to obtain guidance from the spirits, bringing back information that will benefit the whole community.

“Shamanism is really applied animism, or animism in practice. Because Nature is alive with gods and spirits, because all aspects of the cosmos are perceived as interconnected – the universe consisting of a veritable network of energies, forms, and vibrations – the shaman is required as an intermediary between the different planes of being….
…We can define shamanism as a person who is able to perceive this world of souls, spirits, and gods, and who, in a state of ecstatic trance, is able to travel amongst them, gaining special knowledge of the supernatural realm. He or she is ever alert to the intrinsic perils of human existence, of the magic forces which lie waiting to trap the unwary, or which give rise to disease, famine or misfortune. But the shaman also takes the role of an active intermediary – a negotiator in both directions. As American anthropologist, Joan Halifax points out: ‘Only the shaman is able to behave as both a god and a human. The shaman then is an interspecies being, as well as a channel for the gods. He or she affects the interpretation of the diverse realms.'”
(Neville Drury)

 Shamans are called to their vocation in differing ways. For some, it is a matter of ancestral lineage or hereditary bonds which bring them into the position to seek initiation from an already established shaman. In other cases, it would seem that the spirits rather choose the shaman. To begin with, as children or young adults, shamans are often of a nervous disposition and may be strangely withdrawn from society. Anthropologist Ralph Linton is quoted as saying: “The shaman as a child usually shows marked introvert tendencies. When the inclinations become manifest they are encouraged by society. The budding shaman often wanders off and spends a long time by himself. He is rather anti-social in his attitudes and is frequently seized by mysterious illnesses of one sort or another”.

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The Cukchee peoples of Siberia believe that a future shaman can be recognized by ‘the look in the eyes’ which are not directed towards a listener during a conversation but seemed fixed on something beyond. The eyes also have a strange quality of light, a peculiar brightness which allows them to see the spirits and those things hidden from the ordinary person. Waldemar Bogoras, who studied the Chukchee at first hand, provides a context for this occurrence: “The shamanistic call may come during some great misfortune, dangerous and protracted illness, sudden loss of family or property. Then the person, having no other services, turns to the spirits and claims their assistance.”

With the concept of the vocation of the shaman being born out of trial and crisis, a natural comparison can be drawn from the experience of the shaman compared to that of a Schizophrenic. The parallels between shaman and schizophrenic are obvious, and it is the view of Julian Silverman, a leading proponent of this theory that suggests the difference between the Schizophrenic and the Shaman is that in some way the Shaman is sanctioned by the community; ‘institutionally supported’ whereas the condition of the Schizophrenic is seen as an aberration. A description of Schizophrenia makes clear the striking similarity between the two cases: “The experience which the patient undergoes is of the most awesome, universal character; he seems to be living in the midst of struggle between personified cosmic forces of good and evil, surrounded by animistic enlivened natural objects which are engaged in ominous performances that it is terribly necessary – and impossible – to understand.” The clear distinction between the shaman and the schizophrenic however seems to be that although they both share the same ability to move between different states of consciousness, the shaman is able to integrate these states into his role within the community and as such is able to bring this ability under control.

Mircea Eliade a scholar of comparative religion is quoted as saying: “The primitive magician, the medicine man, or the shaman is not only a sick man; he is, above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself. Often when the shaman’s or medicine man’s vocation is revealed through an illness or epileptoid attack, the initiation of the candidate is equivalent to a cure.” Eliade also goes on to say in his book ‘Birth and rebirth’: “The shamans and the mystics of primitive societies are considered – and rightly – to be superior beings; their magico-religious powers also find expression in an extension of their mental capabilities. The shaman is the man who knows and remembers, that is, who understands the mysteries of life and death.”

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Ancient man came together in tribal social groups. ‘Tribe’ is described by theorists as representative of a stage in social evolution intermediate between bands and states. A Band society being the simplest form of human society. Tribalism had a very adaptive effect on human evolution as humans are social animals, and ill-equipped to live on their own. Neolithic man gathered himself into these small groups to provide himself with the greatest opportunities for survival. Through anthropology, we know these ancient societies are the basis for the modern indigenous shamanic cultures of today. The means by which a successful hunt was achieved was through the shaman who would enter into states of non-ordinary reality/states of ecstasy, in order to deliver information to the tribe about the hunt from omens gained from the spirit world. The hunt was of utmost importance to Neolithic man living in these tribal/shamanic societies and cave paintings are an early example of a means by which the shaman could present these omens in a practical pictorial form to the rest of the tribe. The shaman is then the ancient of EVOLUTION, he is the catalyst to our early development. He is the one who saw us through these difficult times and enabled man to grow and develop. In a sense the foundation of modern culture itself. Had we not survived these harder times there would be no civilization to this day.

There is a genetic predisposition for both the calling of the shaman and the schizophrenic – two sides of the same coin if you like. People with mental illnesses are renowned for their artistic ability, it almost seen in some cases as their only redeeming factor. There are examples of success stories where mental illness is concerned. Generally in cases where the person seems to have ‘found their niche’ – the mental illness is deemed controlled and it can even seem to be of benefit to the community, if not the sufferer. Like for instance the case of perhaps an executive with bipolar disorder who for at least a period is able to make incredibly courageous decisions that benefit the company. Think also of the many artists who have suffered mental illness, Van Gogh is an obvious example. Surely a throwback to a time when the creation of art would have been an absolute necessity for the survival and guidance of the group. Art is fundamentally a means of pushing back the barriers of reality – a way of exploring the world and the universe. It is a means of communicating the very nature of reality and by pointing out its flaws a means of correction of culture and civilization. Modern art still performs the function of informing and enriching society, perhaps now in a more sophisticated way but still the purpose to heal the community in some way in these abundant times as well; as it was in the beginning with early man.


Modern man has the same dispositions as he always had namely:- the same instincts for survival, the same genetic makeup and the same needs and requirements for living on the planet. People with mental health disorders especially schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, I believe are those who possess this same genetic disposition to altered states of consciousness that were so beneficial to early man. They are the link to our past and the spirit yet they are diagnosed as unwell, locked up in mental institutions, and medicated being shunned by society. It was this very connection with the spirit that was established by such people who enabled us to survive ice ages, cross the ice floes and allowed civilization to flourish as it has. What a difference from the role of the shaman in a tribal society where they are still revered and esteemed – The Catalyst of our Evolution is being rejected.

Most aspects of human biology involve both genetic (inherited) and non-genetic environmental) factors. The mapping the human genome has allowed an exploration of subtle genetic influences on many common diseases. Schizophrenia is one of those illnesses that has been investigated as having the possible genetic cause. It is suggested that schizophrenia is a condition of complex inheritance, with many potential genes each of which has a small effect, with different pathways for different individuals. Due to difficulties of diagnosis and the complex nature of the condition, involving many genetic and environmental factors, there is some disagreement in particular cases whether it can be termed a genetic disorder. Some have suggested that several genetic and other risk factors need to be present before a person becomes affected but this is still uncertain. Schizophrenia is identified by abnormalities in the perception or expression of reality. It most commonly manifests as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking with significant social or occupational dysfunction. The onset of symptoms typically occurs in young adulthood, with around 0.4-0.6% of the population affected. Diagnosis is based on the patient’s self-reported experiences and observed behavior. No laboratory test for schizophrenia currently exists.

4 thoughts on “Shamanism vs Schizophrenia

  1. A well observed account of the role of the Shaman in a traditional community, and the experience of what has been described by Joseph Cambell as ‘swimming in the ocean of the subconscious’. Also a keen insight into how such an individual’s ‘being’ is often abberantly decoded as schizophrenia, within the well meaning, and outright fear of all things Spiritual, often found within the confines of a secular and primarily materialistic society. The difference betwen a Shaman and a schizophrenic is the Shaman has learnt to swim in the ocean of the Collective Unconscious, the sufferer is drwoning in it often enough. But if he survives, and learns to save himself, then there is litle that can shake him up after that. He has expeerienced the Great Mystery at it’s drakest, after that all else is varying shades of light upon light. Peace out.


  2. Just to add to the above, in Sufism they say Allah is 70 thousand veils of darkness and light. Most New Age teachings are all about tripping out on beings of light, this is not the full Spiritual quest. To get to the island of Eternity you must cross the Sea of Death, to do this don’t just trip on the light… but learn to ‘Dance in the Dark’. This is waht makes a Shaman scary to some people, they dance in the dark, and swim in the Sea of Black Light like a dolphin effortlessly, or so it would seem More Peace.


  3. Thanks for letting me camp out in your blog for a little while today. I had a great time and tried to leave my campsite as good as when I arrived. I’ll be back!


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