Shamanism refers to a range of traditional beliefs and practices similar to Animism that claim the ability to diagnose and cure human suffering and, in some societies, the ability to cause suffering. This is believed to be accomplished by traversing the axis mundi and forming a special relationship with, or gaining control over, spirits. Shamans have been credited with the ability to control the weather, divination, the interpretation of dreams, astral projection, and traveling to upper and lower worlds. Shamanistic traditions have existed throughout the world since prehistoric times.
Some anthropologists, such as Christine VanPool, define a shaman as an intermediary between the natural and spiritual world, who travels between worlds in a trance state. Once in the spirit world, the shaman would commune with the spirits for assistance in healing, hunting or weather management.
Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. In contrast to animism and animatism, which any and usually all members of a society practice, shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities. It could be said that shamans are the experts employed by animists or animist communities. Shamans are not, however, often organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests.
Shamanistic practices are sometimes claimed to predate all organized religions, and certainly date back to the Neolithic period. Aspects of shamanism are encountered in later, organized religions, generally in their mystic and symbolic practices. Greek paganism was influenced by shamanism, as reflected in the stories of Tantalus, Prometheus, Medea, and Calypso among others, as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and other mysteries. Some of the shamanic practices of the Greek religion later merged into the Roman religion.
The shamanic practices of many cultures were marginalized with the spread of Catholicism. In Europe, starting around 400, the Catholic Church was instrumental in the collapse of the Greek and Roman religions, Temples were systematically destroyed and key ceremonies were outlawed or appropriated. The Early Modern witch trials may have further eliminated lingering remnants of European shamanism. These destroyers are not to be confused with Gnostic Christians which seek to experience the fundemental truth found in all teachings.
The repression of shamanism continued as Catholic influence spread with Spanish colonization. In the Caribbean, and Central and South America, Catholic priests followed in the footsteps of the Conquistadors and were instrumental in the destruction of the local traditions, denouncing practitioners as "devil worshippers" and having them executed. In North America, the English Puritans conducted periodic campaigns against individuals perceived as witches. More recently, attacks on shamanic practitioners have been carried out at the hands of Christian missionaries to third world countries and by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) against its own citizens. As recently as the nineteen seventies, historic petroglyphs were being defaced by missionaries in the Amazon. A similarly destructive story can be told of the encounter between Buddhists and shamans, e.g., in Mongolia (See Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon, 1996).
It has been postulated that modern state campaigns against the use of entheogenic substances are the offshoot of previous religious campaigns against shamanism originating with the Catholic Church of Rome.
Today, shamanism, once possibly universal, survives primarily among indigenous peoples, and the few true Christians, see Gnostic manna:talk. Shamanic practice continues today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and also in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. This is especially widespread in Africa as well as South America, where "mestizo shamanism" is widespread.