Wu: The female sorceress, witch and shaman in ancient China



Quin Yin and the Lotus



The strong pattern of female shamans in eastern Asia has been erased from the history that most people know. Yet women predominated in shamanism of ancient China, Japan, and Korea, and have persisted into modern times in eastern Siberia, Korea, Manchuria, Okinawa, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Today I’d like to talk about the female shaman and sorceress in China’s earliest written Taoist records.

Old sources show the Wu performing invocation, divination, dream interpretation, healing, exorcism, driving off evil spirits, and performing ecstatic rain dances. Dramatic descriptions recount the powers of the wu in their ecstasies: “they could become invisible, they slashed themselves with knives and swords, cut their tongues, swallowed swords, and spat fire, were carried off on a cloud that shone as if with lightning. The female
wu danced whirling dances, spoke the language of spirits, and around them objects rose it the air and knocked together.” [Eliade, 454, citing DeGroot, The Religious System of China , VI, 1212]


The character for wu depicts shamans dancing around a pillar, or the long sleeves of a shaman’s robe swirling as she dances. Some archaic Da Chuan forms show hands making an offering which is received from above. Possibly the oldest glyph from which the wu character arose represents a quadant of the directions (sifang), and was also influenced by a glyph meaning “dance,” showing a person with outstretched arms in long sleeves. Ancient oracle bone inscriptions use wu most frequently in relation to spirit sacrifices and for calls to “bring the wu.” One Shang oracle bone was inscribed, “divination, the wu proclaims…” Another mentions a group of nine wu who did a ritual dance before sacrifices. [Boileau, 350, 355-6] Other inscriptions refer to the female shamans Yang, Fang, and Fan performing rain-making ceremonies. The oldest Chinese dictionary,Shuowen Jiezi ,equates wu with zhu, a ritual invocator, and with ling, “spiritual, divine.” It underlines the female signification of wu : “ wu is a zhu
(invoker or priest), a woman who is able to render [herself] invisible, and with dance to invoke gods to come down. The character symbolizes the appearance of a person dancing with two sleeves.” [Erickson, 52. Another translation of this passage runs, “An Invoker. A woman who can serve the invisible, and by posturing bring down the spirits. Depicts a person with two sleeves posturing.”

The Shouwen also refers to “an inspired shaman serving the spirits with jade.”

Another word with the sound wu (but written with a different character) means “to dance.” The relationship of these two words has been much discussed, since dance looms large in descriptions of the wu.

The shamanic character wu also appears in many compound words, combined with other radicals signifying “woman,” old woman,” “male,” “spirit” and “immortal.” The wu radical also acts as meaning-signifier in the characters for, “male shaman,” for “yarrow” (whose stalks were and are used in divination with the I Ching), and in the most archaic form of the character yi , “doctor” (and here the “shaman” radical was later replaced by that of “wine,” indicating a shift away from ritual to medicaments and alchemy ).


The title Wu also figures in legendary place-names. “Snake Wu mountain” (you don’t have to be Fellini to figure out where that came from) appears in the ancient Shanhai Jing as the home of the shamanic goddess Xi Wangmu. This book also says that wu live on Mount Divinepower, “where the hundred drugs are to be found.” Another passage describes them as possessing the herb of immortalitity.  Real place-names survive too: the celebrated Mount Wu, dwelling of the Divine Woman, and the famous Wu Gorge of the Yangtze. Written histories about the archaic Xia-Yin times focus on the powers of shamanic kings like Yao, Shun, and Yü. “It was said that Shun was the first person to journey to the sky, and he was taught by the daughter of his predecessor, Yao.” [Eva Wong, Online] Reading through these masculinizing lines, we deduce that a woman was the first to attain shamanic flight. Elsewhere this female precedence is clearly stated: “The emperor Yao’s daughters, Nü Ying and O Huang, revealed to Shun the art of flying ‘like a bird’.”  this explains further that the daughters of Yao came to his aid during his ordeals—imposed by cruel parents—in a deep well and in a high granary. As Granet summarized it,

“Shun knew what awaited him in the granary and the well: he asked advice from his wives, the daughters of Yao. If he descended to the ground without accident, it was because they taught him the Art (Gong) of the Bird ; if he came out of the earth, it was that they had taught him the Art of the Dragon. We even know that Shun succeeded in these magical feats by dressing in the robes of Bird Work (Gong) or those of the Dragon.”[Granet, 127]


The word gong is the same as in chigong and kungfu; it “designates magic, all its techniques, from Alchemy to Dance, have been taught from a goddess or female Witch/Spirit to a male Wu.I’ve found the commentary on Sima Tian saying that the daughters of Yao taught their husband Shun the Art of the Bird. Yet another source says that in his ordeal of the well, the two sisters advised him, “Take off your clothes and put on the Dragon work; [that is how] you will get out of it.” [Granet, 346-47, n. 693] Most Chinese literature dwells on the exploits of Shun and ignores the two shamanic sisters who married him. But they were remembered in much later times in southern Hunan, where they had a temple, and peaks were named after them. By the 9th century they were synchronized with the ancient river goddess known as the Lady of the Xiang. [Schafer 1973: 86-87, 50, 176]


Although she does not seem to have been called a wu, the best-known female ritualist of Shang times deserves a mention. Fu Hao personally inscribed oracle bones and presided over divinations and other rituals. Her personal seal shows a woman making ritual offerings to spirits. Tortoise shells inscribed with the characters “prepared by Fu Hao” prove her status as an important diviner. Married to the king, Fu Hao was also his best general. Her tomb is the richest Shang find ever discovered. It was filled with a massive collection of bronze offering vessels, half of them inscribed with her name, including the colossal Si Mu Wu ding. Hundreds of jade vessels and thousands of other treasures were found in her grave. [http://history.cultural-china.com/en/48History10355.html] Among them were “small bronze mirrors and knives” not found in other burials, and little jades with possible ritual functions. Sarah Nelson remarks, “While no evidence points to [the king] Wu Ding performing ecstatic rituals, perhaps Lady Hao was the shaman.” [Nelson, 160]


Jade objects were important in ritual and witchcraft. The Zhouli says, “Blue Jade Bi to worship the heaven, Yellow Jade Cong to worship the earth.” (Cong is pronounced tsoong.) Commentators say that the circular bi and the squared cylindrical cong symbolized Heaven and Earth. The cong has an extremely long history, going back to the neolithic Liangzhu culture (circa 3300 BCE), and replicas persist into the Song dynasty. But while great emphasis is placed on the emperor and his ceremonial acts as Son of Heaven, little attention has been given to the ancient queens who are mentioned as keepers of the cong ( I would love to know more about these queens, so if anyone has any info, stop by and leave a message at the beep)

The cong is said to be a shaman’s tool that ‘encapsulates the principal elements of the shamanistic cosmology.’
[Nelson, 137, quoting Chang 1994a: 66] and I currently carry one around my neck, consecrated by the White Goddess and three pole stars.


Eva Wong, a Professor of Taoist studies and adept that I greatly admire and respect, highlights the wu women as healers. “We are told that, in the healing ceremony, the shamaness grasped a green snake in her right hand and a red snake in her left hand and climbed into the mountains to gather the herbs that would restore life and health to a sick or dying person.” Wong explains the central importance of dancing and singing in the rainmaking ceremony:


“The Chinese word for spirit (ling ) consists of three radicals: one meaning rain, another (showing three mouths) chanting, and the third, shaman.” [Wong, Online] This word ling is used for shamans in the Nine Songs of Chu. The
Liji (Book of Rites) referred to the ceremonial dances called yue ; they combined music and movement with regalia: “shields, axes, feathers, and oxtails.”


The Lushi chunqiu described the harmonizing and unifying power that arose from these rites. As Dallas McCurley explains, “throughout the cosmos, everything both resonated and responded to other resonations… that if one strikes a bell of a particular note, all other bells of that same note, regardless of octave, will resonate.” [McCurley, 142]

The Chinese used sounding stones and chimes in ceremonies. “When I knock on the musical stones, the hundred animals all dance.” [Karlgren 1946: 258, in Nelson, 114] Many scholars see Chinese shamanism as underlying what developed into Taoism. [Schipper, 6] The Taoist word for ecstasy ,kuei-ju, “coming in of a spirit,” was derived from shamanic possession: “For it was said of a sorceress in trance and speaking in the name of a shen: ‘this body is that of the sorceress, but the spirit is that of the god.” (The word shen is ungendered in Chinese.)

The wu prepared herself to receive divinity by purifying herself with perfumed water, putting on ceremonial robes, and making offerings. Then, “with a flower in her hand, she mimed her journey by a dance accompanied by music and songs, to the sound of drums and flutes, until she fell exhausted. This was the moment of the presence of the god who answered through her mouth.” [H. Maspero, in Eliade, 453] One of the oldest, comprehensive descriptions of the wu appears in the 3rd century BCE Guoyü:
“Anciently, men and spirits did not intermingle. At that time there were certain persons who were so perspicacious, single-minded, and reverential that their understanding enabled them to make meaningful collation of what lies above and below, and their insight to illumine what is distant and profound. Therefore the spirits would descend upon them. The possessors of such powers were, if men, called [xi] (shamans), and, if women, wu (shamanesses).

It is they who supervised the positions of the spirits at the ceremonies, sacrificed to them, and otherwise handled religious matters. As a consequence, the spheres of the divine and the profane were kept distinct. The spirits sent down blessings on the people, and accepted from them their offerings. There were no natural calamities.”


Later, says this old classic, the divine and profane became intermixed, causing misfortune, so that the communication between Heaven and Earth had to be cut. This lost connection to the divine world is an extremely widespread theme. [See Anne Solomon (1997) on the San in South Africa, where the primeval connection is lost between animals and humans, not heaven and earth.] The above translation of the Guoyü neatly reverses the primary gendering of wu as female, using English words that imply that the word “shaman” is masculine and only secondarily applies to women (“shamaness,” “shamanka.”) But in Chinese, the more ancient character wu is incorporated as a signifier into the word xi , demonstrating that the explicitly masculine term is derived from the feminine, and not vice versa. However, not long after the Guoyü was written, we find the authors of the Zhouli
regendering the concept, as “male wu” and “female wu. This is not a well accepted idea in our male dominated western society , yet as a Left Hand Path practitioner, I feel the Yin and female Wu should be brought to light once more. We are born of Goddess, shall learn and die at her feet. Indonesian conceptions of the wu retained a strong female stamp: “Such was the force of tradition in respect to the basic femininity of the shaman, that male shamans in the Far East often impersonated women…. The shamans of Central and Southern Asia, called tuan-kung
and nan-wu [“male-wu”], are men disguised as women… The male shamans (shih-wu) of Kuangtung in the eighteenth century impersonated beautiful girls (Li T’iao-yüan, op. cit., 1.5). Doré observes that the possessed boys of Amoy, with whom he was familiar, were occupied by female spirits…” [Schafer 1951: 159] In modern parlance these would be gay or trans shamans….

But, that is for another time, and a different post. I hope you enjoyed my musings and ramblings, I plan on writing more on this in the future as my studies progress, but my Chinese is still at kindergarten level, so such studies are slow going. I leave you with a Poem from the Yun zhong jun, where the female and male shamans sing and dance, arrayed in magnificent robes and perfumes:
“See the priestesses (ling),

how skilled and lovely,

Whirling and dipping like birds in flight Unfolding the words in time to the dancing,

Pitch and beat all in perfect accord!

The spirits, descending, darken the sun.”[Erickson, 53]


Stay Gold everyone……

Art- Quan Yin and the Lotus- copyright 2015 Vincent Piazza


Wu Ancient Female Shamans of Ancient China© 2011 Max Dashu
Edward H. Schafer, “Ritual Exposure in Ancient China.”
Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
, Vol. 14, No. 1/2 (Jun., 1951), pp. 130-184 Published by: Harvard-Yenching Institute ____________
The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens
. San Francisco: North Point, 1980 (1973)

Susan N. Erickson, “ ‘Twirling Their Long Sleeves, They Dance Again and Again…: Jade Plaque Sleeve Dancers of the Western Han Dynasty.”
 http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/granet_marcel/A10_danses_et_legendes/danses_legendes.doc Eliade, Mircea,Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy , Princeton

Eva Wong,Teaching the Tao: Readings from the Taoist Spiritual Tradition. Boston: Shambala, 1997 Karen Laughlin and Eva Wong, “Feminism in Taoism,” in Feminism and World Religions , ed. Arvind Sharma and Katherine Young, SUNY Press, 1999 Eva Wong,The Shambala Guide to Taoism. Online:http://www.shambhala.com/html/catalog/items/isbn/978-1-57062-169-7.cfm?
Dallas McCurley, “Performing Patterns: Numinous Relations in Shang and Zhou China.”TDR, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Autumn, 2005), MIT Press, pp. 135-156

Schipper, Kristofer,The Taoist Body . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983

Anne Solomon, “The myth of ritual origins? Ethnography, mythology, and interpretation of San rock art.”
South African Archaeological Bulletin, 1997 Online: http://www.antiquityofman.com/Solomon_myth_ritual.html

Wu: The female sorceress, witch and shaman in ancient China was originally published on The Hidden Left Hand

The Black Art of Corpse Magic

mosolim in hell

(Disclaimer; This form of Magic has not been practiced for, as far as I can tell, at least 100 years,the more esoteric use and abuse of this Art is around 2,000 years old. If any of this could or has worked is purely speculation, and I take no Responsibility for any trouble you my find yourself in trying to work magic from old Taoist Lore.)Placing a spirit entity inside a corpse was known in Taoism as Corpse Magic. It was a popular technique used among the ancient Wu sorcerers in South-West China, especially around the Sichuan province area. It thrived as a common practice in China up until the early 1900s. Corpse Magic actually was originally used for benevolent purposes. A Story from the Sichuan province around 1600-1046 BCE  tells us that if an Hung Lo was traveling with a family member (an uncle Larry, for example) on a business trip away from home, and the uncle suddenly died, it was the responsibility of Hung Lo to return the corpse back to the family burial plot. If  Mr.Lo was too poor to afford any type of casket and transportation for the corpse, he  could find the local Taoist priest( Let’s call him Father Corky), pay a small amount of money, and receive a Corpse Talisman. This talisman (written on a yellow piece of Rice paper or Silk) was specifically constructed for uncle Larry’s physical body. Empowered with the  talisman, all Hung Lo had to do was place it onto poor dead Larry’s chest, and a spirit entity would immediately enter into the deceased uncle’s corpse. The uncle’s corpse would then stand-up and begin to follow Hung back to his home county. As long as the talisman remained on the corpse, it would not decompose, but simply follow the individual who originally placed the talisman and activated it. If Hung Lo had to travel for several days, he would simply remove the talisman from the uncle’s corpse at night( would have come in quite handy for weekend at bernie’s ). The uncle’s corpse would immediately collapse and begin to decompose. In the morning, all Mr. Lo needed to do was again place the talisman on the uncle’s chest and the spirit would re-enter into the corpse and again follow him on the journey homeward. The Spirit within the Corpse was never human to begin with, often a Minor Demon or Elemental, and often stories are told of something going wrong and the spirit gone rogue.
During the “opium wars” of the early 1900s, drug dealers began smuggling opium inside the bodies of dead individuals that were being influenced by Corpse Magic. Traditionally, customs agents were unwilling to search the spirit possessed body of a corpse, making it easy to get the drugs across imperial blockades. Eventually the emperor of China issued strict sanctions forbidding the practice of Corpse Magic in order to stop drug dealers from smuggling opium across county lines inside these moving corpses(this was quite easy to pull off, even without a Taoist, a bit of yellow paper with some writing on it, stuck to the chest of a sickly man or woman and shazam,you had yourself a drug mule).
Another practice of Corpse Magic used in ancient China (found in the Classic of Mountains and Seas,Wu Yang is the major speaker in Zhao Hun (also known as, Summons for the Soul). was the magical skill of transferring the soul into a corpse, known as “Shijie.” This Daoist practice focused on placing the sorcerer’s soul into a new body in order to allow the sorcerer to continue training in magical alchemy.In the west this Idea is only entertained seriously. to my knowledge, By Peter Carroll in Liber Null. As a ritual for “Cheating Death,” this rite was performed through transferring the soul into a willing “donor,” someone who has recently died, or the forming body of a fetus. A sorcerer wishing to do this type of Corpse Magic must first develop a tremendous amount skill in the Art of healing . This is because the sorcerer must already be used to transferring his or her energy to manipulate an individual’s energy body, channels, and energetic fields. Therefore, the foundational training and skills of Healing Magic must already be established before attempting such Necromancy. For example, only after a sorcerer has mastered the ability to purge and quicken certain energetic states of Qi obstruction and blood stagnation existing within an individual’s body, will he or she be able to remove all energetic obstructions from the lungs and transfer his or her Qi (life-force), Ling Shen (magical spirit), and Shen Xian (eternal soul) into the unharmed, drowned victim’s body. Traditionally, there are several magical rituals used in order to prepare the sorcerer for this, and these rituals took about 5 years (better start early and soon, my elderly Black Magician friends!) The three ways of transferring a soul are described as follows:

Willing Donor: In this situation, an older sorcerer transfers his or her soul into the body of a willing donor. Before the initial transference begins, the older sorcerer first transfers the young donor’s soul to the body of a Dog or Pig (I know a few folks who wouldn’t mind, don’t you?). This is accomplished by having the sorcerer go through the donor’s physical body and empty out the donor’s spirit body (i.e., by separating the spirit/s etheric shell from its “physical house”). This purging process enables the sorcerer to easily transfer the donor’s eternal soul into the Animal, and once the animal dies,the donor was told he would pass to the celestial realms to experience a higher spiritual evolution(I may also have a bridge to sell you in brooklyn , you crafty Taoist Sorcerers). The older sorcerer can then begin the process of possessing the donor’s younger body. When an older sorcerer begins the process of possessing and animating the body of a younger donor, the technique is sometimes known as a “walk-in.” Since the sorcerer has also “cheated birth,” he or she retains the knowledge of all his or her esoteric training, and is free to continue the process of training transformational alchemy,not a bad deal for 5 years of work.

Recent Death: In this situation, the sorcerer transfers his or her soul into the body of a newly deceased individual. Traditionally, the body of a drowning victim was preferred, because the victim had initially suffocated to death and his or her tissues were otherwise healthy and still intact (i.e., the body’s energy channels and internal organs were still in good condition). Sometimes, however, the body of a coma victim was chosen, especially if the tissues were salvageable. It is important to note that the sorcerer did not have to be physically present in order to manipulate and perform this type of Corpse Magic possession. Sometimes a seasoned sorcerer will have established an energetic bond and friendship with a spirit entity who is from the Water Elemental realm. The Water Elemental will then inform the sorcerer of a recently drowned candidate, whose body is young and healthy, and whom the sorcerer can easily overshadow and possess( it was good to have friends like that in the 1600’s). Initially, the sorcerer begins by emitting Qi in order to reanimate the drowned victim’s body reviving the victim’s brain functions, heartbeat and breathing. As the victim’s body transforms from a morbid state of death to a state of coma, the sorcerer increases the Qi emission to include activating the energetic function of all of the victim’s internal organs and tissues. Finally the sorcerer transfers his or her consciousness into the slowly reviving tissues, and suddenly “wakes up” inside the new body. At this point in transformation, the sorcerer begins the process of reorienting to his or her new life and identity. This is further accomplished by consciously disengaging all physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual attachments to his or her old body.A few Taoist schools of magic begin training the skill of Transferring the Soul by first animating the energetic channels of a drowned piglet. The sorcerer will start by transferring his or her Qi, Ling Shen, and soul body into a drowned piglet. As the sorcerer gets the drowned piglef s energy to reanimate, he or she learns to eventually gain control of the animal’s internal organs and tissues. Eventually, the magical resurrection practice was increased until the sorcerer was able to fully animate the body of a drowned human being.
Forming Fetus: In this situation, the sorcerer transfers his or her soul into the body of a newly developed fetus. Traditionally, the body of a healthy young woman sixteen years old is chosen for this type of Corpse Magic. This age is traditionally chosen because the young woman is energetically strong and vigorous and will be able to withstand the energetic transferences. After the sorcerer impregnates the sixteen year old, he will then transfer his soul and
consciousness into the forming fetus. Essentially, the sorcerer’s transferred soul will then be born from the womb of his own wife, and he will therefore be his own child(boggles the mind,doesn’t it?). Because the wife will then become a widower, her future financial stability (and that of the infant sorcerer) must first be established before the magical ritual begins.So, Save your Pennies and become your own Son, or buy a piglet and start practicing…And may you live in Interesting times.

Sources:Allan, Sarah. 1991. The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China.,Birrell, Anne, tr. 2000. The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Bodde, Derk. 1961. “Myths of ancient China,” Chang, K.C. 1983. Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China.Kagan, Richard C., ed. 1980. “The Chinese Approach to Shamanism”, Chinese Sociology and Anthropology 12.4:3-135,Professor Jerry Alan Johnson 2006 , The art of Magical Transformation.

Art-Corpse Road, Vincent Piazza Copyright 2015

The Black Art of Corpse Magic was originally published on The Hidden Left Hand

Will the real shaman please stand up?

100306_tuva_shamans_600acopyIn Tuva (Southern Siberia), people expect that each class of beings contains singular individuals that distinguish themselves by atypical bodily and behavioral features and capacities. Among humans, such beings are shamans, but Tuvans also identify shamans among animals and trees. Even in the landscape, some atypical places are strong personalities.The supposed relationship that connects all these singular beings across their different classes, is found in a number of magical traditions, but sadly this does not make those traditions shamanism . This treatment of atypical beings, which is widespread among Northern Asian traditions, is based on a ‘singularity detection device’, an inferential schema that links individuality and categorical norm in a specific way. This cognitive device sheds light on representations about metamorphosis as well as on interactional strategies between clients and shamans. The singularity detection device, as opposed to categorical thinking, appears to be at the foundation of Northern Asian shamanism.

Some years ago, the Tuvan shaman Saiana was called on by a family to heal a hunter who had been struck by a fit of madness. The family explained: ‘He’s been like this since yesterday, since he came back from hunting. He no longer recognizes his wife or his mother.’ Saiana had the hunter tied up and gave the order for him to be whipped. While he was being whipped, he cried out and chanted: ‘Come on, hit me, keep going!’ The shaman performed a ritual and the hunter fell asleep. The next day he explained: ‘I wandered for a long time through the taiga. As I was coming back, I shot a squirrel. It had long hair, very thick. I had never seen anything like it and I thought to myself: What kind of beast is this? No one will buy it from me.’ And he threw the squirrel away. As he went on with his journey, he heard voices and very loud laughter around him. He ran home, but couldn’t remember how he got there. The Shaman concluded: ‘This squirrel was no ordinary squirrel; it was a servant of the master of the place’.
The Tuvans recall many instances of meeting animals of a strange aspect that turn out to be connected with the ‘masters of the place’, i.e. the spirits of the forest. And it is to particular human beings, shamans, who they turn to solve the problems, anxieties and illnesses that can arise from these dangerous encounters.
In Ceremonial Magic, native knowledge is most often presented in the form of classificatory systems that sort the world into categories; taxonomies indicate knowledge of fauna and flora; nomenclature demonstrates the way in which bonds of kinship are thought of, and it is in categorical terms that Magicians summarize the peculiar features of the various thought systems under study: This dates back to the Victorian age of classification, and was solidified with the Golden Dawn Qabalistic Tree of Life  filing system that is so prevalent in the Western Ritual Magic.But no matter how hard we try to graph Shamanism on to the Tree, “the suit just doesn’t hang well”.tree

Ritual magic in the west also presents Spirit knowledge as categorical and organized into ontological fields, but they reveal little about how we understand what an individual Spirit is, not as a token within a category, but in terms of it’s own singularity. In our everyday interactions, it is not enough to identify a being as belonging to the category of ‘horse’, ‘dog’ or ‘human’; one has to be able to recognize that it might be my horse, my dog, my friend. The Qabalistic systems are of even less help when it comes to explaining the numerous ethnographically recorded situations in which people encounter extraordinary beings or events that they deliberately refuse to acknowledge as tokens of everyday categories, such as the long-haired squirrel above. More specifically, those traditions that we group together under the umbrella of ‘shamanism’ do not operate using categorical knowledge, but rather according the unknown, the bizarre, paradoxical knowledge, the confrontation of complex identities, the voluntary feeling of communication, going deep into situations of confusion and misunderstanding, and the irony of Subconscious Observation.
In this context, what can Ceremonial Magic and the ethnology of shamanism offer one another? On the face of it, it seems that the best we can hope for is less knowing and more “feeling” or intuition of what is being told to the Magician.Shamanism,as seen by The Tuvans, can not be put in neat Qabalistic Spheres .

Today the term ‘shaman’ is widespread in the West, which can give a false impression of familiarity with the local concepts that are translated by the word. In the West shaman’ suggests a category of people who perform colourful rituals in certain exotic cultures using costumes and instruments. Yet the use of the notion of ham (‘shaman’) in Tuvan practice is quite different. The shaman’s typical guise is neither necessary nor sufficient. Thus it is possible for a child, without costume or ritual objects, and who carries out no ritual function, to be deemed a shaman if he displays certain signs, such as a piercing stare, and if she has shaman ancestors. Tuvans do not in fact consider everyone who wears shamanic costume and performs rituals to be ‘true shamans’ (shyn ham). Tuvans believe that many of those who carry out rituals with a costume and a drum are actually ‘charlatans’, or ‘false shamans’ (mege ham) unlike in Ceremonial Magic, the tools don’t make the Shaman.


Furthermore, Tuvans do not think that shamans only manifest themselves in exotic cultures.According to Charles Stépanoff and his informants, shamans were also born in the West, but that Westerners were incapable of recognizing them as such. For Tuvans, shamanism is not a cultural phenomenon, nor even a specifically human one. The term ham is generally used as an adjectival determiner: one says ham kizhi ‘a shaman man’. But Tuvans also recognise the existence of ham yiash ‘a shaman tree’,or ham diiŋ ‘a shaman squirrel’. The anthropologist Pascal Boyer has stated that a shaman consists of the following characteristics:

•One does not become a shaman, one is born one.
•Authentic shamans are male or female cognatic descendants of shamans (but one cannot predict which descendant will be the shaman).
•Appearances alone are not enough to identify an authentic shaman: the quality of being a shaman is something that is hidden and difficult to verify. It is marked into the body: shamans have a ‘white skeleton’ and various bodily features that differ from those of ‘normal people’ (anaa kizhi); they have special powers of perception, as summarised by the following formulaic utterance: ‘he/she sees that which the eyes of plain people do not see and hears that which their ears do not hear’.
•The development of the shaman and her growing into the role are marked by violent processes that are not the result of her own will. A true shaman does not wish to become a shaman.
•The quality of being a shaman allows one to perceive, communicate and come into contact with non-human beings (animals, spirits…). People have spirit helpers precisely because they are shamans (and not the other way around).
•Shamans differ from one another both in manner and in practice. They are often in conflict and ‘consume one another’ (chizhir), i.e. they can kill one another from a distance.

Shamans are seen as shamans on the basis of their individual essence; not as members of a collective similar to a species, but rather individually, as singular characters who deviate from the human norm, but still are humans.And in this we find the true difference between Ceremonial Magic and Shamanism,Magicians tend to classify themselves in Grades and belong to a Lodge, Shamans on the other hand stand out from their classes: animals, plant life, minerals and ‘societies of places’. A exceptional individual essence is what makes you a Shaman, no book or wand can give that to you.And I for one am ok with that, best to respect the Shaman and the ways that they spring from, Learn from them and perhaps find out you are one, rather then group them in with the Magic of the West and strip away the singular character that makes them Shamans in the first place.

But what do I know? I’m just some guy in a Hat……


Pedersen, M. A. 2011. Not quite shamans: spirit worlds and political lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press.


Boyer, P. 1994. The naturalness of religious ideas: a cognitive theory of religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gow, P. 2001. An Amazonian myth and its history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Will the real shaman please stand up? was originally published on The Hidden Left Hand