Intellectual Origns of Core Shamanism


Core shamanism is a phrase coined by anthropologist Michael Harner, Ph.D., to refer to those elements of shamanic worldview, healing techniques and methodologies that are most common in indigenous cultures around the world. It is defined in Dr. Harner’s book, Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality as “the universal, near-universal, and common features of shamanism, together with journeying to other worlds, a distinguishing feature of shamanism.” 1 Harner explains that, “by not imitating any specific cultural tradition, core shamanism is especially suited for utilization by Westerners who desire a relatively culture-free system that they can adopt and integrate into their lives.2

An important precursor to Harner’s cross-cultural research was the work of Mercea Eliade, the Romanian religious historian, whose book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, was published in French in 1959 and translated to English in 1964. 3 In his exhaustive research, Eliade determined that the ability, by means of an altered state of consciousness or ecstatic experience, to interact with spirits for healing, was the primary distinguishing feature of shamanism. He traced the etymology of the word ‘shaman’ through Russian to the Tungusic word šaman, and applied the term throughout his writing to individuals with similar abilities and practices, which existed independently on all continents and in the Pacific Island cultures. 4 In subsequent ethnographic literature, the words ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanism’ have come to refer to this form of spiritual practice, as it occurs consistently across cultures. As Harner explains in his discussion of the reality of spirits:

Over many millennia in thousands of different cultures, independently on five different continents, [shamans] conducted countless healing experiments with their patients, often in life-and-death situations, with results that have consistently supported the theory of the reality of spirits. For this reason, the fundamentals of indigenous shamanic practice are remarkably consistent throughout the world […] 5

Regarding the universal, non-culturally specific nature of this type of ecstatic experience, Eliade says:

We have termed the ecstatic experience a “primary phenomenon” because we see no reason whatever for regarding it as the result of a particular historical moment, that is, produced by a certain form of civilization. Rather, we would consider it fundamental in the human condition, and hence known to the whole of archaic humanity […] 6

In the decades since the publication of Harner’s first seminal book, The Way of the Shaman ,7 core shamanism has become the dominant form of shamanic practice throughout western culture. Although there are many forms of new age and neo- or quasi-shamanic practice that are now popular among westerners, the Spirit Canoe School of Shamanism adheres to core shamanism in its simplest form, with the understanding that it is the most powerful and effective way of practicing shamanism and shamanic healing for the benefit of others and our world.

Basic Assumptions of Core Shamanism

In Cave and Cosmos, Harner outlines six basic elements of worldview that are universal or near-universal cross-culturally. 8 With the phrase "basic assumptions", Harner sets core shamanism apart from religious systems that are built on doctrines or tenets which must be taken on faith. Basic assumptions, by contrast, are either borne out or not by each shamanic practitioner's own experience.

  • Humans are part of nature, and not separate from it or superior to it
  • Two realities exist, known as ordinary and non ordinary 9, and the
    perception of each depends on one’s state of consciousness
  • The universe is divisible into 3 worlds, known as the Upper, Middle
    and Lower Worlds
  • Members of all species have souls (their personal enduring spirits)
  • The individual beings encountered in non-ordinary reality, known as
    spirits, are themselves real
  • The journey, the distinguishing feature of shamanism, is the out-of-body
    voyage into non-ordinary reality to engage in two-way interaction with
    spirits for healing and knowledge

Wade Davis, an ethnographer and ethnobotanist, writing about the Barasana people in Colombia, describes the central importance of the shaman's ability to interact with spirits in non-ordinary reality:

There is life on the material plane, scarlet macaws sweeping over the canopy at dusk, a field of manioc to be harvested, sweat bees buzzing about at noon. And there is the realm of the spirit, the place where jaguar go and lightning is waiting to be born. The two domains are never confused, nor are they kept apart. The mediator is the shaman, and it is his ability to slip between spheres that allows for the maintenance of the sacred balance, the harmony of social, religious and political life. 10


1. Harner, Michael. Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality. Berkeley:North Atlantic Books, 2013,     2,46.
2. Ibid., 251.
3. Eliade, Mercea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton:Princeton University Press,1964,1992, 251.
4. Ibid., 495f.
5. Harner, 2013, 254.
6. Eliade, 504.
7. Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: HarperCollins, 1980,1990, Third Edition.
8. Harner, 2013, 255.
9. The terms ordinary and non-ordinary reality were coined by Carlos Castaneda.
10. Davis, Wade. Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. Madeira Park,     British Columbia:Douglas & McIntyre, 2001, 85.