The Debate Between Traditional and Neo-Shamanism

Shamanism has become a popular topic in recent years, but what is it exactly? The word shamanism refers to a range of traditional spiritual practices that involve connecting with the natural world and the spiritual realm. However, as the popularity of shamanic practices has grown, so too has the debate between traditional and neo-shamanism. While traditional shamanism emphasizes the importance of lineage and ancestral teachings, neo-shamanism is often more individualistic and experimental in nature. This article will explore the differences between traditional and neo-shamanism, including beliefs and practices, approaches to healing, and training and initiation. We will also discuss critiques and controversies in the field, such as appropriation and commercialization, authenticity and respect, and limitations and risks. Finally, we will consider the implications of these differences for contemporary shamanism, including diversity and plurality, innovation, responsibility, and ethics.

Understanding Shamanism

Understanding Shamanism
Shamanism is a spiritual practice that has been used by indigenous cultures for centuries. It involves developing a connection with the spirit world to gain insights and healing. Traditional Shamanism is deeply rooted in the cultures from which it originated and often involves complex rituals and ceremonies. Neo-Shamanism, on the other hand, is a more modern interpretation of shamanism that has gained popularity in the Western world and emphasizes personal experience and self-discovery. While both types of shamanism share some similarities, they also have significant differences in beliefs, practices, and approaches to healing. To learn more about these differences and their implications, check out our article on Traditional vs. Neo-Shamanism: Finding Common Ground.

Traditional Shamanism

Traditional Shamanism refers to the practice of shamanism in its original and indigenous form, which has been passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions and cultural practices. Traditional shamans are deeply rooted in their cultures and communities, and their practices are often specific to the beliefs, customs, and needs of their people. Traditional shamans act as intermediaries between their communities and the spirit world. They use various tools, such as drumming, chanting, herbs, and rituals, to communicate with spirits and bring about healing, guidance, and protection.

Unlike neo-shamanism, traditional shamanism emphasizes the importance of ritual and lineage. Traditional shamans receive their training and initiation through an apprenticeship with an experienced shaman. The apprenticeship involves learning the traditions, beliefs, and practices of their culture, as well as undergoing spiritual journeys and initiations. The role of the traditional shaman is not only to serve their community but also to preserve and carry on the cultural heritage and wisdom of their ancestors.

It’s important to note that traditional shamanism is not a monolithic practice and varies among different cultures and regions. For example, the practices of an indigenous shaman in the Amazon rainforest may differ from those of an Inuit shaman in the Arctic. However, one common thread among traditional shamans is their connection to the land, nature, and ancestors, and their sense of responsibility towards their community.

To learn more about shamanism today, you can read the article “Understanding Shamanism Today: A Comprehensive Guide” which provides an in-depth explanation of different forms of shamanism and their practices.


Neo-Shamanism refers to contemporary shamanic practices that have been developed since the 1960s as a response to the growing interest in shamanism among Westerners. It is a blend of traditional shamanic practices from various cultures, as well as modern elements such as psychology and New Age spirituality.

Beliefs: Neo-Shamanism tends to be more eclectic and less rigid in its beliefs compared to traditional shamanism. It may incorporate beliefs from different cultures and religions, and some practitioners may not believe in the existence of spirits or deities at all. Instead, they may view shamanism as a way to connect with one’s inner self or the natural world.

Practices: Neo-Shamanic practices often involve the use of music, dance, and other forms of sensory stimulation to achieve altered states of consciousness. These practices may include journeying, drumming, chanting, and visualization. Some practitioners may also use psychoactive substances such as ayahuasca or peyote to induce altered states.

Training: Neo-Shamanic training varies widely and may involve workshops, retreats, or apprenticeships with experienced practitioners. There is no established hierarchy or formal initiation process in Neo-Shamanism, and anyone can claim to be a shamanic practitioner or teacher.

Despite its popularity and accessibility, Neo-Shamanism has attracted criticism and controversy. Some traditional practitioners argue that it appropriates and decontextualizes their cultural practices, while others are concerned about the lack of formal training and ethical guidelines in the neo-shamanic community.

Ethical concerns in Neo-Shamanism have been raised, particularly around issues of cultural appropriation and respect for indigenous cultures. It is important for practitioners to be aware of the potential risks and limitations of neo-shamanic practices, as well as to approach them with respect and responsibility.

Exploring the Differences

The differences between traditional and neo-shamanism can be explored in various aspects. In terms of beliefs and practices, traditional shamanism is rooted in the practices and wisdom of indigenous cultures, while neo-shamanism involves a more eclectic approach that incorporates various spiritual teachings and practices. When it comes to approach to healing, traditional shamans may use herbs, ritual, and other methods to address physical and spiritual ailments, while neo-shamans may incorporate psychotherapy and other modern techniques. As for training and initiation, traditional shamanism typically involves rigorous apprenticeship and initiation processes that may last years, while neo-shamanism often involves shorter, self-initiated processes. To understand the nuances and complexities of the differences between these practices, it’s important to engage with diverse perspectives and sources of information.

Beliefs and Practices

Traditional shamanism and neo-shamanism have fundamental differences in their beliefs and practices. Traditional shamanism involves working with spirits that are part of the natural world, such as animals, plants, and elements. The shaman acts as a mediator between these spirits and the physical world, using rituals and ceremonies to establish communication and cooperation.

Neo-shamanism, on the other hand, draws upon a variety of spiritual traditions, including Native American, Celtic, and other indigenous cultures. Neo-shamans may not have direct connections to their ancestry and often create their own version of shamanism, incorporating various spiritual practices and beliefs.

Traditional shamans also emphasize the importance of community and ancestry in their practices, while neo-shamans may focus more on individual experiences and personal growth. However, both traditional and neo-shamanism share a belief in the interconnectedness of all things and the existence of spiritual realities beyond the physical world.

The differences between traditional and neo-shamanism lie in the ways they approach working with spirits and the emphasis they place on cultural authenticity. While some may argue that neo-shamanism can be cultural appropriation, others see it as a way to adapt ancient practices to modern contexts for healing and spiritual growth. For more information on the ethics of neo-shamanism and cultural appropriation, check out the article “Neo-Shamanism and Cultural Appropriation: Ethics to Consider.”

Approach to Healing

Approach to healing is a key aspect that distinguishes traditional and neo-shamanism practices. Traditional shamans use a variety of techniques to address the illnesses and ailments of individuals within their community. They believe that the source of all illness comes from the disruption of a person’s connection to their environment and community. The primary role of traditional shamans is to restore balance and harmony to the community and environment.

On the other hand, neo-shamans usually focus on individual healing, although some also work in a community context. They often emphasize personal growth and spiritual development rather than just healing physical illnesses. Neo-shamans may use methods such as journeying, drumming, and visualization, which are influenced by indigenous practices but adapted for contemporary use.

To compare and contrast the approach to healing in traditional and neo-shamanism, let’s take a look at the table below:

Traditional Shamanism Neo-Shamanism
Emphasis on restoring balance and harmony to the community and environment. Emphasis on individual healing, personal growth, and spiritual development.
Uses a range of methods including herbalism, divination, spirit contact, and ritual sacrifice. Uses modern methods such as meditation, energy healing, and psychotherapeutic techniques such as shamanic counseling.
Believes that diseases stem from spiritual imbalances, and that it is necessary to heal the root cause of the problem to address the symptoms effectively. Believes that physical, emotional, and spiritual problems are interconnected, so treatments are aimed at healing the whole person.
Works in close relationship with the community and understands the culture and traditions that shape it. Tends to work individually and may have little understanding of the cultural context of the practices they use.

It is worth noting that there are numerous variations of traditional and neo-shamanic practices, and the approaches to healing can differ depending on the cultural and geographic context in which they are practiced. Both traditional and neo-shamanism can offer valuable approaches to healing, and their distinct approaches could complement each other in some cases.

However, the rise of neo-shamanism has also led to some concerns regarding cultural appropriation, particularly when individuals or groups from Western societies adopt indigenous practices without adequate respect for their cultural origins or the implications of their actions. It is essential to approach shamanism with respect and cultural sensitivity.

Cultural appreciation of shamanism is an important ethical consideration that calls for individuals to understand and respect cultural traditions, and to avoid exploiting indigenous practices without proper permission and acknowledgment. We must strive for a responsible and respectful approach to shamanism to ensure its preservation and sustainability in the future.

Training and Initiation

Training and initiation are essential components of both traditional and neo-shamanism, but the approaches differ significantly. In traditional shamanic cultures, a shaman-to-be usually goes through a rigorous and often painful training process conducted by an experienced shaman or a group of shamans. The initiation may involve long periods of isolation in nature, intake of mind-altering substances, and physical ordeals such as fasting, sweating, or self-mutilation. The purpose of such training is to help the apprentice build a strong relationship with spirits, acquire supernatural abilities, and learn the secrets of healing, divination, and prophecy.

In neo-shamanism, the initiation process is more flexible and individualistic. The trainee may seek guidance from a teacher or a community of like-minded practitioners, but there are no strict rules or criteria for becoming a shaman. Some neo-shamans claim that they have been initiated by spirits or undergone spontaneous awakenings that revealed their shamanic potential. Others may attend workshops, retreats, or online courses that promise to “awaken the inner shaman” or “activate the dormant powers”. While some of these programs may provide valuable knowledge and resources, they may also lack the depth, authenticity, and cultural context of traditional shamanic training.

Anchored in the debate over the rise of neo-shamanism, the issue of training and initiation raises questions about the legitimacy, integrity, and safety of shamanic practices in the contemporary world. Critics of neo-shamanism argue that the lack of accountability, standardization, and cultural awareness in many neo-shamanic circles can lead to trivialization, appropriation, and exploitation of indigenous traditions. Proponents of neo-shamanism counter that the adaptive and pluralistic nature of the movement allows for new forms of creativity, innovation, and cross-cultural exchange that can benefit both the individual and the community.

It is important to note that not all practitioners of traditional or neo-shamanism claim to be shamans or seek to follow a strict shamanic path. Some people may incorporate shamanic techniques or beliefs into their personal or professional lives without assuming the title or identity of a shaman. Others may reject the concept of shamanism altogether and prefer to use different terms or frameworks for their spiritual practices. In any case, the issue of training and initiation highlights the complexity and diversity of shamanic traditions and their contemporary adaptations.

For more detailed information on the topic, refer to the articles on traditional shamanism vs new age shamanism and neo-shamanism: benefits and risks, which provide different perspectives on the similarities and differences between traditional and neo-shamanic approaches to training and initiation.

Critiques and Controversies

Critiques And Controversies
Shamanism has been a subject of debate and controversy, particularly concerning its contemporary forms. One critique of neo-shamanism is the issue of authenticity and cultural appropriation. Some argue that neo-shamanism, which is often associated with a blend of spiritual traditions including Native American spirituality, appropriates and misrepresents indigenous cultures. This can be harmful and disrespectful to these cultures and their sacred practices. On the other hand, some argue that neo-shamanism can help to preserve and revitalize traditional shamanic practices. While there are valid arguments on both sides, it is important for individuals interested in shamanism to approach it with respect and sensitivity, acknowledging and honoring its roots in indigenous cultures.

Appropriation and Commercialization

Appropriation and commercialization are some of the most contentious issues surrounding contemporary shamanism, especially the neo-shamanic movement. Appropriation refers to the taking of aspects of indigenous or traditional cultures without proper permission or understanding and may involve misuse or distortion of these elements for personal gain. Commercialization, on the other hand, involves the use of shamanic practices and concepts for profit-making purposes, such as selling ceremonies, products, or services.

Many critics of neo-shamanism see it as being guilty of both appropriation and commercialization. They argue that neo-shamanism lacks cultural sensitivity and contextual understanding, transforming complex spiritual practices into simplistic and generalized New Age versions that ignore their cultural origins. They also accuse neo-shamanic leaders of exploiting their followers and selling expensive workshops or retreats.

However, some proponents of neo-shamanism reject these accusations and claim that their practices are based on fluid and eclectic approaches that draw on a variety of sources, without being bound by cultural constraints or dogmas. They also argue that commercialization can be a positive development, as it allows for the dissemination of shamanic practices and knowledge beyond their original contexts, providing broader access to people who may benefit from them.

Regardless of these debates, it is essential to acknowledge the potential harm that inappropriate appropriation and commercialization can cause to traditional cultures. Many indigenous communities have been marginalized and oppressed throughout the history of colonialism and globalization, and their sacred practices and beliefs are often the only valuable possessions they have left. It is crucial to respect their rights, protect their cultures, and involve them in any discussions related to shamanism.

Internal Link: Traditional Shamanism and Its Role in Preserving Cultures

Authenticity and Respect

Authenticity and respect are two crucial concepts that are often debated in the context of shamanism. Traditional and neo-shamans have different views on what constitutes authenticity and respect in the practice of shamanism.

Authenticity: Traditional shamans emphasize the importance of authenticity in their practice and expect their apprentices to adhere to strict guidelines in order to maintain the integrity of the tradition. In traditional shamanism, authenticity is often defined by lineage and ancestry, and it is believed that one must be initiated by a teacher who has received their power and knowledge from their own teachers.

On the other hand, neo-shamanism tends to be more individualistic and adaptable, with less emphasis on lineage and apprenticeship. Neo-shamans often rely on their own personal experiences with altered states of consciousness to claim the title of a “shaman.” However, this has led to criticism from traditional shamans who argue that neo-shamanism lacks the necessary cultural and spiritual context.

Respect: Both traditional and neo-shamans believe in the importance of respect in their practice, but they approach it in different ways. Traditional shamans place a strong emphasis on respect for the spirits, the ancestors, and the natural world. This includes offering gifts and performing rituals in honor of these entities.

Neo-shamans tend to have a more eclectic approach to respect, drawing inspiration from various spiritual traditions and practices. They emphasize respect for all beings, both human and non-human, and often incorporate practices such as mindfulness and meditation into their shamanic work.

However, there are controversies around respect in shamanism. The issue of cultural appropriation is often brought up, as some neo-shamanic practitioners have been accused of appropriating traditional indigenous practices without the necessary cultural context. This has led to debates about what constitutes respectful and ethical shamanic practice.

While authenticity and respect are important concepts in both traditional and neo-shamanism, there are significant differences in how these concepts are understood and practiced. As contemporary shamanism continues to evolve and expand, it is important for practitioners to engage in respectful, ethical, and culturally sensitive practices.

Limitations and Risks

Limitations and risks are inherent to any spiritual practice, including shamanism. One of the main critiques of both traditional and neo-shamanism is that some practitioners lack proper training or understanding of the cultural and historical contexts from which shamanism originates. This can lead to harmful or inappropriate practices, cultural appropriation, and exploitation of indigenous traditions.

Another limitation is the lack of scientific validation for some of the healing modalities used in shamanism. While many individuals report positive effects from shamanic practices, there is little empirical evidence to support these claims. Some forms of shamanism involve the use of psychoactive substances, which can have dangerous side effects and may be illegal in certain contexts.

The risks associated with shamanic practices include the potential for psychological harm, physical harm, and spiritual bypassing. Without proper guidance and support, individuals may experience psychosis, trauma, or delusion from engaging in shamanic practices. Additionally, some practitioners may use shamanism as a means of avoiding or denying underlying psychological or emotional issues, leading to spiritual bypassing.

Despite these limitations and risks, shamanism remains a powerful tool for healing and spiritual growth when practiced with respect, humility, and intentionality. It is important for practitioners to approach shamanism with an open mind and a willingness to learn from diverse cultural perspectives. By acknowledging the limitations and risks of shamanic practices, individuals can take steps to mitigate their potential harm and cultivate a more responsible and ethical approach to this ancient spiritual tradition.

To learn more about the common ground between traditional and neo-shamanism, read our article on traditional and neo-shamanism common ground.

Implications for Contemporary Shamanism

Contemporary Shamanism has come a long way since the traditional practices of our ancestors. With the emergence of Neo-Shamanism, there has been a shift in beliefs, practices, and approaches to healing. The implications for contemporary Shamanism are profound and diverse. There is now a greater acceptance of diversity and plurality, encouraging innovation and experimentation. However, with these changes comes a responsibility to maintain authenticity and respect for the traditional practices that have paved the way. It is important to acknowledge the limitations and risks of contemporary Shamanism and approach these practices with caution and ethics. The future of Shamanism lies in the hands of those who practice it, and it is up to these individuals to ensure that Shamanism remains a sacred and respected practice.

Diversity and Plurality

One of the key implications of the debate between traditional and neo-shamanism is the recognition of the diversity and plurality within shamanic practices. The fact that different cultures and communities have developed their own unique forms of shamanism highlights the need for respect and sensitivity towards traditional practices. However, neo-shamanism also has an important role to play in exploring and adapting shamanic practices for contemporary contexts.

It is important to recognize that there is no one ‘correct’ form of shamanism, but rather a multitude of practices that reflect the unique cultural, historical, and ecological contexts in which they have emerged. This diversity also reflects the different needs, values and beliefs of different communities. As such, contemporary shamanism should embrace this diversity and avoid attempts to universalize or homogenize these practices.

The diversity within shamanic practices also suggests that there is great potential for innovation and experimentation. The development of neo-shamanism has already demonstrated the potential for adapting and evolving traditional shamanic practices, allowing them to be applied to contemporary issues and contexts. This process of adaptation and evolution should be guided by respect and sensitivity towards traditional practices and the cultures from which they emerge.

Ultimately, the recognition of diversity and plurality within shamanic practices encourages a more open and inclusive approach to contemporary shamanism. Rather than seeking to establish one ‘correct’ way of practicing shamanism, contemporary practitioners should embrace the multitude of practices and perspectives that exist within this diverse field. By doing so, we can ensure that shamanism remains a relevant and dynamic form of spiritual practice for generations to come.

Innovation and Experimentation

Innovation and experimentation are key features of contemporary shamanic practices. In contrast to traditional shamanism, neo-shamanism encourages practitioners to be open-minded and creative, and to adapt and integrate various spiritual techniques and disciplines. As a result, contemporary shamanism has become a vibrant and diverse field of exploration, where practitioners combine ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, and indigenous and global perspectives.

Innovation: Contemporary shamanism is characterized by a spirit of innovation. Practitioners explore new ways of working with plants, animals, crystals, sounds, and other natural elements, as well as new forms of ritual, prayer, and meditation. Many shamanic practitioners also draw on psychology, neuroscience, quantum physics, and other sciences to enrich and deepen their practice. For instance, some practitioners use guided imagery, hypnosis, or other trance-inducing techniques to access different states of consciousness and healing.

Experimentation: Another hallmark of contemporary shamanism is experimentation. Practitioners are encouraged to experiment with different techniques, tools, and approaches, and to find what works best for them and their clients. Some practitioners incorporate dance, art, or theater into their rituals, while others use psychotherapy or coaching to support their clients. Experimentation also involves testing and refining one’s skills and knowledge, as well as sharing and receiving feedback from others in the shamanic community.

Challenges: However, innovation and experimentation also pose challenges for contemporary shamanism. One challenge is the risk of cultural appropriation and disrespect for indigenous cultures, as well as the danger of creating new forms of spiritual bypassing or harm. Another challenge is the lack of regulation and certification in the shamanic field, which makes it difficult for clients to discern the expertise and credibility of practitioners. Finally, the rapid evolution of shamanic practices also raises ethical and legal implications, such as intellectual property rights and liability issues.

Potential: Despite these challenges, innovation and experimentation also hold great potential for the future of shamanism. By exploring new ways of connecting with the spiritual realm and addressing contemporary challenges, shamanic practitioners can contribute to the evolution of human consciousness and the healing of the planet. By respecting and learning from traditional shamanic practices and indigenous cultures, practitioners can create a new form of global shamanism that is inclusive, diverse, and sustainable.

Responsibility and Ethics

Responsibility and Ethics are crucial aspects of contemporary shamanism. Given the increasing popularity of shamanism in the modern world, it is essential to ensure that both practitioners and seekers uphold ethical and responsible practices.


One aspect of responsibility in contemporary shamanism is a commitment to self-care. Shamanism can involve intense emotional and spiritual experiences, and practitioners must prioritize their own mental and physical health to prevent burnout, exhaustion, or emotional distress.

Another aspect of responsibility is the safety of the participants. Shamanic practices, such as trance journeys and vision quests, can be powerful experiences, but they can also be potentially risky. Practitioners must ensure that they provide a safe and supportive environment for participants and prepare them adequately for any potential risks.

Finally, responsibility in contemporary shamanism includes a commitment to ongoing learning and growth. Practitioners must continue to educate themselves, learn from their experiences, and seek mentorship and guidance from more experienced practitioners to ensure their continued personal and spiritual development.


Ethical practices are essential in contemporary shamanism. Practitioners must be committed to ethical behavior, both in their personal lives and in their work with clients. Some key ethical considerations for contemporary shamans include:

  • Confidentiality: Practitioners must respect the confidentiality of their clients and ensure that any personal information shared during a session is kept confidential and secure.
  • Consent: Practitioners must obtain informed consent from their clients before beginning any shamanic work or using any specific healing techniques. This includes providing information about the potential risks and benefits of the practice and ensuring that the client fully understands what is involved.
  • Integrity: Practitioners must act with integrity and honesty in their work with clients. This includes being transparent about their training, experience, and background, and ensuring that they do not make unrealistic promises or mislead clients about the potential outcomes of their work.

By prioritizing responsibility and ethics, contemporary shamans can ensure that their work is safe, effective, and respectful of both clients and the traditions of shamanism.


In conclusion, both traditional shamanism and neo-shamanism offer unique perspectives and practices when it comes to connecting with the spiritual world. While traditional shamanism has an ancient and culturally specific history, neo-shamanism has emerged as a modern adaptation for a diverse and global audience.

It is important for practitioners to approach shamanic practices with respect and authenticity, avoiding cultural appropriation and commercialization. They should also understand the potential limitations and risks involved in accessing altered states of consciousness and conducting spiritual healing.

At the same time, contemporary shamanism has the potential for diversity, innovation, and experimentation. As we navigate the complexities of modern life and seek to heal ourselves and the planet, shamanic practices can provide guidance and insight.

In order to ensure that shamanism remains a responsible and ethical practice, it is essential for practitioners to prioritize authenticity, respect, and responsibility. By doing so, we can unlock the transformative power of shamanism for ourselves and future generations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is shamanism?

Shamanism is an ancient spiritual practice that involves using altered states of consciousness to connect with the spiritual world and achieve healing.

What is traditional shamanism?

Traditional shamanism is a form of shamanism that has been practiced by indigenous cultures for centuries. It is based on the specific cultural and spiritual traditions of a particular community.

What is neo-shamanism?

Neo-shamanism is a modern adaptation of traditional shamanism that has gained popularity in Western cultures over the past few decades. It involves incorporating shamanic practices into contemporary spirituality.

What are the main differences between traditional and neo-shamanism?

One of the main differences is that traditional shamanism is rooted in a particular culture, whereas neo-shamanism is often a fusion of different shamanic practices and spiritual traditions. Additionally, traditional shamanism tends to be more community-focused, while neo-shamanism is often more individualistic.

How do traditional and neo-shamans approach healing?

Traditional shamans often use spiritual techniques such as chants and ceremonies to heal individuals and communities. Neo-shamans may incorporate other healing practices such as energy work or counseling.

How does one become a traditional shaman?

Becoming a traditional shaman often involves years of apprenticeship under an experienced shaman. This may involve specific training and initiation rituals.

How does one become a neo-shaman?

There is no set path to becoming a neo-shaman, as it is often a self-chosen and self-directed path. Some choose to work with experienced shamanic practitioners or attend workshops and retreats to learn more about shamanic practices.

What are some critiques of contemporary shamanism?

Some critiques include accusations of cultural appropriation and commercialization, and debates over authenticity and respect for indigenous spiritual practices.

What are the limitations and risks of contemporary shamanism?

Some limitations and risks include lack of proper training and guidance, potential for psychological harm, and a lack of understanding of the cultural and spiritual contexts of shamanic practices.

What are the implications of the debate between traditional and neo-shamanism?

Some implications include the need for respect and understanding of diverse spiritual practices, the potential for innovation and experimentation in the shamanic community, and the importance of ethical considerations in shamanic work.


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