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Author Topic: Shamanism and Witchcraft - What's the difference exactly?  (Read 20870 times)
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« Topic Start: May 14, 2008, 01:52:57 am »

I know both terms cover a variety of practices (including neoshamanism and Neopagan witchcraft), but how would you seperate them? Like shamanism being concerned with spirits, but witchcraft with something else? Don't they overlap a lot?

Is there a difference at the core? Are shamanism and witchcraft different magical techniques, different worldviews, different ways of life or maybe religion? Like shamanism being 'earth centered' and witchcraft not necessarily?

Is there such a thing as shamanic witchcraft or witchy shamanism? Or do people who practice both (if such people exist) practice them separatly?

Or is it just two different names for basicly the same thing, but with different associations? I have the impression that Christians and atheistic secular humanists do tolerate Shamanism more than witchcraft. Shamanism is just primitive nature religion (sometimes even in a romantic way) for some of them while witchcraft is superstitious or evil. Has 'witch' just become a derogative term for someone who practices magic in a nature religious context? If shamanism is used as a term for a variety of nature religious practices worldwide doesn't it automaticly apply to a lot of witches too?

I don't want to insult anyone. I know people use it as different terms, but how do you define the difference? If you practice shamanism and/or witchcraft, how do you call it and why?
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« Reply #1: May 14, 2008, 08:26:55 am »

I don't want to insult anyone. I know people use it as different terms, but how do you define the difference? If you practice shamanism and/or witchcraft, how do you call it and why?

I can't answer to anything about witchcraft, because I don't know what witchcraft *is*. I see the term applied willy-nilly to just about everything. I see the same thing happen with shamanism, but I know much more about shamanism to understand what it really *is*. And I don't feel they are different names for the same thing at all. I feel that, at least with shamanism, there is an understood and accepted definition that doesn't resemble anything like witchcraft.

I'm not a shaman, but I read about them. Kind of like saying I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV. Cheesy

My definition of shamanism comes from Eliade (and Roger Walsh, who emphasizes it in his The Spirit of Shamanism) in his Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy:

"A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be shamanism = technique of ecstasy." (p.4)

"Generally shamanism coexists with other forms of magic and religion. ... Magic and magicians are to be found more or less all over the world, whereas shamanism exhibits a particular magical specialty... By virtue of this fact, though the shaman is, among other things, a magician, not every magician can be properly termed a shaman. ... As for the shamanic techniques of ecstasy, they do not exhaust all the varieties of ecstatic experience documented in the history of religions and religious ethnology. Hence any ecstatic cannot be considered a shaman; the shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld." (p.5)

(bold mine)


To me, and to these authors, the shamanic journey, the technique is the key to defining what shamanism is. If you are not journeying out of your body and into another world, it's not shamanism. I would probably also add that using this technique to benefit others (the tribe), to heal, to seek answers, to commune with spirits, is how you "practice" shamanism.
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« Reply #2: May 14, 2008, 01:07:55 pm »

shamanism is focused on communing with spirits and doing journey into other worlds
witch... tricky one. some definitions include too much, some too little. mine definition is nature based magick.
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« Reply #3: May 14, 2008, 02:11:06 pm »

I don't want to insult anyone. I know people use it as different terms, but how do you define the difference? If you practice shamanism and/or witchcraft, how do you call it and why?

As someone who has dabbled in both shamanism and witchcraft, I'll give this a try.

Shamanism is, inherently, a practice of communion and exploration.  As Finn has said, the primary experience is the shamanic journey, in which the shaman enters a trance and sends their mind and soul to another realm.  There is ongoing debate as to whether this other realm is within the shaman or without, but no shaman debates that they travel.  This other realm is divided in different ways in different shamanic practices and in different individual experiences.  Within this realm and these parts of the realm the shaman explores its nature, speaks with spirits/deities, and communes with both these spirits/deities and the other realm itself.  The object is generally learning and wisdom, although spirits may be "brought back" to aid the shaman or another.  This last technique is generally used as a method of spiritual healing.

Witchcraft, on the other hand, is inherently a practice of manipulation and alteration.  Almost all witches would agree that witchcraft is the use of the witch's will to alter reality in some way.  Some of the time this includes alteration of reality to permit the witch to percieve and/or commune with spirits, deities, and other levels of reality much the way the shaman does, but oftentimes the witch is attempting to nudge reality slightly closer to the way the witch believes it should be.  Some witches operate soley on their own will and "power reserves," others draw power from or work with elements, spirits, deities, or other people.  Most if not all of the time this alteration is not immediately visible physically (to the point where I have never heard of a genuine significant physical manifestation).
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« Reply #4: May 14, 2008, 02:41:48 pm »


Ask three witches - get five opinios for free  Grin

It really is a question of definition.

Shamanism as I understand it, is nothing you choose - you get chosen by the spirits and to heck with you, if you don't follow. (Thus being broken open maybe beyond the possibility of staying functional in the 'normal' world.) There are ethnological definitions of shamanism and I bet not even the half of the self-called 'shamans' out there in the wonderful esoteric world would like to really be chosen by the spirits. Walking the edge of madness, doesn't seem tempting to me.

For witchcraft there are so many defintions. From 'only practicing magic' to 'different forms of personal religions.'

I can only tell you my definition. The Hagazussa, as you know, is the rider on the fence between the two worlds, wild and tame, men and spirits. This can seem shamaniclike in some regards. But being a witch is something you choose. (Well, more or less *g*). So using a technique like journeys to the otherworld doesn't make me a shaman, it makes me a witch riding the fence.

Other witches milage may vary a lot.
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« Reply #5: May 14, 2008, 03:51:38 pm »

I know people use it as different terms, but how do you define the difference? If you practice shamanism and/or witchcraft, how do you call it and why?

Well, I was going to toss out a couple of definitions and general POV but both Finn and Jorgath did such a good job offering definitions darn close to what I would use that anything I would add would simply be redundant.
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« Reply #6: May 14, 2008, 04:27:38 pm »

Shamanism more than witchcraft. Shamanism is just primitive nature religion

and this is why I hate the term. 

Utter misappropriation, a cherry picked concept used to ball up every experience that lends itself to the user feeling that nature takes notice when they walk by; perhaps based on the belief that "primitive" persons were more animal than human, and they must have been more connected to animals and nature than socialized persons, (grr) so using a term that implies a deeper connection to nature based upon lack of social criteria and must describe a spirituality that we assume is how a person lacking western civilization would address spirituality.

I think the spirit travelers of the reindeer herding Turkic-Mongol tribes is well covered ground, so I won't refry that bean, but the implication that taking away all structured social beliefs outside of a cauldron and a handful of grass, boils into "Shamanism" really chaffs my ass.

Because of this it leaves me feeling that "Shamanism" is pretty much whatever the practitioner wants it to be.  I've yet to find two authors from separate publishers that sum it up the same way.  I've found some that leave me wanting to stuff the pages up their noses.

To use it in the Trance and spirit journeying sense, as it was used in a cultural context bothers me as well.  How much of a concept must you integrate before you title it in accordance with it's origin?

Can we call anyone in a white robe a Druid?  Can we call anyone who Trances or Spirit Journeys a Shaman?  Every drummer a shaman? 

Personally I would call all using the term "Shaman" outside of cultural use a Neo-Shaman.  Because you cannot be sure that you are using the same process, or seeing the same world as those who used the term in it's origin you might as easily and with the same confidence call yourself a Delphic Oracle, and claim the term to be so divorced from it's origins that it has been culturally redefined to mean a gray area that no one is allowed to lay down boundaries in.

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« Reply #7: May 14, 2008, 04:40:21 pm »

I think the spirit travelers of the reindeer herding Turkic-Mongol tribes is well covered ground, so I won't refry that bean, but the implication that taking away all structured social beliefs outside of a cauldron and a handful of grass, boils into "Shamanism" really chaffs my ass.

I agree. I think that Shamanism, to be meaningful, has to be referring to the practices of those specific tribal cultures or very similar practices in other tribal cultures or the term to too likely to become "whatever the user wants it to mean."
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« Reply #8: May 14, 2008, 04:41:00 pm »

Can we call anyone in a white robe a Druid?  Can we call anyone who Trances or Spirit Journeys a Shaman?  Every drummer a shaman? 

No, but I do think we can call spirit journeying a shamanic technique. I think the focus here is not on the label of being a "shaman" or a "witch", but the techniques employed by these.

Personally I would call all using the term "Shaman" outside of cultural use a Neo-Shaman.  Because you cannot be sure that you are using the same process, or seeing the same world as those who used the term in it's origin you might as easily and with the same confidence call yourself a Delphic Oracle, and claim the term to be so divorced from it's origins that it has been culturally redefined to mean a gray area that no one is allowed to lay down boundaries in.

I know several folks who prefer to call themselves shamans (and this after very considered thought), and understand fully all of the things you point out here.
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« Reply #9: May 14, 2008, 09:42:08 pm »

I agree. I think that Shamanism, to be meaningful, has to be referring to the practices of those specific tribal cultures or very similar practices in other tribal cultures or the term to too likely to become "whatever the user wants it to mean."

yes. I use a lot of shamanic practices, i am naturally inclined to pratice my craft that way, but I would never call myself a shaman. I don't have that training or any particular tribal heritage that would give me the right to do so at all.
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« Reply #10: May 15, 2008, 02:30:21 am »

Shamanism as I understand it, is nothing you choose - you get chosen by the spirits and to heck with you, if you don't follow.

[...]

I can only tell you my definition. The Hagazussa, as you know, is the rider on the fence between the two worlds, wild and tame, men and spirits. This can seem shamaniclike in some regards. But being a witch is something you choose. (Well, more or less *g*). So using a technique like journeys to the otherworld doesn't make me a shaman, it makes me a witch riding the fence.
So if you choose to practice shamanic techniques it makes you a witch, but if the spirits adress you it makes you a shaman? I like this definition, but I wonder if there isn't a problem in this passive/active thing.

What if the spirits choose only people who are open to them at least a bit (even if they have to force the person to open up more). But wouldn't that make the original opening a personal choice? Or is the difference that it's more an unconscious habit than a conscious choice?

And if someone consciously chooses to adress spirits, isn't it still the choice of the spirits to get into the communication or not?

But judging from the magical techniques, witchcraft seems to cover such a variety of practices that it can include shamanic techniques like spirit journeying. If you see 'riding on a broom' as some spirit journeying technique or familiars as something similar to power animals it looks a bit like remnants of European shamanism.


My starting point of this thread was the question why a Western practioneer of nature magic is mostly called 'witch', but someone from an indigenous backround 'shaman' or 'shamanistic'. The associations some people have with these labels seem so unfair. They have the suspicion that the 'witch' is an intelligent, but evil and cunning person, while the 'shaman' is of an indigenous heritage and hasn't been properly civilized. It's unfair to both sides as the 'witch' has indigenous heritage too, just that it dates back longer and the 'shaman' is intelligent and of age enough to choose a lifestyle. I doubt that spirits can make someone a shaman who has his/her heart firmly closed to them from the beginnning (I don't doubt that they can nudge and bother you a lot if they see a chance). Communication means that two sides have to do something, even if listening and understanding seems passive, someone could still choose not to listen or be unable or unwilling to decode the message. But that's my own rather inexperienced opinion.

I'm not saying that the different labels make no sense at all, just that there's a big overlap possible. Maybe the difference is in how those groups define themselves, the witch stressing the personal choice and the shaman stressing being chosen by the spirits?

And don't you get a lot of 'born witches' in the Pagan community? People who say magical abilities are heritagal or that they have been communicating with spirits or Gods from early on and discovered later that they were witches? Where's the choice there? (And I raise my eyebrows about such people a lot, because I like the definition of witch being a magic practioneer by own choice and responsibility.)

Still I think your definition makes sense basicly, but it looks a bit like 'witches' and 'shamans' are just different personalities.


On a side note: I see a difference between just using 'shamanic' techniques and calling yourself a 'shaman'. So I wouldn't have a problem with the label 'shamanic witch' meaning a witch who concentrates on shamanic techniques, just wonder if people use it at all. And it looks like a witch can use shamanic stuff next to other forms of magic without becoming a shaman.
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« Reply #11: May 15, 2008, 07:16:46 am »

It's unfair to both sides as the 'witch' has indigenous heritage too, just that it dates back longer...

Do you have a source for witchcraft dating back longer than shamanism? If so, I'd love to see it.

I guess my real problem with this whole concept is that I *still* have no idea what witchcraft is, or rather, what an appropriate definition would be. I have a very clear idea of what shamanism is, and what a shaman does, but witchcraft, as I have said, is applied to just about every magical practice that it often exasperates me to find people trying to compare the two when I am missing a large chunk of the comparison definitions.
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« Reply #12: May 15, 2008, 10:28:40 am »

Do you have a source for witchcraft dating back longer than shamanism?
Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. How do you phrase this in English properly?

What I meant was that Western people also have indigenous heritage, but it's farer away. Not that those ancestors started to practice magic earlier, but that a Native American descendant has for example an indigenous tribal grand-grand-pa while an European has an indigenous tribal grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-xxxxxxx-pa.

Sorry, I simply don't know the proper phrase in English and it's hard to look up phrases. I don't have a phrase dictionary, just several ones for simple words.
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« Reply #13: May 15, 2008, 12:06:39 pm »

Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. How do you phrase this in English properly?

What I meant was that Western people also have indigenous heritage, but it's farer away. Not that those ancestors started to practice magic earlier, but that a Native American descendant has for example an indigenous tribal grand-grand-pa while an European has an indigenous tribal grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-xxxxxxx-pa.

Sorry, I simply don't know the proper phrase in English and it's hard to look up phrases. I don't have a phrase dictionary, just several ones for simple words.

I'm still not sure I understand clearly--we have archaeological evidence in Europe that dates further back than the Native American archaeological record, yes... but most of what lies in between whatever we think may have happened in prehistoric Europe and now has been broken and has morphed into something completely different. It's not really heritage for most Europeans because it's so far back in time there's no context for it anymore.

And I didn't mean to jump down your throat--your English really is very good.  Wink  I'm just trying to understand a little better. 

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« Reply #14: May 15, 2008, 01:05:04 pm »

So if you choose to practice shamanic techniques it makes you a witch, but if the spirits adress you it makes you a shaman? I like this definition, but I wonder if there isn't a problem in this passive/active thing.

It isn't that simple.

Being a shaman is a lot more than just spirit journey - it is embeded in a cultural context - and yes I've read of people being forced by the spirits in not nice ways to become shamans. (Can't remember the book now, couldn't afford it, it was about a woman who followed her grandmother or father in being the shaman of the community).

It seems to me, you want to say that 'witch' and 'shaman' is basically the same, just the label is different?
No, I don't think, witch and shaman is the same. I had some trouble to put that in words a while ago (remember Mandi? Wink) In lack of a fitting word, I used the term shamanistic for the techniques that are part of my path. But it is not a good way to describe things at all.

*searching an example*...it's like you're saying an artist like Picasso and a guy who just paints buildings are the same thing, because both use paint and brushes. (Not a good ex. sorry, it's not meant as a valuation either).

Just because some witches travel or connect to spirits doesn't make witchcraft as a whole (wonder what that whole is anyway) the same as a grown indigenious tradition that is still alive in some peoples.

I was able to clarify that for me through reconnecting to the symbol of the Hagazussa - my methods are the fence riders, trying to live in two worlds. I don't leave my body on a regular base and though I use trance, I usually don't fall into ecstatic states during this.

So I might do a similar thing, but I'm not even willing to call it shamanic technique anymore. It's something similar, but not the same. And not all witches work in that way.

Even if we assume that some of 'our old european' tradition was passed on, of the modern day witches barely a one will have had contact with that. Most of us are training on the job witches. I had no granny who told me about the secrets of herbs or something. And people who have, usually don't call themselves witches.

It won't fit all under one hat, I'm sorry.

edited for a non-sense typo
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