Traditional Shamanism & Modern Psychology

Drawn from 2 early articles on this site (2009; 2011), edited and updated. (Original articles: and

Grand Shaman SUH Sun Sil on Jeju Island, South Korea, in an annual spring rite to the dragon sea gods on behalf of the traditional free-divers. (March 2011)

The word ‘shamanism’ brings to mind for most people an image of a tribal figure in brightly colored traditional garb, dancing and singing and shaking a stick or beating a drum, possibly sacrificing animals or ingesting psychedelics, and proposing to heal or curse or predict the future.  For some, this image is associated with evil or ill fortune; for others, superstition; for still others, mystery and intrigue. For many, it holds a profound significance.

When I meet people and tell them I’m a psychologist, it’s not uncommon for them to put their hands in front of their faces and say, in an only half-joking tone, “Don’t look too closely!” Magical ability to peer into a person’s most secret self is often attributed to the psychologist — and some may fear this as well. For many, however, this too is meaningful.

From the Manchu-Tungus word ‘šaman’ for the central figure, ‘shamanism’ is the English term given to a system of magico-religious healing that began in Eastern Siberia and spread to much of the world, taking culturally relevant forms. It’s an animistic worldview in which humans are not separate from their physical environment, and the nonphysical realm is perceived as ever present. Nearly all early peoples developed some form of animistic belief; shamanism, animism with the addition of the central figure known as a ‘shaman’, has specific features of altered states of consciousness and ecstatic emotional response that also allow the shaman to perform feats seemingly supernatural. In many cultures it has died out or exists only minimally; in others, even in some quite developed societies, it’s still pervasive.

Annual late winter rite of Songdang Village, Jeju Island, South Korea, for prosperous growing season and harvest. (February 2012)

Here’s how it overlaps psychology for me.

The shaman, male or female, is perceived as priest, healer, teacher, guide, mentor, facilitator, and conduit for the spiritual world. The psychologist may fulfill any or all of these roles as well, serving as a knowledgeable conduit for an individual’s unconscious, assisting in making the unknown knowable — that is, helping to bring the unconscious material into a person’s conscious awareness.

The shaman’s work is sacred; the space in which the work is performed is also sacred. The psychologist typically also views his / her work as sacred, and feels privileged and honored by the trust that others place in him / her as they share their most painful or disturbing as well as noble and enlightening thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. Both shaman and psychologist have studied and prepared, and gathered a wealth of life experience, in order to provide and perform this sacred work.

To become a shaman, one must undergo an initiation process after years of training; the initial calling to become a shaman often follows a protracted illness. The psychologist also must go through many years of training followed by an initiation of one sort or another into the profession; as part of that training, he / she must also experience psychotherapy and, when initially practicing, be supervised by another more senior therapist.  Often, the person who chooses to become a psychologist has had some related experience personally or with a family member. The shaman, or the psychologist, typically can be described as a ‘wounded healer’–having known pain, and having undergone a process of healing and transformation, he or she can serve others in a more informed manner.

Memorial rite by Shaman Lee Yong Ok, for a young student activist and martyr who died by self-immolation in 1991 at the age of 25, on Jeju Island, South Korea. (November 2011)

The shaman performs ritual for a clearly delineated purpose. The stages of this ritual are universal: purification and centering or grounding; dedication of the shaman to guiding spirits, to the work at hand, and to the participants; altering of consciousness and calling in the spirits; the main task or purpose; expression of gratitude and discharging of the spirits; and, closure of the ritual with an opening of the boundaries that had been set in place, followed by a release — for the time being — of the bond between shaman and participants.

In the psychotherapy session, much the same form is followed: both psychologist and client come to the session having purified their minds of all else, grounded and centered themselves in order to be fully present and focused, and dedicated themselves to the work that needs to be done. The consciousness of both is shifted, as each moves into the realm of the unconscious in order to explore its terrain, and the “spirits” — the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, experiences of the unconscious — are called in. The main task of the session ensues; when the material or issues that have emerged in the session have shifted or resolved, a sense of gratitude to the wisdom of the unconscious is often experienced and the unconscious is ‘discharged’ in much the same way as the shaman’s spirits, to be accessed again as needed. Consciousness returns to the normal state, gestures of closure take place, and psychologist and client part — until the next session.

The bond of shaman with community, and to the specific ritual participants, is critical to the success of the ritual. So too is the therapeutic rapport between psychologist and client, and the empathy that the psychologist brings to that relationship as well as the client’s hope, desire to change, and commitment to the process.

Another key concept in shamanism is that of ‘soul retrieval’. A fundamental belief across shamanistic traditions is that illness or other disturbance or imbalance in a person’s life is the result of that person having lost a part of his or her soul, the shaman’s primary task being to locate and help return that missing portion. The person who comes to the psychologist can also be said to have lost or buried a part of her or his psyche, and it’s the task of the psychologist to help locate and reintegrate that which is missing.

From fragmentation to wholeness. As we rush toward ever increasing levels of modernity in our societies, and ever increasing dependence upon science in our methods of interpreting the world and our experience of it, we might yet do well to consider indigenous ways.

Natural coastal shrine to the dragon sea gods, Jeju Island, South Korea. (July 2012)

Three mourners sat before the shaman as she placed her hand over each one’s heart in turn, pounded on their upper backs, blew air onto the crown of each head, and draped a cloth dipped in sacred water over their shoulders, all the while chanting a story of consolation.

They were the ones who had discovered the body of their drowned colleague and friend, and who now knelt before the presiding shaman at the funeral ritual. Shaman SUH Sun Sil, in a rite universal to all such traditions across the globe according to philosopher and shamanism expert Dr Mircea Eliade, was helping them to retrieve the part of their souls that had been lost as a result of their shocking experience.

Earlier that day, words of consolation from the deceased woman to her colleagues, her traditional free-diving sisterhood, poured from the mouth of Shaman Suh as she became a conduit between the living and the dead. In the early evening, Shaman Suh, along with three supporting shamans, would accompany the deceased woman’s husband and sister-in-law, another diver, to the nearby shore where her body had been recovered, in order to call her spirit from its watery grave and give offerings to the Dragon King and water spirits in return.

On the second of the two-day ritual, Shaman Suh would provide an elaborate rite to console the spirit of the dead woman and, in the role of psychopomp, usher her to the Otherworld.

In addition to soul loss and retrieval, universal themes of shamanic traditions according to Dr Eliade include altered states of consciousness, travel by the shaman and spirits between material and immaterial planes, ecstatic states, delineated ritual space, sacred center and conduit and the concept of a quest, among others.

Sometimes the shaman also needs healing — and sometimes that is beyond shamanic skill or the will of the gods. Shaman Jung Gong Chul, on Jeju Island, South Korea, is participating in the Great Rite, historically a 14-day annual ritual (8-10 hours per day); he died of cancer just months later. (December 2012)

Four cross-cultural healing techniques of the shaman include the deliberate use of singing, dancing, storytelling, and silence, according to cultural anthropologist Dr Angeles Arrien. Dr Malindoma Patrice Some, in his 1997 book, “Ritual: Power, Healing and Community,” described the shamanic rites of his Dakara tribe in Burkina Faso as an opportunity each time for the healing of all members, not limited to those directly affected.

“The role of the shaman,” according to LEE Yong Ok, senior shaman of Jeju Island’s Chilmeoridang shamanic society, “is to comfort the client or community in abnormal circumstances, usually through song and dance.”

After ensuring her clients’ initial comfort, Shaman Lee then assesses through the use of divination whether the client’s circumstances can be effectively addressed through ritual or require medical or other intervention. She prefers seeing clients in their own homes if possible; otherwise, she meets them at the seashore.

Dr RHI Bou Yong, neuropsychiatrist and the leading Jungian analyst in South Korea, wrote his doctoral thesis on “Shamanism and the Korean Psyche” in the late 1960s at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. In our conversations, Dr Rhi repeatedly emphasized the importance of Korea’s shamanic tradition in defining as well as treating the collective Korean psyche.

South Korea’s #1 Grand Shaman, KIM Keum Hwa, now deceased, agreed. Of North Korean heritage, she bore the nationally designated title Important Intangible Cultural Asset and was considered a national treasure. Initiated as a shaman at the age of 17, she performed ritual in more than 25 countries, received an honorary doctoral degree, and founded a shamanic training center. Shaman Kim recounted many stories, in our conversations, regarding the effects of ritual on the clients who came to her for individual sessions.

Waheul shamanic shrine to the goddess and god, Jeju Island, South Korea. (February 2013)

Shamanism, in modern as well as historical periods, provides many of the same functions as does psychological counseling. Its form is flexible and adaptable, integrating modern elements as needed in order to maintain its relevance.

On Jeju Island in November 2011, a unique shamanic ritual and dedication of a memorial stone was held in remembrance of a student activist who in 1991 had became a martyr by self-immolation.

Considering the circumstances of his death, the Chilmeoridang shamans combined two rituals to create a new form never before performed in quite this way. Integrated were elements of both the traditional funeral ritual and rites to the fire gods normally performed when a house has burned down – to ensure the safety of rebuilding on the site. In a moving display, the ritual had been constructed according to need, indicating the tradition’s flexibility and ability to continue to comfort and address the needs of a modern society.

In April 2011, the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation sponsored a national conference entitled, “4.3 Trauma, Seeking Healing.” The title reflected the island’s historic cultural trauma of 1947-1953 in the form of military massacre of citizens, as yet controversial and unresolved. In addition to specialists in the areas of history, psychiatry, and psychology, Jeju culture expert MOON Moo-Byung and Seoul scholar of religious studies Dr KIM Seong-nae (Sogang University) spoke on the use of shamanic ritual for healing.

Dr Kim, who has published considerably on Jeju shamanism, refers not only to its healing capabilities but also its role in determining the collective narrative, or cultural identity, thereby relating it to psychology in yet another way.

Shaman LEE Yong Ok, of Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut Preservation Society, Jeju Island, South Korea, performing the annual spring rite by that name. (March 2013)

The renowned Swiss psychiatrist and father of analytical psychology, Dr Carl Gustav Jung, wrote extensively in the early 20th century on the parallels between shamanic practices and psychoanalysis, in particular exploring his theories of archetypes and collective unconscious and the role of the psychologist as a skilled facilitator of same. Dr Jung’s contemporary, accomplished mythologist and prolific author Joseph Campbell, also explored these parallels in detail. Transpersonal Psychology, a school of thought founded in the 1960s, takes the analytical theories of Dr Jung, filtered through the lens of Humanistic Psychology, and adds in the spiritual aspect as a source of meaning to the individual — and as such, wholly supports the concept of shamanism as a practice of indigenous psychology.

Shaman Suh once recounted the story of a schizophrenic man brought to her for consultation.

Referring to his ‘fragmented spirit’ and marginal response to medical treatment, she described her use of ritual to ‘bring comfort to his mind’ in what might be termed ‘reintegration’ by a psychologist. Following the ritual, he continued his medical protocol with greater success.

Shaman Suh also identified her use of shamanic practices to alleviate clients’ depression; ritual for the transformation of ‘han’, a uniquely Korean term for a constellation of suppressed emotions including resentment, unresolved grief and loss, and more; rites for alleviating delirium tremens and hallucinations during alcohol detoxification; and, the facilitation of broken relationships ‘by repairing the spirit’.

Citing the power of words and her need to choose them carefully when designing and conducting rituals, Suh pointed to the loss of ritual in modern society and what to her was a directly related increase in stress and stress-related illnesses.

Grand Shaman KIM Yoon Su performs spring rites for a bountiful growing season, Jeju Island, South Korea. (March 2017)

Shaman Lee relayed the 40 year-old story of a Jeju physician with chronic migraines who, after all treatment failed, was scheduled for brain surgery in Seoul. Prior to surgery, he consulted Jeju shaman MOON Ok Sun, who was the mother of KIM Yoon Su, Grand Shaman and chief of the Chilmeoridang shaman society – and Lee’s husband.

During the ritual, Shaman Moon discovered that the physician’s brother had been executed during the 1948 turmoil on Jeju, and mourning rituals were never performed because they were forbidden at that time. Shaman Moon performed rituals to comfort the dead and the living, and the physician’s migraines were resolved without surgery. Later, in his clinical practice, he was known for referring treatment-resistant cases to the shamans for ritual.

“Jeju society today still has unresolved trauma from that time,” voiced Shaman Lee, “and Jeju people are not comforted.” Citing mass graves and ongoing identification of the dead, she proposed the need for public funeral rites and soul retrieval. She also described her work with ‘heartbroken’ clients, divorcing couples, and those experiencing depression “as a result of being blamed unjustly by others.”

Dr Michael Winkelman (Arizona State University, USA) is considered one of the foremost scholars on shamanism today. Referring to shamanic practice as ‘neurotheology and evolutionary psychology’ in his 2002 article in American Behavioral Scientist, he identified the psychophysiological effects of altered states of consciousness, neurotransmitter responses resulting from the combination of ritual and community, and the relationship of concepts regarding ‘spirit’ to those of individual and group psychodynamics.

In his 2010 book, “Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing,” Dr Winkelman elaborated on the shamanic paradigm as self-empowerment, which “strengthens individuals’ ability to take an active role in their health and well-being” and “enhances the [full] use of [the] brain, conscious and unconscious” in its emphasis on the “vital connection with community and the spiritual dimension of human health.”

The practice of shamanism, varying widely from one culture to another but with several universal elements across all such practices, is surely a form of folk psychology not yet fully given its due.


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