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Defining shamanim

The word shaman comes to us from the Tungus language of Siberia. The word shaman has been applied worldwide since the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, each community has a name to refer to the type of practitioner under discussion. The Taíno of the Greater Antilles called these individuals behique, the Wixárika (Huichol) of México say mara’káme, the Wichi of the Chaco Central in Argentina refer to them as jayawú, and the Mapuche people of Chile call it machi.


Shamanism is a convenient construct useful to identify a set of activities that are unified by an attempt to establish interaction with other spheres of existence. Shamans possess the ability, acquired through a long process of apprenticeship, to enter into a state of ecstasy that allows or facilitates access to alternate modes of consciousness. The ecstatic state is the vehicle for such activities; it is fundamental to the human condition.


They are masters of ecstasy, the main vehicle to conduct shamanic activities. Shamans are healers, seers and visionaries. A shaman is capable of personifying tradition and expressing it persuasively. To accomplish this task, they are painters, poets, singers, dancers, musicians, sculptors. They are also familiar with the environment: the geography of the area, plants, animals, soil, the patterns of the seasons and the weather. They are the repositories of the traditions and history of their culture.

Trichocereus Pachanoj (Jill Plugh and Steven F. White©, 2022).

* Video material

Shamans in ancient times

Representations of human figures with animal attributes suggest early practices of shamanism. A 40,000-year-old bone sculpture of a clawed human with a lion’s head from the Lone Valley in Germany is a good example. Several European caves with Palaeolithic cave art have paintings and engravings of half-human, half-animal beings, such as the figure with the head and tail of a deer from Les Trois Frères or the one from the Lascaux cave, which shows a character with the head of a bird next to a scepter in the form of a bird.

Paleolithic rock art

Shielding against spirits

Common characteristics in shamanism

Concepts such as transformation, accumulation, the acquisition of animal and plant characteristics, repetitive images, representations of skeletonized human beings, and metaphorical expressions are widely associated with shamanism and permeate most of the world’s traditional cultures.

Gnanasan shaman preparing for the journey

Extracto del documental Shaman (Taymir, Siberia), de Elizabeth Wennberg, 1994.

Inuit shaman, the healed wounded

Extracto de la película The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Alaska), de Zacharias Kunuk y Norman Cohn, 1920. Kunuk Cohn Productions, EEUU.

Coraza de chamán

Textil, algodón. Pueblo Tai, Tailandia, sudoeste asiático.
Colección José Bedia, EEUU; PT 02.

Espejo circular
Piedra, antracita. Cultura Chavín-Tembladera, 900-200 AC.
Sierra central del Perú, Área Andes Centrales.
Donación Sergio Larrain García-Moreno, MChAP 0563.

(Foto, Rodrigo Tisi).


Ser humano, felino-venado.

Oro, Darién (Panamá), 400-700 DC. The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1946.80.


Tableta con humanos y aves.

Madera, San Pedro (norte de Chile), 900-1200 DC. Museo Histórico Nacional, N° 21-12941


Moai Kava-Kava.

Madera, Pueblo Rapa Nui (Chile insular), siglo XX. MChAP-CSCY 2600.


Ser humano-hongo

Piedra, Cultura Providencia (México), 1-300 DC. MChAP 0835.


Escena de sanación

Cerámica, Moche (Perú), 1-600 DC. Museo Larco, Lima, Perú, ML002645.


Canto de María Sabina, chamana mazateca, México. (Extracto).


Soy mujer limpia, dice
Soy mujer arreglada, dice
Soy mujer que mira hacia adentro, dice
Soy mujer que mira hacia adentro, dice
Soy mujer que mira hacia adentro, dice
Soy mujer que mira hacia adentro, dice
Soy mujer que mira hacia adentro, dice
Soy mujer de luz, dice
Soy mujer de luz, dice
Soy mujer de luz, dice
Soy mujer día, dice
Soy mujer que truena, dice
Soy mujer sabia en medicina, dice
Soy mujer sabia en Lenguaje, dice
Soy mujer Cristo, dice
Ah, Jesucristo, dice…


Traje de chamán Nanai (Goldi), Siberia.

American Museum of Natural History, New York, N° 70/696.

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Objeto que brinda protección al chamán frente a los espíritus que debe confrontar en sus viajes a otras realidades de existencia.

Coraza de chamán. (anverso y reverso)

Textil, algodón. Pueblo Tai, Tailandia, sudoeste asiático.

Colección José Bedia, EEUU; PT 02. (876 x 470 mm).

(Foto, Constantino Torres).

Representación de un posible chamán, la más antigua en
la historia de la humanidad.

Hombre-León. Figura humana con rasgos de felino (réplica).

Original tallado en marfil de mamut. Período Paleolítico (Auriñacience), 40 mil años.

Cueva Hohlenstein-Stadel, Baden, Württemberg, Alemania.

Colección Museo Ulm, Alemania, Replik LMR_2015_SLG-Ulm04. PT 01 (311 x 73 mm).

(© Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im RP Stuttgart and Museum Ulm, Photo: Yvonne Mühleis).