Shamanism in Italy: yes or no?

I write this article because for a while on social media and on the internet the Italian Shamanic tradition is being analysed and I want to answer to those who assert with such vehemence that in Italy Shamanism and the figure of a Shaman of hereditary tradition, therefore I, do not exist because of the Catholic presence.

It is not easy to define what Shamanism is and it is not certain that you will agree with the definition I will try to give below.

Shamanism is not a precise subject and there will be anomalies in what I write – but I hope to give at least a general idea, except for the exceptions.

The word “Shaman” is a Western transposition of the word samaan or s’amanthe, originating from the Evenchi Siberian people (formerly known as the Tungus population), and was imported into the Russian language by the first explorers of Siberia.

The word was gradually accepted in Russia and Europe as a general term to refer to a native Siberian, African or South American healer, but the holy Spanish inquisition attacked our ancestors. The term “witch”, or “bruxja” or “bruja” was then exported by anthropologists to the rest of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leaving the world to believe that Shamanism in Europe and in Italy was dead.

Naturally, our healers hid their knowledge from the masses and transformed ancient rites in techniques of use and folk costume by Catholicizing them: although in a different way from north to south, they followed modern evolution, started attending schools, having running water and exercising certain late rights such as the right to vote, to study and to work. In step with the changing times, the Italian woman left her dresses and skirts to wear blue jeans and accepted the pressure cooker instead of the “cassarola e cucchiara …”

Unfortunately, today the world of spirituality has become a source of pride rather than a service to others: if you don’t have a recognition that you buy yourself in paid courses you are nobody, and the know-it-all tell you that in Italy Shamanism does not exist.

So let’s make some clarity. Shamanism is a set of traditions that come from the native peoples of the whole world, from every continent of the globe.

Even in Italy, before the great known civilizations, native peoples were present and lived in close contact with the earth, in full respect of the biological rhythms of every living being. When we hear about Shamanism, popular belief brings thought to strange practices, which call to mind extravagant figures and sorcerers who practice magic.

In reality, Shamanism and the figure of the Shaman are a return to ancient traditions, in which the human being is placed at the center, with the aim of regaining his balance in full respect of nature around.

The human being is an integral part of Nature, it cannot exist outside of it. This is a concept that has been lost over time and has caused many problems to our health, the ability to relate to the world around us and with our authentic needs.

For a Shaman or Medicine Woman, the term Medicine has nothing to do with a drug or a substance, and the Shaman herself never opposes the use of universally recognized allopathic therapies, (also because going to school in the West, we recognize the evolution of medicines).

However, a Medicine Woman always remembers that Medicina, in a subtle sense, means power, intent, life force, connection, completeness and integrity. Medicine is seeing the connection between all beings and all things. Medicine is rediscovering the depth of oneself, rediscovering the space of the divine and the sacred immortal within us.

Everyone is a carrier of medicine and can make of his/her life a good medicine, BUT not every individual who attend courses can become a Medicine Woman or Shaman because of the profound meaning of selfless service to others.

Medicine is the energy that extends in lovingness towards each other.

Medicine is everything that supports the human being, everything that heals the body, mind and spirit: Medicine is the WILL to SERVE.

Speaking of Italian Shamanism we must extend the concept to syncretism. Italian Shamanism is a natural condition of being, a magical, graceful, confident and harmonious way of facing life. His/her reality is alive in everyday life, a dimension in which he/she works to train women and men to be aware of their own Self.

Italian Shamanism is inserted into the flow of spirituality of the ancient religions of the earth.

From a technical point of view, it has mixed origins and has evolved over the centuries, preserving its specific identity with respect to the other Shamanic ways.

Starting from Ancestors of various ethnicities, my family has preserved the Knowledge of the Laws of Healing and Energetic Rebalance of the Mother Goddess, mother Earth, Mother Nature and transmitted them to women from generation to generation.

In our time I am the last heir of this ancient generation of women, a Medicine Woman of Italian hereditary tradition and custodian of tradition.

The term syncretism means the encounter between different cultures that generates mixtures, interactions and fusions between heterogeneous cultural elements. The field in which this concept is most widely applied is the religious one and the history of religions with the anthropology of religious systems are the disciplines most attentive to these cultural phenomena.

The term Shamanism indicates, in the history of religions, in cultural anthropology and in ethnology, a set of beliefs, religious practices, magic-rituals, ecstatic and ethnomedical techniques found in various cultures and traditions.

A Shaman is a person who is recognized having thaumaturgical and divinatory faculty, considered an intermediary between men and the world of heavenly spirits and the world of Nature.

I was initiated by tradition, synchronously, to the cultural ethnic techniques of the Italian territory.

Between the serious and the funny, the television and cinematographic information has carved in our mind a granitic stereotype of the Shaman: man – 90% is male – who carries out his job half-naked, showing off tattoos and epidermic paintings, belonging to remote indigenous tribes who knows where.

In the West the figure of the Shaman has been lost with civilization: as the man has moved away from nature naked, he has returned dressed. In my country we weren’t called Shamans … but rather “vammane” dialectal term synonymous with healer and midwife …

Today the Shamans are people, inserted in our society, who have undertaken paths of discovery and self-knowledge, in close contact with the native peoples who still exist, such as the Americans, Australians or Africans.

The Shaman experimented first on herself, and then brought others the ancient shamanic practices related to physical, emotional and spiritual healing. It’s a person in full connection with his/her own inner self and the surrounding nature.

The Shaman has learned to live in love and in the absence of judgment, focusing on the good of the person as a whole. Ego is put aside and the heart is the only tool to be used in the approach with the other.

What is Shamanism for? Why approach these ancient disciplines?

In today’s world, the tendency is to close in ourselves, communicate through a screen and not find time to devote to the contact with natural elements. We spend less time outdoors than in closed spaces.

The Shaman reconnects us with our primary needs, freeing us from all the conditionings that society sews on us year after year.

Fears, judgment, limits, fears: these are all states of mind that do not allow us to live in full freedom and happiness. Shamanism and shamanic practices help to free oneself, a little at a time, from the limiting conditioning and bring us in connection with nature, with its strength, its energy and its beauty.

It becomes a journey to discover our true Self, which brings balance to our body and our emotions, helping us to live every day as the best gift we can receive.

Browsing around as a philologist, I discovered that among the Mongols, the Burati, the Jakuti, the Altaiani, the Evenchi and the Kyrgyz, the word to designate a “female Shaman” is Udagan with the variants utagan, ubakan, utygan and utugun, which probably come from the Mongolian word Etugen which is the name of the ancient Goddess of the hearth. This also happened to our women called Janare from Jana, Danu, Diana and sometimes two-faced Janus: “the one who saw beyond”.

The Shaman has an animistic view of the world.

An animist believes that all parts of Creation are alive in some way and have a spirit.

Nothing is dead in the universe for the animist: you and I have a soul, and so it is with all animals and plants, rocks and rivers, mountains and clouds, stars, the sun and the moon. Even a disease, a concept, a ceremony or a ritual object have a soul: everything has a soul and we live within a vast network of interconnection.

All animistic and shamanic cultures conceive it.

All shamanic cultures are animistic – but not all animistic cultures are shamanic.

In the early 1980s, a new style of Western shamanism developed – generally known as ‘Core Shamanism’. It developed mainly through the work of Michael Harner.

The core shamanism has taken up the basic modality of shamanism to enter into trance and travel to the worlds of the Spirit, but has stripped it of all cultural aspects, making it more easily accessible to Westerners. The fundamental principle of core shamanism is that anyone can learn to travel and use “shamanic techniques” in their lives to help themselves or others.

This is undoubtedly true and many people take many advantages from learning shamanic techniques. However the rule “to be chosen by spirits” is still applicable. I always think that the spiritual world is a bit like the ocean. All people can explore the surfaces of shamanism; sit on the beach with your toes in the water or paddle where the waves break – in other words almost everyone can learn to make the basic shamanic journey and do something near the shore. Some people will go into the ocean with water to their chest or they will learn to swim a little and they will go deeper.

But only those chosen by the spirits and who carry it in their blood will truly learn to swim and dive, hold their breath underwater and go to the depths of the spiritual world.

By saying this you do not want to be elitist: it is simply the truth.

Paraphrasing great souls, I confidently affirm that only “when the student is ready, the Master appears”.

Shamanism at a certain level of depth can be very dangerous, physically and psychologically: some Shamans die during ceremonies. That’s why I don’t really write anything about everything I know, and I only pass it down to my apprentices or my children.

The books written so far are only very small steps and elementary practices to which I was initiated and approached 37 years ago.

Not all people are bio-spiritually fit to dive deep: only those who have the blessing and help of spirits will learn to push themselves enormously out of their limits, to return to safety – if they are lucky. But everyone can live a rich animistic life and can learn simple shamanic first aid remedies – and I believe the world would be far better if there were more people practicing it.

There are so many people around who are actually implementing a good shamanic practice but there are so many others that unfortunately are doing … “other stuff” and even in good faith! – New Age can be a place so full of fluff that we can drown in it very easily, choking on all that fairy dust.

I often come across people who think that yoga, reiki or some other form of therapy is “Shamanism”.

They are not: at most they can be “animist” practices, but not Shamanism.

In Italy we go down into the quarries or climb high in the mountains; we deprive the body of comfort, attachments and only then do we enter the veils between the worlds, encountering the animal driving in nature: if we survive, this will be a bulwark and strength for us … but if we imagine it only to the sound of a drum and under psychedelics , what will appear will be relative to the context.

Is Shamanism going into nature, sitting in the grove, with your back leaning against a tree, trying to connect and become “one with everything”?

Again, this is not Shamanism either.

Meditation in nature is something to be encouraged: attunement and feeling one’s connection with all one’s “relatives” is something that brings great benefit – but it is not Shamanism.

Shamanism is a work of severe discipline: you meet the spirits, you have real dialogues with them, you negotiate – sometimes submitting or even fighting – for the good of your community.

People in the New Age community often think that Shamans are wonderful people – close to the Spirit – who love everyone and do good deeds all day long.

This is also a myth.

Traditional Shamans often fight and sometimes try to kill each other and steal the other’s power with the help of their spirits. Traditional Shamans often curse as much as they cure and make the practice of other Shamans difficult.

Fortunately, these types of attacks are very rare in Western shamanic communities and among those who practice core shamanism: among them there are only a few people who have such profound and powerful knowledge as to do great damage.

I strongly advise against doing the “obscure work” because one opens oneself to spiritual forces much greater than us, endangering oneself and their loved ones.

You can also lose your connection with any healing spirit you have worked with up to that point.

Shamanism is often associated with taking mind-altering plants. In recent years, tourism to the Amazon has proliferated and people take substances like Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Peyote and various types of mind-altering fungi.

People often seem to think that this is essential when it comes to Shamanism, but let me assure you that it is not.

Most shamanic cultures around the world do not assume any substance that alters the mind – instead they are based on the spirits that possess them, aided by a combination of ceremony, song, dances and musical instruments.

You may feel attracted by following an animist path derived from your ancestors: perhaps you have Celtic or European, African or Central Asian blood and the call of blood is strong.

This of the blood is a wonderful line to explore, but be aware that, if you come from a European culture, traditions have been broken and paths like Wicca or Druids are modern inventions and little correlated to their ancestral ancestors.

Our ancestors did not follow a spiritual path for pleasure or self-improvement: they were linked to their spirituality because they were there to save their lives, to help heal their sick and to help bring crops and animals to their tables: they observed the seasonal cycles and honoured the bad weather, they talked with thunders and unleashed storms, they honoured animals from which they drew nourishment and warmth, they safeguarded knowledge and techniques by dressing them as folk magic to save their lives. To safeguard knowledge they dressed it with Catholic prayers … but they knew that a day would come when everything would be brought to light.

I don’t talk about it on social media, nor on books, but I teach in real life, I choose and teach those I think smart enough to honour an Ancient Tradition.

I am very concrete and simple because I believe that it is very easy to “let yourself go” to the imagination in the West, where we are detached from the natural world and we do not need our ancient methods to survive or be amazed in front of a woman, me, who is simple and marks you for free and prays in an ancient way to help you heal.

In ancient times, if things did not work, people would die: now – with us and for now – it is not so and there is no longer the essential pragmatic point of “spirituality”.

We look for it to bring balance to our urban world, seduced by its novel and enchanted by fantasy, to escape from the monotony of an office. And we do it also because it is “easy” to devote ourselves to spiritual works to justify an unhappy life, to give us a tone and to subdue other people, to humiliate others, to feel superior, to make money by selling shamanic drum constructions, sweat huts and ayahuasca to a people of dazed, insensitive and unfortunately ignorant of the herbs that grow in their own territory.

I do not want to “make a bundle of every herb” and it is up to you to identify the dishonest, but I strongly advise you to remain human, to appreciate nature, to do good, to not judge others without knowing them and to not become so spiritual that you are no longer a land good.

So: is there “Shamanism” in Italy?

In the history of religions, in cultural anthropology and in ethnology, the term shamanism refers to a set of knowledge, beliefs, religious practices, magical-rituals, ecstatic and ethnomedical techniques found in various cultures and traditions, closely connected with Mother Nature, its rhythms and its cycles, handed down orally. For how I lived with my Grandmother, with women close to her and my teachers in the management and domination of the elements, my answer is unequivocally YES.

Michela Chiarelli 




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