Whenever a group of people have to deal with extremes of geography and climate, it become especially important that they be able to interpret anything in the environment that could help or hinder the chances of survival. In all primitive cultures, human qualities were ascribed to animals and other natural phenomena in order to gain some insight into what might likely be expected to happen.
The more extreme the geography and climate, the more importance this interpreting of "the signs" became. The early desert and arctic cultures both had intricately anthropomorphic traditions. Anthropologists have been able to reconstruct some knowledge of Egyptian, Siberian, and other mythologies. The word shaman comes from the early Russian, and is a belief in various forms of nature spirit which may effect health and disease luck and misfortune and one's state of awareness in relation to natural phenomena.
Shamanism is very widespread across human cultures, but has a distinct strong historical tradition in the Mongol areas from Siberia south. These traditions are very old, and run back into the paleolithic, emerging with the earliest fertility goddess figurines, and representing the skills of the hunt as seen in caves such as Lascaux. From this Mongol source area shamanistic practice spread west to Eastern Europe, south to Tibet, where shamanism underlies Tibetan Buddhism. It spread ever east and south, down the Americas.
A shaman is both priest and medium and often develops a variety of psychic faculties including aura reading, clairvoyance, divination, etc. Everywhere, in ethic tribal societies, shamanistic practices have been commonplace. It usually involves magical trance states and the souls of natural entities such as power animals and allies. For thousands of years there was no science or medicine, or religion as we know it. Only the shaman stood between the known and the unknown. They were consulted in times of crisis and in matters of life and death.
During the great Ice Ages, the continents were covered by glaciers. As the climate gradually warmed and the glaciers melted and receded, nomadic tribes followed the herds of animals living in the lush greenbelts at the glaciers edges. It was a harsh and precarious existence. The vicissitudes of the animals and the climate were often fatal. It was easy to suppose that the elemental deities were capricious.
Evidence of the first agricultural communities dates back ten thousand years or more, when people learned to sustain themselves by planting seeds in the fertile deltas. The freedom from having to follow the roaming animal herds gave rise to more enduring pursuits like architecture and commerce.
However, as the great glaciers dwindled, so did the great rivers, and in some places forests gave way to deserts and climactic extremes of a different sort. In these areas the mythologies and deities concerned with animals and hunting gradually gave way to plant and agrarian themes. When the regular seasonal flooding of the deltas was interrupted by drought, the result was famine, and the deities of the harvest required supplication and placation. There is growing evidence that many if not most early civilizations collapsed because of environmental abuses.
The rites of passage, particularly among more primitive peoples are quite rigorous, and in general, have the intention of renewing the senses and investing attention and awareness with the sober reality of a responsible adult. In fact the rites of passage into adulthood often involve various occult rituals that may border on the very fringes on mortality. The inner child is symbolically killed and the care-free attitude of innocence necessarily gives way to the more sober responsibilities of an adult member of the community who is capable of being entrusted with parenthood and peerage.
The blood-letting, scarification, and otherwise harrowing rites of passage for the ordinary person may indeed be mild in comparison to what a shaman may undergo as his initiation into the spirit world. In the antique cultures the shaman often assumed the responsibilities of the spiritual leader, physician and sometimes even chieftain of the community.
Shamanic cultures require the development of internal vision as a prerequisite for becoming a shaman. Rather extreme means of obtaining and holding onto this essential vision were frequently employed, and came to be considered requisite. An error in judgment often was a matter of life and death. Dreams and visions had heightened significance.
It should be remembered that before there was any science or modern medicine there were very few alternatives available. The various techniques for obtaining these visions are usually quite hazardous and often even fatal. In some traditions, extreme fasting and potions of all sorts were employed, and even poisons and hallucinogens became something of a sacrament in the practice of some shamism. They risked their sanity and even their lives. Many lost both.
A Druid is a Celtic priest and shaman who inhabited the ancient Breton area (Gaul, southern England, Wales, Ireland), with legendary abilities of prophecy and sorcery. Wicca is also a ancient religious cult based on love, worshipping a Goddess, and rituals of witchcraft and wizardry. Most of the rituals involved in Wicca are based on Celtic, Norse or Druid magickal practices. A ritual, or rite is a prescribed act, or series of acts, conducted during a religious or solemn ceremony. Rituals are generally formulated as a route to knowledge.
The correspondence between shaman and the ascetic in Sanskrit illustrates the deep relationship also between shamanism and Eastern mysticism. In Indian philosophy, the body's vital "airs," or energies is known as PRANA (a Sanskrit word meaning "breath"). A central conception in early Hindu philosophy, particularly as expressed in the Upanishads, prana was held to be the principle of vitality and was thought to survive as a person's "last breath" for eternity or until a future life. In Yoga philosophy, emphasis is placed on full control of the prana, through the practice of pranayama, in order to enable one to meditate without respiratory distraction and also for its therapeutic effect on disorders.