Spirit conjuring was a very precise and highly complicated procedure, comparable to present-day church rituals conducted in an ancient tongue. The human race very early sought for superhuman help, for revelation; and men believed that the shaman actually received such revelations. While the shamans utilized the great power of suggestion in their work, it was almost invariably negative suggestion; only in very recent times has the technique of positive suggestion been employed. In the early development of their profession the shamans began to specialize in such vocations as rain making, disease healing, and crime detecting. To heal diseases was not, however, the chief function of a shamanic medicine man; it was, rather, to know and to control the hazards of living.
Ancient black art, both religious and secular, was called white art when practiced by either priests, seers, shamans, or medicine men. The practitioners of the black art were called sorcerers, magicians, wizards, witches, enchanters, necromancers, conjurers, and soothsayers. As time passed, all such purported contact with the supernatural was classified either as witchcraft or shamancraft.
Witchcraft embraced the magic performed by earlier, irregular, and unrecognized spirits; shamancraft had to do with miracles performed by regular spirits and recognized gods of the tribe. In later times the witch became associated with the devil, and thus was the stage set for the many comparatively recent exhibitions of religious intolerance. Witchcraft was a religion with many primitive tribes.
The shamans were great believers in the mission of chance as revelatory of the will of the spirits; they frequently cast lots to arrive at decisions. Modern survivals of this proclivity for casting lots are illustrated, not only in the many games of chance, but also in the well-known “counting-out” rhymes. Once, the person counted out must die; now, he is only it in some childish game. That which was serious business to primitive man has survived as a diversion of the modern child.
The medicine men put great trust in signs and omens, such as, “When you hear the sound of a rustling in the tops of the mulberry trees, then shall you bestir yourself.” Very early in the history of the race the shamans turned their attention to the stars. Primitive astrology was a world-wide belief and practice; dream interpreting also became widespread. All this was soon followed by the appearance of those temperamental shamanesses who professed to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead.
Though of ancient origin, the rain makers, or weather shamans, have persisted right on down through the ages. A severe drought meant death to the early agriculturists; weather control was the object of much ancient magic. Civilized man still makes the weather the common topic of conversation. The olden peoples all believed in the power of the shaman as a rain maker, but it was customary to kill him when he failed, unless he could offer a plausible excuse to account for the failure.
Again and again did the Caesars banish the astrologers, but they invariably returned because of the popular belief in their powers. They could not be driven out, and even in the sixteenth century after Christ the directors of Occidental church and state were the patrons of astrology. Thousands of supposedly intelligent people still believe that one may be born under the domination of a lucky or an unlucky star; that the juxtaposition of the heavenly bodies determines the outcome of various terrestrial adventures. Fortunetellers are still patronized by the credulous.
The Greeks believed in the efficacy of oracular advice, the Chinese used magic as protection against demons, shamanism flourished in India, and it still openly persists in central Asia. It is an only recently abandoned practice throughout much of the world.
Ever and anon, true prophets and teachers arose to denounce and expose shamanism. Even the vanishing red man had such a prophet within the past hundred years, the Shawnee Tenskwatawa, who predicted the eclipse of the sun in 1806 and denounced the vices of the white man. Many true teachers have appeared among the various tribes and races all through the long ages of evolutionary history. And they will ever continue to appear to challenge the shamans or priests of any age who oppose general education and attempt to thwart scientific progress.
In many ways and by devious methods the olden shamans established their reputations as voices of God and custodians of providence. They sprinkled the newborn with water and conferred names upon them; they circumcised the males. They presided over all burial ceremonies and made due announcement of the safe arrival of the dead in spiritland.
The shamanic priests and medicine men often became very wealthy through the accretion of their various fees which were ostensibly offerings to the spirits. Not infrequently a shaman would accumulate practically all the material wealth of his tribe. Upon the death of a wealthy man it was customary to divide his property equally with the shaman and some public enterprise or charity. This practice still obtains in some parts of Tibet, where one half the male population belongs to this class of nonproducers.
The shamans dressed well and usually had a number of wives; they were the original aristocracy, being exempt from all tribal restrictions. They were very often of low-grade mind and morals. They suppressed their rivals by denominating them witches or sorcerers and very frequently rose to such positions of influence and power that they were able to dominate the chiefs or kings.
Primitive man regarded the shaman as a necessary evil; he feared him but did not love him. Early man respected knowledge; he honored and rewarded wisdom. The shaman was mostly fraud, but the veneration for shamanism well illustrates the premium put upon wisdom in the evolution of the race.