11 Myths and Misconceptions about Shamans

Jungles, plants, rattles, drums, and scary initiations. Is that what it takes to be a Shaman? Find out. 

by Sarah Petruno, Shamana

When I first started to call myself a shamana, I was living in a first floor, 1 bedroom city apartment in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin.

As a white female with no native american or south american ancestry, having never partaken in an ayahuasca ceremony, and with no drum or rattle in my house - all things I had previous thought were requirements of shamanism, I knew it was time to restructure what I thought it meant to be a shaman.

Since then, I’ve come a long way towards breaking down the stereotypes, misconceptions, and complete inaccuracies I held about shamans, including what it meant to be one and what it meant to see one.

But I know there’s still a lot of fear of the unknown out there. There still exists a lot of mystery and misconception towards taking this path and meeting with someone who did.

I sat down with my family and we made a list of the most common misconceptions about shamans.

Let’s debunk those myths together.

Jungles, plants, rattles, drums, and scary initiations. Is that what it takes to be a Shaman? Find out. 

11 Myths about Shamans

1. They all live in a secluded jungle

Some do, yes, just like some non-shamans live in secluded jungles. Shamanism and shamans exist in all cultures, all lineages, and all geographical locations. They’re absolutely in the rainforest, and they’re also absolutely living in your midwestern neighborhood, just like I was. In fact, you’ve probably been shopping at the local grocery store picking out grapefruit next to your local shaman or shamana, and you had no idea.

Click here for a directory of shamanic healers in the US and internationally. 

2. They are all men

There are many lineages and cultural shamanic traditions, going hand in hand with the variety of cultures existing around the globe. In some, most of the healers may be male, while in others most of the healers may be female. My own lineage is Eastern European, and in my ancestral line, all previous shaman have been male, until me. In the US, I’ve actually noticed much more female shamanic healers and practitioners than male. It’s just a matter of perception and which population of shaman you consider.

3. They all work with plants in healing

This is called Plant Spirit Shamanism, and it’s a practice that some shamanic healers integrate in their healing work. Each shaman has their own unique healing modality and their own way that they invoke Spirit and manipulate Energy in their healing sessions. Some shamans, especially those with access to an abundance of powerful healing plants, will call upon the help of Plant Spirits to assist in healing their clients. The use of plants in shamanic healing does not make one a better or worse shaman, it’s just a different practice. In fact, it could be said that the individuals who seek a healer that uses plants does so because they need the assistance of plants for their own healing, and not everyone does.

4. All shamans are of South American or Native American Descent

This misconception is broad in and of itself. There are many Native American nations and many countries and cultures in South America. Even in these two groupings, there’s potentially a limitless number of lineages through which shamans can be trained.  All cultures and nationalities have spiritual shamanic healers, you just have to look. The word “shaman” is actually Russian in origin.

5. They all use a drum and rattle

These are tools that one can use during a shamanic journey, the name given for the period of time in which a shaman enters a meditative state for the purpose of healing and gaining Spiritual insight. The drum and rattle are considered sacred objects and with the addition of the vibrational sound they create, these tools are said to help create a more powerful, more focused, and more sustained meditative journeying experience. They can also help to create a meditative and trance like state for the client, helping their Spirit to connect and be present for the healing.  But, they are not a requirement for the shamanic journey.

There are other ways to reach and sustain the meditative state required for journeying, clarity and all, without drums and rattles. Sound is one method and silent, practiced focus is another. This is mostly a matter of tradition and preference. 

6. All shamans undergo an intense and potentially life threatening initiation process

It is true that there is a shamanic initiation for most shamans that choose to step fully onto the shamanic path, but, the initiation is different for everyone. The process can be considered two fold: a demonstration of your commitment to the work, and a deep healing of your own inner pain. The way this is done depends largely on your own personal path, but it is required, by and large.

You do have to give Spirit your trust and commitment to work on their behalf, and before you can heal anyone else’s pain and inner turmoil, you must first have healed your own inner pain and turmoil. You must first heal and release your dark, before you can act as a pure healing conduit through which you can heal the dark of others.

For some lineages, the symbolic act of commitment and releasing of pain may include what we consider to be extreme measures. But, my shamanic initiation included a period of homelessness, and many may also consider that to be an extreme measure. What is extreme for one, may not extreme for another.

It is also true, however, that you probably won’t know how your shamanic path will unfold before you step onto it, or else you may not do it.

7. All shamans use ayahuasca or other psychotropic plants and drugs during journeys

Ayahuasca is a plant based beverage which contains a natural source of DMT, a hallucinogenic substance. Consuming ayahuasca is considered by most to be ceremonial, as it is said to allow the consumer to take essentially a shamanic journey of their own life, allowing them to see, feel, and heal deep seated pain and unhealed hurt. It can be consumed by shamans themselves or by the individuals that they are healing. It’s a tool that can be used for healing - but not a requirement. I personally have never used it in my sessions or by myself, and neither have vast swaths of shamans worldwide. Again, it can be said that those who find healers that use ayahuasca in their practice, require that experience and those plants for their own healing path.

8. Shamans are not regular people, but rather, a mystical and reclusive bunch

I can’t speak on behalf of all shamans, but for myself and the ones I know, we’re pretty regular. We shop at Target, get our groceries the same places you do, sometimes almost lose it while watching our kids, wear mainstream clothes from Kohl's Department Store, and have a sense of humor.

While there are definitely times when we all like to be alone, these times might be a little more for Shamans. Part of shamanism involves healing energy, and to do that, you have to be able to feel it. Once you have developed this ability for healing purpose, it can be hard to turn off this sensitivity to energy. Thus, crowded places and gatherings with lots of people can often be overwhelming. But besides having to leave a party early, we’re mostly a regular bunch.

9. In order to be competent as a shaman, you need 3-5 years of apprenticeship in a defined program or you must go to the jungle to learn

This popularized path may be the way to go for some shamans, but not all. Most shamans have been healers for many, many lives, and in this life, it’s just a matter of getting up to speed with their Soul knowledge of healing. The speed at which this happens could be 3-5 years, but it could also be 6 months. Of course, the learning never ceases, just as it never ceases in any profession.

Similar to time frame, each individual also takes a unique path to their training and re-acquaintance to shamanism in this life. There are major schools and teachers for this, but it’s also a perfectly acceptable path to be taught by members of your own family or close friends, through your own personal study, by meeting with a variety of other intuitive teachers, through connection with your Spirit Guides and Ancestors on the other side, or by sheer dedication and persistence. We all have a different path and no path is the correct one.

10. Shamans are in perfect health and untouchable by illness

While I would like to say this is true, it’s just not. It would be like saying that an infectious disease doctor never gets an infectious disease. There are times when everyone's guard falls down and we are exposed to illness. There are times when we aren’t always “on.” It may also be part of a shaman's path to experience a certain disease at a certain point in their life. Shamans slip, fall, and sometimes get stressed and catch a cold. Things happen, and no one is perfect all the time, not even shamans.

11. Shamans are in shaman mode all. the. time.

Being in shaman mode all the time, always thinking about healing, the greater meaning, and the greater purpose can be draining. Being a shaman can be a lifestyle, but it’s also a job, and it’s nice to have a break from your job from time to time. It’s nice not to always be thinking of the greater plan of the universe, when you just want to be thinking about what you want to order for dinner or how good this ice cream tastes. You like to have time off from work to not do work, and so do shamans.

That’s my list! I hope it helped to clear up some misconceptions about the world of shamanic healing. We’re demystifying one step at a time, thank you for joining me!

With Love,


LAST UPDATED: February 24, 2015

Jungles, plants, rattles, drums, and scary initiations. Is that what it takes to be a Shaman? Find out. 
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