Thursday, May 7, 2009

Michael Harner: Modern Day Shaman by Rebecca Lockyer

This essay will explore the beliefs, teachings and practices of the American anthropologist and shaman Michael Harner in light of the academic framework and theoretical concepts of shamanism. A brief background of Harner’s career and his theoretical stance on the characteristics and concepts of shamanism and altered states of consciousness will be examined within this framework. This paper will particularly focus on Harner’s preferred use of percussive sounds, such as the drum and the rattle, over the use of psychoactive plants, in order to achieve altered states of consciousness. The physiological, emotional, and spiritual experience and physical affects of this technique will be explored using academic literature, proving its successfulness and allowing Harner to be credited as a modern day shaman.

Michael Harner began his research into the field of shamanism as an anthropologist, conducting extensive fieldwork into the practices and techniques of shamans of the upper Amazon, western North America, the Canadian Arctic, and Samiland. He underwent shamanic training with the Jivaro and Conibo North American Indians and since in 1987, when he pulled out of academia, has devoted himself entirely to the research, practice, and teaching of shamanism to the Western world (Murphy 2009:715; Walsh and Grob 2005). He has done this through numerous publications and the establishment of The Foundation of Shamanic Studies which offers shamanic workshops, training programs and seminars (Anon: 2000-2009). The foundation seeks to preserve shamanism by reestablishing it as a serious and respected discipline in the contemporary Western world (Wilk 2009:22). Harner advocates the importance of the universal practices of shamanism within every day life and in healing the relations between humankind and nature (Anon: 2000-2009).

According to Harner (1990:20-21) a shaman is a person who willing enters into an altered state of consciousness (ASC), or ‘shamanic state of consciousness’ (SSC), in order to gain contact with spirits who offer their knowledge. This knowledge is primarily centered on instructing the shaman on how to heal, reduce pain and suffering, and to provide emotional and spiritual support for individuals and the community (Harner 1990:xvii; Murphy 2009:716; Walsh and Grob 2005). When a shaman has achieved an SSC he is completely in control of the reality he perceives and can willing move between the SSC to an ‘ordinary state of consciousness’ (OSC). Harner describes the SSC as experiencing an ineffable joy and being physiological, emotional and spiritual in a reality-like dream where one can gain access to an ancient universe and knowledge for the benefit of all existence in the OSC (Harner 1990:xix, 21-22). Harner’s (1990) view of the role and characteristics of a shaman and SSC is derived from his very long, detailed, and academic cross-cultural analysis of shamanism throughout the world.

Harner’s view of the role and characteristics of a shaman and their psychological, emotional, and spiritual ability is firmly supported by a wide range of academic literature and theoretical concepts. Townsend’s (1997:421-432) theory of a list of essential and related characteristics and abilities of a shaman do match perfectly to those described by Harner. The role of the shaman as primarily focusing on the healing of an individual or community is supported by Winkelman (1997:395), who has also similar ideas to that of Noll (1995) about shamanism and ASC’s being a cross-cultural phenomenon. Noll (1995:444) purports a theory that mental imagery cultivation, having a functional and adaptive value and role within a community, is a cross-cultural phenomenon which can be developed into a skill by individuals. This theory is clearly demonstrated in Harner’s (1973; 1990) academic publications where he draws on the shamanic practices of different cultures from all over the world. Harner draws his teachings from these different shamanic cultures in order to develop the skills of individuals in the Western world. As such, the academic literature supports Harner’s theoretical stance on shamanism, leading to the conclusion that he is a modern day shaman.

In 'The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls' (1973:153) and in 'The Way of the Shaman' (1990:60) Harner explains how psychoactive plants are commonly consumed to allow a shaman to achieve SSC’s. However, in both of these publications and in the workshops and seminars of his foundation, Harner does not encourage the use of these substances. From experimenting with the affects of psychoactive plants and the affects of monotonous percussive sounds, Harner has discovered that there are different means by which people can achieve a SSC (Walsh and Grob 2005). Ninety percent of the world’s shamanic cultures use the sonic affects of drums and rattles in order to induce psychological, emotional, and spiritual change. This is a safe and acceptable method which Harner uses and teaches to the Western world; however this is not done at the condemnation of the traditional use of psychoactive plants (Walsh and Grob 2005).

One of the many examples of the use of a drum and rattle to allow a shaman to achieve a SSC and preform a certain quest is described in 'The Way of the Shaman' (1990:76-85). Harner instructs the use of the drum and the rattle to allow a shaman to achieve a SSC and preform the journey to find a lost power animal for a patient. The drum and the rattle are used in collaboration throughout the entire journey which allows the shaman to achieve a SSC, to see and enter the Lowerworld, to find the lost power animal, and to bring it back to the OSC and the awaiting patient. The beat of the drum is essential to the maintenance of the journey as it supports the shaman by acting like a canoe. The rattle is specifically used to attract the attention of spirits before, during, and after the SSC (Harner 1990:77-78). The physiological, emotional, and spiritual affects of the continuous percussive sound of the drum and the rattle is enhanced with the changing tempo. Sensory deprivation also plays a part in inducing a SSC as Harner (1990:76) asks the participants to use a room free from light and external noise and to only use a candle, which the shaman blocks from his eyes. Harner also specifically asks the participants to abstain from alcohol and drugs before the journey is undertake (Harner 1990:76), allowing the affects of the percussive sounds to be the only acting agent for inducing the SSC.

The effectiveness of Harner’s technique of using the drum and rattle to allow shamans to achieve SSC’s is also widely supported by academic literature. A brief understanding of the theories of the physiological, emotional, and spiritual affects of percussive sounds allows for a wider understanding of the complete transformation experienced by shamans. Fachner (2006:20), Needham (1967:606), and Winkelman (1997:398) all support the theory that repetition of simple percussive sounds, such as drumming and rattling, can induce and maintain ASC’s. The rhythm of repeated percussive sounds provides a context which can regulate and control ASC’s and stirs emotional and spiritual mental imagery which allows for the healing potential of ASC’s to occur. The affects of the changing tempo, sensory deprivation, and the community-based element of the spiritual journey, combine together to produce different physiological changes which can lead to ASC’s (Fachner 2006:24; Winkelman 1997:398-401). Winkelman (1997:405) describes these physiological changes:

The physiological changes of ASC facilitate the typical shamanic tasks of healing and divination in improving psychological well-being in a number of ways, including: facilitating self-regulation of physiological processes…facilitating extrasensory perception…bypassing normal cognitive processes in accessing unconscious information…cognitive emotional integration; and social bonding and affiliation.
Needham (1967:609-610) explains that these physiological changes occur because the drum is the most closely connected musical instrument to the aurally generated human emotions. Its sound-waves have neural and organic affects on humans by creating disturbances of the inner ear. These disturbances modulate muscle tonus, breathing rhythms, heartbeat, blood pressure, and certain eye reflexes (Fachner 2006:21, 29-30). These physical affects, along with the emotional and spiritual affects, allow for SSC’s to occur. In conjunction with Harner’s cross-cultural analysis of shamanic practices, Needham (1967:611) explains that the use of any monotonous beat, whether produced by clapping or stamping of the feet, is found all over the world and so is a common phenomena which allows for the formal transition of shamans from one condition to another.
The academic framework and theoretical concepts which have been discussed throughout this essay clearly support Michael Harner’s theoretical stance of shamanism, altered states of consciousness, and his effective technique of using percussive sounds to induce SSC’s. The percussive sounds allow for the physiological, emotional, and spiritual change which allows a shaman to achieve a SSC in order to perform his healing role for an individual or a community. As this is one of Harner’s primary teachings to the Western world, it is concluded that Harner can be credited as a modern day shaman.


2000-2009 The Foundation of Shamanic Studies: a Non-Profit Incorporated Educational Organisation [on-line]. Available from: [Accessed 28 April 2009].

Fachner, J.
2006 Music and Altered States of Consciousness: an Overview. In D, Aldridge and J, Fachner (eds.) Music and Altered States : consciousness, transcendence, therapy and addiction, pp. 15-27. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Harner, M.
1973 The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls. Great Britain: Lowe and Brydone Printers Ltd.

1990 The Way of the Shaman. 3rd edn. America: HarperCollins Publishers.

Murphy, R.
1981 Reviewed work(s): The Way of the Shaman: A guide to Power and Healing by Michael Harner. American Anthropologist, New Series [on-line]. 83(3):714-717. Available from: [Accessed 22 April 2009].

Needham, R.
1967 Percussion and Transition. Man 2(4):606-614.

Noll, R.
1995 Mental Imagery Cultivation. Current Anthropology [on-line]. 26(4):443-461. Available from: [Accessed 27 April 2009].

Townsend, J.
1997 Shamanism. In S, Glazier (ed.) Anthropology of Religion: a handbook. pp. 429-469. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Walsh, R. and C. Grob
2005 My Path in Shamanism: Interview with Michael Harner [on-line]. Available from: [Accessed 28 April 2009].

Wilk, S.
1982 Reviewed work(s): The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing by Michael Harner. Medical Anthropology Newsletter [on-line]. 13(2):22. Available from: [Accessed 23 April 2009].

Winkelman, M.
1997 Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour. In S, Glazier (ed.) pp. 393-428, Anthropology of Religion: a handbook of method and theory, pp. 393-428. Westport: Greenwood Press.

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