One of the reasons why I hate Tumbler (and also to a degree, Twitter) is the fact that there are word limits imposed upon me. I can’t answer a question like this in just a handful of characters!
The word shaman comes originally from the Turkic (Tungus or Evenki) word “šamán” and translates as “one who knows”, or possibly more accurately as “priest”. This word has been used by peoples of the Turkic-Mongol and Tungus cultures of Siberia for many centuries. It was introduced to Europe from Siberia to Russia and then into Germany. The word was brought to Western Europe in 1692, that’s a long time ago. Also in it’s anglicized form, it is not spelled or pronounced that same and the original “šamán”.
White colonists coming to the New World and Africa applied the words “medicine man” and “witch doctor” to the healers and holy people of tribal cultures. These titles were eventually replaced by “shaman”. This is why people of European decent are often told by “shamans”” of other races and cultures they should not call themselves “medicine men” or “shamans”.
In our modern times, the word “shaman” is often used by anthropologists, making it an academic word, if not scientific. Though as Ronald Hutton points out, there are at least four different typical definitions of the word. Which definition is being used can depend on who you are talking to, though the most common definition would be something like “anybody who contacts a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness.”
The term shaman is about as white as any other word in the English language. Meaning that we stumbled upon a word being used in another language, bastardized it and now use that bastardization in our common (and possibly academic) language. Using it in a way that is simular, but not same, to it’s origin.
The entire English language is a mish-mash of other languages. The hard part of avoiding cultural appropriation is this:
Where do I draw the line?
I suppose it’s easy to say that I should never use a word stolen from another language that comes from a culture that another culture had mistreated. Or something along those lines. But to perfectly blunt: I CAN’T DO THAT.
My name (the name my mother gave me) is Jennifer. Jennifer is an anglicized (Cornish) version of the Welsh Gwenhwyfar. Gwenhwyfar is a sacred ancient name, some might even say it is one of the titles for the Goddess of Sovereignty. That’s kind of a big deal. This why Arthur’s wife is Guinevere. Do you know your history? Do you know how the English have treated the Welsh throughout history? Even in modern history? I’ll give you a moment to read the Wikipedia page on the history of Wales as well as the history of the Welsh language.
Jennifer is a bastardization of an ancient and holy name, stolen from a language and culture that has been subjugated and treated like shit by the people who stole the name and changed it into Jennifer. And Jennifer is among the most common and popular woman’s names in my age group, especially among the Celtic and British diaspora.
If I were to completely avoid any cultural appropriation, especially when using language, I would not be able to introduce myself. If you think I am exaggerating allow me to share a tradition in my family. My step-father’s father was a Welshman, before he passed away he had this tradition…at the start of every meal he would raise his glass and say a toast, the words of that toast were in Welsh and translated to “Fuck the English.”
My very name is a product of cultural appropriation. My fucking name.
So where do I draw the line? If it’s okay to use “Jennifer”, why is wrong to use “Shaman”? What’s the difference? Both are variations of sacred words that come from other cultures and languages. Both of the anglicized variations have been used for hundreds of years. Same shit, same pile.
This isn’t really the reason why I tend to use the word shaman and shamanism in conversation. I use those terms because of the higher likelihood that whomever I am speaking to will know what I’m talking about. I call myself a Hedgewitch, not a Shaman, because maybe that would be crossing the line. But when somebody asks me what is a Hedgewitch, and I don’t have three hours to explain it to them, I might simply say it’s a form of shamanic witchcraft. Because otherwise I might very well spend three hours tiptoeing my way through a verbal minefield, trying to explain what it is that I do without using stolen terminology.
Yup, I’ll be honest. I will use shaman for the sake of convenience. And also clarity and common understanding.
Maybe those of us who have white skin need not borrow words from other cultures for such practices. For we do have our own traditions and words, and names, for such people, and we can (and should) use them with pride. So, maybe we shouldn’t use the word “shaman”.
I do think that maybe the usage of shaman will shift much like the usage of “totem”. 10-15 years ago I seem to recall everyone used “totem”. Totem and power animal, often interchangeably. But more and more within the pagan and witchcraft communities we are using other terms instead. Familiar, spirit, wight, fetch. All good white people words.
I like to joke that witchcraft means that white people can have their mojo back, without having to steal words like mojo. It’s true, “magic” comes from French and Latin, as does “charm”.
So, for now I will encourage people to learn alternate terms to shaman. But I will still use it when I don’t have the time, or the energy, or an intelligent enough audience to walk the minefield.
Sorry about that, but my name is Jennifer after all.
Alternate terminology to shaman that are somewhat better for us white folk to use:
Hedgewitch, hedgerider, haegtessa
Spirit worker (meh, close enough?)
Seiðr worker. Volur, volva, seiðkonur, vísendakona, seiðmenn.
Night Traveler, Myrk-Rider
That’s plenty of options.