That’s a big question and there’s no straight forward answer as it rightly means different things to different people.
When I get asked I’m often uncertain with the answer and the answer I give will depend on the person who has asked. Not because I don't know what it is I want to say, it's how to fit it all in.
The word Shaman comes from the Tungus Tribe in Siberia, and loosely means to know or one who knows. Know what though? Well, for me it is to know nothing, to be empty of contructs like a child, and in that place the magic can happen.
Shaman has become THE word we know best in modern civilisation. In North America they prefer medicine men, in South America they are curanderos or maybe vegatalistas. The thing that IT, IS, has many names all over the world.
The word Shaman was taken by Anthropologists and used as a catch all term to describe anyone doing freaky shit that made no sense in the eyes of modern Science, or perhaps anyone that seemed to work with the unseen is a better description. This is why it is the most commonly known.
They were the healers, leaders, outcasts, seers, weirdos, sages, magicians of the community.
‘.........Shamanism rests on the belief that the universe consists of seen and unseen dimensions, that it is animated by spirit forces, and that suffering is a result of disharmony or negative interactions between humans and their social and natural environment. The goal of the shaman is to acquire the power residing in the unseen dimension of reality and mediate it for the practical benefit of the community.
(Dreamworlds of Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism:
The Third Place. by Angela Sumegi)
To drill down further and simplify, they are the intermediaries between this world and the spirit world, intricately working with the cause and effect of that relationship to heal and do good or harm and do bad.
As a practice it sits at the top or bottom of the tree for the birth of all spiritual practice on earth, depending on how you look at it. As the diagram below shows.
The chart refers to a practice called Animism that sounds like Shamanism but is not entirely. Animism is the perception that all aspects of the universe (people, animals, plants, rocks, clouds, sun moon and stars etc) are alive and with spirit, and all part of an indivisible whole.
All shamanic cultures are animistic - but not all animistic cultures are shamanic.
As a shaman I’ve also worked with the break offs and birds of shamanism such as Chaos Magick. In this I have been able to see the Magical practices in all religions.
If I go to a Catholic mass for example, I can see all the shamanic or to be more precise, Magical practice that is employed to further its agenda with the people in that church. The practice has essentially been taken and used for a purpose/agenda which is essentially what we all do with shamanic or magical practice. We take what has already been done and use it for a specific purpose. We then develop and refine that practice according to our own will and experiences.
The will is all, according to many occultists, this is the sticking point. It’s what you do with it that counts. Like any tool.
What does it mean to me?
Or to you indeed, for this is the most important thing as far as I can see. There are many people that say shamans are special, they sit on a different branch of the tree from other human beings. I’m not sure I agree with this. I see the abilities of a shaman in all people. I have learnt from and worked with many great shamans and yet all people have become my teacher. And as to where the knowledge comes from. From the spirits, from books, from plants, from other humans. The best knowledge is innate, it has been there all along. It is just waiting to be discovered.
For this reason your practice is your practice, no-one can really tell you what it is and what it’s not, whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad. There are simply preferences and belief systems.
My intention with my shamanism is simply healing or reconnecting with our healed nature and understanding what we really are, beyond the illusion we see. In this sense to go back to the original purpose, to bring harmony to ourselves and all around us.
This path has led me to work with many plants and practices from all around the globe, I am not stuck with this or that, I go with what works.
For me this can extend to a variety of techniques and practices to give a desired outcome. I work with guides in the unseen dimensions who assist me when needed in my work. I trust them, they trust me and that doesn't always fall inside the realms of traditional practice.
So when people ask me what a shaman is, well, everything at once and nothing in particular.