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The shaman - a prototype of a traveler in the other world?

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Mircea Eliade (March 13, 1907 - April 22, 1986) was a Romanian historian of religions, philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago. Although Mircea Eliade did not systematically study out-of-body experiences, he was one of the leading experts on religious knowledge, establishing the theory that through religion and shamanism it was possible to experience the mythical, either through ritual or experimentally. To this end, he reported numerous out-of-body shamanic journeys.

Indeed, Eliade considered shamans to be the prototypes of out-of-body experience, generally experiencing the most essential features of this type of experience during their otherworldly journeys:

If, as the anthropologist Erika Bourguignon says, trance states with dissociative characteristics are perceived in most traditional societies and if, as Eliade points out, some shamanic ceremonies resemble epileptic states, some culminating in a cataleptic trance, as reported in out-of-body experiences, it is certain that shamanic journeys often differ from spontaneous or self-induced out-of-body experiences in that the latter are typically non-symbolic (see "Out-of-body Experiences: An Experiential Anthology" for a full analysis).

In essence, symbolic themes related to shamans' beliefs permeate their journeys: water ladies, boats of the dead, underworld lords, and characteristic demons representing symbols of their underworld fate populate their journeys. Furthermore, although shamans often view their ecstatic journeys as a "transport out of self" or an "externalization" of their souls for an afterlife journey - similar to what is reported in out-of-body experience - their perceptual representations are, in essence, much more representative of lucid dreaming experiences and low experiential consciousness out-of-body experiences (out-of-body experiences tinged with dream-like hallucinatory content). Despite these differences, Eliade's shamanic experiences revealed that out-of-body experiences were common in many cultures.

There is no doubt that any serious scientific investigation of out-of-body experiences would also need to examine the historical accounts reported in many shamanic traditions specific to soul travel in order to ascertain whether, indeed, their phenomenological basis is the same as contemporary out-of-body experiences beyond the scope of beliefs associated with shamanic traditions - furthermore, examining their different neurophysiological correlates.

MSc. Neuroscience,

Sleep Consciousness Researcher,

PhD Candidate.


Bourguignon, E. (1972). Dreams and altered states of consciousness in anthropological research. Psychology Anthropology. Cambridge Mass, Schenkman Publishin: 403-434.

Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy. United States of America, Princeton University Press.


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