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The shaman – a prototypical otherworld traveller?

Mircea Eliade (March 13, 1907 – April 22, 1986) was a Romanian historian of religion, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. Although Mircea Eliade did not systematically study out-of-body experiences, he was a leading expert on religious knowledge, establishing the theory that through religion and shamanism, it was possible to experience the mythical—either through rituals or experientially. To that extent, he reported many shamanic out-of-body journeys.

Indeed, Eliade saw shamans as prototypical out-of-body experiencers, usually experiencing the most quintessential characteristics of such experiences in their otherworld journeys:

If as anthropologist Erika Bourguignon put it, trance states with dissociative features are perceived in most traditional societies, and indeed, as Eliade points out, if some shamanic ceremonies resemble epileptic states, some ending up in a cataleptic trance, as reported in out-of-body experiences, certainly the shaman journeys often differ from spontaneous or self-induced out-of-body experiences by the fact that the latter are typically non-symbolic (see "Out-of-body Experiences: an experiential anthology" for a complete analysis).

In essence, symbolic themes affiliated with the shaman's beliefs permeate their journeys: ladies of water, boats of the dead, lords of the underworld, and characteristic demons representing symbols of their fate in the underworld populate their journeys. Moreover, although shamans often see their ecstatic journey as being "carried out of oneself" or "exteriorizing" their souls to journey beyond – much like it is reported in out-of-body experience – their perceptual representations are, in substance, much more exemplifying to lucid dreaming experiences and low experiential awareness out-of-body (out-of-body experiences tainted with hallucinatory dream-like content). Despite such differences, Eliade's shamanic experiences revealed how many cultures commonly experienced out-of-body experiences.

There is no doubt that any serious scientific research on the out-of-body experiences would equally need to examine the historical accounts reported in so many shamanic traditions specific to the journeying of the soul to verify if, indeed, their phenomenology foundation is the same as contemporary out-of-body experiences beyond the scope of the beliefs associated with shamanic traditions—further looking into their different neurophysiological correlates.

Rodrigo Montenegro

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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