The Shaman’s Tools— A little Help for World Walkers
If you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with the work of the shaman: journeying in spirit and mind into the worlds of the extraordinary in order to heal the pain and hurt present in the fabric of our ordinary one. It’s a very rewarding practice, but also a very deep and intense one. The very being of the shamanic practitioner is on the line of fire, and this can sometimes turn draining.
But the shaman themselves is not the sole element of the practice system! You probably wouldn’t ask a programmer to do their job without their computer, or a woodcarver to make you a piece without their knives and chisels.
Everyone needs tools! And, though the shamanic practitioner will most likely not churn out wood carvings on demand, theirs is real work too. They do have instruments that help them in their very particular line of work.
Many cultures, many names, many helpers
In shamanic traditions from all around the world, practitioners have spent time developing and perfecting tools and instruments to journey into other realms, to quest, and to heal. Each culture has its own specific utensils, and it’s important to keep them in context and treat them with respect.
The tools and instruments used in shamanic practice become alive in their own right and can be the home to spirits. Developing a relationship such as you would with any spirit helper is crucial to the journey. A shaman’s tool should be treated and taken care of as special and sacred.
In terms of energy (and simple ethics, really) it’s important to not appropriate the sacred tools of a different shamanic tradition. For example, if you have no roots in African shamanic culture, you shouldn’t be using their sacred tools, which are usually restricted to initiates in the original context. That is unless you have the explicit consent and instruction from an elder or a true traditional practitioner.
Of course, this is up to you! Just consider the energetic balance of giving and taking between cultures when connecting with your tools. Who knows, this could even be your chance to really root yourself in your ancestral path!
Journey to the beating sound
Percussion musical instruments have been widely used in practices around the world for thousands of years. Why? The rhythmic beat of percussion music induces a deep change in brainwaves, favoring the production of those typical of sleeping states. These waves mean that your brain is working on a very imaginative and free mode: this is typically known as trance. Percussion can also help you call your spirit guides, and move energy within your practice (such as dispelling unhealthy vibrations).
- The most typical percussion instrument in shamanism is the drum. Frame drums are the most useful, as they can be held in one hand and played with the other, allowing freedom of movement. The frame drum is wide and shallow (with different proportions creating different sounds) and traditionally made of rawhide and sacred wood, though nowadays you can also buy modern versions of the instrument. The frame drum is my favorite shamanic tool: you can paint and decorate it with any potent symbols of your choice, it creates a beautiful low rumbling that feels alive, and you can move all you want! Get your drum from a craftsperson you know or (even better!) make it yourself— go to the section of extra resources.
- The rattle is a widespread shamanic instrument too. Much smaller and manageable than the drum, it can be better for those dipping their toes in the practice. It can be made of wood and hide, and filled with stones or seeds, or incorporate more exotic materials such as goat hooves, feathers, and antlers. The symbolism is powerful: the handle is the feminine axis mundi (the axis of the worlds), the head is the Upper World that holds spiritual realities. It can be used to shift consciousness or even as an energy-moving wand.
- Bells: Usually made of noble metals such as bronze or silver, bells are a good tool to purify a space via sound before the beginning of a shamanic ceremony.
- Singing Bowls, aka “Tibetan bowls”: These are ancient tools used by Tibetan shamans to induce relaxation and body awareness in their patients. You can also use it to soothe and shift your own awareness and explore the present moment. Some modern practitioners employ them to detect shifts in energy present in different areas of the patient’s body.
- Whistling instruments (such as the Siberian ghost catcher), though not percussion, are still valuable as shamanic aids. They are mostly used for calling down the spirits and call in different directions.
The Magic of Herbs and Plants
The natural world is full of Spirit, and lots of individual presences can make themselves known to the shaman in their journey. Developing a deep, connected learning relationship with these Spirits as they appear in land, animals, rocks, or plants can be extremely rewarding and is a must-do before working with them in ritual.
Some common herbs involved in shamanic work are:
- Sage: Sage has traditionally been used in Native American ceremonies to purify and cleanse spaces and other tools as well as the bodies of patients. Treat sage with respect and according to tradition: get it from community elders or grow it yourself, don’t buy it, and don’t support over-harvesting practices.
- Frankincense: The many varieties of this herb are burned to produce smoke and consecrate spaces and tools, petition spirits, strengthen psychic vision, and promote healing.
- Palo Santo: A sacred wood used in the area of Peru, Palo Santo induces the relaxation of body and mind, and can help the shaman maintain focus during the ceremony.
- Rosemary: In the dead of winter, Rosemary provides a focus of remembrance and spicy, comforting warmth. It’s associated with the ancestors, and burning it can be particularly useful when working with ancestral spirits or to heal lineage wounds. Rosemary stimulates your brain (increasing serotonin) and helps you act with intention.
- Lavender: This herb restores energy and helps conduct healing ceremonies.
- Sweetgrass: Also helpful for healing, Sweetgrass nurtures presence in the body and connection to the land. Work with it to call on beneficial energies.
Of course, burning these rich herbs is not the only option: you can also include them in teas, baths, or body washes. Know and research their healing properties on the physical and spiritual levels and let your intuition guide you!
Get you some Garb and Adornment
Wearing ceremonial clothing is often key to shifting your consciousness from ordinary reality to the Spirit realms. It’s not always necessary, and you might feel like you can call on the Spirits all right in jeans and a tee. But most people (especially those starting out) can benefit from having a separate, sacred, set of clothing for ceremony. Think of your roots and your personal path: what is meaningful? Can you wear something belonging to a loved one that passed away for protection? Does a shamanic figure in your tradition wear special garments (cloaks, moccasins, flower crowns, etc.)?
The same goes for jewelry: you can choose to adorn yourself in ways that are meaningful to the shamanic path you follow or choose something that has positive personal meaning. Your jewelry can also include crystals with specific properties. For example, wear a necklace with aquamarine to enhance the power of your voice or a clear quartz ring as an amplifier of energy.
Masks are also incredibly potent shamanic tools. In a ceremony, the shaman “gets out” of themselves and enters a trance. This is usually done with the help of a spirit guide in the form of an animal. Creating and wearing a mask can help the practitioner embody the energy and qualities of their spirit animal, as well as represent the sought-after spirits, or protect them from harmful entities by concealing their identity.
Extra Resources on Shamanic Tools
Besides your own self and the actual tools you will choose to use in your shamanic practice, you might feel like you need some extra guidance. In my experience, it rarely hurts to have more information on your chosen path. That’s why I’ve shortlisted a few key reading resources that can help you explore different tools and instruments in depth. However, don’t forget to use your intuition in order to integrate what you learn with life!
A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Shamanic Tools: How to Make and Use Drums, Masks, Rattles, and Other Sacred Implements – by Evelyn C. Rysdyk
The be-all and end-all of all books on tools for shamanic practices. A spirit walker’s guide to shamanic tools is a deep, insightful, and incredibly rich way to approach your relationship to your spirit walking instruments. This work by teacher and best-selling author Evelyn Rysdyk explores the practices of culturally diverse shamans around the world. These practices, of course, include their own particular implements.
This is an ideal resource to keep in your library at all times. Mind you, there is no way to absorb all this knowledge in one go. You can make this guidebook part of your regular spiritual practice by reading and meditating on a section every week. This also gives you time to bring the lessons to life by creating your own tools and empowering them in a conscious way.
Making Drums – by Dennis Waring
If you feel particularly drawn to using a drum (I know I do, as do many of my practitioner friends), Making Drums by Dennis Waring is a very interesting resource to delve into your heart’s calling. This book synthesizes different drum-making techniques and processes from lands as varied as India, Ireland, Latin America, and the Middle East.
This gem of a handbook offers you the particular, in-depth knowledge you need to make whatever sort of drum you resonate with— bonus points if it is tied to your ancestral lineage! Covering lacing, construction, carving, hoop attaching, and lots more, Making Drums is a powerful investment in your own, empowered drum practice.
The Northern Shamanic Herbal – by Raven Kaldera
Maybe you feel more drawn to the herbal path than the sound path, or maybe even to both in equal measure. And that’s perfectly all right! The Northern Shamanic Herbal by Kaldera is a great (and culturally coherent) way to connect to the plants of the Northern Tradition.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t include these herbal allies in your shamanic practice if you don’t work with a Northern framework or pantheon. The plants are always imbued with power, and knowing their symbology and traditional benefits or associations can only unlock that power better, right? Use this juicy book to add new dimensions to your exploration. You won’t regret it!
Healing Crystals: The Shaman’s Guide to Making Medicine Bags & Using Energy Stones – by Monte Farber and Amy Zerner
Crystals are pretty and potent as jewelry and altar decoration if that’s your thing. However, as we already know, they can be useful for the shamanic practitioner in their daily lives as well as in their spiritual walking. Protection, grounding, healing: these are all functions the shaman must be able to master, and (in my experience) crystals can help with that.
Healing Crystals is a good place to start if you want to include gemstones and crystals in your practice and daily life. Explore and learn the different correspondences, functions, and benefits each element can have, as well as possible combinations to achieve diverse energetic outcomes. This is an extremely eye-opening read.
The Shaman’s Toolkit: Ancient Tools for Shaping the Life and World You Want to Live In – by Sandra Ingerman
Back to the basics! The Shaman’s Toolkit by renowned shamanism author Sandra Ingerman is that one book you should always carry with you. That one you keep in your workspace or on the bedside table, all dog-eared and well-loved. It’s poetic, heartfelt, and stripped to the core elements of shamanic tools and ceremonies.
What I particularly enjoy about it, besides its ability to refresh my memory in the blink of an eye, is the way it takes the reader back to key intentions, to the way of the instruments, and kits, and rituals. To the positive, radical change the shaman wants to create in the world.