Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Shamanic ritual statues that Myanmar shamans worship © Bek Jisoon

Basic Nature Worship of Indigenous Shamanism

Indigenously developed shamanism varies according to geographic location and anthropological characteristics. But all these variations share the belief that nature commands all life. So it can be said that shamanism of Myanmar originates from nature worship in which the spirits within nature govern life. Appeasing these spirits brings good to all living creatures; however, evil is cast upon those who disobey the laws of the spirits. Within the context of these beliefs, humans must soothe the spirits through rituals. However, since direct contact with deities and spirits is not possible for everyone, shamans emerged to act as agents who can communicate with the spiritual world through various rituals.

A variation to the basic nature worship of indigenous shamanism is ancestral worship, which is based on the belief that humans are made up of a body and soul and that the soul lives on when a person dies. To invoke or expel spirits, shamans perform rites and chant mantras. These shamans use their powers to cure family members who fall sick. As herbalists, the shamans also create herbal medicines and concoctions learnt from their forefathers.

Astrological worship is another variation of shamanism in which it is believed that all heavenly bodies govern our planet and everything on it. According to this form of astrology, a person is born in harmony with the position of the heavenly bodies, so the planetary positions are recorded at the exact time and date of delivery.

The astrological diagrams, numbers, and letters are recorded on a palm leaf, which serves as a birth certificate and a horoscope. The information can then be examined by a shaman astrologer who will give advice or prescribe remedies based on his mathematical workings. Short-term prescriptions may include making offerings to planet posts, where shamans are available to chant and pray. For long-term remedies, the shaman astrologer may give the advice seeker a paper that includes a list of food and drink to avoid and to consume, colors to wear or not wear, lucky and unlucky days, and similar things.

Alchemy is also associated with shamanism in Myanmar, and it has four specializations: 1) turning base metals into gold, 2) concocting a panacea for all diseases, 3) concocting aphrodisiacs, and 4) making a ball of mercury that allows one fly in the air and dive into water and earth to conquer all enemies. Beginners in alchemy, if they are to learn the specializations, must be highly educated in classical literature on metals, metal smelting, herbal medicine, and occult science. Once they become accomplished alchemists they often leave the community to live in remote places where they can avoid crowds and the public. This is especially true of alchemists of the fourth variety who had produced a mercury ball.

Historically, Myanmar kings had tried to stamp out spirit worship and all superstitions related to shamanism, especially after Theravada Buddhism was established. However, religious freedom and tolerance stopped these attempts. Today there is a peaceful coexistence between shamanism and Buddhism, and Myanmar people embrace the two religious. To improve their present life, they worship spirits and deities related to shamanism. But to improve conditions for the afterlife, they strongly embrace Buddhism.