How Shamanism became England’s fastest-growing religion

One of the world’s oldest belief systems is enjoying a comeback. But what’s behind its renewed popularity?

February 02, 2024
Origin myth? The 14,000-year old “The Sorcerer” painting in the Cave of the Trois Frères, France. Image: GRANGER, Historical Picture Archive / Alamy
Origin myth? The 14,000-year old “The Sorcerer” painting in the Cave of the Trois Frères, France. Image: GRANGER, Historical Picture Archive / Alamy

In the Cave of the Trois-Frères, France, there lies a rather unusual painting of a dancing bearded man with two thick antlers and a bushy tail. Estimated to be 14,000 years old, “The Sorcerer” is thought to depict a Shaman performing a ritual to ensure a good hunt. 

Various ancient hunting and gathering cultures followed Shamanism, one of the world’s earliest religions (although whether Shamanism should be referred to as a religion is contested). And its popularity is once again on the rise. According to the most recent census for England and Wales, Shamanism is expanding faster than any other belief system, with its numbers growing from 650 in 2011 to 8,000 in 2021.

But this modern Shamanism is different to its prehistoric counterpart. It has mostly moved away from regalia and hunting rituals to focus on the intellectual and spiritual side of the belief system.

While Shamanism differs across cultural traditions, practices are all united by the belief that everything is alive and has a spirit. Every tree, cup and person are joined with the earth and all other life via a spiritual interconnectedness, and Shamanism is about learning to connect and communicate with these spirits. This is done by a practice called “journeying”: travelling to one of many spirit worlds to seek guidance. A believer “journeys” by visualising themselves travelling to a spirit world while listening to monotonous or rhythmic drumming, which alters their state of consciousness. Some use psychotropic drugs as part of this ritual. It is believed that the spirits—which can take the form of an animal, person or anything else—will convey messages, either directly or through symbols and metaphors.

Modern Shamanism has seen an increase in popularity across Europe and North America. Founders of the International Shamanic Community Zara Waldebäck and Jonathan Horwitz, who run the Scandinavian Center for Shamanic Studies, believe these countries have recently become far more accepting of Shamanism and its spiritual practices. In Horwitz’s lifetime, he says, people were so hostile towards a shamanic way of living, “you could get hospitalised for it.” People are now freer to explore their spirituality, he argues, and “there is a big movement to put the soul back into our lives.”

The number of Pagans and Wiccans is also increasing. Waldebäck and Horwitz believe that more people in the west are becoming disillusioned with an increasingly urbanised, materialistic and online-focused lifestyle, and are instead electing for something more natural and spiritual. They believe this trend has been accelerated by the Covid lockdowns, which gave people the chance to reassess and reflect on their lives, as well as a growing concern about climate change, which has caused many to readdress their relationship with the natural world.

As Shamanism’s popularity grows, there is hope within the community that some of their ancient beliefs and practices can develop our understanding of the universe, particularly in unlocking the mysteries of consciousness. Consciousness continues to be a hotly debated area of science, and there has been a recent revival in panpsychist theories which argue that everything in the natural world as at least a fundamental element of individual consciousness. Perhaps, then, this revived ancient religion could have a place in helping us better understand—and live—in our modern world.