Shamans are good magicians as opposed to sorcerers, who are only interested in power and self-aggrandisement. They have been in existence for some 25,000 years, and are still to be found today in the Arctic and in Asia, particularly Siberia. To become a shaman involves more than just a cruel and self-harmful initiation. Before reaching this point, the candidate must have shown that he is worthy to undergo the tests. It is preferable if his nomination is hereditary, because everyone then expects him to behave as if possessed one day. However, there are various other ways someone can show that he is one of the chosen - one of those whose magical powers make him or her the most important and revered men in their tribe. It can be by an accident, such as falling from a tree or being touched by lightning; by feeling the call, much as a member of the Christian clergy gives himself to God; or by the simple expedient of a bold announcement that he is a shaman, and that he will prove it by bizarre and masochistic behaviour.
There have been may debunkers of shamans. Some say that all of them are no more than deranged exhibitionists and frauds, and that their gifts of prophecy are restricted to finding lost or strayed dogs, cattle, or sheep. Others protest that the shaman's great powers of healing are no more potent than a quack doctor's, and that they fool themselves and their fellow tribesmen when they claim both to visit the dead and to guide the souls of a newly deceased to the other world.
Madmen or not, humbugs or otherwise, shamans are recognised as masters in transporting themselves and their followers into a state of ecstasy. It is true, too, that shamans have a far more extensive vocabulary than their co-villagers and, like the priests in the Middle Ages, use their superior knowledge to gain sway over the general group. As far as destination is concerned, their greater knowledge may enable them to convince their communities that they can see the future.
The controversy still surrounding the shamans is an indication is how fascinated mankind is with fortune-tellers. Of course there are may ways of foretelling the future besides shamanism. Some have long and colourful histories, which are still being added to by those who practice the prophecy arts today.
One of the oldest methods of soothsaying is reading of sand, and, to several North American Indian tribes, this practice has a clearly magical quality. The Navahos in particular use coloured sand in certain of their rights. Painting mystic pictures with coloured sand is an ancient custom of theirs, and they believe that the legendary chief, Thunderbird, was sent down from the sky especially to instruct them in the making and interpretation of sand pictures. By trickling sand through their fingers, the tribal wise men made patterns on the ground. These patterns revealed how someone should act in a given situation, whether or not a sick person would get well, and how to solve difficult and worrying problems. The pictures - which only the medicine men could correctly interpret - had to be erased before the sun sank. If they were left for anyone to see after that, it was believed that they not only would lose their magic, but also that evil men could study them, and perhaps learn Thunderbird's secrets of the sand to put evil use.