Probably because I'm dense. (Or, at least, so my friends say.)
I get what the priest of a god does. He sacrifices to the god and tries to behave as closely as possible as the god did, to reenact what the god did in order to achieve something like what the god did.
I get what the mage does. She controls magical energy. If she's a wizard, she manipulates the magical energy that the congregation provides through the devotion (wrong word, but you know what I mean). If she's a sorcerer, she imposes her will on "naturally" occuring energy that she finds wherever (an essence node, someone she taps, or whatever).
I see a shaman dancing, chanting, drumming, etc. to attract the attention of the spirits, opening the magic circle to the other side, talking with spirits, offering them things (not as a theist sacrifice, but as part of a bargain with the spirit), getting their help, and so on.
I think it is the "master" part of master of of life and death concept does not resonate for me. If you had said the shaman is the "master" of spirit travel, I'd have said, yeah, I get it. The word "master" in the phrase -- to me at least -- implies powers over the living and over the dead. I don't really see that. I see power to interact in ways that others lack; your run of the mill Praxian can't (without a shaman's help) open a spirit circle, go visit dead Uncle Wahagrim, and swap him the smoke of ten larks for his help with that unruly bison. A shaman can, but that's not mastery over life or death. While the shaman might get into a fight with Uncle Wahagrim when the shaman accidentally offends him by wearing the sable-bone necklace, I don't see the shaman (usually) setting out to compel Uncle Wahagrim to give up the secret of dealing with the unruly bison. I suppose there might be such shamans out there, but I think most people would view them as some sort of bad or evil.
I do get that there is a connection to life and death. The shaman is one of those figures that stands in the threshhold, aware of both sides of reality. But that awareness and ability to interact doesn't really make him a master of what's there. Mastery over something feels much more sorcerous to me, where you exert control, rather than bargaining.
Maybe I'm picking too much at semantics. If I was coming up with a phrase for shamans, it would be something more like the Travellers Between Worlds, or Speaker to the Dead and Alive, the One with Both Spirits, or something like that.
For a particular example, suppose the shaman needs to heal someone's wound, which is soon to be fatal. If s shaman is a master of life and death, I'd expect some shamanic ability to prevent death pretty much directly. But if the shaman is a traveller beyond, I'd expect the shaman to draw on a relationship with dead Auntie Eritona, who knows how to prevent shock, stitch up wounds, restore the blood, and so on so well that she was known far and wide as the greatest healer in a generation. With her guidance, the shaman uses skills that the shaman otherwise does not have, working a near miracle for the clan. But the shaman has to pay for it, both before and after, because the shaman has a reciprocal relationship with dead Auntie Eritona. The shaman is not Auntie Eritona's master.
I also get that shamans ultimately do have the ability to spiritually combat other spirits, even when they are embodied. For example, a shaman can defend if attacked on the spirit plane and can exorcise a spirit from someone possessed. I assume that same ability could allow a shaman to possess someone (which, I imagine, most animist societies define as some sort of evil -- which leaves open some interesting enemy shamans who go around possessing people). Maybe you are saying that their ability to bargain with spirits depends on their ability to fight if needed, and that the decision to bargain is simply a practical one (because it is less risky to bargain) or an ethical one (because it is wrong to attack the ancestors, etc.)?
Believe it or not, this started out as a two-line post. No need to respond. What you've said before will work its way inward over time.
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