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The Question of European Shamanism

Updated on April 9, 2017
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Carolyn Emerick writes about the history, myth, and folklore of Northwestern Europe.

Inside a shaman's hut. Art by David Revoy.
Inside a shaman's hut. Art by David Revoy. | Source
Native American Shaman by H. J. Ford
Native American Shaman by H. J. Ford

The Shaman Controversy

Shamanism can be a thorny topic of discussion, and European shamanism even more so. The old school view of shamanism defined it as a practice engaged in by Asiatic tribes in Siberia, from whence the name itself hails. There are still some scholars who restrict the usage of the term to this very narrow definition. However, most scholars broaden the application of the word to shamanistic practices engaged in by indigenous peoples worldwide.

Unfortunately, though, the mainstream view has traditionally excluded European culture. There are a few small isolated European groups who have made the cut, most notably the Finno-Ugric peoples. But, in general, European cultures have been considered some of the only people in the world to be devoid of a historical shamanic tradition. A small but growing voice in scholarship is challenging this view.

My own opinion is that shamanism existed in the far reaches of European pre-history and by the time that history begins recording, Europeans had advanced beyond shamanistic cultures. However, remnants of shamanism continued to linger on in the European folk tradition well into the Early Modern Era which hint at origins in the dark recesses of a pre-historic past.

A Siberian Shaman
A Siberian Shaman | Source

I highly recommend this book for an in depth look at shamanism in European cultures.

Semantics: Primitive vs. Advanced Societies

Before we can begin we must understand what is meant by the term “shamanism.” As mentioned, the practice was first recognized by modern observers among Asiatic tribal peoples in Siberia, and then later among other primitive tribal groups worldwide.

Before we get side-tracked into a politically correct tirade, I chose the word “primitive” purposefully. Part of my thesis is that shamanism is a phenomenon found exclusively in primitive tribal societies, and by that I mean small communities living without very much advanced (or modern) technology, and who live very close to their natural surroundings both in terms of literal proximity, but also in relation to their beliefs and lifestyle.

It is my assertion that when European societies were in that more primitive stage of development that shamanism was more readily found. But, as European societies developed in terms of population size, advancing technology, agricultural developments, and so forth, they ceased to be what we would consider “shamanic cultures.” Therefore the disambiguation of “primitive tribe” versus “advanced civilization” is thus an important distinction.

Shamanic figure by John D. Batten
Shamanic figure by John D. Batten
Merlin by  M. L. Kirk
Merlin by M. L. Kirk

What is a Shaman?

So what is a shaman, exactly? Typically it is considered to be a figure who might be described as a sorcerer, witch doctor, or some other term that denotes his/her role as a healer who uses magical means.

There are several characteristics common to shamanic technique. Chief among them is the use of trance to elicit spirit journey. The shaman enters trance to send his spirit into the otherworld to negotiate with spiritual entities on behalf of the individual s/he is helping, or for the good of the tribe. The trance not only allows for astral travel, but it also allows for the spirit of the shaman to engage in shape-shifting.

Shapeshifting is another common feature of shamanism, found across cultures. In film and the popular imagination today, a shape-shifter literally transforms into another creature before our eyes. This was likely considered a spiritual transformation for the shamanic figure, and was enacted not by his physical body but by his spiritual one.

The use of animal skins and body parts such as horns and feathers as well as masks during a shamanic ceremony both works to symbolize the transformation as well as act as a psychological stimulus for the entire experience on both the part of the shaman and his/her audience.

Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
A European Saami shaman with his drum
A European Saami shaman with his drum

This brings us to another feature. Shamanic acts were/are often public spectacles. We might imagine an Amerindian powwow with drumming, dancers, and a central figure wearing a bearskin with the bear’s head over his own, or a headpiece with the wings of a large bird spread atop, for example. This scene would not be out of place in North America, the Amazon rainforests, Siberia, or even in the far north of Scandinavia among the Saami people of Lapland.

A component of both performance and trance is music, usually a drum beat. The shaman may carry tools while he dances to the beat that will aid him in his otherworld journeys. The Saami shaman, for example, possesses his own drum made of reindeer hides that has a map of the otherworld painted on it.

Sometimes psychotropic plants were used to assist in achieving trance state and access to spirit realms, but not always. The rhythmic drum beats, hypnotic state induced by watching a fire, breath work, or physical methods such as exertion or spinning are all ways to induce a trance experience.

Yggdrasil, the Teutonic World Tree
Yggdrasil, the Teutonic World Tree

Shamanic Societies

But, shamanic cultures weren’t solely defined by the figure of the shaman. They also shared a unique cosmological worldview that supported the existence of the shaman and the spiritual world within which he or she worked.

Shamanic societies typically viewed the world in a three tiered model. Of course, we see remnants of these three tiers even in the well-known Judeo-Christian concept of earth, heaven, and hell.

However, a shamanic view is more nuanced. It could be said that a shamanic worldview sees the three tiered cosmos almost more like planes or dimensions. There is the upper world of the spirits, the lower underworld of the dead, and then the physical plane we occupy exists in the middle. If this sounds like “Middle Earth” to you, you’re not wrong.

While the Teutonic cosmological model contains nine distinct worlds, it still functions in the three-tiered model, with certain spirit realms being above, some below, and the mortal realm in the middle. Beings from the other tiers often slip into our realm. But, it takes knowledge for mortals to be able to journey into the other realms (unless an individual is accidentally transported, which can happen!).

"Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints", by Brian Hayden, is an excellent overview of shamanism worldwide, including in European societies. He covers topics such as the world tree and the wizards staff as discussed here.

The World Tree

A feature of this cosmological model is the world tree. The world tree is found in many cultures around the globe, and is remembered in Teutonic mythology as Yggdrasil. The other realms are connected to the tree, and the tree provides a structure which supports the known universe. The world tree often holds strong symbolic significance to shamanic cultures, with many worldwide traditions viewing the tree as sacred. Trees often occupy a significant place in the customs of shamanic people, and sometimes even a central role in certain holidays and rituals.

The Bard, by Thomas Jones
The Bard, by Thomas Jones
Merlin by  Gustave Doré
Merlin by Gustave Doré

Shamans, Priests, Druids

However, although “religious” worldview is part of this equation, as is ritual and ceremony, the role of the shaman is different than that of a priest. The shaman serves a highly specialized role for his community.

While shamans and priests can certainly both exist within the same society, it seems that a priestly role develops in more “advanced” societies where the role of religion is more structured and developed. It seems that as religion becomes more organized, therefore more pulled toward civilization and away from a nature-based lifestyle, the role of the priest increases while the role of the shaman diminishes.

There may also be a blending of the two roles. It is my opinion that this might be the situation regarding the Celtic Druids. Despite endless popular fascination with the Druids, very little is actually known about them. From what we do know, they served both priestly and political roles, and likely contained an element of the shamanic figure in their function as well.

They are a good example to illustrate my theory that as European culture moved forward in time, the shaman figure evolved to the degree that by the time we begin recording European history there are no longer shamans present in most European cultures as such, but there are figures who retain influences from earlier shamanic predecessors. The Druids are likely one such example.

A Norse Volva with her staff.
A Norse Volva with her staff.

The Shaman as Wizard

Some examples of shamanistic function and worldview in European society were mentioned above, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. It is my opinion that the European figure called the “wizard” is a vestigial memory of our own shamanic tradition.

The word literally means one who is wise, and the title would have been given to those who possessed knowledge and abilities not possessed by the general population, just as does the shaman. The wizard also has access to spiritual realms and can interact with spiritual forces in a way that the average person cannot.

But, there’s another connection between the wizard archetype as he is remembered in the European imagination with shamanism; his staff. As mentioned above, the shaman possesses tools that are both functional aids in navigating the spirit realm but which also serve to elicit the right frame of mind for the shaman to engage in his work. The wizard’s staff is such a tool, as we shall see.

A witch interacts with a tree, by Arthur Rackham
A witch interacts with a tree, by Arthur Rackham

The Axis Between the Worlds

Another important point not yet mentioned regarding the shamanic worldview is the concept of the Axis connecting the worlds. Yes, this is in part the world tree. However, other such “poles” acted as freeways for inter-realm spiritual communication.

One very important Axis was the column that smoke made as it rose up through the very earliest roofs, which contained just a simple smoke hole. The sacred nature of fire and, subsequently, the home hearth, is discussed in greater detail in “European Household Magic.”

For now, it’s important to know that the reason that the hearth was seen as a place of spiritual activity within the home is because the column of smoke rising from the hearth fire created an axis connecting the realms. And, yes, this is why Santa Claus arrives through your chimney (more on this in European Household Magic).

Two Seeress' staffs unearthed in Scandinavia
Two Seeress' staffs unearthed in Scandinavia

Brian Bates' "The Real Middle Earth" explores the magical worldview held by Northern Europeans in Germanic and Celtic societies.

The wizard’s staff also symbolizes this inter-realm axis. Because the wizard, like the shaman and unlike the rest of the population, has access between the spiritual realms, he carries his axis with him. This serves as a visual psychological aid to get him in the right headspace to practice his art, but it may have been considered a physical tool as well.

While wizards are remembered mainly in the public consciousness today as men, the best examples we have from history for this type of staff were carried by women. Women held a very powerful role in the realm of magic in all Teutonic cultures, but it lingered on longer among the Norse due to their comparatively late conversion to Christianity.

Seeresses, called Völva (Völvur, plural), were essentially female shamanic wizards who wandered about offering their services to their communities. Not only have they been described in ancient sources as carrying magical staffs, but several of their staffs have been discovered on archaeological sites.

By Daniel Gardner
By Daniel Gardner

Völvur, Wicces, and Witches

The Norse Völva is related to the Anglo-Saxon “Wicce,” (pronounced witch-uh), which is, of course, the origin of the modern word “witch.” This figure came in male and female form, with the male witches being called Wiccas (pronounced the same way, and not pronounced like the modern neo-pagan religion which appropriated the word).

I’ll be a bit repetitive here to avoid confusion. I’m not saying that European witches were shamans as such, but that they retained elements of shamanism that lingered on in their practice.

Just as the archetypal wizard uses his staff as his axis between the worlds, the witch archetype, as it has been passed down to us in the folk tradition, depicts the witch figure as tied closely to the hearth which was another axis, or portal, between the spiritual realms. The witch is also depicted strongly as associated with her broomstick, which is not unlike the wizard or völva’s staff.

The broom acts as the symbol of the world tree axis between the worlds and is therefore a gateway to inter-world travel. Just as the shaman goes into trance to spirit journey, the witch is depicted as mounting her broomstick for her own astral travels. Another key characteristic of shamanism, shape-shifting, also features prominently in witch trial accusations.

Illustration by Frank Pape
Illustration by Frank Pape

The topic of European shamanism is incredibly complex, indeed. It would take a book with several chapters to fully cover it in depth. However, here we have outlined exactly what is meant by shamanism, detailed characteristics of shamanism, and how many of these features are found in the European folk tradition. In time, we will delve even deeper. Please stay tuned!

Bibliography:

  • Aldhouse-Green, Miranda J, and Stephen Aldhouse-Green. The Quest for the Shaman: Shape- shifters, Sorcerers, and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005. Print.
  • Bates, Brian. The Real Middle-Earth: Exploring the Magic and Mystery of the Middle Ages, J.r.r. Tolkien and "the Lord of the Rings". New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.
  • Hayden, Brian. Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution, 2003. Print.
  • MacKillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. S.l.: Oxford University Press, 2016. Print.

© 2017 Carolyn Emerick

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    • lovemychris profile image

      Yes Dear 4 months ago from Cape Cod, USA

      love it! and i certainly believe shamans existed everywhere in early societies. the circe in ancient greece...the seers were women!

      until apollo came along, and as you stated, christianity.

      woman's shamanic powers were subjugated under men. and so it remains.

      what a fascinating subject.

      myths and legends... the basis of our true history

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image

      Pollyanna Jones 4 months ago from United Kingdom

      Very well done, excellent read as ever!

    • profile image

      Mary O'Maley 4 months ago

      Wonderful article! I hope you get to explore this more. I've been exploring this topic my self here and there.

      Since I work in the "world of spirit", it occurs to me now that I need a staff.

      I really enjoy and appreciate your work and thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      Gerrit 4 months ago

      "It would take a book with several chapters to fully cover it in depth."

      Yes please! :D

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 4 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Thanks for the history lesson!

      I'm a Christian ... we also believe in a couple of very significant "world tree[s]" ... :-)

      Have you ever done a Hub about the practice of "smooring the fire"? I've heard only a little about it, but it seems it must be related to the concept of the home hearth as sacred. Would love to hear more.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 months ago from USA

      This was truly fascinating and you seem to have both knowledge and a passion for it. Perhaps there is a book in you wanting to be written on the topic?

    • profile image

      Greybeard 3 months ago

      The word "Shaman" is interesting. There are similar words in Russian and Sanskrit suggesting that it may have originated in Proto-Indo-European language. The word may be cognate with Shamash, the Babylonian Sun God which would make contextual sense. Perhaps a Shaman was once the Priest of the Sun god in Proto-Indo-European culture. So much is lost in the mists of time.

      Many modern books on Shamanism conflate and confuse the Witch's (witch doctor's) trance journeys with drug induced illusions as a way to justify taking psychoactive drugs. Actual Shamanism is an induced trance state separate from use of dangerous drugs.

      It is a sad commentary on a generation of Anthropologists who have published extraordinary claims with so little understanding of the topic about which they wrote.

    • profile image

      OdinsElephant 2 months ago

      Greybeard, please cite your sources because Richard Evan Shultes certainly never asked anyone to take dangerous drugs. Drug War propaganda has unfortunately created a culture of fear around substances that humans have ingested since the dawn of man. Humans co-evolved with plants and have used psychoactive substances as part of spiritual ritual for thousands of years. This is highly documented and easy to find.

    • profile image

      OdinsElephant 2 months ago

      shaman (n.)

      1690s, "priest of the Ural-Altaic peoples," probably via German Schamane, from Russian sha'man, from Tungus saman, which is perhaps from Chinese sha men "Buddhist monk," from Prakrit samaya-, from Sanskrit sramana-s "Buddhist ascetic" [OED].

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