Northern European Shamanism:
A Preliminary Reconstruction

Copyright © 1989 Leigh Ann Hussey

Une traduction en français de cette page peut être trouvée ici. (It's got cool pictures, too! ;)

Shamanism has come to be associated almost exclusively, in American popular thinking, with the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas. This not only inaccurately reflects the extent of shamanism's practice (it is found from Australia to the Arctic) but also, sadly, contributes to a neglect by those of European descent of the shamanic practices of their own ancestors.

One cause of this neglect has been the carefully fostered image of Europe as the wellspring of Western Civilization, by which tribal origins and traditional life are often glossed over. However, I was delighted to discover, when I examined ancient sources, that I did not need to borrow from other traditions; it is clear that tribal Europe had as strong a shamanic tradition as, for example, any of the American Indian tribes. It is fitting that other people, too, of European descent examine this European Shamanic tradition; it is a rightful part of our heritage so there need be no accusations of theft or exploitation, and its images and symbols ring more truly in our collective unconscious than those of other cultures.

This is a survey of a few shamanic elements that occur within Western shamanic traditions, obscured as they are by time and cultural discontinuity. I will be using material from many Northern European cultures, on the assumption that each one may have retained some element that the others have lost. The similarities between them all have convinced me that there actually was, once, a unified European system, and Hilda R. Ellis Davidson, in Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe (1988), shows in depth how the Celts and the Germanic tribes were at one time, before the establishment of the Roman empire, one people. To hold parts together, I'll be using cross-cultural shamanic universals as outlined in Mircea Eliade's definitive work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951).

Shamanic Initiation

To start with, according to Eliade, shamanic initiates undergo a "death" experience, whether through ritual or through apparent physical death (as in coma or catatonic sleep). In an "apparent" death, a young woman among the Araucanians of Chile will collapse as if dead, and on recovery announce her vocation as a machi or shamaness. On the other hand, among California tribes such as the Pomo, initiates are symbolically "killed"; they undergo wounding by the initiating elder shamans and are laid out like corpses, buried under straw.

The fourth story in the Welsh cycle of the Mabinogi tells a vivid story of the death of Lleu Llaw Gyffes ("Fair-haired, Skilled-hand"). Lleu cannot be killed on foot or on horseback, indoors or out, on land or on water. Having emerged from a bath in a gazebo-like bath house (having a roof but no walls), with one foot on the back of a goat and the other on the edge of the bath, Lleu is struck with the only weapon that can kill him: a spear that has been forged for a year and a day "while folk are at prayers on Sunday" (the implication being that it is an evil spear -- but see below).

What makes Lleu's story not merely that of a strange way to die is what happens next: he does not die, but is transformed into an eagle and flies away. Lleu's uncle Gwydion, a powerful enchanter, searches for him and finds him in the branches of an oak tree, at the foot of which a black sow eats flesh that falls every time the eagle shakes himself.

The ordeal and "death" of the initiate is seen not only in Lleu's story, but also in the lore of Oðin, chief Scandinavian god. The Scandinavian World Tree is Yggdrasil, "Ygg's steed", so called because Ygg (another name for Oðin) "rode" it in quest for knowledge. Nine days and nights Oðin hung from the Tree, wounded with a spear (notice: again a spear), with neither food nor drink, until at last he looked down and saw the runes. The runes are at the same time alphabetical letters, whole words, charms, and constellations of concepts. They are simple in form but complex in meaning, and are used for divination and talismanic magic. "I took up the runes," Oðin says, "screaming, I took them; then I fell back."

The Otherworld Journey is another common feature of initiations, as well as of regular shamanic practise, since one of the shaman's functions is that of psychopomp, or leader of the souls to the land of the dead; to be able to lead souls there, one must know the way from one's own experience! A shapechange to a flying shape is often involved, since many cultures conceive of the Otherworld as being either far distant (most easily reached by flying) or somewhere Above (more on shapechanging later), and indeed Lleu does reach the Otherworld in the shape of an eagle. Oðin, too, seeks knowledge in an eagle's shape, as we'll see in a moment.

As Joan Halifax, in Shaman: the Wounded Healer (1982), says: "To the heavens, to the well at the end of the world, to the depths of the Underworld, to the bottoms of spirit-filled lakes and seas, around the earth, to the moon and sun, to distant stars and back again does the shaman-bird travel. All the cosmos is accessible when the art of transformation has been mastered."

The World Tree is a universal feature of the Otherworld, a tree whose branches hold all the worlds and which reaches from the underworld to the heavens (in the Siberian tribes, this is the cosmic tent-pole, and the cosmic smoke-hole at the top of it is the North Star). In some cultures the initiate journeys there in spirit because that is where the souls of the unborn are (often in the form of birds), and the initiate is going to undergo a new birth. The oak to which Lleu flies is demonstrably the idealized, adamantine World Tree of cross-cultural shamanism -- Gwydion says of that tree in one of the spells that lures Lleu down from it, "Rain cannot rot it, nor fire burn it," and it is in a remote place, which siting is a well-known motif to those acquainted with shamanic experience and lore.

The World Tree can be Lleu's oak, Oðin's ash (Yggdrasil), or the oak venerated by the druids (in Old Irish, the word for both "oak" and "door" is dair; in Old Welsh the words are dar and drws. Notice the similarity to the English word door -- the Indo-European linguistic root is the same for all:"deru". The concept of the World Oak as the gate to other worlds is as basic as language itself in Europe). In fact, there are eight Otherworlds (not including Midgard, which is this one) among Yggdrasil's branches, the abodes of gods, elves, giants, and demons. The levels of worlds on Yggdrasil are strongly remeniscent of the levels of Otherworlds in the Siberian worldview; and in both worldviews, the Otherworlds may be reached by climbing the World Tree.

Other sacred trees are shadows of the World Tree. The machi stands on a high, stepped pole when she beats her drum to seek vision. The pole of the Plains Sun Dance, to which dancers are tied (or sometimes hung) by skewers through their flesh, reminds one of the Tree of Oðin's hanging ordeal. This quote from Stuart Piggot's The Druids (1968), first written by Lucan in Julius Cæsar's time, could just as easily describe the poles of the Pacific Northwest as it does a sacred Druidic grove: "And there were many dark springs running there, and grim-faced figures of gods uncouthly hewn by the axe from the untrimmed tree-trunk, rotted to whiteness."

Another feature of the Otherworld is its aspect as realm of the dead. In Wales, this land is called Annwfn ("unplumbed"), and in both Wales and Ireland its entrance is often through a hole in a mound. Indeed, the tumuli and chambered tombs of prehistoric people were the abodes of the dead. When the people who built them passed from the land or were absorbed into the incoming cultures, the nature of these burial structures became obscured or expanded. Now the opening into a mound became the entrance to the land of all the dead; or real grave-goods became rumoured treasure in the realm of the Sidhe, the faeries. [see the accompanying excerpts from W. Y. Evans-Wents' Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries]

Annwfn is not by any means a "hell", as Caitlin Matthews points out. The land to which Arawn, king of Annwfn, leads the dead is full of the pleasures the Celts loved best: feasting, hunting, and lovemaking. Arawn performs the shamanic function of leader of souls to the Otherworld, as do Oðin and the goddess Freyja, each of whom take half the warriors slain in battle to their respective halls. When the Romans encountered Lugus (the Gaulish Lleu), they saw him as Mercury, their own psychopomp figure.

In some cultures the initiation of a shaman includes dismemberment and being devoured by powerful spirits, as Eliade shows. The demon sow, who we see in Lleu's story, is a familiar figure in Welsh folklore. She appears on Nos Galan Gaeaf (Night of Winter Calends, or Hallowe'en), in company with a headless White Lady, and is a fearsome figure:

Like the Master Bear of the circumpolar bear cult, or the Demons of the Tibetan Chöd rite, the Black Sow of Britain is the destroyer of the profane body in preparation for its rebuilding as a sacred body filled with spirit-power.

Restoration to the physical body, as Eliade demonstrates, nearly always involves the building of a new spiritual body, whether through being consumed and regurgitated by spirits, being stirred in a boiling pot and pieced back together, or having bones replaced by magical materials such as quartz crystal or diamond. The South American Cobeno shaman, for example, is said to replace a novice's brain and eyes with crystals, which then become the initiate's "strength". The crystal body or skeleton is seen in Australian, Siberian, and Pacific Northwestern shamanism as well, according to Eliade. This rebuilding -- another shamanic element -- is done for Lleu by Gwydion and Gwydion's uncle Math, the established masters; Lleu is "wasted" and it takes Gwydion and Math another year and a day to restore him.

In terms of ordinary reality, this rebuilding is the Master Shaman revealing how the candidate can use his experience in this world. The Master Shaman is the grounding force, the one who shows how all the pieces of the candidate's experience can fit together in a changed and enlightening way.

The Goddess and the Cauldron

Ultimately, it is the Goddess, in the European tradition, who is the Initiator; the candidate meets Her, and his physical body or view of ordinary reality is destroyed utterly. Death and rebirth, the rounds of the seasons and stars, all the things which the candidate would have known intellectually by training, are suddenly made part of the candidate's experience, and his reality explodes to encompass it.

We have already seen the Black Sow as a transformative force; we see the Goddess again, and the Cauldron of Rebirth as well, in the story of Gwion and the dark mother, Ceridwen. Ceridwen has a son so hideous in aspect that she reasons he will only be able to make his way in the world if he is a wise man. Therefore she gathers herbs and sets them to brewing for a year and a day, with a boy named Gwion to tend the fire. Gwion, grasping what all the work is about, thinks it a shame that such an ugly fellow should get all the world's wisdom, and so at the end of the brewing time, when three drops of the distillate spring from the cauldron, Gwion shoves Ceridwen's son aside and puts himself in their path.

As soon as he has all the world's wisdom, Gwion understands that he will have aroused Ceridwen's anger (not surprisingly!). Gwion flees the goddess in many forms, and in as many forms she follows him, through all the realms of this world: air, water, and earth. He becomes a bird, she a hawk; he becomes a salmon, she an otter; he becomes a hare, she a greyhound. He becomes at last a grain of wheat on a threshing floor, and she becomes a black hen and eats him up (here again, as with the black sow, is the element of the chthonic dark goddess eating the initiate), only to give birth to him nine months later as Taliesin, one of the three greatest bards of Wales (Raven, the Trickster deity of the Pacific Northwest, is likewise swallowed and birthed, and as we shall see below, there is a connection between the Trickster and the shaman).

After carrying him in her womb, Ceridwen cannot bring herself to kill him, so she sets him adrift in a coracle -- a hide-covered boat. Taliesin's three wombs -- the cauldron from which the drops came, Ceridwen's womb, and the covered coracle -- give us a powerful impression of the chthonic, rebirthing nature of the European initiation. (The triplicity of so many elements in the lore, and the recurrence of the "year and a day" time period must remain the subject of another article.)

The Cauldron of Rebirth is a recurring theme in the Celtic material; it appears earlier in the Mabinogi, where warriors slain in battle are put into it and emerge again alive. In old Welsh Arthurian material, Arthur goes to Annwfn to retrieve the same magic cauldron -- this is probably the origin of the Grail Quest, since the cauldron of Annwfn is also an inexhaustible source of food (there is an equivalent Irish cauldron belonging to the "Tribe of Goddess Danu" who later became associated with the færie folk --who lived in the Underworld, thus completing the connection) as is the Grail.

The Cauldron as source of knowledge, like that of Gwion/Taliesin, appears in Scandinavian folklore as the three cauldrons of poetic mead (see below). And even before the Cauldron, there was the Pool of Knowledge.

Wells, Springs, Baths

There was a pool at the foot of Yggdrasil called Mimir's Well, and those who tasted of its waters gained all knowledge (this sounds like Ceridwen's Cauldron); Oðin gave up an eye for a taste of that water.

In Irish lore, in a story quite similar to that of Gwion, Fionn MacCumhail is made by his master to catch a miraculous salmon, the salmon of knowledge, that lives in a pool and feeds on the hazel nuts of wisdom that fall from the overhanging tree. While Fionn is overseeing the cooking of the salmon, some of the grease spits and burns Fionn's thumb; he pops it in his mouth to ease the pain and immediately gets all the benefit of the salmon's magic (we see this motif again in the Germanic story of Siegfried cooking the dragon Fafnir's heart -- perhaps most familiar from Wagner's opera). Irish legend preserves another such well, called "Connla's Well" or "the Well of Segais", with nine ancient hazels growing over it; the nuts dropped into the well and caused bubbles of mystic inspiration to form on the streams that flowed from it; those who ate the nuts became visionaries and poets. It is possible that apples had the same property, since Eve's "fruit of knowledge" in European Bibles was translated as an apple (the common apple is not native to the Middle East).

Sacred pools or springs and trees were frequently associated with each other, as Ellis-Davidson shows in Myths and Symbols, and as we saw above in Lucan's description of the druidic grove; the World Oak of Lleu was between two lakes. And all over Europe, sanctuaries to the gods had ritual bathing pools associated with them, and the healing or purifying bath is a common feature of European magical practise. Hot springs such as Bath and Baden were sacred sites, along with holy wells such as the Chalice Well, where the Grail (related to the Cauldron, as we saw earlier) is supposed to have been hidden, and the many named for Brigid (an Irish goddess of whom there is more below).

Lleu's bath is a purification of the physical body preparatory to initiation, not unlike that of the sweatlodge. And while Finnish culture may not originally have been European, contact occurred so early on as to blur such distinctions; hence I include the sauna in the category of purifying baths (as Adam Fortunate Eagle points out in the Spring '87 issue of Shaman's Drum, the sweatlodge is universal to circumpolar peoples and not the sole province of American tribes). Nowadays, in Finland and elsewhere, the sauna is more of a social event than a sacred one (in California, too, there were two types of sweat lodges, the purifying and the social); but there are indications that the sauna was at one time a sacred place. The spirit world is dealt with in more detail below, but here it is appropriate to mention the spirits inhabiting the sauna building. In Finland, a particular day is set aside for the spirits to use the sauna, and a wise human doesn't go near the sauna on that day. There is a Finnish divination technique which involves sitting with one's back to the sauna and meditating on a question, hoping for an answer from the sauna spirit; prickling on the back means an affirmative answer, forceful scratching a negative one.

Sacred Kingship

In Siberia, the candidate for initiation is boiled in a pot, or dismembered and his parts boiled. We see this in Ireland as well, according to Gerald of Wales (from the late 12th century CE), in the ceremony of kingship. The king has symbolic (or perhaps actual) sexual intercourse with a mare -- usually a white mare (see below), after which the mare is ritually killed, and made into soup in a huge cauldron. The people eat spoonfuls of the horse broth while the king bathes in it, suggesting again the consumption of the shamanic candidate's body (there is additional symbolism here of the king feeding the people, and of his mating with the land that feeds the people).

Sovereignty in still older Irish tradition was bestowed by a hideous hag who guarded a well; only the rightful king-to-be could bring himself to embrace and kiss her, whereupon she became a beautiful woman and gave him to drink of the well. Wells are associated with Brigid, and it would seem sovereignty is also (see the further description of Brigid below).

It was traditional in the culture that produced the Mabinogi for chieftainship to pass from uncle to nephew; Math is Gwydion's uncle, and Gwydion is Lleu's uncle. Just as Lleu undergoes a transformative initiation, Math initiates Gwydion by changing him and his brother into different animals for a year at a time; a stag and doe, a boar and sow, and a wolf and she-wolf. It is entirely reasonable that spiritual power should be transmitted along with temporal power, and indeed, once Lleu has gone through his ordeal, he eventually takes his place as lord of Math's kingdom, wielding both spiritual and temporal power as was traditional for Celtic chieftains. One wonders where T. H. White got the strikingly similar notion, for The Once and Future King, of Merlin teaching the young Arthur ("Wart") about the nature of things by changing him into various animals!

Austerity and Ecstasy

Part of the power of the sauna is its darkness, very clearly related to the rebirthing element in other parts of the European tradition (as above, with Taliesin). In Ireland, bards lay under a bull-hide in a windowless house with one door in each long side, in utter darkness, to receive the visions out of which they made poems. In the Welsh Arthurian material, "The Dream of Rhonabwy" describes how a traveller sleeps on a yellow bull-hide and has a surreal dream in which King Arthur and an enemy leader play chess in the midst of battle, and the progress of the battle is influenced by the game.

This retreat into silence and darkness is one of the two methods of European shamanism, austerity or deprivation; the other is ecstasy and sensory overload. In Scandinavia, the exemplar of the austerity method is Oðin; he undergoes an ordeal of isolation and pain on the Tree and receives knowledge of an abstract and verbal kind -- he is also Scandinavia's male shamanic archetype. The ecstatic method is perhaps still better documented. Even well into the 14th and 15th centuries, the phenomenon of Tarantism -- where people, believing themselves stung by tarantulas, would dance wildly to the music of loud instruments with a persistent beat, sometimes for days on end -- was a type of shamanic/ecstatic trance.

T.G.E. Powell, in The Celts (1958), describes an Irish druidic divination method called tarbfeis, or "bull-dream" (the bull is clearly as important an animal in Ireland as the sow in Wales), where the druid gorges on raw bull's flesh and falls into a trance while incantations are recited over him; in trance he sees the future High King of Ireland. Powell says, "Frenzy, trance, and shape-shifting, all point to some generic connection between the Celtic magician, of whatever name, and the shaman of the Northern Eurasiatic zone."

The female shamanic archetype in Scandinavia is Freyja, goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and sorcery. Her way is ecstasy, and she receives knowledge of a direct and experiential kind. In the seiðr trance, of which Freyja was the patroness and teacher, the seiðkona, or prophetess -- she was almost always female, since the seiðr was considered shameful for men (see below, however) -- would don a cap and mittens of catskin, eat a meal of the hearts of different animals, drink an intoxicating beverage, and move into trance by means of a song or chant, as in this description from Eirik's Saga:

This duality between male austerity and female ecstasy is seen in many other shamanic traditions where both men and women shamanize. In Korea, for example, the men have become "priests" and the "shamaness" is looked on as a kind of lower class spiritual person. But Oðin is an ambiguous character, not to be pinned down by such clear definitions; he gets Freyja to teach him seiðr, despite Loki's mocking, and his name means "frenzy" or ecstacy2. Taliesin, too (who is male but whose experience is chthonic and ecstatic), transcends even these boundaries, in typically ambiguous shamanic fashion.

Magic in Ambiguity

Why is ambiguity shamanic? A sort of magic-in-ambiguity occurs in folklore; Arnold van Gennep, in Rites de Passage, calls this state "liminal" and defines it as the period between two fixed points in a rite of transition. Dusk and dawn are two such liminal periods -- magical times since they are neither day nor night; Samhain (All Hallows) and Bealtine (Mayday) are two others, the transitions between dark and light halves of the year when the veil between the worlds is especially thin.

A crossroads is yet another example of magic-in-ambiguity, for it is neither one road nor another. It is a place where the dead may speak to an inquirer, and it is dangerous, for people standing in a crossroads when the Wild Hunt (see below) passes will be snatched up. Since one of the traditional duties of the shaman is to deal with spirits and the dead, it is significant that Lleu's death occurs in just such a liminal place -- "neither indoors nor out, neither on horse or afoot..."

Hermes, or Mercury, was a psychopomp, as I mentioned earlier, and originally was the protector/herdsman of wild animals (another shamanic function, as I illustrate below). In addition, he was a god of the wayside and the crossroads; images of him were set up on roads and crossroads to protect the traveller. Nikolai Tolstoy, in The Quest for Merlin (1985), also shows the Trickster connection; Hermes is not only the leader of souls to the underworld, he is a Trickster, god of thieves and smooth-talkers. One of his first acts, even as an infant, is to steal a herd of cattle belonging to Apollo; to appease the sun god, Hermes presents him with the lyre (which Hermes invented) -- strung with gut from one of those selfsame cows! Merlin himself (who is clearly a shaman; see below) behaves in ambiguous, chaotic ways in the old Welsh material, which behaviour is taken as proof of his "madness". But even don Juan, in Carlos Castaneda's books, is a Trickster figure who shocks his student out of preconceptions and fixed ideas by "crazy" behaviour.

Taliesin and Raven have much in common. In Raven's tale, he steals the sun from those who are hoarding it in a box, by turning himself into a pine needle and getting himself swallowed by one of the young women of the household. She becomes pregnant, to her astonishment, and in due course gives birth to a pretty -- but demanding -- baby boy. Raven fusses until they give him the sun to play with, and no sooner have they done it than he takes off in Raven form (he gets stuck in their smoke hole, which is why he's black). Here again is the motif of theft, and being swallowed to be born, only in reverse order from Gwion/Taliesin.


There are further similarities between Taliesin and Oðin. Oðin, too, stole wisdom and was pursued, and had to change shape; he bargained for just a sip of the mead of poetry from the giants, by sleeping with the daughter of one of them (a typical Trickster ploy). When the time came to drink, he downed all three huge cauldrons-ful, and fled as an eagle with angry giants following behind him. When he returned to Asgard, the home of the gods, he spit the mead into two cauldrons -- the third cauldronful he had to jettison in order to fly faster (that urine, skalds said, was the drink of bad poets2). Oðin's name can also mean "the stuff of poetry".3

In Celtic as well as Scandinavian folklore, poetic inspiration is seen as a drink; in Taliesin's tale the enlightening drops of wisdom come from a cauldron, and the streams that flow from the Well of Segais contain inspiration. In Wales and Ireland, inspiration is seen also as a spark of fire, thus the figure of Brigid, who embodies both poetry and fire (see below). The bards of Ireland would eat a meal of raw bull's flesh, drink the blood, and sleep under the hide as I described above. Blood is certainly an intoxicant, and the bard's very presence at such a sacrifice (and the association of himself with the slain bull) would be the beginning of an altered state of consciousness.

Where the Greeks had Dionysos, god of wine and ecstatic frenzy, who was torn to pieces and remade (does this sound familiar?), the more northerly climes had the Barley God, whose tale (if not his original name) is preserved in the song "John Barleycorn". Three men vow that John Barleycorn must die, so they bury him in the earth, but he springs up again, to their amazement. Determined to do it right this time, they cut him off at the knee, bind him, drag him around in a cart, flay him, grind him between two stones, and throw him in a vat. No sooner are they convinced they've done him in than he emerges transformed: "They've worked their will on John Barleycorn, but he lived to tell the tale, For they pour him out of an old brown jug and they call him home-brewed ale." He proves the strongest at last, as the song tells, since nobody can seem to do their proper job without a little Barleycorn.

It has been suggested that the kykeon, the barley drink of the Eleusinian mysteries of Greece, was made (not necessarily by intent) from ergotic barley -- ergot is a psychoactive substance related to LSD -- and that tarantism was caused by ergotic bread; but it is not necessary for the drink to be psychoactive. The destruction and transformation are clearly shamanic, as I've shown above; to drink the "blood" of the transformed god, be it ale or wine, is to share in his ecstasy. He transforms the drinker.4

Bards and Shamans

Taliesin's experience makes him not a sacred king, but a bard (and the position of bards in the social stratum was second only to kings). He knows all that has happened and will happen, and sings his prophesies in poems. In one particularly powerful (and delightful) bit of sympathetic magic, he plays his lips with his finger ("blerwm blerwm") as a king's impostor bards pass by, and when they reach the king all they can do is play their lips with their fingers. Gwydion, too, is a powerful singer: at one point he sends an entire court into magical sleep with a song, so that he can make an escape. Oðin's ordeal brings him words, in the form of the runes. In nearly all the shamanic cultures, the shaman in trance receives incantations that are appropriate to sing for various purposes; in the South American Guarani tribe, one cannot be a shaman until one has learned magical songs taught by a dead relative in dreams.

As shown above, the bards of Ireland were visionaries and otherworld travellers. There is an obvious connection between shamanism and bardship. The goddess of bards among the Celts is Brigid, or Brigantia, "the Exalted One". When the Romans encountered her in Gaul (the range of the Celts spanned all of western continental Europe, as well as the islands of Britain), they equated her with their Minerva, as both goddesses bestow sovereignty, wisdom and inspiration, and craftsmanship. Given the connection between bards and shamans, it should suprise nobody to learn that Brigid is the goddess of healing as well, healing being another of the shaman's functions.

Even she is a Trickster of sorts: in the life of St. Brigid, she gets the land for her shrine and abbey from an avaricious bishop by getting him to agree that she can only have as much land as her cloak will cover. Not surprisingly (to us anyway), when she throws her cloak out, it spreads for acres -- if the bishop had known her as a goddess, known the lore that said she hung her cloak on the sun's rays to dry, perhaps he might have been a little more wary! I like to think that Brigid's most clever trick was to transform herself from a goddess into a Christian saint, thus assuring that her tales and lore would be preserved by the very Church that decried Irish paganism.

Masters of Fire

The shamanic mastery over fire is demonstrated in many cultures. Tibetan Tantric monks (and Tantra is a combination of imported Buddhism with indigenous shamanic practise) will sit in the snow and dry wet towels flung over their naked bodies. Siberian shamans are said to swallow burning coals and touch white-hot iron without harm.

Brigid is a fire-goddess also, as shown by the perpetual fire kept burning at her temple even after it had become a convent and her vestals became nuns. The forge's fire is hers as well, for she is the goddess of the magical art of smithcraft. Lleu meets his death through a ritually-made spear; since the original Mabinogi is likely to predate the arrival of Christianity in the British isles, I propose that far from the spear being forged in deliberate absence from a sacred ceremony ("prayers on Sunday"), it was forged as part of a sacred ceremony.

A proverb of the Yakut of Siberia says, "Smiths and shamans are from the same nest," and one of the Yakut initiators is K'daai Masqin, who initiates famous shamans by tempering their souls as he tempers iron. In the figure of Brigid, smithcraft and shamanism go together in Celtic culture as well as in that of the Yakut.

It is interesting to note that in the Arthurian tales, Caledfwlch (Excalibur) was forged by women in Avalon, "The Isle of Apples"; according to a Gaelic folk song which may preserve some of Brigid's original myth, Brigid had an apple orchard to which bees came from all four quarters to take its richness back to the ordinary world.5 The idea of female blacksmiths is sufficiently unusual that there may very well be some connection between Brigid and the forgers of Caledfwlch.

The Cult of the Head

Another spear figures prominently in another story from the cycle of the Mabinogi; Bran son of Llyr (Llyr is the god of the sea) is struck by a poison spear in a battle in Ireland. He persuades his brother to cut off his head and carry it back to Wales. This is done, and the seven remaining Welsh (out of a force of thousands -- but they left no Irish alive) return to Wales with the head.

They take up residence in an abandoned castle, and the head keeps them company, talking as though it were still on Bran's shoulders. They spend what seems like years in the castle with Bran's head, entirely released from the anguish of the battle and Bran's death. But after that long time, one of the seven opens a door they were told not to open, and their memories return as though it happened yesterday.

The head falls silent, and they sorrowfully take it to London, where they bury it facing east; and while the head is there, no invasions or plagues come to Britain. It is pretty clear that the head of Bran took the seven to the Otherworld, since the discontinuity of time between the Otherworld and this one is well-attested in the literature. When they return to this world, perhaps only a week has passed since their return from Ireland.

The head is both magical and talismanic. The Celts were well known for keeping the heads of their slain foes, and at least one sanctuary in France has several pillars with niches for skulls, all watched over by the sculpture of a huge bird of prey. Shamanic cultures such as the Yukagir and the Inuit keep the heads of shamans revered ancestors and ask advice of them (the skulls are kept in individual boxes, and the querent will pick up a box and ask a question; if the box grows light, the answer is affirmative, if it grows heavy, the answer is negative). The counsel of a head is also important in the Norse tradition, where Oðin keeps the preserved head of Mimir (who as we've seen was the guardian of the pool of knowledge) and asks advice of it on occasion.

Animal Magic and Allies

The account of Bran's head leading people to the Otherworld is unusual. More often in the tales, people are lured to the Otherworld in pursuit of a magical animal, usually a stag or a boar. In the first of the Mabinogi tales, Pwyll is hunting a stag and meets Arawn in his aspect as Hunter; in the third tale, Pwyll's son Pryderi goes after a white boar into a mound, and is trapped in the Otherworld. In the Welsh Arthurian tale "Culhwch and Olwen", Arthur's men, in seeking a prisoner named Mabon ab Modron ("Son, son of Mother"), are led by old and wise animals to successively older and wiser animals. A blackbird leads them to a stag, the stag to an owl, the owl to an eagle, and the eagle to a salmon. Of these, the stag, the eagle, and the salmon are already familiar as important animals.

Not only do animals lead the shaman or hero to the Otherworld, they often appear as the shaman's mount. Oðin's horse, Sleipnir, has eight legs, as do shamanic horses in Japan and North India; it has been hypothesised by a number of folklorists that the eight-legged horse is the bier of the deceased, being borne along by four pallbearers. Lleu starts his journey to the Otherworld with one foot on a goat's back, and the chariot of Thor, the Norse thunder god, was drawn by two wonderous goats -- he could kill and eat them, but when he waved his hammer over the bones, the goats would come back to life.

Merlin's mount in the old Welsh material is a great stag, and Halifax, in Shaman, shows that in many diverse cultures (Huichol, Finnish/Lappish, Southwest American, Siberian) the stag could be a shaman's transport. Among some Mongol tribes, the drum is called "the black stag", and the Karagas and Soyot tribes of Siberia call the drum "the shaman's roebuck" and sing "I am travelling with a wild roebuck!"

Lleu's shape-change from man to eagle is also a typical aspect of worldwide shamanic accounts, as I suggested earlier. Freyja, like Oðin and Taliesin, flies in bird feathers, by means of a magical feather cloak. The Rees brothers in Celtic Heritage (1961) tell us, "early Irish poets...wore cloaks of bird-feathers as do the shamans of Siberia when, through ritual and trance, they conduct their audiences on journeys to another world."

If air-dwellers seem to be the allies and spirit-forms of bards, it makes sense that the spirit forms of warriors should be the powerful earth-dwelling predators. The Berserkr and Ulfserkr would don the skins of bear and wolf, respectively, and take on in battle the attributes (some said the very shapes) of that animal. There were similar "Bear Doctors" among California tribes, who worked the same magic not for spiritual reasons but to prey on people.

In some cases, the Ber- or Ulfserkr would even eat the heart of the bear or wolf to gain its power. Another feast of hearts occurs in the seiðr trance, as described above. Shamanic animal or hunting magic in Europe is not limited to the Berserkr. Indeed, some of the oldest images of shamans that exist are in the caves of the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. The Shaman of Trois-Frères and his colleagues still speak powerfully to us.

And the Trois-Frères Shaman's antlered head is not unlike that of Cernunnos ("Horned One"), the Gaulish god of wild beasts. Herne is Cernunnos' British name, and in Britain he leads the Wild Hunt, a spirit hosting that rides on winter nights, scouring the land clean so that new growth may be unhindered in the spring, and incidentally snatching up anyone who happens to stray into their path. The Hunt rides in Scandinavia also, and there its leader is Oðin, not surprisingly.

Eliade explains that in many cultures an additional function of the shaman is to conjure the food animals close, to where they can be hunted.: "We know that the shaman plays a definite part in ensuring an abundance of game and the good luck of the hunters (meteorological prophesies, changing weather, mystical journeys to the Great Mother of the Animals, etc.)." The shaman thus becomes that incongruous thing: a herder of wild beasts. To do this, the shaman must think like the animal, and there is no better way to do this than to live as the animal for a time -- just as Gwydion lived as the various animals to which he was changed (and indeed, his knowledge was useful, since he had to track the Black Sow to find Lleu, and could only track her by his understanding of how swine behave).

The image of humans dancing with animal heads, or the dance of animals led by human music such as we see on the cave walls elsewhere at Trois-Frères, lives on in the animal masquing customs all over Europe. Animal masques survive today, though once strongly denounced by the established Church, who saw such masques not as quaint folk customs, but as what they were indeed: the remnants of the supressed elder religion. Eliade says, "We must not forget that the relations between the shaman (and indeed, 'primitive man' in general) and animals are spiritual in nature and of a mystical intensity that a modern, desacralized mentality finds it difficult to imagine. For primitive man, donning the skin of an animal was becoming that animal, feeling himself transformed into an animal." Echoing the Trois-Frères shaman, six men dance in Abbot's Bromley in September, with great, arching stag-antlers. In Padstow on Mayday, the black "'Obby 'Oss" (Hobby Horse) dances through the streets, bestowing blessings and fertility. In the south of Wales, the Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare, visits houses around New YearÕs bringing luck with her.

It is possible that the original time of the Mari procession was the old Celtic New Year, Samhain, which is at the opposite end of the year from Mayday. It is interesting that at the beginning of the light half of the year, a black horse should be the luck-bringer, while at the beginning of the dark half, that honor goes to a white horse (for Mari is actually white -- the Mare of Sovreignty in Ireland was also white, as mentioned above). There is no light time without its dark spot, nor dark time without its light.

One of the most well-known figures associated with magic in European legend is Merlin, the archetypal magician. What many people do not know about Merlin is that his first appearance is not in the romance of King Arthur, but in much older Welsh material. In The Quest for Merlin, Nikolai Tolstoy synthesises a composite figure of Merlin based on numerous legends not only of him but of similar figures in Irish and Scottish material, Suibhne and Lailoken. The picture that imerges is that of a woods-living prophet, master of animals, whose particular totems are stag, wolf, and boar, the same animals associated with Cernunnos in the depictions of him (and the same animals to which Gwydion is transformed). In one of the Merlin legends, he seems to be described as wearing antlers himself.

Merlin seems to have started out as a priest of Lugh, already a shamanic figure as we've seen, and undergone a crisis in the midst of a battle, going mad, falling into an ecstatic trance, and running off to the woods to live with deer. Tolstoy suggests that Lugh and Cernunnos are two faces of the same god -- as he shows Apollo and Pan took over the two original faces of Hermes. We get from this a very clear picture of Myrddin, a new picture, not of the white-bearded magus in the star-spangled robe, but of a prophet and bard in partnership with animals, dressed in furs (and himself having a hairy pelt as the legend tells it), wearing the antlers of his totem stag. In other words, Myrddin is a shaman.

The Spirit World

The spirit-world is as pervasive in European culture as in any tribal culture on any continent, and equally rich. The dead were close to the conscious thoughts of the Celts just as in any other shamanic culture -- whether a culture has much lore regarding the dead or the ancestors seems to be related to how much or little they deal with the actual bodies. For Americans, who put their elders away from them, not to mention their dead, the dead are never close enough to bother with. For the Celts, who kept heads and who to this day hold watches around a corpse before it is buried, the spirits of the dead were certainly near each night, and closer on Samhain, if not ever-present; according to the Rees brothers, there are still customs in rural Ireland having to do with the way a house is left before bed-time, such that the friendly dead will feel welcome therein.

Most of the other items of ancestor-lore are about divination methods; when, at Samhain, the veils between worlds are especially thin, various auguries give the dead an opportunity to tell the living how their lives will be in the coming year -- who will marry, who bear a child, who will die. The British custom of "souling", where children impersonate the dead and receive gifts on the ancestors' behalf (the origin of our "trick or treat" -- the trick seems to be that the ancestors would exact retribution on the disrespectful), has a relative in the Pacific Northwestern custom of burning food for the dead at the Winter Ceremonial (it is interesting to note that in both cultures the time of the ancestors' greatest power is winter). It is likely that the original "soul cakes" were similarly burned, since they were singularly inedible! Only when the children began eating the food on behalf of the dead did the food-gifts change to the more familiar fruits and sweets.

Northern Europe has its share of non-human spirits, too, whether helpful or hindering; dwellers in barrows, mines, lakes and streams, trees, stones, and the human household are all well-known. Some cannot be made human allies. Others, especially the household spirits, can be fed and honoured much in the way some shamans treated their helping spirits, and will keep good luck and order in the house -- a far cry from the arcane functions of most shamanic helpers, one might think. But when one sees them as protecting their human allies from the depredations of malign spirits, their fellowship with the shaman's helping spirits is not so obscure.

And the malign spirits were surely there, showing themselves in minor annoyances like soured milk and burned bread, or life-threatening banes like crop failure, or illness in human or cattle. Anglo-Saxon literature has preserved numerous chants and charms against such mishaps. Felix Grendon, in his article "The Anglo-Saxon Charms" in the Journal of American Folk-Lore, gives characteristics of these charms: narrative introduction; appeal to a superior spirit; the pronouncing of potent names; the exorcist's boast of power; the singing of incantations on parts of the body and on other objects. These characteristics are identical to shamanic chants of the Inuit and many other cultures. "Out, little spear, if herein ye be!" commands a healing spell for "elf-shot" -- the arrow of sickness shot by some enemy is well-known in some shamanic traditions.

Like the Amazonian shamans, the Germanic tribes saw illness as a foreign body; where the South Americans (and others) suck illness out of a person, the Germans blew it out -- this seems somewhat safer, since there would be less chance of the illness lodging in the body of the doctor.

The Reconstruction

Having gathered all these elements, it is now possible to begin at least a preliminary reconstruction of the shamanism of northern Europe from them. The initiation process, overseen by the Master Shaman (initiation by illness and recovery is not recorded in the literature, by the way), would involve the following:

  1. A purifying bath.
  2. An intoxicating drink, such as mead, or perhaps a barley-brew similar to that used in the mystery rites of Eleusis.
  3. Ritual death, as above, with Lleu. In ordinary reality, the relaxing bath and drink, combined with the uncertainty of what would happen next, would build up in the candidate such that the shock of having a spear thrust at him would cause a faint or a trance state. Similar shocks are used in Masonic ritual to open up the candidate to altered consciousness.
  4. The Otherworld Journey. Here all kinds of possibilities emerge, as many as the initiates themselves, since each one would experience the Otherworld subjectively; but certainly the shape-change would be involved.
  5. Consumption. See The Goddess, above.
  6. Reconstruction by the initiating Master Shaman.

The shamanic healing function would be fulfilled through the use of healing baths, dancing (as with tarantism), and the use of charms and blowing out illness.

The prophesy would be made through recourse to the spirits, either of the dead or of nature, through divination (Oðin's runes were and are used in this way) or direct communication. This is the one area where eating blood seems to be important -- the description of the seiðr says the prophetess eats hearts that were "available" on a farm, implying that chicken, lamb, or beef hearts would be perfectly acceptable. The retreat into darkness and silence would be an alternative method. Dreams and poetry would be an important part of the practise.

Dancing the totem animals would be involved, as we see in the remaining animal masques. Among the Northern totem spirits: stag, horse, boar/sow, eagle, salmon, bear, wolf, goat, serpent/dragon, bull/aurochs, etc.

Finally, the psychopomp function would be performed within the protective circle of kin (as in the modern wake), most likely with the shaman riding the mount of choice or in the favoured shape (probably boar or stag, as the tales indicate) to lead the soul of the deceased.

Shamanic Heritage

In conclusion, I would like to point out that while one may use this reconstruction to practise a pieced-together European shamanism, there is at least one form of European shamanism still alive today: it is Witchcraft. While there may not be an unbroken Wiccan tradition through the Burning Times to the modern day, modern Witchcraft shares much with its medieval forebear, and with shamanism before that.

According to medieval accounts, Witches had familiars (spirit helpers), experienced flight through intoxication (hallucinogenic "flying ointment"), went to the Otherworld by going up the chimney (Siberian shamans left the ordinary world through the smokehole of the tent) or riding a broom (a form of the Tree; also, the Hungarian shaman "put a reed between his legs and galloped away and was there before a man on horseback" quotes Eliade) or an animal (usually a goat). They changed shape, danced ecstatically, healed illness and removed curses (or laid them -- in some cultures, the Shaman was as feared as medieval Witches were, for the same reason).

The modern Witch still works in trance, travels to the Otherworld (these days called "the astral plane"), communicates and allies with nature spirits, dances to raise power, heals. I encourage modern Witches also to look at this reconstruction with a view toward expanding or enriching their spiritual practise. There are many ways in which the theories I've developed can be put to actual practise. For more information, consult the following bibliography, and above all, listen to the voice of the collective unconscious as it speaks to you in the darkness, in dreams and visions, in the sudden sharp memory that a scent or sight or taste will bring. From the antlered dancers of the caves to the Witch of today, the spirit if not the exact practise of shamanism has been passed on through Europe's generations. We should cherish that inheritance.


1. Based on Scandinavian etymology, it seems that ÒwarlockÓ meant not Òoath-breakerÓ or even ÒwizardÓ but Òspirit-songsÓ According to An Icelandic-English Dictionary, by Richard Cleasby (rev. by Gudbrand Vigfusson, 2nd ed. by Sir William A. Craigie) (Oxford: Claren Press, 1982 [1957]), the meaning is as follows: Warð-Lokkur ( ) = Ward-songs, guardian-songs, charms, (or better, wyrd songs, in the other form: Urðar-Lokkur).

2. Among Finno-Ugaric shamans, there was documented a technique of processing the psychoactive amanita mushroom: the active ingredients work on the body of the mushroom-eater, but also pass through the urine, hence a tradition of drinking human and deer urine containing the amanita chemicals.

3. Lexicon Poeticum Antiquæ Linguæ Septentrionalis orig. by Sveinbjorn Egilsson, 2nd ed by Finnur Jónsson (Copenhagen: Atlas Bogtryk, 1966) p. 442, [meaning #1: understanding, the stuff of poetry; meaning #2: forceful, frenzied, crazy]

4. The parallel with the Christ myth is obvious. Christ can be seen as yet another form of the dying-and-rising vegetation god, whose myth is universal to agricultural societies; indeed, grape and grain are his blood and flesh Ñ what could be clearer?

5. If the apple is indeed a traditional "fruit of knowledge" as I suggest, its association with Brigid makes my suggestion still stronger.


Bord, Janet & Colin. Earth Rites: Fertility Practices in Pre-Industrial Britain. London: Granada Publishing, Ltd., 1982

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. The Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. London: Penguin, 1964 (latest reprint, 1986)
_______________. Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe. NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1988

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972 (Bollingen Series LXXVI)

Ford, Patrick K., trans. & ed. The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977

van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. (Monika Vizedom & Gabrielle Caffee, trans.) Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960

Gerald of Wales. The History and Topography of Ireland. London: Penguin, 1982

Grendon, Felix. "The Anglo-Saxon Charms", Journal of American Folk-Lore. Vol. XXII, no. 84 (April-June, 1909), pp. 105-237

Halifax, Joan. Shaman: the Wounded Healer. New York: Crossroad (Thames & Hudson), 1982

MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. London: Hamlyn, 1970

Markale, Jean. Women of the Celts. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, Ltd., 1986

Matthews, Caitlín. Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain. London: Arkana, 1987

Piggot, Stuart. The Druids. London: Thames & Hudson, 1968 (latest reprint 1987)

Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. London: Thames & Hudson, 1958 (latest reprint 1987)

Rees, Alwyn and Brynley. Celtic Heritage. London: Thames & Hudson, 1961

Tolstoy, Nikolai. The Quest for Merlin. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1985

Copyright © 1989 Leigh Ann Hussey