Siberian shamans and European pagan spiritualism.
In the earth-centered spirituality of Evenki tribes (Siberia), shamans are visionary healers, guides and communicators between this world and the next.
Although the word “shaman” (coined by anthropologists in the 19th c.) has been at the root of considerable debates, from an ethnocentric and religious standpoint, it is often used as an umbrella term to describe a spiritual leader undertaking practices likening those of the Evenki Siberian tribes. Therefore, I will use the term “shaman-like” to describe leaders (and the spiritual rites and practices) that bear similarities with the original Evenki concepts mentioned above.
Of late, there has been a popular rise in interest towards the ancient practices of shamanism in the last decades, with modern “shamans” offering to help and guide those in need of psychological, spiritual or physical healing.
But where do modern-day shaman practices stem from?
The origins of the word “shaman” are traced back to a handful of tribes in Central Asia. In itself, the word loosely means “spiritual facilitator”.
The 3 criteria delineating shamans. These men and women can:
- enter a visionary state of consciousness at will,
- while visiting a place of “altered” or “non ordinary” reality,
- during which time they acquire knowledge and power for themselves or the greater good of others.
Some recurrent similarities are observed through various shamanic practices:
- the use of drums or rattles
- a veil covering the eyes (the shaman crosses into an altered reality where visions come from within).
Shamanic-like spiritual practices in Europe
The Celts (7th c. BCE to the 1st c. AD)
In the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, Celts dominated central Europe, going as far as ransacking Rome in 390 BCE, founding outposts in Turkey, Greece and Spain. Their territories linked the British Isles to the shores of the Black Sea.
The Celts (from the Greek, Keltoi, meaning “white”) were a band of people with mixed lineages, languages and different lifestyles. However, they constituted an ethnic group defined by similar customs, traditions and practices (as described in numerous classical writings, such as the works of Caesar, Tacitus and Herodotus).
The Celts bore colourful clothing and jewelry, and produced metalwork with a distinctly recognizable flare. They were fierce fighters with an avid taste for poetry and merriment. They differed from their contemporaries by being generally taller and fair (including a high prevalence of coloured eyes).
The Celts believed in
- the continuance of the soul after death (a form of reincarnation, as depicted on the cauldron above)
- the omnipresence of the spirit world
- respect for the land
- respect for the spirit world
- the worship of animal spirits
- the belief in visiting the Otherworld and unraveling its mysteries
- the head as the seat of knowledge and enlightenment (Fire in the Head)
- the belief that the truth is written in stones (think of Stonehenge, although it pre-dates the Celts’ arrival in the British Isles)
Most of these principles are constant in shamanic-like traditions whether they are rooted in Asia, Central Asia, India, America or archaic Europe and Ancient Greece.
Think about this: a common denominator of the human psyche is involved in forming the spirituality of the Collective Unconscious described by Carl Jung.
Although the Celts were eventually defeated and absorbed within other tribes and ethnic groups, there remained the strong influence of their system of beliefs and spiritual practices. We still nowadays refer to the “Celtic spirit“, a rich identity laced with patriotic overtones and a mysticism that has transcended generations over the millennia.
The Celtic spiritual heritage has given us everlasting iconic images such as druids, megalithic circles, the antlered god Cernunnos , the Green Man, shapeshifters, faeries and their hollow lands part of to the Otherworld.
Amazing, isn’t it?
Shamanic-like practices in Norse paganism
Norse paganism is likely to have been the last surviving european polytheistic religion in the 1st millennium AD. Most of main land Europe had converted to Christianity by the time of the first Viking invasions of the British Isles. Yet, it endured the Christian conversion by a few centuries until the most remote Scandinavian occupied territories of Iceland and Greenland officially converted to the predominant monotheist religion. By then, Snorri Sturluson had begun writing his enduring Prose Edda, immortalizing the last wisps of the oral traditions that carried down heathen beliefs.
In reading the Edda, the Norse pantheon and its mythology recount the tales of gods, giants and men, living forever intertwined in the realms of the Nine Worlds.
He gains knowledge of runes, philosophy and skills by hanging suspended in a tree for 9 nights. Odin can be said to have undertaken a spiritual trip to the Otherworld, crossing into a non ordinary reality in order to gain knowledge for himself and the greater good of men and gods.
Odin is also known as the One-Eyed god, having sacrificed a part of himself in the shamanic-like process of gaining universal knowledge. His one-eyed sight also resonates with the cloak veiling a shaman’s gaze.
Norse spiritual beliefs:
- the ability to shape shift (Loki is a shapeshifting god, and berserkers were legend warriors said to turn into bears on the battle field)
- the worship of animal sprits (wolfs, bears, birds. Odin’s ravens Huggin and Munnin act as his scouts, his spies and messengers between the Worlds)
- the power to heal illness through spiritual practices (Thor is healed by a witch-healer)
- the power of necromancy (the goddess Frigg is known for reanimating the dead)
- the worship of nature
- the head as the source of knowledge and enlightenment (the severed head of Mimir guards the well of wisdom)
- runestones as stones erected to the memories of the deceased, their exploits and legacies (in keeping with the Celtic belief that “truth is written in stones”).
For more on the subject of European pagan spirituality, check out Tom Cowan’s work.