Witchcraft And Shamanism

When we hear about shamanism, we immediately think about the type of shamanism from Siberia, or the Americas, spirituality connected to tribal rituals and traditions. When speaking of European shamanism, we have no clue what it is, or at least the first thing that comes to mind, is the type of shamanism practiced in the northern countries of Europe. However, there is an tremendous body of evidence, in anthropological and historical literature, that the historical european.style witchcraft was in fact a form of shamanism practiced by the different cultures of Europe.

Lets make it clear first, the definition of “shaman” in use here is an anthropological one. As I have written before, “shaman” is a word that originates from the Tungus language of Siberia, and has been somewhat misapplied to the religious beliefs and practices of Native Americans (which are quite diverse, some are certainly shamanistic, others not so much).
The shaman, in this context, is a magical practitioner who works with the help of spirits, usually on behalf of or to the benefit of his or her community, by means of healing, divination, and such.
Shamanic experiences all over the world share some general characteristics. In the form of a traumatic personal experience and/or a visitation by spirits, the formation of a strong bond between the shaman and one or more helping spirits, and a working relationship with those spirits, frequently characterized by ritual invocation and spirit flight or trance states to achieve specific goals.

The pre-christian practices of the European peoples, had these characteristics. All the way from the Iberian Peninsula, to the far East and up into the cold North, the peoples of Europe had their own ways to communicate with the spiritual world and the natural world, which in most of the cases (speaking in such spiritual practices) are two worlds strongly connected. With time and the constant invasions of different cultures in each country, these European practices have been lost. However, during the medieval ages, these practices were very much alive and we can find it in most books that talk about the medieval times. People during that time still practiced the spiritual ways of their ancestors, it lived on in the most rural parts of each country, and it was often thought that this happened, because the people in the rural areas hadn’t much access to what was going on in the city, and because these people were less educated, they continue to practice the old ways. None of this is true. In spite of each country have had a lot of invasions and the cultures changed, because people had been killed in masses, and temples have been destroyed and such, each invador kept alive the inhabitants that worked the fields and took care of the animals, because they needed people to work for them, people who already knew how to deal with the land, turning them into slaves for new masters. Those people kept the old ways and so they were passed on from generation to generation. During the medieval ages, these spiritual practices were still being held, but the christian faith was spreading fast, and people were accused of witchcraft and most people were killed. The last places to have these practices until the late medieval ages, were the peoples from the East and the northernmost parts of Scandinavia, because it was hard to get there, hard to spread the christian faith into those places.

Because of the mass executions held during the medieval times, most of the information we have about this subject, comes from trial records and interrogations. The accused were subject to torture, it can be hard to sift truth from confabulation.
Several point out that the folkloric material was not what the interrogators were interested in, and in fact was considered a distraction, subjects of interrogation would be pressed to describe a formulaic encounter with the Devil wherein they traded magical power for their immortal souls. Instead, accused witches often described encounters with fairies and the dead. This is consistent with what we know about fairy beliefs, that Elphame or the realm of the Fair Folk was also the realm of the dead. External evidence for the folkloric material, including beliefs about fairies and specific beliefs to do with spirit flight, doubles, and familiars, combined with the fact that interrogators actively discouraged it, lend a degree of confidence to the picture they paint of what medieval witches were up to.

Witches during these times, worked alone, or in groups (but most of the time, alone). They often had named spirit helpers who appeared to them frequently, these spirits might be in the form of a cat, rat, toad, bird, a human being, or a non-natural creature. They also encountered other figures, including the King and Queen of Elphame, who sometimes presided over gatherings and sometimes helped them directly. They described leaving their homes and flying or going forth in the forms of animals, generally a cat or hare, which is also frequently mentioned in shamanic practices. Their interactions with spirits, flying, and other seemingly fantastic or impossible activities are described as straightforward experiences. They also performed numerous acts of witchcraft, ranging from healing or other beneficial spells without distinction between what we would now consider herbal medicine and what we would think of as “magic.” This is consistent with books of “home physic” from that time period and later, which often include both an herbal concoction and an incantation in a single cure.

This is absolutely similar with the way that shamans from other cultures describe their experiences as well, but is so far from current Western ideas as to be feared as pathological. Another thing to take into consideration is that becoming a witch fully is something that you can neither inherit nor study nor buy, but only receive as the gift of an ongoing relationship with the spiritual world from other beings, such as it happens with shamans. One does not simple becomes a shaman just because he/she wants it, a person becomes a shaman because it was chosen by beings, spirits, gods and so on, something out of the person’s control. That has profound implications for how a witch seeking to be traditional will approach such things as training, teaching, and joining an initiatory lineage.

Advertisements

One response to “Witchcraft And Shamanism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s