The first ever course in shamanism I attended was called “The Way of the Shaman”. I went looking for such a course because the spirits kept me up one night and reminded me that I had made soul commitment to do spirit work in this life. My everyday-self had gotten so busy being a full time Mum to three boys under the age of five – that I needed the “wake up call”.
As a painter I have always been an avid collector of books about anthropology, mythology and (so called) indigenous art. For me “shamanism” was a word from Siberia that people had started to apply globally, to all forms of spirit work and all possible expressions of a spirit-centered tribal life. I had no idea (at all!) that one could do “shamanic training” in the UK (where I live).
What I had definitely picked up from the anthropology texts was that “when the spirits call you to do their work – you do not say ‘no’ because they will then force the issue through an accident, serious illness or great loss". - I was very happy being a full time mother of my own little tribe. I had no plans to do “shamanic training” but I enrolled in a shamanic practitioner program (at The Sacred Trust) hoping it would help me make “even better paintings”, meaning that I still managed to misunderstand what level of involvement the spirits actually wanted from me! (By this I mean: working with individuals and groups, actively bringing healing and raising consciousness).
One thing that was drilled into me from day one, by my own teachers, was that I was not to call myself a shaman (ever!) That this is an honorific term (such as “hero”) which people (your community or clients) may bestow on you – but you do not take the title for yourself. This blog will map how my comprehension has shifted since that time. I have essentially gone from never calling myself a shaman to not even calling myself a shamanic practitioner any longer.
The program I enrolled in offered training in core shamanism. This term was coined by Michael Harner, an American anthropologist turned “shaman” and author of the book “The Way of the Shaman”. He decided to distill the key principles (stripped of their cultural and local flavour) followed by spirit-based cultures all over the world and he started teaching this material again in Western culture where it had largely (but certainly not completely) died out; eradicated by the twin influences of the Church (and the dreaded witch hunts that raged for centuries) and the paradigm of modern science (an odd "partnership "indeed!) in dominant Western Culture.
My boys are all teenagers now. Michael Harner died in the year 2018. About ten years ago freely using terms from core shamanism, and borrowing spiritual practices from cultures all over the world, still seemed “acceptable and exciting”. In recent years there has been a major backlash – for good reasons too!. In this blog I will explain what is happening and why.
Our word “shaman” was taken from the language of the Tungus people in Siberia. It came to us via anthropologists (and Harner was an anthropologist, researching and observing other cultures!) It appears in books written by Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian of religions, who wrote the seminal book titled Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. My personal favourite is his book The Sacred and the Profane (which I use as a key text in long-term sacred art programs I teach). Both books are in print and available online or from any quality bookstore.
Eliade’s writings were based on field work done by other authors. The term “shamanism” appears in a book exploring the work of Russian and European anthropologists: Shamanism in Siberia, M.A. Czaplicka.
Before going any further I need to state unequivocally that I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the phenomenon of core shamanism and my own teachers of core shamanism. They enabled me to learn vital skills and meet the wake-up call from my helping spirits – without abandoning my young children for lengthy periods (or training with teachers whose culture did not reflect my own ancestral background).
Having acknowledged that, the next thing to mention is that my first ever major spiritual awakening came when I was 19 years old and visiting Sweden for the first time (my husband is Swedish). The Norse gods “grabbed me” and “grabbed my attention” – and they have stayed with me for life. As soon as I gained competence in core shamanism, the spirits and gods of the Northern Tradition demanded that I “go home” (spiritually speaking). They literally said: “You need to go home in order to bring other people home!” Core shamanism has served its purpose in your life but it is time for you to move on and return to the wisdom teachings of your own ancestors, and of the land that supported them.
This means that I actively started moving away from core shamanism and its terminology around the time that the term “shamanism” came under heavy criticism. Where possible (and only where applicable) I now use the ancestral word seiðr (taken from Old Norse) and other terms from the Northern Tradition instead. - I admit that this is not always possible - speaking as the author of two books about “shamanism”!! Norse specialists will point out that the word seiðr does not cover the same range as our word “shamanism”, it refers to a more limited range of practices with a strong spirit dimension.
To sum things up: the native wisdom traditions and teachings of Old (pagan) Europe took some devastating blows after Europe became Christianised (first) and centuries later the scientific lens of perception became the dominant mode for perceiving reality (after the period of the, so called, Enlightenment!) Small pockets of “native wisdom” and "wise or cunning men and women" have always remained, in remote rural areas. Some of the knowledge of these "local healers" has also been preserved in folk traditions. This has fed the fires of contemporary studies in the field of e.g. folklore. (The more that is preserved the better! By means of a critical viewpoint: Some people question the contemporary tendency for people to “make a religion out of folklore”, but that as an aside).
As many people no longer feel a true alignment with the church-based doctrines of Christianity, large numbers of people are actively searching for powerful spiritual teachings and alternatives. Please note that I am separating this off from the timeless wisdom teachings of Jesus Christ himself. Some people now refer to this as Christ Consciousness or Christ Light - to distance themselves from patriarchal (often misogynist) church teachings and a considerable history of personal and cultural abuse (and persecution) meted out in the name of Christ. My issue is not with Jesus Christ! Christ was not a Christian! My issue is with the Church Fathers who created a religion with rigid doctrines and hidden political agendas: the world religion we now call Christianity.
People searching for alternatives turned to Eastern world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism) and many started exploring a phenomenon referred to as “shamanism”. It has become fashionable to make tourist trips to places such as Siberia, Brasil, Peru or Mexico to participate in ceremonies (some evolving ayahuasca or peyote mushrooms) and to return claiming that “you have trained with an indigenous or tribal shaman”, supposedly a very “cool credential” in modern life (and one that appears on many websites of western people).
In the US, many people actively took traditions that belong to Native American peoples (in Canada they speak of First Nations peoples, a term I prefer) and, essentially, robbed them all over again!! These peoples had already been pushed off their land, been marginalised and discriminated against, lost their children to Western culture and diseases, (wetiko being the umbrella term covering all of these things) and now even the wisdom teachings and traditions of their elders and ancestors were appropriated as well. We now witness a proliferation of Western people offering “ayahuasca ceremonies” (in church halls and London basements), “smudging with white sage”, hosting “sweat lodges” and so forth.
The point of this article is to demonstrate that many cultures have their own native ancestral versions of these things. In the Northern Tradition we know that the Vikings added fly agaric mushrooms to their mead, that they had saunas for the purposes of community hygiene (but these saunas had a spiritual dimension as well: women in childbirth, the sick and the dying were all looked after in that space!) and they used local plants (such as mugwort) for purification and spiritual cleansing. They definitely used altered states of consciousness and did trance work (such as the famous High Seat ceremony). They also did "sitting out" on grave mounds and at crossroads - the Scandinavian version of going on a "vision quest".
I cannot talk about “words for shamans” without providing some background but let’s now return to our subject for today!
The Tungus people of Siberia have spoken out against the appropriation of their word saman (with the s pronounced as “sh”). Please note that they never coined the term “shamanism” – the "ism" is a Western invention. I do not think that we can eradicate the use of the word “shamanism” altogether – because it has spread too widely and found its way into so many books, TV programs etc. (including my own!)
What we can do, and urgently need to do is:
- Be aware that this term is contentious and that it was culturally adopted without proper permission from the people it belongs to
- Re-connect with the wisdom teachings of our ancestors and research painstakingly what they did and which words or terms they used for their practices and beliefs
- Talk to the oldest surviving members of our family about any folk medicine or forms of healing they grew up with
- Educate ourselves and educate others (especially our children and our students, if we have them)!
Here are a few words for “shaman” from different cultures:
- Angakok: Inuit
- Sangoma: South African term
- Völva: Old Norse word for a wand-carrying prophetic woman
- Curander/o (female: /a) : Spanish word for healer
- Noaidi: Sami word for spirit worker
- P’aqo – a Quecha (Andean) word for shaman or mystic
“The shamanistic call among the Tungus of Trans-Baikalia shows itself in the following manner: a dead shaman appears in a dream and summons the dreamer to become his successor. One who is to become a shaman appears shy, distrait and is in a highly nervous condition”
The Altaians believe that no one becomes a shaman of his own free will; rather it comes to him volens volens, like a hereditary disease”.
A child chosen to be a shaman is recognized among the Buryat by the following signs: “He is often absorbed in meditation, likes to be alone, has mysterious dreams, and sometimes has fits during which he is unconscious”.
-Shamanism in Siberia by M.A. Czaplicka
(Of course today we’d choose pronouns with far greater care, writing about this subject!)
Many tribes (other than the Tungus people) in Siberia and the Arctic North used their own unique words for spirit workers, (never “shaman”). E.g.:
Enenilit: “those with spirit”
Ewganva-tirgin: “producer of incantations”
Walking between the worlds and finding words for our experiences is tricky (at times impossible!) in itself. After the spirits directed me back to the wisdom teachings of the Norse cosmology I actively dropped the received terminology from core shamanism and started using the word “ancestral” a lot. (Actually I still do!) What could be better than sharing the wisdom teachings of my personal and cultural ancestors, and staying completely clear of anything “Native American”?! – I soon discovered another hornet’s nest because the word “ancestral” is often misused (abused) by extremist people who claim that only people with proven Norse ancestry should be allowed to work with this material. Norse material was appropriated and abused by the Nazis - and some groups continue to build on that heinous legacy. This too was a cultural theft and appropriation!! There is nothing in the material itself that supports fascism or racism. As author and Norse scholar Maria Kvilhaug once commented in some thread I was following: “What is not clear about the word ALLFATHER?!” (referring to Odin).
I feel for people taking their first steps on any “shamanic” path because these issues can confuse and even overwhelm us. They can also undermine our very best intentions and expose us to storms of criticism and disapproval. that initially will make no sense to us. It may help you to know that even the (so called) experts face challenges in using "the right words"!!
The most neutral term might be spirit worker. I love the more poetic “spirit walker” but that has been coined by Native American peoples for their elders – so the term is off limits. I would definitely never put the words “shaman” and “Norse” together in one sentence. I will admit that I sometimes abbreviate things and say “Norse shamanism” (but that takes us right back to the historic fact that the Old Norse people did not practice “Tungus-style shamanism”). Perhaps Norse-inspired shamanism would have made a better phrase. - Having said that, the Norse tribes had a long list of options for describing people who did spirit work. Here are some, which I have taken from Grumpy Lokean Elder’s blog. He in turn took them from the recently published book: “The Viking Way” by Dr. Neil Price.
seiðmaðr - seiðr-man
seiðskratti - evil-seið-sorcerer
seiðberendr - seið-carrier (genderbending/queer associations, the term references penetration and may have to do with the volsi cult.)
spámaðr - prophecy-man
falsspámaðr - false prophecy-man
villuspámaðr - false prophecy-man
galdramaðr - galdr-man
galdrakarl - galdr-man
galdrasmiðr - galdr-smith
galdraraumr - great galdr-man
galdrameistari - galdr-master
galdradrengr - galdr-attendant
vitki - sorcerer
fjölkyngismaðr - sorcerer
fjölkyngisberendr - sorcery-bearer
gandrekr - gandr-man, gandr-warrior (gandr = wand)
kunáttumaðr - man who knows magic
vísendamaðr - man who knows
tauframaðr - charm-man
gerningamaðr - sorcerer
Völva - staff-bearer, seeress, sibyl
seiðkona - seið-woman
spákona - prophecy-woman
spákerling - old prophecy-woman
kveldriða - evening-rider
trollriða - troll-rider, rider of witchcraft
myrkriða - darkness-rider or night-rider
munnriða - mouth-rider
túnriða - fence-rider or roof-rider
kaldriða - cold-rider
þráðriða - thread-rider
galdrakona - galdr-woman
galdrakerling - old galdr-woman
galdrasnót - galdr-lady
galdrakind - galdr-creature
vitka - sorceress
fjölkyngiskona - sorceress
vísendakona - wise woman, woman who knows
heiðr - sorceress
fordcæða - evil witch
flagð(kona) - evil witch
fála - witch
gýgr - witch
hála - witch
skass - witch
Even archeologist Neil Price has come under criticism (in academia) for calling his book “The Viking Way” because not all inhabitants of Scandinavia in the Viking era were “Vikings”, there were also stay-at-home farmers (to mention but one example!) and do we ever think of women when we speak of Vikings?! (For a wonderful exploration of this topic I recommend Judith Jesch’s 2005 book: Women in the Viking Age). This demonstrates that even the "experts" don't escape criticism and disapproval! - But we are clearly not lacking words for spirit work... not in Northern Europe!
People from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds will have a different journey from mine, grappling with “ancestral wisdom traditions” and finding the words we use to describe the key concepts in this work. However, they will inevitably encounter many of the issues and dynamics described in this article. I therefore hope that this piece of writing will be helpful for some of you!
Oh and what I do I call myself these days? I am trying to stay clear of all terms from core shamanism, even the term “shamanic practitioner” (which described my work for years). I now call myself “an international teacher of Sacred Art and Seiðr! And you are absolutely right: that leaves me with a lot of explaining to do as soon as the words are out of my mouth!
PS I changed tack recently and often call myself "A Forest Witch" instead! I increasingly feel the urge to use words that honour my ancestors and those who died in the witch hunts for having (and preserving) the precious knowledge that I am free to practice and teach today.
You will find my article "The Forest Witch" in the book: Words from the Cauldron - Witches Who Write, published on the summer solstice 2019, later this week! It only costs £0.99 and all proceeds to go to charity!
Imelda Almqvist, London, 18 June 2019
Imelda Almqvist is an international teacher of Sacred Art and Seiðr . So far she has published two books: Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit for Life (Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages) in 2016 and Sacred Art: A Hollow Bone for Spirit (Where Art Meets Shamanism) in 2019. She has presented her work on both The Shift Network and Sounds True. She appears in a TV program titled Ice Age Shaman, made for the Smithsonian Museum, in the series Mystic Britain talking about Neolithic arctic deer shamanism. Her third book comes out in 2020. Imelda has just finished her third book “Medicine of the Imagination: Dwelling in Possibility” and has started her fourth book "Evolving Gods: The Sacred Marriage of Tradition and Innovation".
(YouTube channel: interviews, presentations, art and Rune Drum videos)