By Karl Schlotterbeck, MA, CAS, LP, 2009
The possible presence of “Celtic Shamanism” in the old Celtic world has, at times, been questioned. Although there are clear references to Bards, Ovates and Druids, nowhere is there reference to a class of individuals easily identifiable as shamans. This is in contrast to the popular activities found in workshops, books and Henge activities, and the modern work of such individuals as Tom Cowan, Frank MacEowen, John Matthews and others. Indeed, anything Celtic has become popular. Of course, what we do today in the name of “Celtic” does not mean it was actually done by Celtic people long ago. For example, one book on supposedly Celtic spirituality and shamanism included a section on the Germanic runes and nary a word about the ogham. Another fairly well-known author has re-defined fairies after the fashion of the English garden variety and does not admit into her conceptualization their much longer history and fairy lore from genuinely Celtic peoples. Thus, it is indeed fair to say that things Celtic and Shamanic can be considered faddish.
To look seriously at this question, we need to examine some definitions of shamanism and “Celtic.” We would also do well to recognize how some of these definitions came into being. First let’s address a definition of shamanism.
We, unfortunately have a reductionist, stereotyped view of shamanism, shaped in part by Eliade’s massive work (noted below). In his effort to make sense out of many varieties of practices, it is understandable that a western observer might need to look for a few common practices and claim those as the essential features of the field. Such re-defining, however, does not do justice to the breadth and variety of shamanistic expression that is evident to the practitioner who actually shares the shamanic world view. In fact, Eliade asserted that to admit too many variables into the definition is to make it too vague to be useful. But that is, in fact, the reality with which we are dealing. Shamanism, as experienced in its own cultures, as well as by the outside observer, is a messy, shape-shifting world view with multiple expressions and practices.
As I read the various writers about Shamanism, a lot more attention goes to the observable practices more so than the world view on which Shamanism is based. (This is a common problem in our action-oriented, observation-based, measure-obsessed approach, as opposed to the experiential, perceptual one.) In other words, I believe it is more the world view that is the primary common element in Shamanism. This world view takes the position that there is a spirit world (often multi-layered), with which we (humanity) have a relationship; that that world and our world have mutual influence and interdependence; that that world is populated by classes of spirits, many of whom are willing to communicate with us; that everything is alive, has intelligence and may communicate; and that the Shaman has a particular place with specific spirit-defined roles in the intercourse between these two worlds. The faddish nature of modern shamanism makes this specialness an attractive status to many people today, but shamanism is anything but status-based. The Shaman is given the responsibility, by both social and spirit worlds, to use his or her relationship with the spirits to effect healing (in people, animals and other living systems, including the Faery World) and to gain information for individuals and groups (what we know as divination). From the rich soil of this world view, and the Shaman’s individual relationships with his or her helping spirits in the context of the land on which he or she lives, arises the diverse set of practices identified as Shamanic. The one that seems to have most captured the interest of writers (from the time of Eliade and before) is the purposeful trance journey. Note that I’m certainly not reducing the importance of the trance journey, but to enlarge our perspective to include the context that makes it significant. Indeed, one does not become a shaman by sitting on this side of the boundary between the worlds, but travels between the worlds in a controlled way for defined purposes.
Having expressed the danger of doing such a thing, let us take another look at some of the common features of Shamanic practice. To do so, we’ll need to examine the world view, tools (including clothing), practices, and position in his or her social group.
In order to foster healing and promote good relationships with the spirit world and gain information, the Shaman may do a wide variety of interventions such as the trance journey, dance, ritual, recitation of song, poetry and story (power of the word), divination of many kinds (with rocks, pieces of metal, sticks, runes, Ogham, clouds, planets, consultation with spirits, etc.), employing wands, bones, skins, costumes, smoke, liquids, water, oils, massage, psychotropic substances, and drumming, to name a few.
Would we then say that a Catholic priest is a shaman because he executes rituals for healing, for maintaining relationship between his people and his Divinity; or would we call the drummer in a rock band because of his or her entrancing, inspiring rhythms; or would we call a trance medium a shaman because of his or her divinatory activities; or would we call a charismatic minister a shaman because she speaks in tongues, performs hands-on healing? The answer to these questions from my view is ‘no’ primarily because of their world view and, secondarily, because of the failure to themselves cross the boundary between the worlds and to acknowledge their interdependence on the spirits (the latter a product of the world view again). It could be said, however, that the function of the priest is a somewhat degenerate form of shamanism, having lost touch with the origins of the practices and generally lacking the personal-spirit relationship.
Mircea Eliade’s work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, is usually invoked as the “classic” study of shamanism. As most people know by now, the word “shaman” comes from Siberia and had been generalized to apply to a body of practices of indigenous peoples – both past and present. He and others have defined the core element of shamanism as “soul flight” or journey into the Otherworld. Eliade, however, is not considered the final authority on the subject. In fact, he has been called to task for significant omissions and errors in interpretation in his voluminous observations and research. His reduction of shamanism to a few elements suggests a unity that does not exist in reality. As noted above, shamanism has immense diversity, with many cultural variations. In addition, his was an outsider’s perspective, trying to make sense of a set of data foreign to his culture.
Part of the problem is that knowledge of shamans has been brought to us by outsiders: missionaries, government agents and anthropologists – who, we might note, would be in the same position as a Western historian reading the Latin text written by a Roman emperor (Caesar) about a people he wants to conquer (like the Celts and their Druids). Unfortunately, it may require someone steeped in a shamanic viewpoint and practice to identify shamanic elements that would otherwise be easily overlooked, but that have survived modernization, religious conversion, rationalization and outright suppression. Established authorities (secular and religious) are often threatened by shamanic practice as Caesar was by the Druids, as priesthoods are by prophets, and as spiritual teachers are by shamans.
From this description, we see that the shamanic functions in our time have been diluted and taken over by various elements in modern culture such as clergy, politicians, poets, economists, healers of the mind and body, and various psychics and commentators. And yet the calling for direct experience and relationship never dies for there are those who hear the calling from the other world and respond in a direct way. These are the shamans, spiritists, witches, prophets and mystics of history. Each resurgence of the direct shamanic function is, of course, generally suppressed by those in political and religious power. One can see this in the early history of Judaism when the initial balance between priests and prophets (clergy and shamans) was maintained until the Temple was built which resulted in their religion becoming centralized and monolithic. Therefore, the troublesome warnings, predictions, channelings, and calling to tasks by the prophets (like Bards) threatened to detract from the power of the priesthoods. In this way, they attempt to hold to one world view, to keep things stable and to maintain the authority of those in power. This gave meaning, purpose and generally took care of the people’s shamanic needs while disempowering and marginalizing the prophet/shamans. This tension may be one of the factors that will always make it difficult for anyone in a priestly role to be hospitable to the shamans, prophets and mystics whose authority lies not in knowledge and social structure, but in direct knowing (revelation) and Otherworldly contact.
Writers and scholars with an intimate knowledge of shamanism and the Celtic world are much less dismissive of the concept of Celtic Shamanism. Stuart Harris-Logan (in Singing with Blackbirds) notes that there are a number of words in the Irish language and practices in their history that appear very much shamanic in nature. In addition, Tom Cowan has read the legends and history and, himself being a shaman, has also recognized practices typical of Shamanic activity that would not be noticed as such by the non-Shaman. As Harris-Logan noted, the Greek and Roman writers on which we rely for much of our Celtic history, were not particularly familiar with Shamanic cultures and lacked the language to understand and describe such practices – not to mention their political and religious biases. A people without a word or experience of something not only are inadequate in describing something, but will, in fact, have difficulty even perceiving it accurately as it will be filtered through their limited experience. We might refer parenthetically here to rumors about the early Christians in Roman times during which Christians were thought to be cannibals because of a misunderstanding the symbolism of the Eucharist (fueled by fear and political purposes, of course) and because of external observation. To the participant, however, the Eucharist ritual is a communion with their god.
All that being said, let’s turn our attention to what we think we know about the old Celtic world, with a recognition that it may be folly to reduce this wide-ranging, multi-tribal collection of individualistic peoples to some monolithic description (as nearly everyone does).
The Celtic world view seems to parallel many shamanic concepts, including the interpenetration of the physical world and the Otherworld, their mutual dependence, the possibility of both ordinary people stumbling into the Otherworld accidentally or by trickery as well as special people traveling into the otherworld on purpose, the human relationship with spirits (beings of the Otherworld), the legends of shape-shifting, the use of story-telling and music to heal, enchant and entrance, and special classes of people whose roles in their society were the management of the relationship between the people and Divinity, engaging spirits (heroes, gods and local spirits) in healing, in many forms of divination and certainly the accoutrements of bells, feathered costumes, cloaks. It is this worldview that I assert is quite characteristic of shamanic perspectives and practices.
We must acknowledge here, too, that all Druids were not the same nor were they created equal. With a wide variety of roles that Druids might play in Celtic society, it seems unreasonable to expect that one Druid would play all of them. Naturally, those with natural or developed aptitudes would shine in certain areas of specialization.
In addition, the reductionist definition of shamanism (being primarily soul flight), although reducing complex enterprises to a few simple ideas results in cognitive comfort by taking a large subject and allowing us to ignore much of it, it is, nevertheless delusional: it betrays the worldview of the shaman and the wide variety of expressions of shamanic activity. It is this singular error of thought (and lack of imagination) that leads to a failure of recognition in shamanic activity that occurs in the everyday lives of many people and the various divisions of shamans into their specialties – just the way Druids were not of one cloth but could serve in various specialties in the Celtic world. I doubt that all Druids were shamans or shaman-like: one whose focus was primarily the law had less need of altered states and soul flight. On the other hand, various healers, diviners, poets, story tellers, musicians, ritualists, mediators, etc had to be able to shift consciousness in themselves and in others to heal, to make contact with spirits of the Otherworld or to divine information – all common practices of shamans.
The very idea that spirits or the Divine speak to us through naturalistic phenomena is a characteristically shamanic view of things and becomes evident in throwing the bones, scapulamancy, scrying, divining through the behavior of animals and winds, mirror gazing, throwing coins, using cards (or Ogham staves),etc. Again, this does not mean that all who do these things are shamans because that is, again, only one piece of the larger context, which is a particular mindset, perception of the world, and the individual’s place in both worlds with his or her allies.
My conclusion is that we can see in the old Celtic world a shamanism without designated shamans or, more accurately, shamanism with its functions spread across a variety of practitioners – as often happens in developed and complex societies – and, indeed, appears to be the case in the very societies that gave us the term “shaman.”
For further reading:
- For shamanic elements in Gaelic culture and language: Singing with Blackbirds, by Stuart Harris-Logan, Grey House in the Woods, 2006;
- For evidence of survival of the Celts’ intense interaction with the natural world into the 19th century: Carmina Gadelica, by Alexander Carmichael, Lindisfarne Press, 1992;
- For current expositions of the “Celtic/Irish” worldview: see the works of John O’Donohue (including various audio recordings and) Anam Cara, Cliff Street Books, 1997;
- For evidence of survival of indigenous practices in Ireland, see “Interview with an Irish Shaman,” in Shamanism, Vol. 9, No. 2, The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, 2006;
- For a credible work on Celtic Shamanism: Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, by Tom Cowan, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993;
- For a more complete look at the variety of shamanic identities: Shamans, by Ronald Hutton, Hambledon and London, 2001.