Shamanic Elements in Druidism

Shamanic Elements in Druidism: A Summary of a Workshop Presented by C. Leigh McGinley and Karl Schlotterbeck at the 2016 Annual Gathering – prepared by Karl Schlotterbeck.

This workshop carries forward ideas presented in a previous article (from September 2009) titled “Celtic Shamanism: Fad, Fact or Fantasy?” In this workshop, the co-facilitators first addressed the challenges inherent when people from one culture attempt to understand the activities of another culture without the language, perspective, experience and environmental realities of the observed culture. As in any culture, direct translation of language can be a problem with idioms, double meanings or nuances that are not recognized. It should first be noted that the term “shaman” comes originally from the Tungus people in Siberia and has been applied by anthropologists and others to similar practitioners in other cultures – even if they have their own word for these people.

An illustration of a shaman in Siberia, produced by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen in the late 17th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

An illustration of a shaman in Siberia, produced by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen in the late 17th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The first writers to observe shamanic activity in the New World were missionaries in the 16th through 18th centuries who dismissed it as “devil worship,” and called the practitioners jugglers, charlatans and imposters. When anthropologists began describing them in the 19th and 20th centuries, shamans were often described as “mentally deranged” or “tricksters,” although some saw them as “outstanding people” or serving as psychoanalysts to their people. The belief in animism was described as a concept for “lower races.” It was not until the 1950s, when anthropologists and others actually participated in shamanic activity that more respectful and objective descriptions came about. (See Shamans Through Time, edited by Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, Tarcher/Putnam 2001.)

Thus, observers saw only what they were prepared to see, based on their own reality-orientation, expectations, set of pre-existing ideas, and perspective.

A Mudang, or Korean shaman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A Mudang, or Korean shaman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the elements of shamanic activity relevant to our discussion include:

  • The use of altered states of consciousness, and the induction of trance through drumming, singing, chanting, dancing, storytelling, sounds of nature, fasting, entheogens, etc.
  • Purposeful travel into the Otherworld
  • Shapeshifting
  • Interaction with spirits
  • Divination
  • Psychopomp work
  • Weather shamanism
  • Healing
  • The use of ritual dress – usually animal-based – to facilitate the transition of consciousness
  • The perspective of an interconnected web of life and that everything in nature is alive and willing to communicate

(Note that no one of these necessarily denotes a shaman as, over time, various functions have been appropriated for use by healers, channelers, therapists, entertainers and priests.)

Irish stories make reference to such things as shapeshifting, spirit flight, interaction with the dead and with denizens of the Otherworld, weather influence, healing, chanting, forms of divination, ritual and ceremonial dress, etc.

Some of the elements we see in Celtic literature and mythology suggestive of an orientation similar to that of shamanic societies include:

  • Mogh Roith who used bull hide, speckled bird mask and other “druidic gear” to fly and send fire to the enemy.
  • The possibility (suggested by Stuart Harris-Logan in Singing with Blackbirds) that the wheel mentioned in stories of Mogh Roith, as well as Fechertne’s claim that he traveled on “chariot without a wheelrim, on wheelrim without a chariot,” may have the double meaning of drum – similar to such references in other cultures.
  • The wasting sickness of Cú Chulainn who was beaten into a trance, as well as his “battle frenzy” and “magical heat.” Harris-Logan reads Cú Chulainn’s story as typical of shamanic activity: an initiatory sleep, visits to the Otherworld, a totemic name and the trance of his battle fury.
  • Fionn and company were described as using a chant (dordfhiansa) that would scatter the enemy and is described in a way that suggests Tuvan overtone singing.
  • The image of Cernunnos – with antlers and accompanied by animals, including a serpent with horns.
  • Shapeshifting, often into deer (which “Saint” Patrick is said to have done to elude capture).
  • Being “taken by the Faeries” as shamanic initiation (as suggested by Tom Cowan in Fire in the Head).
  • The use of the term “sleep” to suggest the activities of trance.
Detail from the Gundestrup cauldron, via Wikimedia Commons

Detail from the Gundestrup cauldron, via Wikimedia Commons

There is always discussion about the origin and meaning of the term “druid” and I believe it is a distraction from into a deeper understanding when we attempt to nail down one specific idea. I’ve come to believe that the many possibilities of translation reflect the many facets of meaning inherent in this word. Such meanings have included: door, oak, strong, true, knowledge, witness, experiential wisdom, and knowledge of the oak. This last descriptor – knowledge of the oak – has a double meaning as well: it could mean “knowledge about the oak” or “knowing what the oak knows” – or both.

There are some differences, to be sure, between Celtic society and common shamanic concepts. The need to journey as in our modern idea reflects our felt distance from the Otherworld, whereas in the Irish/Celtic, the Otherworld was immanent and we could stumble into it at any time. Thus, formal “journeys” were not so necessary.

There are various practices described in Irish literature suggestive of shamanic divinatory activity such as:

  • Imbas forosna, in which, after preparation and invocation, the individual chanted over his/her palms, put the palms over the eyes, and “slept” for an answer to a question while watched over by others;
  • Toghairm, in which the person was wrapped in a fresh hide, lain near a waterfall, given a question and left to divine the answer;
  • Frith, in which a process of moving “twixt and between” was used to divine an omen to answer a question;
  • And all manner of nature augury such as cloud divination, bird song, bird flight, the reading of entrails.

Again, engaging in these activities wouldn’t necessarily make one equivalent to traditional shamans, but these are activities quite similar to those of shamans.

Maeve and the Druid. By Stephen Reid (Eleanor Hull, The Boys' Cuchulainn) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maeve and the Druid. By Stephen Reid (Eleanor Hull, The Boys' Cuchulainn) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In our live workshop, we were fortunate in being able to take these ideas beyond theory and guide participants in forms of divination such as imbas forosna, toghairm and frith. In addition, TopazOwl showed the use of a story – Heart So True – to effect healing, thus, demonstrating that the well-known practices of storytelling were likely used for more than entertainment.

In summary, as state by Harris-Logan: “Through their songs and chants, the Gaels displayed a complete spectrum of shamanic activity: from shapeshifting and sensory deprivation to healing extraction and totemism. . . The shaman is a specialist in the Sacred; one who fosters a personal and interactive relationship with the spirits. The druids did this, and so did the Gaels. (Harris-Logan, p. 122)

References used in preparation for this seminar included (along with personal experience):

Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, Tom Cowan, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade, Bollingen/Princeton University Press, 1964 edition/translation

Cauldron of the Gods: A Manual of Celtic Magic, Jan Fries, Mandrake of Oxford, 2003

The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing, Michael Harner, Harper and Row, 1980

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality, Michael Harner, North Atlantic Books, 2013

Singing with Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk-Traditions, Stuart Harris-Logan, Grey House in the Woods, 2006

The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook, John Matthews, Element, 1991

Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge, edited by Jeremy Narby & Francis Huxley, Tarcher/Putnam, 2001

Forbhais Droma Dámhgáire: The Siege of Knocklong, Seán Ó Duinn, Mercier Press, 1992


This entry was posted in The Druid's Path, The Seer's Path, Well of Wisdom by Karl Schotterbeck. Bookmark the permalink.

About Karl Schotterbeck

Archdruid Karl Schlotterbeck, MA, CAS, is a longtime student of the Druid way (including the Druid grade of OBOD), a shaman, drummer, and licensed psychologist. He was elected Archdruid in July of 2009. He is the author of Living Your Past Lives: The Psychology of Past-Life Regression (iUniverse 2002 revision), The Karma In Your Relationships (iUniverse 2003), and Lion of Satan, Lion of God (co-author), and other manuscripts in progress. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, children and assorted animals.

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