It is remarkable what Evelyn C. Rysdyk has accomplished in her new book, The Norse Shaman: Ancient Spiritual Practices of the Northern Tradition. The rise of the shamanic renaissance is such that I stumbled across this volume at a Barnes & Noble (a Borders-like bookshop in the States). An immediate delight in reading Rysdyk’s treatise on seiðr (Norse shamanic journeying) is that it is unusually scholarly for the “spirituality/shamanism” genre. It integrates shamanism, archaeology, and anthropology with a feminist and ecopsychological lens.
Rysdyk herself is an American professional illustrator whose maternal grandparents immigrated from Norway. She originally trained with Dr Michael Harner and Sandra Ingerman in the core shamanism model. Subsequently, she trained with indigenous shamanic teachers from the Siberian, Himalayan, and South American regions. A founding member of the Society for Shamanic Practice, Rysdyk maintains a practice in shamanism in Maine.
It must be noted that this book assumes the reader has been formally trained in shamanic journeying. That said, the first chapter, “Visionaries in Our Family Tree” contains (before the concluding exercise section) the finest introduction to shamanic spirituality I have ever read. It is a masterpiece of clarity and concision.
My gateway into Norse mythology was through my appreciation of Richard Wagner’s cycle of operas, Der Ring des Niebelungen. This led me to the original Nordic and Germanic sources to determine how Wagner had modified them to achieve his unified vision. Rysdyk gives an excellent overview of how the Norse and shamanic worldviews meshed, and summarizes what you need to know about Norse mythology. My subsequent entry into shamanism was through working and training with core shamanic practitioners. Part of my interest in this book stemmed from learning (to my surprise) from a shamanic practitioner that I have Scandinavian ancestry, later confirmed by DNA testing.
Further, as a psychoanalyst who is also trained in ecotherapy, I appreciated the addition of ecopsychology to her discourse. Originating in the 1990’s, it is the latest paradigm shift in psychology. My clinical profession has evolved over the decades from focusing on only the individual. It then moved to considering interaction with the family system, then with the culture, and now with the ecosystem. By introducing current ecological crises into her discussion, she gives contemporary and global relevance of these northern shamanic traditions, beyond personal spirituality work.
I especially enjoyed that the book is written from a feminist perspective. This framework allows Rysdyk to bring in anthropology to bear on issues that confound literary scholars concerning the Eddas. As an example, Rysdyk is able to bring understanding to the differential between the gods of Vanaheim (Old Europe matriarchal traditions) and Æsgard (Asian patriarchal traditions). One would never get this from purely literary treatments of this mythological material. Certainly in the recent English translation notes of the Eddas there is no comparable depth of insight.
Rysdyk masterfully displays for us what is known about Scandinavian shamanic practice, and how it can be used today. Chapters conclude with step-by-step exercises to help the reader experientially apprehend the discussions. Also helpful are pronunciation charts for the Old Norse letters and words. There is even an appendix on how to make your own seiðr hood to wear when journeying. In short, this book is a satisfying smörgåsbord of delights.
One of the big things in the western world at this season of Sun-Return is Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus which is derived from St Nicholas.
An advertising campaign by the Coca Cola Company in the 1930s made our current image of Father Christmas almost universal although it was fairly ubiquitous by the late 19th Century. With an expansion of global exploration in Victorian times, travellers returned home from visiting the Sami of Lapland with the story of flying reindeer, spread the tale all over central Europe. We had long forgotten our own British traditions and no longer did reindeer roam the land as they had. They are back again though now.
As is the wont of Christianity, our pagan customs have pragmatically been adapted and integrated into their Christmas traditions and so hidden from their true origins and meanings.
The Pagan Shaman
Father Christmas is an ancient pagan figure, coming from the shaman who is also the gift-bringer for the season of Sun-Return … the time of the solstice when the sun appears to stand still for 3 days and then move on again. What happens is that the sun, for the three days, appears to rise at the same point on the horizon for the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th of December and then, on the 25th, appears to move on to the next place on the horizon. Our ancestors, all over the world, observed this, along with the fact that from the solstice on the days again begin to get lighter heralding the spring. They rightly celebrated this season, as we still do. It’s good to know the origins of the celebration which are as old as humankind, perhaps some 600,000 years.
Father Christmas is special to many folk, especially children. The traditions which he is about come largely from the European shamans and wise-folk. For instance …
In the Nordic tradition, the red-and-white dressed Father Christmas is a knowing-one shaman-figure carrying Wotan’s energy. The word shaman – from the Turkic word šamán, also used in the wider Turko-Mongol and Tungusic cultures in ancient Siberia – mean “one who knows”. I use it because it’s currently reasonably well understood all around the world. One of the words for it in my own Celtic tradition is Awenydd, but that is very unknown to most so I tend to stick with shaman.
The red-white-black costume of Father Christmas goes way back in the Celtic tradition to the triplicity represented by the 3 Cups …
The Red cup of Lordship
The White cup of Fostering
The Black cup of Self-Forgetfulness (i.e. ego-restraint)
It also relates to the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria. This is “fairy mushroom” we all know from many beautiful drawings and paintings, the characteristic red mushroom with its white dots. It is a vision and dream-making mushroom but needs to be eaten very carefully and the best way to take it is one which probably turns the stomachs of many modern folk. You watch the reindeer eat the mushroom and then collect their pee … then you drink reindeer pee! The reindeer changes the constitution of the mushroom so that it is no longer so poisonous but still retains it’s magical, journeying qualities.
Siberian Reindeer have a particuar prediliction for the fungi in question and can behave very odl under their influence. The Sami actually feed the reindeer the mushrooms, then collect the Reindeer’s urine as this not only contains the full hallucinogenic strength of the Fly Agaric but much of the mushroom’s toxicity is removed by the Reindeer’s digestive processes.
So there is one connection between Father Christmas and the reindeer … and flying.
Most shamans of the Northern Hemisphere ate it ritually. Its shamanic use can be traced to the Lapps, the Siberian nomadic peoples (Samojeden, Ostjaken, Tungusen, and Jakuten), and the North American Indians. In many mythologies, storm and thunderstorm gods are associated with the fly agaric mushroom. The thunder and lightning can be how it appears as you begin a fly agaric journey through the spirit worlds.
The Germanic thunder and fertility god, Donar or Thor, drives his goat cart through the air, bringing thunder and lightning as he throws his hammer in the clouds. Thunderstones (meteorites) fall to earth where they inseminate the ground and make mushrooms grow, especially fly agarics.
The fly agaric journey is one ecstasy, knowing and knowledge. The Nordic tradition says the fly agaric mushroom grows where Wotan rides on his horse through the clouds with other members of the wild hunt, at the time of the winter solstice. Wherever the froth of Wotan’s horse fell to the ground, the ground would become “pregnant” and nine months later would sprout fly agaric mushrooms, at the time of the autumn equinox. The story sometimes says that the fly agaric mushrooms grow from a mixture of the blood (red) and froth (white) of Wotan’s white horse. The wild hunt is drawn to the mushroom, calmed and put in a good mood with incense. Wherever it finds nourishment, the wild hunt becomes guardian of house and farm. For us in the Celtic tradition this is Gwyn ap Nudd and his white fairy hounds with their red eyes and ears. He rides at solstice, through to 12th Night – The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper is wonderful story that tells of this ride and what it’s about.
Reindeer, Sleighs, and Shamans
The idea of a great variety of reindeer sleighs flying through the air at Christmastime is common, carrying a laughing, red-and-white Father Christmas in the sleigh with his sack, his rod, and the presents. Every year this ancient shaman comes to Earth in his reindeer sleigh and lands on numerous roofs to descend down chimneys. Where does this come from?
Father Christmas is a pagan shaman from the distant European past – and the current pagan present. British. Gaelic, European and Siberian mythology all have a “heavenly wild hunt”. The Siberian ones are the most quoted now because we seem to have forgotten or mislaid our own ancient shamanic traditions. The Siberian shamans ride on reindeer sleighs through the air, up to the clouds. The world tree is their goal; this is where the magic reindeer are. The Siberian Tschutschuken say that the moon is a man on a sleigh that is pulled by two reindeer to Earth and can fly back up to the Upperworld like the modern Father Christmas figure. The Celtic tradition also revolves around the world tree, the source of wisdom.
The association of reindeer and shamanism is seen in the caves of the Ardèche, where wall paintings of reindeer, some thirty thousand years old, show our connection. As early as the Old Stone Age, reindeer were sunk in moors as sacrificial offerings – for example, in the Hamburg steppe of Meiendorf and Stellmoor and in Magdalénien (Pohlhausen 1953). This is the ritual context of cultic poles or stakes crowned with anthropomorphic mushrooms with dwarf caps. Sometimes, even reindeer skulls were placed on top of such sacrificial stakes. These often-neglected details show our association of reindeer with the mushrooms.
Yurt burried in snow
Down the Chimney …
Many shamanic peoples are nomads and live in portable homes such as yurts supported by a large beam of wood which stretches up to the smoke hole. At the Midwinter Festival, the Shaman wanting to enter a yurt buried in the snow would find the smoke-hole the only way in!
Siberian yurts have a roof supported by a birch pole with a smoke hole at the top. At the midwinter festivals of annual renewal, the shaman gathers the fly agaric from under sacred trees. Whilst harvesting the toadstools, she or he wears a costume of red and white fur-trimmed coat with long black boots – so carrying the colours of all three cups. This costume is very like the modern day Santa Claus. She or he then enters the yurt through the smoke hole, carrying a sack full of dried fly agaric, and descends the birch pole to the floor. Once inside, the shaman performs ceremonies and shares out the toadstool’s gifts with those gathered inside. After the ceremony is over the shaman leaves up the pole and back through the smoke hole.
Saint Nicholas is a legendary figure who supposedly lived during the 4th Century and known as the patron saint of children. He is said to brings presents on the eve of his feast day, 6th December – somewhat earlier than the solstice!
Most religious historians now agree that St Nicholas never actually existed, but was instead a Christianized amalgam of the historical bishops, Nicholas of Myra (4th Century) and Nicholas of Sion (d. 564) together with a number of pagan gods including the Teutonic god, Hold Nickar. Legend tells that Hold Nickar galloped through the sky during the winter solstice, granting favours to his worshippers below.
St Nicholas is associated with a number of miracles and stories to do with giving presents which integrate him into the legend of Santa Claus:
Green Man – Lord of the Forest
Bringing the forest into the home – like many of Christmas traditions – has its roots in the days when we all were pagans. At the solstice it’s traditional to bring armfuls of greenery into the home; put fir trees in a bucket and decorate them with baubles; hang holly and ivy over mantelpieces and picture frames, and mistletoe over doorways.
Note again that triplicity of colours – red holly berries, black ivy berries and white mistletoe, carrying the energy of the 3 Cups in a different way but always reminding us of our tradition, symbols of eternal life and renewal.
Dr Brian Bates, senior lecturer in psychology and director of the shaman research programme at Sussex University (author of the Way of Wyrd), said: “In the early tribal cultures of Europe there were huge midwinter parties, involving an entire tribal group, with a shaman taking centre stage wearing a crown of holly and ivy, representing the eternal life of ‘evergreen’ nature.” The Druids gathered mistletoe and hung it in their homes because of its miraculous powers. Even carol singing had its precursors in shamanic festivals. If you listen to the words and stories of the old carols you see the old myths carried forward in them. A myth is not a made up story, by the way, but a word for “belief system”. En-chanting, singing up the gods and goddess, is as hold as human voices. Older perhaps, I’m thinking of wolves howling here but some of you may find that too much to handle.
However, you celebrate the solstice do think of the ancient ways of humanity, where we have all come from. The old ways that celebrate the realities of the turning Earth, the patterns and rhythms of the Sun which enables Life, the seasons that give us food, beauty, challenge and delight. Whatever modern religion you currently profess, spend a moment with the Old Ones, who are the ancestors of us all. That way, we really do bring love and peace and understanding across the whole world.
For years I’ve played with, and been played with by, this amazing system of communication. I won’t say writing, it is writing … sort of … but it’s much more about communication – with Otherworld, with yourself, with nature, with other people even.
For many years, academics have tried to form it into a type of writing, alphabet, with varying amounts of success. I’ve read lots of books by those who’ve studied it, and got insights from them, but my main sources of inspiration are …
This year, I’ve been very drawn to going deeper into the language of the trees, of the wood, and the pondering, sitting-with all of it, has just come to fruition. In fact, I got so excited about the whole thing that I’ve set up a year-long internet course for anyone who’d like to walk the path along with me.
So, what happened to get me so inspired? The trees themselves working and sitting with them, asking them to teach me. I have most of them in my garden here at Archenland. The trees for the 13 moon-months … Birch, Rowan, Ash, Alder, Willow, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Oak, Holly, Hazel, Apple, Blackberry, Ivy, Guelder Rose & Reed, and Elder. And the trees for the seasons … Silver Fir, Furze, Heather, Poplar and Yew.
With the five season goes an ancient verse which gives light darkly on the meanings of the seasons. This gives you an idea of how it works with the goddess and the seasons …
Ailm – Silver Fir – Birth – Sun Return – I am the womb of every holt Onn – Furze – Initiation – Spring Equinox – I am the blaze on every hill Ura – Heather – Consummation – Midsummer – I am the queen of every hive Eadha – Poplar – Repose – Autumn Equinox – I am the shield to every head Iolo – Yew – Death – Winter Solstice – I am the tomb to every hope
I’m still missing Bran’s tree, the alder, although there’s lots of it about in the hedges so I might get a whip this coming spring and plant it in the hedge here. Heather we don’t have as we’re very alkaline here but I must get some in a pot, and the same for furze, that’ll have to be in a pot too. I swap Scots Pine for Silver Fir as I’ve a very deep relationship with the Scots Pine.
I find Graves THE WHITE GODDESS both deep and broad at the same time. He’s very inclusive, able to think of, accept and suggest lots of correlations that others don’t seem to do. His wide knowledge of many ancient cultures enables him to see similarities across them – essential truths, probably, that underlie all traditions on this Earth. I like that. I like the feel of universality and, to me, this is part of being pagan. Like I said in a recent blog, being pagan is being of the Land to me, of this Earth – at least while I’m incarnate on her. Sensing into the depths of her wisdom, with the trees through the Ogham, is just so good for me, inspires me, gets me excited.
So I set off on a journey this Imbolc that has brought me here, soon after Lammas, to a place where I want to share what I’ve found.
The journey began with one of the loves of my life, Gwydion, the master magician of Britain. I know a lot of folk find him tricksy and devious and so he is, but he’s such an excellent teacher because of it. I also have a strong sympathy for him, he explores, goes outside the box, gets into trouble but manages to help people in spite of this. He helps his brother, Amatheon, bring the three secrets of agriculture to humans, stealing them from the Elder gods and so starting the Battle of the Trees … the beginning of the Ogham. The three secrets of agriculture are close to my heart because of biodynamics. In biodynamics, the three underlying principles are silica, clay and calcium. In Amatheon’s story they are represented by the Lapwing, the Bitch-hound and the Roebuck. In the Rainbow Warrior shamanic training I run we do this in depth during the second year but here, through the Ogham I found myself exploring it again, but differently, adding new insights.
The story of Amatheon bringing the secrets of agriculture to human beings reminds me of Hephaestos stealing fire from the gods and bringing that to humanity too. Both get into trouble for changing the status quo, trying to include people, for moving some of the control away from the Elder gods. As a closet-anarchist this pleases me *g*. I like change, growth, movement, growing up. I don’t like having Nanny changing my nappies all my life, I want to think for myself … make mistakes, fall over, get up and have learned something. My Dad always said, “the person who’s never made a mistake has never made anything” … he was quite right! Failure, getting it wrong, screwing up, are the best and most effective ways of learning. Getting it right just gives you a big head *g*. But don’t get me started on that old Obby Oss of mine!
This Ogham journey I’ve been doing this year has brought so much into focus for me. The seasons themselves, represented by the vowels. There are five, yes five not the usual four we know from gardening! What for? What difference to my thinking does the five make? As I pondered and worked with the trees I found it quite mind-expanding, particularly by bringing in the five lines of the old poem that describes the goddess in her own ways. Susan Cooper uses that poem as the basis for her “Dark is Rising” quintet – and that says a lot too! I found I was re-reading Cooper’s books again on the Ogham journey.
Then there are the thirteen moon-months. To start with, Celtic culture so often uses the concept of “a year and a day”. Ceridwen does it with Gwion Bach and her Cauldron of Inspiration … so I found myself back here too! And it comes up in lots of other stories too.
The thirteen moon-months give you 364 days plus one left over … a year and a day. So what happens in the brewing of the cauldron for that year and a day? What do each of the thirteen moon-months give. Aha! The weak 40w bulb flashes briefly on the top of my head as I got to this … there were thirteen fairies at Briar Rose’s naming. Well, twelve were asked but the daft parents decided not to invite the thirteenth fairy and came a cropper because of it! Or did they? Would there have been any change if they hadn’t made that mistake? What connections here? Oh, be sure, there are lots!
That whole piece took me into working with the fairy stories, yet again. I love them, work with them all the time, so much of the Grammarye of our land is held within them.
The trees themselves are wonderful to work with. To sit-with the tree, ask it to show me itself, its qualities, what it does. To listen to it without interrupting and then be able to ask for clarification of the things I didn’t understand, is so good, so insightful. Then, when Tree and I are agreed, I ask if I may have some of its wood for a stave. I never take wood without asking, even a dead branch on the forest path I ask before I take it. Always check! Making assumptions is the way to make lazy mistakes!
So here I am, with the Ogham journey under my belt and a year-long course written and blossoming. It’s very exciting. I hope there are folk out there who would like to work and play with me on this. If you think you would check out …
I’ve been herding kittens (looking after RW students) for near 20 years now, I’m fairly au fait with the various turns they galumph through, especially as they come up to the starting post. I can also see Otherworld having the whale of a time putting embuggerance factors before their cute little ballet-shod tootsies LOL. It is funny, but it doesn’t make the job any easier! I also need to shout “yere be dragons” every now and again or I’m not doing my job.
The latest intake to Rainbow Warriors comes up to the starting post in about 5 weeks time. There may well be a couple more joining us too – I can hear them lurking about in the long grass wondering whether to come down to the water hole and drink. Like a good lioness, I’m crouching quietly and fairly invisibly on the sand coloured ground, melting my sand-coloured hide into it and panting softly.
Meanwhile I still have to keep an eye on the ones already signed on and raring to go. It’s a funny old time that, the waiting to begin. And yet, in some ways, you already have begun. You’ve read your pre-course notes, got your books, begun to learn the mechanics of the journeying process we use, gone hunting for your sacred space, etc, etc. So you feel as if you’re already doing it … but you’re not. Not yet.
And one of the things that will happen to you as a brand new apprentice warrior is that all the skills and abilities you had will fall away from you. You’ll be naked and skill-less, unarmed, vulnerable and … to make it worse … your head is likely to feel like wet cotton-wool! What happens to folk who sign on to become awake and aware and useful to Otherworld is that they have to go through the Butterfly Soup process.
Butterfly soup … ??? You don’t know that one? Yes you do, I’ll bet. It’s what happens to the caterpillar at the end of the summer, like about now-ish. The little wriggly beastie finds himself a corner, or a branch, or a leaf and makes himself a cocoon. Inside the cocoon, once it’s hardened and dry, the caterpillar completely dissolves – he becomes soup, a soup that will gradually rebuild itself into a butterfly.
This happens to apprentice Rainbow Warriors too – except they gotta do it without the cocoon! Oh they don’t dissolve physically – at least I’ve not had one do that yet! But emotionally, mentally and spiritually they do. In fact, they become a complete mess *g*. Quite often, students come to Rainbow Warriors with a good set of skills, lots of abilities and a reasonable confidence. They often manage to keep all of this until they arrive at the first journey … then wallop! They find themselves naked and exposed, and all the skills they had gone. It can be very scary. I do try to warn them about this beforehand but, like teenagers, they don’t believe what the Old Fogey (me!) says, not really. Oh, it may happen to others but they will be different, shining, exemplars, able to swan though with no problems at all.
Well, I do get some like that, some who’ve slipped through the lioness’ net. Unfortunately, they’re ones it doesn’t work for, they learn nothing, go nowhere, and leave early. I do try to make this happen before they sign on … but there’s always one, isn’t there *g*. If it all goes easy for you it’s an absolute sure sign you’re failing! If all hell breaks loose then you’re on a winner, if not a roll LOL.
Like all alchemical processes, you have to break down to build up. Otherworld are very keen that you do this and do their best to send you down the shop for a tin of striped paint and box of tappet clearances. And they lure you into the woods where large hairy beasties will growl and chase you … until you stop running away, turn round and ask them their name. And they leave you outside the castle gate in the snow for weeks on end until you learn to ask the Gatekeeper’s name rather than be a clever clogs and find out all by your little self. Le Guin’s “Wizard of Earthsea” (one of the books we use) has a very good story on this. All the nasty tricks of the faery story … that are really the tests to see if you can measure up to the hard training that will come.
And that’s really the first trick all apprentice warriors have to learn … to sit still and ask. However, although Life (& shamanism) is simple nobody ever said it was easy *g*.
My usual advice to the “kittens” at this stage in the game is, “For goodness sake take a cold shower! Clean the kitchen with a toothbrush! Generally learn to slow down. I am serious about that. You miss things at the ecstatic rate you’re currently running. Try to sit physically very still and allow the ecstasy to flow through you without any attempt to steer it. You might try giving your brain sixpence and telling it to go play with the traffic !!!”
In fact, I took my own advice last w/end. Me and two friends, the 3 witches of Endor who look after Rainbow Warriors, went to go sit in our wood under Dunkery Beacon, by a 4000+ year old sacred stone. There are always ravens there, and owls, as well as many other creatures, denizens of the nightwood.. If we are still enough they come to visit us, speak with us, show us things. But only if we are still. Only if we are focused on them and not ourselves, not off in our heads planning and scheming and generally making a ghastly spiritual noise!
UPDATE on return from Exmoor … It didn’t work out like we thought at all (how surprising *g*) … will write the blog and put it up on Sunday. It was fascinating and just goes to show how Otherworld are also Herding Kittens too, even when it’s us old fogeys what been doin’ it all our lives like LOL. We can still need to be chivvied into going the appropriate way *g*. Watch this space …