Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: magic

Gods save me from “Norse Shamanism”

Verily, there is a blight upon the landscape within Heathenry. Not only is it seen where such an absurdity might be expected — among the Norse Neopagans — and of course where such nonsense flourishes — the neopagan, wiccan, and other fluffy communities — but (so tells me a little bird who witnessed a workshop, complete with PowerPoint presentation, on this very theme not too long ago) within the heart of what I might otherwise call “real” Asatru itself.

That blight is called Norse Shamanism, often masquerading as the historical Norse practice of seiðr.

It’s worth beginning with the most egregious culprit, The Norse Shaman by Evelyn C. Rystdyk. Although she does, in an Author’s Note at the very beginning, say “This book is not connected with the neo-pagan religion of Asatru [sic], nor is it an attempt at accurately re-creating Viking Age traditions,” that is precisely what goes on in the pages of the book, where we see what would otherwise be an hilarious mish-mash of Harner-style shamanism (itself torn apart most satisfyingly by Yngona Desmond), New Age interpretations of quantumn physics (including the perennially abused concept of “quantum entanglement” being used to explain how people are connected to nature!), and most importantly, an attempt to cram Norse mythology into a Shamanic framework.

Indeed, that’s the heart of the problem, and it’s not at all unique to Ms. Rysdyk’s book. It is, indeed, endemic throughout Asatru and neo-paganism (which are two very different things, as I’ve noted time and again). Without actually delving into the surviving lore on historical seiðr — except for possibly reading chapter 4 of Eiríks saga rauða — people see the phrase “Norse Shaman,” and start plugging in Norse and other Germanic concepts and names into authentic Siberian shamanic practices or neo-shamanic neopagan/new age practices, and voila! They think they have recreated seiðr.

And why not? Isn’t that what seiðr is? Shamanism as it was done in Scandinavia?

Therein lies the issue, and this is why we see a sort of seiðr in contemporary Asatru that looks less and less like the magic described in the sagas and other sources. These differences are laid out plainly in Clive Tolley’s encyclopedic two-volume study, Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic (all quotes come from that work unless otherwise noted):

The functional correspondence between seiðr and shamanism is minimal; several roles typical of the shaman are scarcely or not at all associated with the seiðkona, and both the divinatory and efficatory roles of seiðr are more pronounced than in shamanism. … The effecatory aspects of seiðr are, in any case, subordinate to the divinatory — the practice’s main purpose, as it is presented in surviving sources, is to uncover the future or gain knowledge of facts that could not otherwise be determined. (vol. 1, p. 142)

In other words, shamanism is more focused on healing (particularly, but not exclusively, healing of the soul), while seiðr is more focused on divination.

Trees are important in both Norse and Siberian mythology, but that’s not evidence of some sort of shamanic equivalence:

Despite the points of similarity, which can be illuminating for the interpretation of the Norse texts, there is ultimately little about the Norse tree that can be described as fundamentally specific to shamanic practice or belief (vol. 1, p. 368)

Some people see in the Norse god Heimdallr a shamanic figure, but there’s a key component missing that takes all the wind out of those sails:

Yet without a ritual engagement by practitioners, the shamanic aspect of the god [Heimdallr] remains unfulfilled (if we accept that shamanism is something that is performed, not merely a system of spiitual notions). If any such engagement once existed, it has left no trace. (vol. 1, p. 405)

Óðinn is, indeed, a figure associated with magic, and seiðr in particular, and many people see parallels in certain Óðinnic myths and shamanic initiation. However, when one looks closely at the myths themselves, as Tolley does exhaustively, what seemed promising on the surface turned out to be illusory:

The four myths of Óðinn undergoing suffering to gain supernatural knowledge show a superficial resemblance to shamanic rites of initiation. However, closer examination has revealed that, while certain details are indeed comparable, over all the Norse myths lack many of the typical elements of shamanic initiation. (vol. 1, p. 462)

And as for rituals, once again, there’s no “there” there when one looks for commonality in the sources, both Norse and Siberian.

Old Norse records afford us no account which matches the detail found in the examples of shamanic kamlania discussed at the beginning of the chapter; we therefore lack the wherewithal to make anything but tentative assertions about the shamanic nature of Norse practices or traditions. An investigation into some of the key Norse texts which have been used as evidence of a shamanic element in Norse religious practice has revealed that they are of spurious value. … It would appear that the seiðkona would enter a trance, almost certainly of a light sort, during which she no doubt obtained information from the spirits, but no Norse account points to the sort of vivid interaction between magician and spirits that the shamanic kamlania indicate. There is no evidence for the sending out of the free soul during the practice of seiðr, although the notion of the soul wandering in animal form existed. (vol. 1, pp, 516-517)

That last sentence is also key to debunking a favorite practice of modern “Norse Shamans” (particularly Hrafnar out in California); guided meditations and trance-journeying to other worlds. While this is absolutely something that is seen in classical shamanic practice, there really isn’t any equivalent for humans “walking the worlds” while in trance. Going forth (in animal guise) in this world, certainly. But touring Ásgarðr, or Jǫtunheimr? Nope. (And ditto for evidence of possession or “horsing”!)

Descriptions of the vǫlur’s attire have been shown to be unreliable as witnesses to pagan customs. The dress in Eiríks saga rauða has its purpose within the saga (as discussed also in the previous chapter), but in terms of shamanic parallels it is unconvincing; in particular, it lacks the functional and integrated symbolism of the magical practitioner’s costume. (vol. 1., p. 549)

This is one of my favorites, and one I had no idea of until I read Tolley’s book. It turns out that the vǫlur’s clothing described in that famous account (the blue robe, catskin gloves, etc.) is nothing more than an inversion of a contemporary Christian bishop’s attire, used to make a point about their relative positions in society, not a reliable account.

The norse vǫlva seems characteristically to have operated from a raised dais or equivalent; this has only the vaguest parallel within shamanism. Its primary function must be to imply wider vision, so the seeress is pictured as seeing over the worlds, rather than travelling through them, or under them, as the shaman characteristically does. (vol. 1., p. 550)

Again, the key point here is that traveling through other worlds is common in shamanism, but it’s not seen in seiðr. 

My investigation has, over all, found little grounds for proposing the presence of shamanism in pre-Christian or later Scandinavia, if by that is meant the classic form of shamanism typical of much of Siberia. The evidence does, however, support the likelihood of some ritual and belief of a broadly (but not classically) shamanic nature as existing and being remembered in tradition. (vol. 1, p. 581)

And that’s the point in a nutshell, with the added commentary that just because the Norse practice of seiðr is not connected, except superficially, to classical shamanism, that doesn’t mean the Norse didn’t have some sort of magical practices (as some try to assert, when faced with criticism of their Norse Shamanic practices; “you just don’t believe in the magic side of Asatru at all!”). It just means that those practices don’t look like classical shamanism, and by and large they don’t look like what most people who say they practice seiðr do, precisely because those practices are based on shamanism, rather than an in-depth study of what the sources do tell us about seiðr and related Norse magical arts.

The Kutztown Folk Festival

Yesterday the tribe went on a day trip to visit the Kutztown Folk Festival, a nine-day (!) celebration of all things Pennsylvania German (or Pennsylvania Dutch – even within the community, there is division on which is correct).

To get the mundane stuff out of the way; the festival was a total blast, and I highly encourage everyone to go next year. It was much larger than I expected, the food was one of the showpieces of the thing (all home made and entirely delicious) and the craftspeople selling their wares seemed on the whole to be the people who actually made what they were selling. From the extraordinary woodwork and quilts (of course quilts) to metalwork and hex signs, this wasn’t just a trip where you could find the same stuff on Amazon. These were the labors of individual craftsmen, and it showed.

I myself came away with a hoard of new books on Pennsylvania German culture, particularly their folk-magical practice of Pow-Wow/Braucherei/Hexerei, hex signs, and a wonderful book on Groundhog Lodges. Yes. Groundhog Lodges.

But what I really wanted to touch on was the reason why this sort of thing would be of interest to us as Asatruar.

One of the great things about the Pennsylvania Germans is the fact that they represent a sort of time capsule of pre-Industrial Germanic culture. It goes way beyond the stereotypical Amish or Mennonites; these are, for the most part, modern folks living a modern lifestyle that happens to include strong ties back to the Palatinate in Germany. There are ties of language, custom, and religion that hearken back to a time in Germanic society that predates the coming of industrialization, and in some cases arguably before the coming of Christianity.

Since there is strong evidence that continental German culture and religion is strongly related to that of Scandinavia and England, the interest of such things to Asatru, which attempts to restore ancient pre-Christian Germanic religion, is obvious. It is possible to “de-Christianize” some elements, as the Urglawee experiment is attempting to do.

Strong evidence of the continuity of Germanic culture between Scandinavia and southern Germany can also be seen in their respective folk-magical practices; Trolldomr and Pow-Wow/ Braucherei/ Hererei. There are practices that are almost identical across both practices, and which can additionally be seen in the early conversion-era penitentials from the 5th century onwards, that speak of a commonality amongst the various Germanic tribal groups. There are similar commonalities between folk-practices which, on examination, can be traced back to possible religious sources as well.

There were local variations to be sure, but the core seems to have been consistent. And the example of the Pennsylvania Germans is a window into that core that has retained its unique character well into the 20th century. It is, alas, dying out in the face of the relentless march of the global monoculture and American commercial society to homogenize everything, but fortunately we still have examples that we can reapply to our own work in preserving and reconstructing Germanic religion.

Why do we do Ritual?

I’m reading Clive Tolley’s Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic, and came across the following definition of religion:

Religions may impose ethical codes on adherents, as in religions of the Book [i.e., the Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam]; they may also be primarily aimed at enlisting (or in the case of magic compelling) the aid of divine powers to further the aims of individuals or communities in an amoral fashion. Most sources indicate that Norse religion was of the latter sort… (p. 8)

I know many of my readers will likely take issue with the idea that Norse religion did not carry with it a moral code, but such is not the purpose of this article (I will probably address that question separately in a follow-on). Rather, I find the latter half of the definition particularly apropos to the discussion of ritual, particularly why we engage in ritual.

If the purpose of religion is to “enlist the aid of divine powers”, then it stands to reason that ritual is the means by which that purpose is carried out.

Certainly that seems to be the case when we speak of the ritual of blót; it is the offering of a sacrifice (whether it be an animal sacrifice or some other form of votive offering) in exchange for an expected or already-received benefit. We saw that clearly in Ibn Fadlan’s first-hand account of a blót in the lands of the Rus in the 10th century. It makes perfect sense in the context of the Germanic gift-cycle, itself encapsulated in the Eddaic formula “ever a gift demands a gain” and itself distilled even further into the gebo (X) rune.

But when we consider the other major ritual of Norse religion, the sumbl, the definition seems to break down. Where the blót is an interaction between men and the spiritual realm, sumbl is much more an interaction between men; it’s a social ritual, and most of the standard activities are geared towards social interaction; boasting, bragging, flyting, gifting, memorializing, and so forth. This is not to say that there is no metaphysical component to the sumbl, only to state that such is not the primary function of the ritual, and even when it is present, it expresses itself as a changing of one’s wyrd through direct action (the brag), rather than an exchange, as in the blót.

In terms of the strictly magical practices of the Norse – seiðʀ, galdʀ, and various divination practices – the idea of invoking divine powers is rarely, if ever, seen. It is certainly seen in later trolldomʀ practices, but the relevance to those to pre-Christian Norse magic is a study unto itself. Aside from the notion that the goddess Freyja taught seiðʀ to Odin, and he to others, there is little to indicate that the actual practice of seiðʀ required the direct or indirect intervention of a deity. The same is true with rune-based magical practices; Odin is seen as a teacher, but is not necessarily invoked as an operative requirement for the magic to be effective.

So where does this leave us? In terms of ritual being used to “enlist the aid of divine powers”, it is certainly true of the blót ritual, but seems to be lacking in any others, whether they are religious or magical in nature. I rather like that, actually. It speaks to the sophistication of Germanic (and especially Norse) religion that its rituals cannot be pigeonholed into a single category; there are different rituals for different purposes, and the “ritual technology” involved is appropriate to the task, rather than being a one-size-fits-all affair.

Review: Staubs and Ditchwater

H. Byron Ballard is billed as “Ashville’s village witch“, and her first book, Staubs and Ditchwater, is a short but wonderful entry into the world of Appalachian hoodoo and folk magic.

The book is structured in topical chapters, each of which is separated by a relevant homey reminiscence about life in rural North Carolina. Her style is wonderfully easy to read, and she really makes it feel like you’re sitting on a porch on a mountain cabin, listening to her talk while the birds and bugs sing into the waning afternoon. She really has a gift for language, and her writing “in dialect” is done rarely enough as to not be annoying or a hindrance to understanding.

Chapter one sets the scene, giving a brief history of the region and its magical and religious history. Chapter two covers magical tools, chapter three materials, chapter four divination, chapter five provides some techniques and spells (or “receipts” as they are called), while chapter six wraps up the whole thing nicely.

What drew my specific attention, in my studies of Germanic folklore and folk-magic, were the similarities between what Ms. Ballard describes and sources from Trolldomr (Scandinavian folk-magic), Braucherei (Amish folk-magic, itself derived from west-German sources), and pre-Christian practices described in penitentials, sermons, Saints’ lives, and similar sources. After all, Appalachia was settled by Anglo-Scottish border country folk (right in the thick of the ancient Danelaw and Norse influence, not to mention the Anglo-Saxons) and Germans.

If the book has one failing, it’s that she doesn’t always differentiate between elements of her practice that are borrowings from Amerindian or African diaspora magic, although she does mention that such borrowings exist. Her second book, Asfidy and Mad-Stones, does seem to do a better job of making such distinctions. Still, it’s not an insurmountable problem, and doesn’t greatly detract from the overall utility, and wonderful readability, of this terrific little book.

If you’re at all interested in folk-magic, this is a great addition to your library.

It’s a Streetlight

Something happened the other night that brought to mind a topic I’ve been wanting to blog about for quite some time now.

Saturday night, while the Trophy Wife was out celebrating Mabon with her friends (we’ve a mixed marriage, you see; she’s Pagan, and I’m Heathen), most of them happened to see a very peculiar light display in the sky. I didn’t see it, having been inside cooking way too much chicken cacciatore and generally getting things set up for the feast to follow their ritual. But I was told about the event and my first instinct was to turn to Google to see if anyone else had seen it, and if so, was there any mundane explanation.

Turns out that the same thing was seen up and down the East Coast, and was caused by a NASA experiment involving clouds in the upper atmosphere. I have no doubt that it was an impressive sight, though, and especially coming after a ritual experience I can see how one could ascribe to it more significance than it might otherwise warrant. The tinfoil-hat brigade are out in force, with claims of NASA cover-ups and sinister alien visitations. However, as it turns out, “it’s a streetlight.”

It does, however, bring up a point about the role of skepticism in heathenry (and paganism, for that matter) in general, and in those magical practices associated with it. It’s easy to say that our sacrifices bring the spring rains, or that our good fortune comes from a healthy relationship with the local land-wights. Even when it comes to the very existence of the Gods and other wights, we who live in the twenty-first century, full of miracles of technology and science, must balance faith against credulity.

Is every crow that croaks from right to left as we leave the house betokening a good outcome of our journey? Are there really Gods out there in some other world called Asgard? Do disembodied spirits really dwell in stones and rivers, and can they somehow influence our lives in ways both subtle and gross? Does the fehu rune somehow function as a key to prosperity and change? Just how literal, and how symbolic, should we take our lore and our beliefs and practices?

Naturally, this is not a question limited to Paganism. Christianity has been struggling with such things for centuries, as have just about every religion out there (the FSM being a notable exception). However, being a Heathen myself, and one possessed of what I like to think is an analytical mind, I find myself thinking about such things.

What are we doing with our rituals? Are we really making offerings to unseen entities in order to garner their favor, or are we performing actions to reinforce our group-psychological and social ties to others who do the same? Is magic really able to influence probability to make a desired outcome more likely, or is that just a psychological effect of clearly stating an intend and following it through?

More to the point; does it make any difference one way or the other?

Is religion… any religion… about connecting with a Divine force, or is it about connecting with our fellow believers? The ancient Romans and Greeks thought that orthopraxy (correct practices) was much more important than orthodoxy (correct dogma). We have a multitude of examples from history and literature of people who were perfectly comfortable mixing Heathenry and Christianity, or Heathenry and no literal belief at all. It seems to be a common thread among the Indo-European folk that the social aspects of shared belief are more important than any individual’s particular faith in the literal existence of Gods and spirits.

Partake in this thought-experiment with me.

Assume the Gods and spirits do exist. If we act as if they do exist, we gain their favor. If we act as if they do not, we lose nothing. Remember, most Pagan and Heathen religions don’t reserve punishment in the afterlife for lack of belief, but rather for bad behavior; murder, oath-breaking, etc. So in this conception, Pascal’s Wager has a bit of a side-bet.

Assume the Gods and spirits do not exist. If we act as if they do exist, we behave in a pretty socially acceptable manner. We don’t murder, we don’t break our promises. We may… may… gain a slight psychological benefit. We lose a few minutes a week, but we forge social bonds with that same time. I’d call that loosing nothing, at worst. If we act as if they do not exist, we lose nothing. And for Heathens and Pagans, there’s no eternal brimstone for choosing wrong. You just led a good life by acting as if they do exist. Pascal’s Wager really works out well for us.

So… what’s to lose by acting as if they do exist? That’s the chips we set down when taking Pascal’s Wager. A few minutes a day, on average, spent in ritual. Over the course of a human lifetime, that time might well have been spent in other pursuits. But there are benefits as well; we get social bonding, good behavior, and no damnation if we’re wrong!

So I say be skeptical. If there is proof against a thing, discard it. But if faith provides some benefit, even intangible, embrace it. You’ve got nothing to lose by doing so, and you might even gain something. Don’t murder anyone, and don’t break your sworn word. I think that’s two commandments just about everybody can agree with.

The Green Man of Sainte-Mère-Église

I stumbled across this image of a Green Man built into the church of Sainte Mère Eglise, located in Normandy, France. I find it quite compelling. The commune was founded in the 1100’s, so it’s not impossible that some vestiges of pre-Christian belief were still around during its construction (there was a Heathen “revival” about a hundred years before as a number of Norsemen from the Danelaw and Ireland came to settle in Normandy).

Being an aficionado of Felicitas Goodman’s Where the Spirits Ride the Wind, there is an interesting bit of magical insight that can be gleaned from it.

For those not familiar with Goodman’s work, the basic premise is that ancient images are not randomly posed, but rather than the poses seen in figurines, statues, and artwork depict magical poses used in shamanic-style ritual.

I might add that I personally think Ms. Goodman reaches somewhat in some of her examples, and sees magical poses everywhere, even where they are not necessarily present, but this particular example speaks to me on an intuitive level.

Looking at it from beneath, the feet are tucked under the body, with the balls of the feet pressed together. The hands are cupped, one in the other. It’s difficult to tell just from the photograph, but the eyes seem closed and the face seems very serene.

I will be using this pose for meditation, and hopefully it will yield some interesting results.

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