Frequently Asked Questions
What's with the disclaimer?
It seriously cuts down on the number of angry letters I get from Heathens claiming I'm either 1) misrepresenting Heathenry, or 2) leading innocent Heathens astray. It also cuts down on the number of people who see the word "shamanism" and the fact that I'm white, and without reading the site accuse me of stealing Native American practices.
What do you mean by shamanism? Why do you use that word?
I use the word because it is the closest word my birth language has for what I have experienced, what I am expected to do, and what I have become. It is a word that has been borrowed from the Tungus language, but it fills an important hole in our language. For more information on how I feel about the word and its common uses, see the article Public Horses.
My definition of shamanism is "a spiritual and magical practice that involves working with spirits and is designed to serve a tribe". It's distinct from thaumaturgic magic, which is working magically with directed energy, or theurgic magic, which is working with divinely inspired symbol systems like runes. This is working with Entities, and that's a whole different ball game. Shamanism is also distinct from religion proper, because while it is certainly a spiritual practice, and has always traditionally been embedded in a religious cosmology, it is a practical discipline that serves the people in concrete ways - healing, divining, channeling, and generally enhancing people's lives.
"Shamanism" as a term can be compared to "monasticism"; while it is almost always found embedded in a religious context, it is not a religion per se. It could also be compared to "spiritual scholarship"; which is similar to but distinct from nonreligious scholarship, and also cannot be called "a religion".
In shamanism, it's all about the Entities with whom you have formed relationships. Some of those relationships may be akin to spiritual slavery, in that one deity (it's usually a deity) has grabbed you and made you their tool, while granting you certain powers and protections; as an example, I work for Hela, and she both protects me and forces me to do Her work. Some of these relationships may look like alliances between a superior (deity) and an inferior (mortal), where each agree to provide certain favors in an exchange; as an example, I horse Herne and Frey for the community on one day apiece each year, and in exchange they gift me with certain powers and protections. Some of these relationships may be alliances between equal powers; as an example, I work with many of the Grandparent spirits of herbs and plants for purposes of healing. Some relationships may be the (ideally) consenting use of a smaller spirit in order to borrow some power or trait; as an example, a friend of mine has bad eyesight and "borrows" the vision of her pet rats when she has to go out at night. Regardless of the level of power exchange, it's all about keeping those relationships well-greased and humming along.
Shamanism is also distinct from mysticism in that it is goal-oriented and work-focused. The mystic may share many of the same techniques, especially the altered-state techniques, but his focus is on pure experience. If you ask him, "What good is this? What's it useful for?" he will probably just smile and tell you that it has its own goodness which you have to experience to understand. For the mystic, it's between him and the Universe. For the shaman, the question "What's it useful for?" is all-important. As the servant of a tribe, rather than as a sole quester for oneness with the All, the shaman has to stop short of entirely merging with the Divine Web and instead find ways to make these experiences useful to the betterment of his people. In some ways, it's much more of a bodhisattva than a Buddha path, although the point is not getting everyone off the Wheel of Life and Death. Shamanism is set in a context that values all worlds equally, and sees body and flesh and blood and Earth as sacred; the point is to make things easier for people here and now. Therefore, shamanism is intensely practical, making use of every tool of "ecstasy", as the anthropologists like to call it, in order to make actual change in the world.
(An excellent comparison of the Path of Mystic Quest with the Path of Shamanic Mediation (as the author refers to them) can be found in the book Six Ways Of Being Religious, by Dale Cannon. While the book only uses Christian and Buddhist examples, the projected paths can be easily seen in modern Paganism as well.)
What do you mean by northern-tradition? Where do these traditions come from?
They come from many sources - Germanic (and Anglo-Saxon, which is part of that); Norse; a little bit of Saami; and a little bit of Siberian. They are from the circumpolar peoples of the western Eurasian continent. Some seem to go back as far as the Mesolithic or Neolithic pre-Indo-European people of northern Europe. Some comes from books, lore, research, but most of it comes from the Gods and spirits that are training me and others like me. Occasionally, some will come from that source and then later I discover them in books.
Why do you hyphenate "Northern Tradition" in some places and not others?
It gets a hyphen when the phrase is used as an adjective, as in "Northern-Tradition Shamanism" or "Northern-Tradition Paganism" but not when it is used by itself as a noun. It is standard grammar, not my personal whim. (Yes, people ask this.)
Is this part of the religions referred to as Asatru, Vanatru, Heathenry, etc.?
No, it is not. Those are reconstructionist religions of the beliefs of the Viking-Age Scandinavian people. They are generally based mostly or entirely on the surviving lore about that religion. While this tradition shares many of the same deities and myths, it is different in that it is a spiritual practice, not a religion (as is all shamanism), and it is not based on written records, nor is it technically reconstructionist. If it falls within any religious demographic, one could loosely say that it might be a part of northern-tradition Paganism, which is still a vague term generally referring to reconstructionist-derived northern-European Neo-Paganism, but as those borders are still being defined, we'll just say that northern-tradition shamanism is not part of reconstructionist Heathenry, by their own definition, and leave it at that.
Wait a minute. I'm a scholar, and I was under the impression that the Norse/Germanic peoples of the lore did not have shamans or a shamanic culture.
You are quite correct. The people of the "lore era" didn't even have an entirely pagan culture any more, much less a shamanic one. They had been converted to Christianity. Even if there were still a few heathens tucked away in odd corners, the writers of the books - and the dominant culture - was Christian. To minimize this is to make the mistake of absorbing a lot of Christian values along with your Heathen lore.
There was once a shamanic tribal culture in all of these areas. It was mostly gone well before the Christians converted everyone. Bits and pieces and glimpses of it can be seen and patchworked together, but we don't have a full picture of it from any written lore. That's what I mean when I say that it is lost, and why I have to be spirit-taught it. Of course, the Saami and Siberian peoples have shamans to this day, and there was a good deal of marrying back and forth.
Is this stuff like seidhr?
Seidhr is the term for one of the magical practices that was still in use during the Viking era, the time that is used by religious reconstructionists. It is likely that it has strong shamanic roots, and that many of its tools are a holdover from earlier shamanism, and/or learned from the Saami noaidi. There has been a lot of argument and debate over that, among academics and practitioners of seidhr alike, as well as argument over whether the word seidhr should be restricted to the sort of oracular performance that the volva does in Eiriks saga Raude, or whether it should extend to other sorts of magic too, and which sorts.
I choose not to enter that debate. Yes, what you'll find here has some things in common with what some seidhr-practitioners are doing, and in fact some of them contributed generously to this work. On the other hand, some practices written here are not found anywhere in the lore as being concretely and beyond a shadow of a doubt part of the seidhr complex of magic, as they likely died out centuries or millennia previously. So I do not claim the word, any more than I would claim the words Asatru, Heathen, or reconstructionist. This is a form of wight-taught ancient shamanism, and that's all.
Why don't you stick to information that is already written down? What's wrong with sticking to the lore?
Well, the Gods and spirits that I work with don't see it that way. If every time they told me to do something, I objected, "But wait! I can't do that unless you show me where it's written down in a book, preferably with an author who has an entire page of academic credentials," well, let's just say that it would get ugly real fast. So I use the lore as a jumping-off point, and then I keep going. In the meantime, I keep reading, because sometimes I find something that I've already been told to do. It's nice to be validated in that way, but it's not necessary. I'd do it anyway. I can't afford to be lorebound, not with Gods and wights on my tail.
Except for places where certain contributing authors have given me whole essays with references, you won't find footnotes and references throughout this book, either. That's because such things contribute to the idea that this might be an academic research work, if a poor one, and I have no desire to enable that misunderstanding. These books fall into another category entirely, and I am very clear about that. Although I may mention subjects that I ran across in research, this book is primarily material gathered through the experiences of myself and others. We are the primary source material.
Aren't you ripping off these ancient peoples and their cultures?
Since these are my ancestors, I would say that I have a fairly solid right to do what I'm doing, if you use the argument that one's ancestral traditions are an inheritance. Frankly, though, I'd do this even if they weren't my ancestors. I do it not because it is any kind of politically correct, but because that's what the Goddess who owns me and the Spirits who work with me say that I have to do. If I had been grabbed up by, say, Native American gods and spirits, I'd be doing that path even though I don't have a drop of that blood, and I'd just have to find a way to deal with the opprobrium that would be heaped upon me.
Besides, the Gods and wights don't give two rat's asses about what I may think that I'm ripping off. However, I can actually imagine "ripping off the past" in a way that would be disrespectful, and it is already practiced by some groups. It consists of doing reconstructionist religion without actually believing wholly in the Gods of our ancestors; one does their practices, but merely pretends to believe in their Gods. It's a twisted, blasphemous kind of ancestor worship. But anyone who wholeheartedly believes in our Gods, and worships them with sincerity, isn't ripping off anyone. They are giving back.
What do you mean, "spirit-taught"?
The Buryat Mongols have a word for shamans who are spirit-taught - it's bagshagui. Usually this happens when the shaman's lineage or clan dies out and the spirits who have worked with them all move over to another line or clan, and pick some poor slob that they have decided would make a great shaman. A bagshagui doesn't have the benefit of the old guy in the hut to teach them. Everything has to be learned from the spirits themselves, who are wonderfully effective but extremely frustrating teachers.
Since this tradition is largely lost, I as a white American don't have the old-guy-in-the-hut benefit either. I am in the service of the Norse death goddess Hela, and she sends me to various other gods and spirits for training. It's often spotty and confusing, but sometimes it is amazing. As I learn, I write it down. I am aware that I may have to teach someone else someday.
I've studied a different shamanic tradition from elsewhere in the world, and while there may be some things in common with this tradition, there are a lot of things that you say are true which that tradition doesn't find to be true at all.
That's very much the case, and at no time do I mean to speak for any tradition than my own. If nothing else, I don't know enough about them. I haven't seen them from the inside, and known them intimately, and lived their patterns. So from here on in, anywhere you see me talk about any sort of shamanism, you may assume that I am referring to the way it is in this tradition, regardless of how it is in any other one. There just doesn't seem to be any point in disclaimering every instance of that.
While I like the tales of the Gods and spirits of your tradition, I'm not sure that I believe in them. Can I still practice this tradition if I believe that they are archetypes, or energy forms created by human attention?
No. You cannot. Sorry, I'm going to have to be hardline on this one.
This is a polytheistic spiritual tradition. No way to get around that one. Not only do you have to believe fully and thoroughly in these Gods and wights in order to really practice it, if you come at them with any less than complete faith in their existence, they may be offended and refuse to deal with you...and for this tradition, it's all about dealing with the spirits. No spirits, no luck. Not only are they all real, they are all distinct from each other as well.
If you are not comfortable with polytheistic belief, perhaps you might prefer working with a more ceremonial-magic system, such as Thelema or Qabala. If you are drawn to Norse stuff, there is a sect of Norse-style ceremonial magic that combines the two. However, it is not shamanism. I realize that some shamanistic systems, such as the Harner-style practices, downplay the literal existence of spirits and allow people to reserve their disbelief. That's fine for them; but not for us. If you can't fully embrace the religious and devotional aspects of this tradition of shamanism, don't practice it. Find something that fits better with your world view; there are plenty of them out there.
Why should I believe you about any of this? Isn't it possible that you are delusional?
There's no reason at all for you to believe me. In fact, it would be unreasonable of me to expect it, considering that you haven't experienced what I have experienced. It's as unreasonable as expecting you to believe in any god that hasn't talked to you personally. If you'd like to decide that I am full of it, it's no skin off my nose. The only reason I'm laying it out for total strangers anyway is because Hela wants me to make this information available.
Can I learn this tradition even if these aren't my ancestors?
Sure, knock yourself out. I'm not sensitive about it. If the spirits are calling you, who am I to argue? If it's just that you're drawn to it, it won't hurt anything. After all, the more people who know it, the better. I'm not one of those who believes that the Gods and wights choose people only from these bloodlines - I've seen them pick out too many who weren't even white to believe that one. They take who They take, and who am I to criticize?
What is different about northern-tradition shamanism compared to other cultural forms of shamanism? Or, for that matter, modern northern-tradition religious faiths?
Well, for one thing, we have no rattles. Seriously, the first big difference in the former category is that it deals largely with the Gods and wights of Norse/Germanic pantheons rather than the spirits of various aboriginal religions. Occasionally you might get referred to a deity outside of this tradition, because a few of our Gods are like that, but mostly it's working with the three pantheons of this tradition. There are a myriad of other little cultural differences as well, which are too many to list here.
Where this tradition peels away from modern reconstructionist Norse religion is in the matter of timing. Much of modern Heathenry is reconstructed from a particular era in the early medieval Iron Age. Even before the onslaught of Christianity, it was not a shamanic culture, although a few bits and pieces survived in myth and seidhwork. The shamanic culture and practices had largely died out centuries before, although they were still going strong next door in Finland among the Saami people and further east among the Siberians. Long ago, however, there was once a circumpolar set of shamanic traditions that shared much in common, more even than the shamanic cultures of other parts of the world. If we go back to the Mesolithic or Neolithic era, we find the Indo-Europeans overrunning an indigenous Scandinavian people, and it seems to those of us who are spirit-workers that the original deities of those people were the wights now referred to as Jotun, or Giantkind.
The various waves of Indo-European people brought the agricultural Vanir, and later the warrior sky-god Aesir, and the early gods were relegated to the villainous position, much like the Greek Titans. Yet if you study them, you find that they are extremely Neolithic and shamanic in nature - elemental, shapeshifting, animal-like, multitudinous, partaking of fire and ice and trees and ocean and sacred mountain, wielding stone blades and dark, bloody powers. In the myths, whenever there is an underworld journey, there is a giantess or a Rokkr god involved. When you come to the Northern Tradition and start pulling the string labeled "shamanism", four times out of five you'll get the Jotnar, or the Rokkr Gods (Hela, Loki, Surt, Fenris, Jormundgand, Angrboda, etc.) at the other end. That's why so many of the "deity-lessons" in the third book, Wyrdwalkers, are from the Jotun point of view, rather than mostly the Aesir. These are the Gods and wights that my ancestors worshiped and worked with when they lived in a shamanic culture, and they know more than anyone about this kind of work.
However, they are not the only deities who take an interest in such things. When someone gets pulled into this tradition and their patron is one of the Vanir, it's most likely to be Freya, with Frey as a close second. Freya is the mistress of seidhr, the magical tradition that survived into the Iron Age and which had many shamanic elements, perhaps left over from the early days. She is not only sex goddess and sacred whore, fertility maiden and warrior-woman, she is also the witchy-woman with the magic comb and net who knows how to sing her way into a journeying-trance. Freya and Frey are the repository of that shamanic knowledge which combined with the early sacrificial agricultural religion, creating its own flavor of shamanism, which survived piecemeal into the Viking Age. It should be noted that when golden sacrificial-king Frey is the patron of a shaman, the individual is likely to be a gay or bisexual man. There are at least two male "cults" of Frey, and one is the faithful husbandman and farmer with a wife and children, who has no need of this information. The other path of Frey is that of the (slightly to very) effeminate shaman/priest with his skirt hemmed with tinkling bells, and this is the Freysman who is most likely to go down this road.
When the patron is Aesir, there is only one deity for the shaman to look to: Odin. The All-Father of Asgard is the archetypal shaman-king, warrior and wanderer, magician and ruler, who learned his shamanic magic on a long nine-year ordeal from Freya, Mimir, the Norns, and other older wights. While he comes by it third-generation, so to speak, his talents in this area are nothing to sneeze at. If you're an Asatru and you get dragged down this path, it is Odin who will take you there - ravens, wolves, ordeals, and all.
What sorts of things did northern-tradition spirit-workers do in ancient times? How is it different from what they do now?
In ancient times, spirit-workers - be they shamans, volvas, seidhr-workers, noaidi, etc. - did a variety of things to help their people survive. They called the wild animals for hunting, and the reindeer for herding. They called fish into rivers and close to seacoasts. They made sacrifices to make sure the crops grew. They did healing of various sorts - magical and herbal together - for the sick. They did divination for individuals and the tribe, especially when things went wrong, and figured out who had to be propitiated in order to set things right. They named children. They put people through ordeals of passage. They altered the weather. They made women and men fertile. They blessed those who needed blessings. They cleansed evil places. They protected the tribe from destructive spirits and the shamans of other tribes. They talked to the Dead, and to the Gods and spirits, and mediated for the community between these worlds.
They also did a lot of things that were destructive themselves. They fought in battles, charming weapons and calling in spirits to aid their side. They helped warriors to shapeshift into fierce animals. They magically attacked the other side's warriors, and sometimes the members of neighboring tribes who were encroaching on territory. They left their bodies in order to do reconnaissance for their chieftains. They drove people mad. They made vengeance magic and curses for people who paid them, and this, too, was accepted and considered right and loyal. In fact, they probably did as much of the latter as of the former types of magic.
Today, many of these things are no longer useful, which is why I don't have a hunting drum. However, there are still many things that my ancestral spirit-workers did that I also do, including divination of all sorts, untangling people's bad luck and fate, healing, doing ordeals of passage, cleansing bad places, and talking to the Dead. I still fare forth on errands to Otherworlds like them, and I still mediate between the inhabitants of those worlds and of this one.
Can I learn to be a shaman from reading and practicing your stuff?
No. You cannot. Only the Gods and wights can make a shaman. You can, however, learn to be a shamanic practitioner. If you are already being harassed by the Gods and spirits, then you'll be a shaman if and when They say you're one, and you have all my sympathy for what has happened or will probably happen to you.
On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with being a perfectly good shamanic practitioner, and you may well find some useful points in my books and on my website.
What's the difference between a shaman and a shamanic practitioner?
Keeping in mind that the answer is true only for this tradition (i.e. other shamanic traditions may draw the line in other places), a shaman is someone who is seized up by the spirits and forced through a long and tortuous phase of illness that brings them close to physical death, or complete insanity, or both. During this time, the Gods and wights modify their astral body in ways that you'd have to be close to death in order to manage. Most tribal cultures acknowledge that there is an attrition rate - i.e. there's a definite risk of death, which is worse the more the beginning shaman fights the process. Once through, they must do their job of public tribal spirit-worker for the rest of their life, or the shaman sickness will occur and cause insanity and/or death. Their lives are bounded by taboos, and they work closely with spirits of many different types, sometimes as a slave, sometimes as a partner.
On the other hand, a shamanic practitioner is someone who learns shamanic techniques, and perhaps has some voluntary dealings with spirits, and does what they do because they want to, not because they have to. It's much easier, and safer, to be a shamanic practitioner, although there are a small number of people who start out in the latter category and end up in the former one. A classic shaman, however, will be able to channel heavier "voltage", and do more intense spirit-work, and have a closer connection with the spirits. They just had to give up their entire life for that ability.
Can I force or coax the Gods and wights into making me a shaman?
Force? Not likely. Coax? That depends. It has been done, in the past; some people have deliberately brought themselves repeatedly very close to death in a ritual context in order to get the attention of the spirits. Some died. Some survived, but insane. Some got the attention that they desired and became shamans, but were so mentally scarred and physically weakened that the ensuing shaman sickness killed them. A few made it and became shamans for their people. I wouldn't advise this. Generally, though, most people wouldn't want to be classic shamans if they really understand what that meant. These books will tell of what it's like in this tradition, this harsh and bloody subarctic tradition that bore so many of my ancestors. They were chosen so that their people might survive. If you are chosen, you will serve some form of a tribe - possibly not of your choosing - for the rest of your life, and that work will come before everything else. Not your parents, your children, your partners, or any other career will take anything but a back seat to this Work. If you slack off, you'll become ill. If you quit, you'll die. We don't joke about this; we've seen too many go down.
If this is you, welcome to the Boot Camp of the Northern Gods. We hope that you survive, but that will depend on your relationship with Them. In the meantime, here's a textbook for you, with some pages here but many more in my printed material, perhaps the only written one you'll ever get. Don't mistake it for the important information. That, only They will give you. This is only the syllabus, the course outline, the notes scribbled down in the back of the class. But here, take my shaman's notebook. At the end of the day, it might just give you the keys to get through a few thorns.