Snakes, Worms, and Evil Spirits

A Realistic Look At Traditional Spirit-Healing

shaman casting out spiritsIn this morning's email, I got a post from a would-be healer asking about the spirit-work research that I've done about the Nine Sacred Herbs and their use. For those of you who don't know the Lay of the Nine Sacred Herbs, it contains descriptions of these herbs and their use in spirit-healing, as well as a long list of "poisons" that they cure, and many references to "snakes" and "worms", and their poisonous bites. (In Old English, as in many of the old Germanic tongues, the word for snake and the word for worm are the same - in the case of Old English, the language of the Nine Herbs song, it's "wyrm".) The herbs are sung of as being set against the poisons of these snakes.

Except, pointed out this astute individual, none of these herbs actually have properties that are useful for curing snakebite. They are all medicinal in some way, but they are not antivenom. So what's all this about snakes and poison? Does it mean that the medicine of our ancestors was all superstitious nonsense, as modern medicine would have us believe?

The questioner was absolutely right that these were not herbs that one would use against actual poisoning with snake venom, whether by a snake or by a malicious human. However, they were missing the point of the charm. First of all, the word "attor", which recurs again and again throughout the song, is generally translated as "poison". Certainly it is the root from which we get the term "adder", or poisonous snake, which occurs in the song as "naddran". However, what you have to understand is that the concept of poison and the concept of disease were one and the same to our northern-European ancestors. To us, poison is one thing and disease is another, although there is actually considerable overlap that we don't like to admit. To them, "attor" was "something that made you sick", whatever that might be.

"Attor" might come from anywhere. Our ancestors had observed that some plants were poison, and eating them made you sick. Sometimes something went wrong with food or water and it made you sick. Sometimes you were bitten by an animal and it made you sick. Sometimes the sickness came out of the blue, seemingly from nowhere. As far as they were concerned, it was all poison of some sort. They did have a good idea that it could travel through the air from person to person; the song repeatedly mentions a kind of poison that is referred to as "onflyge" or "the onflying", and another that is "the evil spirit that fares across the land"; the final verse of the song wards the directions from these traveling poisons.

But the song also describes the nine herbs being proof against nine and possibly more "wyrm" creatures; Odin strikes the "wyrm" with the herbs and slays it. References are made to a running stream where one can find all the serpents that cause poison. These are not literal adders, and the poison that they spread is not venom. The song is referring to diseases, as can be discerned from the long list of "poisons" at the end of the song. There aren't that many species of poisonous snakes in all of northern Europe; if you want large numbers of herpetologist's nightmares, you have to travel to warmer climes such as India, Africa, and Australia. The snake or worm is the symbolic vector that creates sickness. This is the "wyrm" that "com snican" - pronounce that last word as it looks as if it ought to be pronounced, "sneakin'", and you'll understand the phrase - and that Odin slays with the herbs. Given this, it makes no sense to examine any of the plants with an eye to their usefulness for actual snakebite. All diseases are a form of snakebite, according to this symbol system. It's just a matter of identifying which serpent got you, and how to combat them.

For centuries, so-called "civilized" people have dismissed the medicine of traditional tribal spirit-healers as being mere superstition. This was done after having killed off all of their own spirit-healers to the point where their own traditions, and any understanding of them, were lost. One of the biggest points that they used to point out this benighted primitivism was the belief that disease was caused by evil spirits. However, after years of magical, psychic, and anthropological research, I've come to the conclusion that this thinking isn't superstitious at all.

Let's take a theoretical trip back to our prehistoric spirit-healer. While not all shamans were healers, many were, and most did at least some healing. The shaman or spirit-worker was not the same thing as the early herbalist, although in many cultures the two were combined, and most shamans knew the basics of this art. Spirit-healers went further than just dosing people with herbs for their medicinal effects. Although herbalism was the first line of defense, sometimes it just wasn't good enough.

Imagine that you are this person on whom the health of your entire tribe depends. You are surrounded by a dangerous environment, and strange maladies can come from any direction. This person breaks his leg, you set it, and he heals fine. The next one with a similar injury becomes ill, doesn't heal, and dies. Your first problem, of course, is diagnosis. How do you tell what's going wrong? You can examine the physical body and ask about symptoms, as doctors have done for millennia...but as they have often found, sometimes you can't accurately figure out what's wrong in that way. Symptoms may mask entirely different problems, and the outside of the body can only offer so many clues.

Today, a great deal of diagnostic aid is received from being able to see inside the body and its fluids - X-rays, MRIs, biopsies, and most importantly, microscopically analyzing the critters and chemical makeup of the body fluids. However, our ancient healer does not have these ways of seeing inside the opaque bag of skin, especially on that small a level. Physical technology has not advanced that you turn to another sort of technology, that of seeing and working with the astral realm. To do this, of course, you have to have the Knack, which is why although many people could be herbwives and cunning men, not everyone could be a spirit-worker.

(In one account by an American ethnobotanist who went to South America to learn herblore from the shamans, he reinjures his elbow - apparently a recurring problem since a major injury there in college - and goes to the shaman who is currently helping him for some aid. The shaman examines his arms closely, says that there is a hole in his "spirit elbow" that is weakening his physical elbow, and that it requires patching. He does a ritual to do this, and the arm is better for some years. To me, this made perfect sense: he was checking out the astral body and not the physical body, and that's where he could see the problem. Fixing it, of course, was a bigger deal, requiring all sorts of ritual work.)

To do this, you'll have to be able to see things on the astral plane, including the astral body of a human being. Sometimes you can look into them in this way and see that there's something wrong, but you might not be able to pick out exactly what it is. There's odd energy around the it from an imbalance of "humours" or "energies", or is it from evil spirits? In other words, is it because the body's carefully balanced chemicals are lacking something, or is it from an outside invasion? To figure this out may mean seeing smaller than you can see while staring with your astral eyes at their astral body. It means taking yourself into a tiny world, and that requires trancework and altered states of some kind.

For this, you need a whole other sort of technology - methods of going into trance that are reliable, work well for you, and don't cause too much damage to you. Then you'll need a way to know what you are looking at when you go, and a way to interpret what you're seeing. This is contained in the symbolic lore that is passed down to you by the spirit-worker who trained you. You may not know what the adrenal glands are, but you have been trained to take a trance journey to the Well of Fire, and to figure out what it ought to look like, and if something is wrong. Each shamanic tradition had its own language for the parts of the body; Inuit angakoks, for example, had to memorize a symbolic language that included every part of the anatomy, including each bone.

So you use your trance methods, be they drumming or hallucinogens or dancing or chanting or fasting or ritual sex or whatever you've found works for you. Then you visit the astral stomach of the man lying before you. Here, having transformed your consciousness into something that can see a situation on the microscopic level, you discover that things are wrong. It's overrun with some sort of destructive creature that seems intent on wreaking havoc in order to create more of itself. Evil spirits! You observe them, getting their astral "smell" down, and return. However, your job has just begun.

If it's a sort of evil spirit that you've "seen" and "smelled" before, and you know that it responds to a certain physical treatment, you administer this. However, if it's not something that has so easy a cure, what will you do? Your second line of defense is to kill the evil spirits, because, after all, that's what causes disease.

Before you, the reader, starts reacting to this seemingly ridiculous statement with knee-jerk scorn, hold on a moment longer and consider this: Everyone who has ever worked with any kind of psychic healing knows that it all starts with life force. Respected and enduring systems such as Reiki and Ch'i Gong are based on the knowledge that there is energy that runs through everything, that it has many different flavors, and that it can be moved around and redirected in order to cause physical change. In other words, everything has some sort of soul, and things that live have a soul that is made of dynamic life force. Whether it's called chi, ki, huna, prana, mana, or by any other name, we all have it. The chi within us takes on our signatures, our "flavor". If we lose a lot of it, we may get weak and sick; our immune systems seem to be the first things affected. Without any of it, we sicken and die.

Bacteria, whether we like it or not, is alive. So are viruses. It's a strange and alien sort of life, but it is life. They are not inanimate objects. They move and they eat and they excrete and they reproduce...and they have souls. If you're a spirit-worker with the right sight, you may not be able to see their physical matter, but you can see their chi. From this perspective, it is entirely true that the body has been invaded by evil, or at least destructive, spirits. The fact that they happen to be carting tiny material bodies along with them is irrelevant to you. You can't see or touch that part of them, so it doesn't matter.

Cancer, too, has chi. While it isn't so much an invader as a part of the human body that has mutinied and gone nuts, when the change occurs from healthy to malignant, the energy signature changes, and the souls of cancer cells look alien to the rest of the body. Their spirits become evil, and evil spreads. The perspective remains correct.

When you learn about life force, especially as part of a tribal healing tradition, after you've learned what life energy is and how it can be moved around, you learn that if something can be entirely separated from their life energy, they will sicken and die. You also learn how to do that. Taking all the life force out of a large, complex animal such as a human, or even a squirrel or a beetle, is difficult. It would take a while, and you'd have to be really good at it, and they'd have to hold still for the several days that it might take. To rip the souls out of bacteria is somewhat easier, if only because they are so much smaller and you are so much bigger. The size difference is a problem, though, because the idea is to kill these evil spirits (and therefore make their physical containers sicken and perish) without harming the human battlefield that this war will happen on.

Modern allopathic medicine has been justly criticized by modern alternative medicine for failing to work with the human body in its treatment, for forgetting the humanity of the patient, for using scorched-ground techniques without simultaneously adding proper nourishment and healing methods to alleviate the damage done to the body in the process, and for trying to bypass or replace the immune system rather than work with it. Modern alternative medicine has been criticized by modern allopathic medicine for being too vague in its diagnoses, too impotent when faced with severe diseases, and too Pollyanna-ish in its practices. This, too, is unfortunately true. Most modern American energy-healing systems promote pushing positive energy at the suffering patient in the hopes that it will strengthen the body's natural defenses and help the body to overcome the problem itself. This is certainly the least invasive method, and the one sure to do the least harm, which is probably great for something that can be taught to anyone with a credit card or a checkbook. It also works to heal a great many minor problems - no question there - and it works as a decent adjunct alongside of damaging allopathic medicine. However, it is of little use when the body is facing an invader too great to fend off, which happens more often than modern alternative healers would like to believe. The ancient spirit-worker would have concurred with that statement of frequency, though.

As any tribal spirit-healer will tell you, learning to do their job not only required a special knack, it also required an enormous expenditure of years, absorption of knowledge, and frequency of practice; at least as much as the average medical degree. This was not something that could be learned in a year or two in one's spare time. S/he must learn not only all the plants and their medicinal natures, but how to speak to their plant spirits. (How do find out what a plant is good for, and what its dosage ought to be? You can do it with trial and error, with all the resultant casualties, or you can ask the spirit of the plant.) S/he must learn techniques of trancework, and avoiding all the inherent difficulties. S/he must learn the body's anatomy, both by observation - remember that ancient people butchered their own animals, and sometimes cut up humans as well for embalming - and through the symbolic language of their tradition. S/he may also have to learn how to communicate with evil spirits, in order to work out some kind of a truce with them. If that didn't work, s/he had to learn to suck or pull or cut or claw or otherwise remove the destructive spirits, hopefully weakening their physical manifestation.

The ability to precisely remove the life force of the evil spirits while not disturbing that of the already weakened human patient is a skill as tricky as that of the most delicate modern surgery, and sometimes it cannot be done with human hands, mind, and consciousness. Sometimes the spirit-healer needs to recruit other spirits, whether that of a plant, and animal or something entirely different, to be their eyes and ears and hands on a microscopic but all- pervasive level. This requires an entirely different set of knowledge - communicating and propitiating spirits, and allowing them to use your body while still remaining in control of the situation, or at least of yourself. It's a huge body of training, and one that most people don't fully understand, and either dismiss or oversimplify or misinterpret it. If you don't understand how this spiritual technology works, or if you don't accept its underlying concepts, then it does seem like a bunch of primitive nonsense.

At this point, some readers will be remembering accounts of people who miraculously cured themselves of some terrible disease using mind over matter. Certainly that does happen, but it's rare. It also comes out of a state of dire necessity; it's your life or death, and somewhere your unconscious finds a way to do the impossible, without any of these trappings. The problem is that this is usually a once-in-a-lifetime thing, not a miracle that can be reproduced on a regular basis. The average tribal spirit-healer couldn't wait until they were consumed by dire necessity and the spirit moved them. S/he had to find a way to do it with reasonable success on a regular basis. S/he might need to deal with the evil spirits of the man with the sinus infection on Monday, the woman with the bladder infection on Wednesday, and the entire family with a stomach flu virus on Friday.

By the time that the Old English herbal manuscripts were written, the precise body of shamanic knowledge that their ancestors had known was several centuries lost. It may have been lost before they even moved onto the British island. The Lay of the Nine Sacred Herbs, and other such scraps of lore, are the last remaining tattered bits of it; one of the last remaining shamanic power songs of my ancestors, even though garbled and much misunderstood. It speaks of the plants whose spirits are best used to recruit when working against a long list of evil spirit-worms that infest and poison the body, a list whose meanings have not survived in the lore. Reading it as if it is a simple herbal recipe, much less as a cure for snakebite or deliberate poisoning, is to completely miss the point.

(I would think that with this sort of system, the best cure for snakebite would be first to suck as much of it out as possible, then to contact the spirit of that sort of snake, perhaps with the removed blood, and try to get it to release its hold on the bitten sufferer. This kind of magic is different from the sort where you try to control things and events by will and word of power; it's working with entities, which is a whole different bag of tricks.)

This information is not entirely lost, however. Even if no living human being remembers it, and it was never written down, the spirits remember it. They may remember different parts of it, but they do remember, and it can be learned again from them. It's just a matter of contacting the right ones, which is no simple thing either....but not impossible. The idea that the world is made up of spirits is not superstition - it's literal truth. Some have physical bodies and some don't, but they are all part of the system. It's both elegant and haphazard, sensible and crazy, arbitrary and dependable. Well, dependable enough, anyway. If it wasn't, it's likely that we as a species would never have made it far enough to survive without it for a thousand years.