A guest blog, by Nina Milton
One sunny autumn morning, fifteen years ago, I shipped up in Bath, to attend an introductory workshop on shamanism. As a druid, I was used to enjoying guided visualisations and wanted to know more about what happens when you stop being ‘guided’ and sink deeply into a trance that takes you away from everything around you. I’d started reading about shamanism; books like The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda, Cave and Cosmos, by Michael Harner and Your Shamanic Path, by Leo Rutherford, showed me that shamanism was a historic world-wide phenomenon, but also that it still thrives today.
I’m an OBOD a druid, so it was British shamanism I was most attracted to. It uses archetypes I already knew from the Celtic myths, comforting symbols such as cauldrons and oak trees, and did not depend on mind-altering drugs to attain a state of trance. I’d consumed a lot of books by Caitlin and John Matthews, especially The Celtic Shaman and Singing the Soul back Home, but books a shaman maketh not; and here I was, sitting on a floor cushion alongside thirty other people, waiting for John Matthews to introduce us to this magical place. He looked ordinary, sitting cross-legged between us, and he opened the workshop in a quiet, almost muted voice.
“I’d better warn you now,” he said, without drama. “Shamanism will alter your life.”
Although I was keen – really keen – I’d paid money to be here – I couldn’t help thinking…’yeah, right’.
But John knew what he was saying. For me, things were never the same again.
John reminded us that although shamanism can be a spiritual path, from its very early beginnings, it has been used as a tool; a method of getting close to another world – the world of spirits. It’s a very ancient practice indeed; there are those who think shamans are depicted in the Neolithic cave paintings found all over Europe. Shamans are thought of as special people by the communities they function within. By entering a trance, often using nothing more than a drum beat or the rhythm of a dance, they move between the solid world we all live in, and the otherworlds, bringing back answers to questions that have no answers.
It is said that to become a shaman, one must be called by spirits, but I think the spirits are calling us all…it’s just that only some people listen. When I talked to the other work-shoppers that weekend, I found several who described having the ‘shaman’s sickness’, a health crisis that had brought them visionary dreams. Other had found their minds opening during a ‘vision quest’ in wild country or during a dark night.
“The rainbow path of the seeker takes you from your own world to the inner-worlds,” John advised. “You will become walkers between the worlds.” We lay down, scarves or sleep masks over our eyes, and listened to the singing tone high above the beat of John’s bodhrán and let our imagination take us along the rainbow path to the otherworld.
The more I delved, the more fascinated I became. By closing my eyes, listening to a fast, regular drum beat and allowing my mind to steady and focus, I found I was able to walk between the worlds, accompanied by my spirit ally who came to me in the guise of a mole, able to burrow down into lower realms. When I stroked his back with one finger, his coat felt as soft, warm and sleek as any mole of this world. Mole and I would come upon otherworldly presences who spoke to me, either in perfectly normal conversations or in mysterious symbols and signs. They often advised or directed me, or offered a gift of significance. I’d emerge feeling refreshed…amazed.
I worked through Caitlin Matthew’s series of practitioner workshops, and I’ve since worked with other respected shaman too, building up my skills, and using them to some degree in my work as a palliative care nurse, and also for my own self-development. I loved the way this secret, rainbow world was mine to visit, enjoy and learn from at all times.
I was already a writer. In fact, I think I’ve always been one, ever since my first infant school teacher, Mrs Marsden, read an animal fable to the class, then asked us to write a similar sort of story. I was dumfounded – for the first time I understood that the books I loved had actually been written by real human beings. Before that, I believed they must have fallen from some sort of story heaven. It was a revelation – from then on I was scribbling down stories all the time.
Sometime after I’d been practicing shamanism in work and for myself, a new fictional character walked into my head.
“Hi,” she said. I was driving to work, at the time, and she seemed almost to plonk herself down on the passenger seat. “I’m Sabbie Dare.”
She looked like a woman in her late twenties, of mixed race, with a cute little gap between her front teeth and very long, almost black hair, which kinked as it fell. “I’m a shaman,” she went on. “A therapeutic shaman.”
“Ah, I responded,” (in my head, and keeping my eyes on the road, of course), “you take clients with problems. Probably problems they’ve already seen a gamut of professionals about; doctors, herbalists, even hypnotherapists.”
She’d nodded. “Some have souls that are complete shattered. And some bring me some very difficult problems. They are people on the edge.” I felt guided to write about Sabbie Dare – I became obsessed about her life and thoughts. She was like my younger sister.
The books are set on the Somerset Levels, a place with a truly fay and mysterious atmosphere, which can turn tricksy and dark, when mists come down, or floods rise, and I use the most isolated, desolate spot on the moors for the first Shaman Mystery, In the Moors. Things get very scary indeed for Sabbie, as she tries to help a client in trouble. She’s a girl who only wants the best for those she meets, and she’ll regularly put herself on the line, not only in the spirit world, but also in the apparent world, because The Shaman Mysteries, published by Llewellyn’s Midnight Ink imprint, are thrillers, albeit with an edge of spiritually.
I write them for pagans and crime fiction lovers alike, so I have to be careful to walk a line between the truth of my own spiritual path and the story I’m creating. I don’t want to spin a line, suggesting shamanism can ‘solve crime’ or ‘get people out of trouble’.
The otherworld rarely gives a direct answer – any shaman knows that. When Sabbie finally unravels the tangle of symbols and auguries her spirit world shows her, she’s never presented with a simple answer. Instead, she’s led to the place or moment where those answers will be best revealed. Unfortunately for Sabbie, those are the places of most danger. Sabbie knows this, but walks towards them anyway, because she’s passionate for her clients, and for justice – and she can’t help being insatiably curious!
As the series progresses I’ve introduced some of the aspects of shamanism and paganism that might enlighten the ‘muggle reader’. Book one, In the Moors explains Sabbie’s job as a therapist, and describes her shamanic journeys, introducing her animal ally, an otter called Trendle. In the second book, Unraveled Visions, I begin to develop Sabbie’s otherworld associations, and her ritual life celebrating the celtic wheel of the year. Book three, Beneath the Tor, has a theme of transformation, including shapeshifting. I also introduce the reader to the lower realms of the otherworld. This book is set in Glastonbury, and it was my great delight to be able to use some of the legends of the Vale of Avalon.
Meanwhile Sabbie herself begins to understand who she is. She was brought up in the care system, after her mother died when she was six…she’s never known her father. As the books develop, she uses her shamanic pathways to find out more about her own past , including her maternal family, who are from Somerset, and her Caribbean father, who becomes her spirit guide.
I’ve never forgotten John Matthews’ claim that shamanism will change your life. It transformed mine, and I’d recommend pursuing the rainbow path to any pagan. Once you know how to access the world of spirits, you really never know what might happen next. What happened to me was that I now write books I love, and that people seem to love reading them. It was the one thing I’d longed to be able to do, and I am sure that the spirit world brought me this blessing.
Nina Milton’s blogsite for readers and writers is http://kitchentablewriters.blogspot.com and she’s also on Facebook at The Shaman Mysteries and on twitter as @ninahare.