Celtic Shamanism

The internet offers a vast array of content on the subject of Celtic Shamanism – books, courses, names, symbols, meanings… Which is problematic in all kinds of ways.

There were no historical people who self identified as The Celts. It’s a term applied from outside to describe an array of tribes living in Europe in the Iron Age. The Romans drew a rather arbitrary line between Celtic peoples and Germanic peoples that may have coloured our interpretations ever since. Iron Age Europeans were no doubt a diverse lot, and imagining the existence of a single, coherent Celtic culture is probably unhelpful.

Problem number two is that much of what we know about Celtic culture comes from stories recorded in the mediaeval era by Christians. This clearly isn’t going to be a precise rendering of a Pagan belief system. A brief flirtation with Irish, Welsh and Scottish tales will also give you a pretty clear sense that these are not the same people, even if some figures appear to crop up more than once.

Shamanism is a problematic word. It most probably derived from the Tungus word ‘šaman’ the internet reckons. Its use to describe the religions of contemporary indigenous people around the world is widely considered problematic. Applying it to the Celts also causes problems. It starts from the assumption that what the Celts did was shamanic and that therefore it can be reconstructed by drawing on practices from existing indigenous people. 

We know that the Celts had a lot of gods, and put up statues to them. There are ways of reading the stories that suggest ties with shamanic practices – but perhaps only if you start out looking for that and ignore the material that doesn’t fit. My personal feeling is that the desire to believe in Celtic shamanism comes primarily from a desire to believe that Europe had shamanistic practices comparable to other parts of the world. This, all too often, works as a justification for a bit of cultural appropriation. Druid sweat lodges. Druid animal guides. Druids burning white sage, and smudging their sacred spaces. And so on, and so forth. 

These are all terms deriving from other cultures that I’ve seen Druids using. We aren’t entitled to these words, no matter how much we want them. We aren’t entitled to these practices, no matter how much we want our Celtic ancestors to be like some specific group of contemporary people. We aren’t entitled to steal other people’s words and practices to fill in the gaps in our own history and knowledge. It’s appropriation, and there’s a lot of it out there.

The urge to find a way to be an indigenous person in Europe, is a good one, I think. But we can’t do it by stealing things from other cultures and trying to pretend it was ours all along.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “Celtic Shamanism

  • M.A.

    It’s more insidious in the U.S. It’s a “melting pot”, and if I’m part of the melting pot, them everything in it is mine, right? It’s hard to argue with reasoning that makes no actual sense once you peel off the flimsy top layer. Especially since so many practices are things that many humans, in many times and places, have used. Trance journeying shows up all over, whether you call it “shamanic” or not. So when I do it, is it appropriation? When I light incense on my Kwan Yin altar is that stealing, or just using appropriate ritual tech? If I buy a white sage smudge stick at a powwow from an indigenous vendor, is it wrong to light it when I get home? (Answer: yes, it sets off all the smoke alarms.)

    So yes, I agree with what you’re saying, but how and where do we draw the line?

    • Nimue Brown

      it’s so nuanced and complicated that I think any hard line is going to be wrong, at least sometimes. which means it comes down to personal integrity. With all that this implies.

  • locksley2010

    I remember in my early Pagan days of buying and reading a book by DJ Conway called “Celtic Shamanism”. By the end of it I swore that if I came across the word “shaman” one more time I was going to club someone to death with that book! In fact the only thing I remember from that book is a story about how the author went on a spirit journey to heal her physical pain before hosting a dinner party….. how the hell does that apply to a people who belonged to a linguistic and cultural group and their mythos exactly?

    Yes there are the writings of the medieval monks, but there are also the accounts from the Romans, Greeks and even Celts brought up in Roman society, although these were looking at the “Keltoi” through their own specific lenses.

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