Tag Archives: shamanism

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.

Walking the Rainbow Path

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.

Paganism: Specific or generic?

Quite a lot of Paganism is generic. Our much loved wheel of the year is not a replica of something from a time and place, but cobbled together from many times and places, with added equinoxes. We know the Celts went in for ‘local Gods for local people’ but on the whole, we don’t do that so much. There are forms of shamanism that draw on the shamanistic practices to be found around the world – because there are startling similarities. But at the same time, there’s a tension for me between the themes and the details.

What really brought this home for me was reading Nikolai Shodoev’s ‘Spiritual Wisdom from the Altai Mountains’. The place in question is in Siberia – whereas previously I’d had the impression Siberian shamanism was ‘a thing’ but clearly, it isn’t. Altai is a bit of Siberia, not the whole place. Within it, there are many tribes with their own sacred mountains, valleys and trees. This is a tradition rooted in folk wisdom that has evolved and survived for a long time, going through various forms, and an early 20th century revival. The form it takes varies over time, depending on what’s needed and what makes sense. It absorbs science and progress, and social changes.

Although the book never says it explicitly, it makes clear how futile it is treating religion as something you can skim off from a culture for your own use. What you get that way are the surfaces, symbols and rituals, but you don’t get the coherence to hold it together. Part of that coherence comes from having a relationship with the land the spirituality belongs to. Part of it is about tribe and family heritage.

Does that mean we can only follow the gods of our blood ancestors and the religions established in our landscape? Actually, no. After all, every tradition starts somewhere. What’s critically important is working with what we have. Starting from a relationship with the land, perhaps drawing inspiration from other sources, but being fundamentally rooted in the ground beneath our feet means that we can’t mistake nicking the shiny bits from other people’s faith for something useful. This confirms for me a lot of feelings I’d had reading about Shinto – which is inherently Japanese and belongs in Japan, and without either the land or the bloodlines, probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. The same is probably true of Judaism. It’s worth noting that religions of place and tribe do not seek converts, because it makes no sense to do so. But at the same time, Russian people moving into the Altai region and adopting its ways have become a recognised tribe there, over time.

What Shodoev inspires me to do is not to start emulating his people in any way, but to think about my own high places where I go to be with the sky on my own terms, and my own sacred trees, and the way in which story, history, and ancestry connect me to the soil.

All too often it’s the surface details of a religion we get excited about, not the underlying philosophy. To take surface pieces out of context – the chakras, dream catchers, dreadlocks, dance moves, plant use, and so forth without the stories and traditions that weave them into a life, seems a bit mad to me. These surface things have come to being through long periods of cultural development, and to take the surface with no knowledge of the culture smacks of tourism. The surface only makes sense, only works, when you know what’s underneath it. To immerse deeply in the stories, values and philosophy of a people and a religion is a very different thing. It’s not the headdress that defines the religion, but the reasons for the headdress.

I heartily recommend ‘Spiritual Wisdom from the Altai Mountains’ as a fascinating insight into an evolving culture and spirituality, with much to teach us. Not about what we can copy from the Altai people, but what we can discover for ourselves in our own history, story and landscape.

Wandering Other Worlds

When Pagans talk about otherworlds, it’s usually in a shamanic sense. You make a deliberate journey to an otherworld for a purpose – a spiritual, learning or healing purpose usually – and then you journey back. The otherworlds associated with various spiritual traditions have defined characters and there are specific reasons for visiting them. This is not something I really do.

Every now and then I find a book, or a series (and just occasionally, a film) that takes over my thoughts. A piece of creativity where the world is so complex, rich and involving that the act of reading the book is a journey into it and emerging takes a while. I finished the second Matlock the Hare book about a week ago, and am only just leaving the dales now. I’m not sure what happened to me while I was there – the journey created by a book and the aftermath of a book is not one I have full conscious control over. Certainly it has facilitated changes for me. I have seen other perspectives, thought new (to me) thoughts. I have wondered, and felt and dreamed and been carried to places of other people’s imagining.

Really good, imaginative fiction (of which Matlock the Hare is a fine example) takes the reader somewhere else. Out of your own life, out of your everyday concerns and into another place, one that may or may not shed light on things for you, and where the experience itself is a blessing. Really good, imaginative fiction can create worlds for you that are like nothing you have ever encountered before. Landscapes and challenges, characters and possibilities can blow you away. These worlds can be utterly surprising and yet wholly pertinent to life lived.

Which leaves me wondering why our descriptions of otherworlds in the mainstream of non-fiction books often seem so samey. The idea that we would all experience roughly the same things in comparable ways seems to underlie most of the shamanic books I’ve read. All too often, the otherworld of non-fiction is not presented as likely to startle, overwhelm, radically change or otherwise upheave a person. It’s a fairly safe place. You go in, you find your spirit guide, or animal guide or whatever your tradition dictates, they take you sightseeing. So long as you have them, you are safe. There are some basic rules to follow – precise etiquette varies with tradition. You go in, you get what you need, you come out. There’s no room for the place to radically change you – in fact I wonder if the methods and setups are very much about avoiding that happening.

Step into the world of a fictional novel, and if it’s any good, the lives and fates of imaginary people start to matter to you, and the world itself is able to seep into your mind. Not a world you control, or choose, or get to direct. Not a world that exists necessarily to heal you and answer your questions. It may be going to challenge you, break your heart, throw your own world into chaos, demand you rethink your personal philosophy. It may leave you grieving or shocked. The worlds inside books are not safe places – not in terms of the power they have to act on your emotions.

I thought about trying to review Matlock the Hare: The Puzzle of the Tillian Wand in a normal way, but it’s the second book of the series and assumes you’ve read the first one. It is too plotty and complex to start here. Get a copy of the Trefflepugga Path first.  Find out more about them on www.matlockthehare.com

And question why it is that so many authors present the otherworlds of magical tradition as safer, more predictable and less awe inspiring than the magical worlds available to us in books. Step onto the Trefflepugga path and anything can happen to you. Your life is no longer in your control. It’s very difficult to have wild change beyond your imagining if you also insist on staying safely in control of the experience.

Author Interview: Aaron Dennis

I found author Aaron Dennis as a consequence of asking around online for places to promote my own work, and as we got talking it became apparent he’s a very interesting chap, so I grabbed him for an interview here…

Nimue: What brought you to writing about the paranormal?

Aaron: My staple is actually Science Fiction but I include quite a bit of spiritual growth in both my characters and their universe. Naturally, the spiritual side in me needed a release once I started writing and that’s where Shadowman came from. I can’t really pinpoint where it all started but I was always drawn to spiritual growth and development. I started with martial arts and read about Tai Chi Chuan when I was about 12. From there I moved on to Buddhism and then Taoism, maybe it was because of listening to Bruce Lee speak on TV or from reading his books, but I eventually moved on to other areas. Eventually, I found myself reading the entire works of Carlos Castaneda, that was at age 21. His stories of his experiences with the Yaqui shaman really sparked something inside me. Once I started writing, only about a year and half ago, I knew I had to implement some of my beliefs, if only loosely. Then Shadowman sort of presented itself to me and I started it as a short story. As the character began to grow and develop his own spiritual powers, the stories kept coming. So the culmination was a novella with four shorts comprised of the protagonist’s dealings with the otherside, or a world where spirits reside.

With Castaneda’s works having such a huge impact on my life, I had no alternative but to incorporate a small fraction of my experiences into my stories, but then, that’s what makes my descriptions and conflicts feel so real. I’m not trying to teach anyone a lesson on proper living in my books but that doesn’t mean my characters shouldn’t learn.

Nimue: From where I’m sitting, that sounds a lot like how the bardic tradition works for many of us! Are there any specific shamanic traditions that you’re drawn to?

Aaron: Dreaming definitely. I started when I was a kid with dreams of events that came to pass, mostly things at school like assemblies that weren’t announced previously. Eventually, I started waking up in what I thought was a catatonic state. Turns out it was just astral projection, so I took an 8-week online course where I developed quite a bit. From there I took to lucid dreaming and finally total control over dreams Most of it has fallen to the wayside with my ever busy life. That, coupled with a great lack of sleep in general, has put a damper on my practices but most of my stories are derived from my dreams. If not the entire story, at least several chapters/events. I would like to, at some point in my life, design a room devoted to dreaming practices and subsequently, practice every day. Maybe my books will take off and I’ll be able to afford it. Apart from dreaming, I’ve grown indifferent towards life in general. Not to say I am depressed, far from it, I just accept everything as an inevitable guiding hand towards an unseen end I have no control over, you’ll see some of that spill over into my stories in one form or another.

Nimue: How do you view the dream world? As an inner state, another reality, something else?

Aaron: Originally, I figured it was an alternate state of reality, a place where the mind experimented with itself through some kind of link with the universe. After becoming acquainted with astral projection and lucid dreaming, I thought it was more like a training ground wherein I could learn about the universe by crossing a threshold into another dimension. Perhaps a dimension where beings that have no physical body exist. Once I learned about “sorcery” through Carlos Castaneda’s books I came to understand that every reality, at all given times, is just the solidification of the “assemblage point’ on a particular band of energetic fibers and that a “dream” is a new position of the assemblage point. A lucid dream is a more stable position wherein the assemblage point does not shift about the bands of energy, which comprise our “spirit” or energy body and astral projection is the actualization of moving in the world using only the energy body. This implies that when we are in our “ordinary” state of reality, we are in fact all “dreaming” together because all of our assemblage points are on a particular spot, or common spot, where we all interact. In part, this is why I became indifferent. I’m no more awake or asleep than when I am having a dream. Instead I’m only more “sober”, or rather, have my assemblage point on an accustomed position in the energy body where it does not shift erratically. Through rigorous practice, I became able to follow certain steps in order to achieve that same stability in dreams, or through dreaming. A normal dream, I believe, is just an erratic shifting of the assemblage point but we can solidify its position and attain a state of dreaming, which is to say, actively living in a complete state of alternate reality. This can be somewhat confusing due to the fact that when dealing with this new reality, we have no inventory, or no analogy for comparison, or no compass to guide us, the way a toddler has no real compass to guide him/her through the “real” world. If we practice, we can find a point of origin and function in alternate realities. Scientifically speaking, this crosses the border in to string theory, or M theory, where several membranes of reality can be accessed, all of which are complete and total realities where we all exist every day. We just don’t realize it. I’ve been at this about 7 years now and have not been practicing the way I should be but my “every day” life has to be treated as the only reality, otherwise I’d be insane and unable to accomplish even the smallest feats. Why would I worry about paying bills if this is all just a dream anyway? So I pretend that my waking life is the only real one. Fortunately, my other lives, or realities, supply me with an infinite amount of experiences, which I then translate into stories. This is why my books are so awesome. *winks*. If I may add, there was an episode of Star Trek TNG where Picard went into a dreamworld and lived an entire lifespan. When he returned to his normal reality, he had all those experiences. I too have lived complete and total lives in dreams and treat those dreams as truths.

Nimue: Tell us about your books?

My first real book was Shadowman, which started off as one short story that everybody seemed to like. I finished it around June of 2011 and was looking to get it published in a magazine or something. At that time, I didn’t know the first thing about being an author or publishing and found a self publishing company. They touted that no one nowadays can get published, it’s all self publishing, it’s the only way to go, real authors get self published and panderers with lots of money hire literary agents and they only care about money. Well it seemed fine to me. Figured I’d go self pubb’d first and learn the ropes. First I needed to expound on the story. Since I left it open-ended, it wasn’t difficult.

Shadowman is four consecutive shorts revolving around an unnamed protagonist and the story is told from his perspective. It starts with our man hanging out in New Orleans, where he witnesses a murder. The dead man relinquishes some power and it possesses our protagonist, who we will call Adja. The young man wakes up in the house of an old Creole woman. She explains the practice of Voodoo to Adja and guides him throughout his journey.

As it turns out, the dead man was her grandson. Once he passed his power on to Adja, he became a Shadowman and took on her grandson’s quest, the quest to kill Snake, an evil Shadowman. With each story, Adja gains new abilities and some new friends. Together, they go in search of objects of power, spirits, and all kinds of crazy things. So my neat little book was finished. Keep in mind I only started writing a few months prior. Some 5 thousand dollars, I sold about 90 dollars worth of my book, it was poorly edited, poorly promoted, and too expensive.

So I took to writing some Science Fiction. I have had enough dreams involving aliens and their complete worlds and chose one piece in particular that I’ve always liked. When I was 12 I had a dream that I was partnered up with a team of aliens, who were looking for a second race of aliens in order to battle a third race of aliens. This became the premise of Lokians, which was not originally a series. The more I played with it, the more I was able to add pieces of other dreams. The Lokians became the insect-monsters, which once chased me around an enormous and empty lab of sorts. A mindless antagonist has its benefits. You know you can’t reason with it. just kill it. From another dream, I created the Thewls. Originally, their heads and faces were different but too difficult to describe, so we have our Skeleton-faced Thewls now. The travelers I took right out of the original dream, a blue, ape-like people frozen in ice. After the original ending, I re-read the story and decided I had much more to tell, so I changed it, and started the series, the first being Book1 Beyond the End of the World. I tried to get it published for months but no one was biting. Finally I found Eternal Press and they were kind enough to say Hey, it’s a little info dumpy at the beginning, So I said, No problem and moved a few things around.

The sequel, Book 2 They Lurk Among Us, will be released November 1st. It picks up a few months after our heroes curbed the Lokian threat. As the name implies, the main topic is aliens ensconced inside Earth government. For this novel, I used some of the well known alien races, such as the Grays, the big-headed gray guys, and the Reptilians, large, lizard-like aliens. This one, unlike the first, has much more suspense and intrigue. Beyond the End of the World is more of an action/thriller, so I tried to write it at a pace that was nearly overwhelming. They Lurk Among Us is provided from many perspectives, which was a challenge, but I think I nailed it. There are so many things going on all at once, and everyone is slowly moving towards a conflict, so I thought a different perspective from chapter to chapter was interesting. We’ll see how people like it.

Finally, I’m working on the third Lokians novel, Book 3 For War and Glory. This is not a trilogy but I will take a pause for the cause once the third one is done to work on some other projects. One of these is a full-length novel based on one of my own shorts, Expedition, available at smashwords.

Nimue: Aaaaand point me at some websites

Aaron: Forgot to add, I have since cancelled my POD contract for Shadowman and it is now available through Damnation Books. At any rate, thanks for everything and point people to my website. Everything is available there. http://www.dennisauthor.com  this was fun
Find me on Twitter @authaarondennis
http://towriteawrong.blogspot.com (where the interview with me is going!)

Thanks Aaron!