The Roots of Northern European Shamanism

To begin to uncover the remnants of shamanic culture in Northern Europe, we need to go back to the Neolithic or New Stone Age.  This is the period that saw the transition from hunting and gathering to farming of cereal grains and the keeping of animals.  While this shift began after the end of the last period of glaciation, approximately 12,000 BC, the time frame of wide-scale flourishing of settled agriculture in the region began around 7,000-6,500 BC.

Venus of Willendorf

What we know about the indigenous, “Old European” culture of the Neolithic, is based upon archeological interpretation of the artifacts they left behind.  The late anthropologist, Marija Gimbutas studied these artifacts looking for the clues about the original European culture. During her field work, she reported that she found “beautiful painted pottery” and hundreds of female-figured sculptures. This material was very different from artifacts that were found in the layers with more recent dates.  Based on these clues, she postulated that a female-honoring culture–honoring the energies of creativity, continuity and fertility–persisted in Europe from the Paleolithic Age (35,000 B.C.) and continued for millennia.

It was Gimbutas’ belief that these female sculptural images implied veneration of a creatrix/earth goddess.  In her further work she discovered several other forms of the goddess which encompassed the fundamental phases/passages of continuance–Life, Death and Regeneration.  She grouped the goddesses of Old Europe into images of the the Life-Giver Goddess–which include representations of a figure giving birth, the Nourisher/Protector Goddess–included in these categories are pregnant images, and the Goddess of Death and Regeneration.  Some of these figures were represented as not solely human-shaped, but with animal or bird features implying the interconnection of all Nature. In other words, every thing and creature was a part of the Goddess.  She was depicted in a variety of forms and yet all of them were aspects of a singular Archetypal Feminine Deity. This goddess imagery persisted in Europe for 30-40,000 years into the late Neolithic/early Copper Age.

According to Gimbutas, about 4,000 BC, the first wave of horseback riding “Kurgan” people arrived in Europe migrating from their homeland in South-Central Asia far to the East.  While we cannot ever be sure about why these Proto-Indo-European herders began to move their flocks and families westward, there may be clues in the global climate record.

The Earth experienced a rapid cooling event that peaked approximately 8,000 years ago dropping the overall temperature about 3 degrees Celsius. A climate change of this kind would have affected everyone living during that time, however since the Kurgan people had domesticated the horse and were nomadic, they had the ability to pick up and move in search of “greener pastures.” This search took them westward and into the seat of the Old European culture.

Based on the archeological record, these Kurgans or Proto-Indo-Europeans had a more male-focused, warrior culture that was quite different from the one of the Old European culture. They honored Sky Gods as they primary deities and their artifacts include stone weapons/implements such as daggers, axes, spears and arrowheads. This is quite different from objects gathered in excavations of the indigenous Old European settlements where archeologists found no warfare imagery or weapon artifacts.  In fact, sites from the earlier period have been excavated across Europe and no examples of daggers or swords have ever been found.

The meeting of these two vastly different cultures must have been a time of terrific intensity!  Given what we understand about human nature, conflict would have been inevitable when such different mythic and social paradigms collided–particularly if it occurred during a period of environmental changes.  If the struggles weren’t physical in nature then our ancestors must have at least experienced intellectual and emotional turmoil.

Whatever the case, over time the people came to an uneasy compromise so that a kind of hybridized culture eventually arose among the groups–becoming the Indo-European culture we recognize today.  According to Ralph Metzner in his essay, “Sky Gods and Earth Deities,” “During the hundreds, even thousands of years of cultural interaction there was undoubtedly not only conquest, assimilation and superimposition of an alien religion, but also intermarriage of peoples, a blending and combining of religious and mythic images.”

Examining Northern European mythology, we can clearly see reflections of this clashing of cultures and blending of mythologies between the Proto-Indo-European Kurgan invaders and the Old European cultures. For instance, the ancient Norse/Germanic mythic traditions honor two distinct families of deities.  These are the Vanir and the Aesir. In the myths, these two different clans or families of gods and goddesses are often at odds with each other and even engage in warfare.

9 Worlds Diagram ©2013 Spirit Passages

When we look at the two groups of deities, we can see reflections of the cultural diversity that existed between the two groups of people in Europe.  In addition, they can give us clues about cultural perceptions that must have evolved during the time when the two cultures met. This time period would have been experienced differently by the “invading” Proto-Indo-European tribes from the East and the aboriginal populations of Old Europe who “resisted” the assimilation.  What seems clear, however is that the resulting blended culture was left with two, conflictual perceptual frameworks locked into its psyche.

The Vanir is the clan of earth, sea and nature deities.  They include Njörd, god of the sea who is the father of the Vanir which include, Freyr and Freyja. The realm of the Vanir is Vanaheim which lies in the west.  Their sphere of influence includes connections with the elves/air spirits (in Ljossalheim), the dwarves/stone spirits (of Svartalfheim), the Nature elementals of ice/cold and heat/fire (Niflheim and Muspellheim, respectively).  If we look at this through the lens of traditional shamanic views of the spirit world, the Vanir have their connections and associations in Middle World and Lower World.  In other words, they are more closely aligned with the Old European, earth and nature worshiping traditions.

Of this group, the Goddess Freyja may be seen as an excellent representative.  Having a complex series of traits, Freyja bears a resemblance to the aboriginal European Earth Goddess. She is the goddess of fertility, love, beauty, attraction and wealth.  She was also the goddess of war, battle, death, magic and prophesy.  In her role as goddess of prophesy, Freyja has ties to the Norns or Fates who control destiny and on whom all the deities pay homage.  The Norns are the “Three Wyrd Sisters” who are described in the Icelandic Poetic Edda–a collection of Old Norse mythic tales–as giantesses.  This is an important clue to their identity, as giants are thought to be progenitor beings who existed before the gods/goddesses. (This is a view that is common to other European cultures such as the Celts.) The Norns were said to have come out of the giant’s realm of Jötunheim to limit the god/goddesses’ powers and to act as protective spirits for the people of earth.

The oldest Norn, Urd draws the threads of existence from the void and passes them to her sister, Verdandi.  It is she who weaves. The last and youngest sister, Skuld is the one who eventually cuts the weave and sends energy back into the formless.  In their triple aspect, these sisters reflect the threefold face of the ancient earth goddess–maiden/mother/crone, life-giver/nurturer/destroyer.

Cover Spirit Passages’ CD, “Norse Oracle” http://www.spiritpassages.com

Freyja also encompasses these energies in that she holds sway over fertility/love and battle/death.  In addition, she is capable of viewing that which the Norns weave in her role as goddess of magic and prophesy.  Those women that acted in the role of seer or völva in Old Norse culture were acting as Freyja in that they too, were able to see the strands of the Norns’ weaving.  As goddess of prophesy, Freyja is the primordial shaman being able to see that which others cannot. Interestingly, among the tribes of peoples scattered across Siberia all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the primordial or first shaman is also most commonly seen as a magical woman.

The Æsir are the gods and goddesses of the sky.  They reside in Asgard which is high above the other realms like the shamanic Upper World. Among this clan, Odin is the chief and since the Vanir were dominated by the Æsir, he held sway over them as well.

Icelandic Door

According to the Eddas, the runic alphabet was a gift from Odin. A selection from the Eddas tells of their discovery. Odin hangs for  nights upon the World Tree, Yggdrasil.  In hanging himself from the World Tree, Odin’s story echoes the ancient Siberian shamanic ritual of hanging those who would be initiated as shamans from great poles or trees.  It was believed that from this lofty position the initiates could gain access to the spirits.  Odin hung on the tree for nine days and nights–one day and night for each one of the Northern European spiritual realms. Through his suffering, he experiences what may be best described as the shaman’s death.  His old self is sacrificed.  He transcends death so that he may gain knowledge.  On the ninth day on the Great Tree, Odin has a vision of the runes hovering below him.  With his last remaining strength, he tears himself from the tree and literally grasps his vision.  Screaming, he scoops up the runes and falls back to the Earth.  His scream marks the moment he passed through the doorway of initiation into a new way of being.

The word ‘rune’ means ‘whisper,’ or ‘secret wisdom.’  Once Odin had the runes–what we can think of as raw knowledge, he had to learn how to use them.  Unlike Freyja, who represents the divine original shaman, Odin reflects that to become a shaman requires transformation.  In Odin’s case, to become “wise” it was necessary for him to make a further sacrifice.  In order to see/understand knowledge and transform it into wisdom, Odin sacrifices one of his eyes for a drink from the Well of Remembrance.  This well contains all ancestral, primordial wisdom and is guarded by the giant Mimir whose name has it’s root in the word “memory.”  Odin’s sacrifice of his ordinary sight–symbolizes the perceptual shift that is necessary for all seers to accomplish their work.  That is, seers and shaman require the ability to shift into a non-ordinary, visionary way of “seeing” to accomplish their calling.   His wounds taught him compassion for others.  These experiences give him the tools to be a healer, the kind we refer to as “wounded healer” or shaman. In addition, perhaps his looking into the Well of Memory reminds us that even the Proto-Indo-European cultures may have an older shamanic belief system not unlike that of the indigenous Old Europeans.

© 2010/2013 Evelyn C. Rysdyk

“Oracles, Runes and Rituals” an experiential workshop which explores more of this material will be held on March 23 & 24 in Maine. Here is more information:

Oracles Runes Rituals 2013

© 2013 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author of Spirit Walking a Course in Shamanic Power and Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path, Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether through face-to-face contact with individual patients, workshop groups and conference participants, or through the printed word–Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives. In joint practice with Allie Knowlton as Spirit Passages, her web site is http://www.spiritpassages.com.


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