Wiccatru, Folk Magic, and Neo-Shamanism Reconstructing mysticism in Nordic pagan traditions

Wiccatru, Folk Magic, and
Reconstructing the historical roots of magic and mysticism in Nordic
pagan traditions
I originally set out to explore the historical precedent for folk magic, shamanic practice, and
mysticism in a Heathen context. The impetus for this research grew out of debates in
modern-day Heathenry regarding the validity of including magical and mystical elements in a
reconstruction of Heathen praxis and worldview. Reconstructionist methods seek to provide
both a historical foundation and an inspiration for modern Heathen practice, yet many lay
researchers and practitioners overlook, disregard, or are simply unaware of historical
precedents for these elements in Heathen practice.
A common pejorative leveled at heathens who seek to include folk magic, ritual formulae, or
direct contact with deities in their practice of Asatru or Heathen faith is “Wiccatru”: that the
inclusion of such elements derives primarily from modern 19th- and 20th-century British and
American Wicca, and therefore that some, most, or even all practices involving folk magic and
mystical experience are invalid as reconstructionist practices. Furthermore, this paper steps
back to examine why modern practitioners or would-be adherents of Heathenry are drawn to
incorporate such elements in the first place.
Methodologically, this paper draws together common threads from existing scholarly works to
connect and explain in accessible terms common elements between historical practice and
modern derivations of folk magic and mysticism in Heathenry, and their relationship to such
practices as Wicca and Neo-Shamanism. Finally, it offers recommendations towards an
integrative approach for those seeking to more accurately reconstruct and revive traditional
Heathen magical or mystical practice for themselves and their communities.
Brief Bio:
Dara Grey began exploring new religious and mystical pathways at an early age and found a
home in Heathenry at the beginning of 2009 with Diana Paxson’s Hrafnar kindred based out
of Berkeley, California. She continues to research and explore the faith through building
inclusive Heathen community, diving deeper into literary and scholarly sources, and engaging
in personal devotional practice in her new home of Portland Oregon.
This paper arose from debates in online forums devoted to Heathen/Asatru cultural and spiritual
debate over the past decade. From these scattered (and often heated) discussions, my
research to create this specific paper has generated a volume of research on pertinent topics for
the modern evolution of Heathen religion -- much broader than the initial scope. My purpose
here is to refute two endlessly repeated talking points: The first, that magical, or mystical, or
shamanic practices played no legitimate role in the day to day life of everyday people in
pre-Christian pagan Northern Europe. Secondly that these practices and beliefs play no
legitimate role in modern “reconstructionist” practice of Northern European paganism, popularly
termed “Heathenry” and which encompasses a broad range of styles in neo-pagan religious
practices, such as Asatru, Forn Sidr or Forn Sed, Theodism, Odinism, etc.
In both research and writing, I’ve ranged far beyond strictly or exclusively Northern European
studies into arenas of general analysis of culture, modernity, and religion, spiritual practices,
and shamanism. This provides broader perspective that is often overlooked with focusing so
narrowly on Northern European archaeology or historical anthropology, and which I believe
informs a more holistic perspective on some of the areas of such concern in Heathenry today.
The title word of this piece, “Wiccatru,” is included specifically to break down what exactly its
users mean by the term, and further, to distinguish between Wiccan or generic neo-pagan ritual
and magical practices and those which stem from Germanic and/or Nordic roots. Finally, by
synthesizing evidence of historical Germanic mystic tradition and shamanic practice and
comparing these elements with what is commonly incorporated from Wicca, this paper intends
to set forth ideas for further reconstructing and reviving Germanic pagan practice as a living
Before I break down these elements, I wish to discuss the limitations inherent in my research. I
worked under several limits; the first is that I am an amateur scholar, and without any fluency in
the mother languages of Northern Europe, I was unable to access many of the source materials
directly. My research therefore depends, with gratitude, on the secondary analysis of the works
of a number of actual scholars, whose works are credited with thanks in the bibliography.
The second limitation was simply time. I first conceived of writing this paper in October of 2017,
and the deadline for submitting and presenting it was this July. The more I looked for source
material, the more tantalizing were the trails and source materials I found. Many scholars
attempting a work of such depth and breadth might take many years to write, review, and
finalize a paper or publication; and I have been humbled by the limits of available time and my
own endurance in how much I could accomplish. Therefore, I invite readers to view this as
nothing more than what it is: an initial review of secondary and where possible primary source
materials, limited by time and scope and shaped with particular aims in mind. Fortunately, I did
not have to search in vain nor was there any need to selectively ignore evidence contrary to my
purpose; much well-researched and well-informed material was readily found in scholarly
contexts. This paper attempts simply to synthesize and streamline this scholarly material, drawn
both from the usually-suspected time frames and cultures, as well as from related disciplines of
religious and cultural anthropology not directly related to either Heathen or Wiccan practice, and
make it accessible in plain language for a broader audience. If you would know more, or what, I
welcome investigation of my source materials directly.
In initial explorations to uncover what exactly was meant by “Wiccatru” and what was or wasn’t
Germanic or Nordic in origin, I found myself falling back on larger questions. As Wicca is
primarily known as a system of magic or magical practice in common sense terms, I had to ask,
what, exactly, is magic? How is magic different from religion? If a ritual is performed, what
makes it a religious ritual rather than a magical one? The boundaries seem very clear according
to the understandings laid out by Emile Durkheim, James Frazer, Rodney Stark, Charles Glock,
and William Bainbridge, but in actual practice, and in examining the corpus of material having to
do with Northern European paganism specifically, the boundaries are still much fuzzier than
suggested by abstract semantic gymnastics.
Referencing Stark and Glock’s studies, they identified and then further refined five distinct key
dimensions of religion:
1. Belief: the expectation that the religious person will accept certain doctrines as true.
2. Practice: acts of worship and devotion directed toward the supernatural. Two important
a. Ritual: formal ceremonies, rites, and sacred activities (communal).
b. Devotional: informal, often spontaneous, and frequently done in private.
3. Experience: individual belief that they have achieved direct, subjective contact with the
4. Knowledge: expectation that people will know and understand central elements of their
religious culture.
5. Consequences: taboos or prohibitions and the consequences for violating them. Rules on
how to behave this way and not that way.
Stark and Glock’s further empirical research found that there is significant independence
between these different dimensions of religious commitment, and that people who rank high on
one are not necessarily highly ranked on another. Stark and Bainbridge further posit, citing
Durkheim, that magic does not concern itself with the meaning of the universe, but only with the
manipulation of the universe for specific goals. Frazer and Mauss (Marcel Mauss, the nephew
and protege of Emile Durkheim) distinguished as well between religion and magic, that religion
involves ‘a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and
control the course of nature and human life,’ whereas magic, according to Stephen Wilson, is
more a spiritual technology, ‘so long as the ritual or formula is correctly performed, the effects of
magic are thought to be automatic.’
Further complicating the debate is the question of what exactly religion and magic are, and
whether they are separate and distinct or on a continuum of vaguely defined spiritual or
metaphysical experience? Wilson observes that collective rituals in pre-modern Europe did have
a magical aspect to them, that magical behavior corresponds to social consensus and reflects a
social need.
Mary Douglas compares and evaluates religion and magic, generically supernatural beliefs,
along different lines: those of holiness and pollution, advanced or primitive. After absolutely
demolishing the fundamental proposition of separating sacred (religion) from profane (magical),
she unifies the concepts on a continuum by examining them both through the lens of ritual as
symbolic of social processes, and from which perspective, consistency in worldview represented
by both religious belief and magical belief can be seen as obeying the same rules regarding
purity and uncleanliness. Take, for example, the pre-modern European folk practice of circling
fields with fire for apotropaic or cleansing purposes. These were incorporated by the Church
very early on to replace the pagan cultic practices, by which we can take that the powers called
on may have been Christ or the saints rather than pagan gods or land spirits, but the practice
itself remained unchanged. Chanting prayers or litanies involves an aspect of propitiatory belief,
that by such actions holy powers might be enjoined to deliver protection and blessings of
fertility; yet in the element of implicit certainty that taking these actions each year at particular
times and in particular ways was necessary to secure these blessings, we can see the definition
of magical spiritual technology at play as well.
In experiential practice we can draw no clear defining line to separate the two. Both religion and
magic can be seen as aspects of handling or working with supernatural forces or greater powers
- seeking to influence that which cannot be done or obtained or known by ordinary physical or
social means by use of rituals, symbols, spoken or written words, charged with energy and
intent. Ritual can call on deities for specific purposes in a personal context (blessings for
strength in battle, protection in battle, thanks for good harvest - either in advance or after the
fact); rituals can be non-deity-focused but communal and have an intended magico-religious
significance (jumping fires at Midsummer, staying up all night to tend the fire at Midwinter,
walking the bounds of a field or ritual space with fire, placing tokens beneath stones or pillars at
sacred sites, etc.). Rituals may be private affairs, too: setting out a bowl of milk or porridge for
landwights (Jochens, Dowden); rune-risting (Havamal); making an offering at a spring or holy
tree (Dowden); charging stones with energy; personal and private devotion to a deity or deities
(Polome; Íslendingabók).
The existence of shamanic practices, documented as such by both Mircea Eliade and Neil Price
in the Northern European traditions, further complicates the picture and takes us into realms
where again the boundaries between religious belief and magical practice blur. Eliade cogently
observed in his seminal work on shamanism that:
“In the archaic cultures communication between sky and earth is ordinarily used to send
offerings to the celestial gods and not for a concrete and personal ascent; the latter
remains the prerogative of shamans. Only they know how to make an ascent through the
“central opening”; only they transform a cosmo-theological concept into a concrete
mystical experience. This point is important. It explains the difference between, for
example, the religious life of a North Asian people and the religious experience of its
shamans; the latter is a personal and ecstatic experience. In other words, what for the
rest of the community remains a cosmological ideogram, for the shamans (and heroes,
etc.) becomes a mystical itinerary.”
In his review of various cultural examples of shamanism, Eliade highlights the imagery in Norse
mythology and the sagas of Northern Indo-European shamanic techniques: Odin’s role as
seeker of knowledge, speaker with the dead, and rider of the tree; Yggdrasil as World Tree;
journeying to the underworld; Utiseta or out-sitting, specifically at crossroads or on
grave-mounds to gain supernatural knowledge, and Sleipnir as eight-footed shamanic steed,
found by other names in other circum-polar shamanic traditions. Neil Price, in The Viking Way
(2002), presents textual accounts of divinatory specialists associated with the Old Norse term
seidr and correlates them with grave findings that suggest forms of shamanism, known
collectively as seidr, were operational among Scandinavians during this period. While many
prior analyses have treated the literary sources with caution as more or less fantastical and of
doubtful use in determining actual ritual practices, Price’s archaeological surveys recover the
historical basis, and finds that probable seidr practitioners were buried with ritual objects and
apparent reverence that point to a role as valued religious specialists.
Jennifer Snook’s work on modern American Heathenry highlights the ongoing tensions and
debates around defining what exactly belongs in Heathen praxis which might count as a “valid”
or “authentic” for Heathenry. Part of the difficulty in determining what exactly was believed or
practiced in various contexts in pre-Christian Northern Europe lies in the efforts of Christian
churchmen and the missionary kings to eradicate these very practices, in many cases by laying
out legal prohibitions whose punishments could be quite severe (outlawry, dispossession, high
fines, execution). Although excellent research has been done recently in merging the analysis of
recent archaeological findings with perspective from historical anthropology, much is left to
ontological indeterminacy: that the fundamental nature, or ontological status of the source of
information cannot be decided definitely because the available information or observations can
be interpreted in many ways, and there is therefore no absolute method to determine which
interpretations may be best. Lastly, much of the modern research done to illuminate
pre-Christian Northern European cultural practice and beliefs is highly academic and
inaccessible to many Heathen or would-be Heathen practitioners, due to difficulty in locating the
material itself, language barriers, heavily academic terminology and structure in the work, or the
high cost to obtain copies of the research. All of this contributes to the tension and argument
over what is authentically Heathen and what is not, with identity wars taking place over validity
of practice.
“Wiccatru”, as Snook observes and which my own surveys bear out, is taken to be largely
pejorative, with implications of inauthenticity of practice, unnecessary high drama, cultural
appropriation, lack of education, and a lack of care as to whether one’s practice actually fits
within a Heathen framework or worldview. However, I found it useful to question why exactly
might my co-religionists be drawn toward incorporating such elements into their practice in the
first place? I posit here that the reasons are several-fold: that elements of Wicca speak to
certain of the key aspects of religious life as defined by Stark and Glock in a way that the
readily-available sources on pre-Christian Northern European practices do not; that Heathen
adherents coming from Wicca are more accustomed to creativity in filling gaps in tradition with
whatever feels most meaningful for them; that the sources which might fill those gaps more
authentically are either practically inaccessible or entirely lost to time, and that all of these
contribute to taking up elements which cannot be strictly traced back to Northern European
practices. Ironically, what many pagans are doing today is more or less the same as what
peasants were observed doing over centuries of recorded folklore: adapting bits and pieces of
belief and practice from here and there, from this tradition or that framework as they deemed
best, or as those pieces were regarded to be relevant and effective (Wilson).
In trying to pin down what exactly goes into modern reconstructed (not borrowed!) Heathen
praxis I found it useful to place what I personally know and have observed into a comparative
matrix vis-a-vis Stark and Glock’s key elements of religion to see where any gaps might exist.
Element of Religion
Examples in modern Heathenry (with source,
if available)
In general:
- Existence of the Gods, Dwarves,
Landvaettir, etc. Ancestor worship.
Notable, however, that many modern
Heathens have trouble taking the
existence of any of these beings other
than ancestors as literal.
- Values as showcased by the Sagas
(NNV is a common example, although
many Heathens quibble over their
accuracy or comprehensiveness)
- Cosmology of Yggdrasil and the Nine
Worlds (although again here as
above, many regard this as mere
a) Rituals (communal, social)
b) Devotionals (usually private)
- Blot (sacrifice - although many
contestations over what is deemed an
acceptable sacrifice)
- Faining (blessing, often used with
similar meaning to blot when there’s
no blood sacrifice)
- Sumbel/Symbel (passing a horn of
drink ritually to recognize deities,
ancestors/land spirits, and to toast or
boast the living)
- Seidr or Spae (prophesying or divining
for the community in a public or
semi-public context)
- Private observances (adherents have
no consensus on what these “should”
look like or even whether they actually
took place historically, although the
story of Thorgeir Lawspeaker in
Iceland’s conversion, and a few
references from the sagas, Church
writings, and early laws indicate they
did exist. In modern practice, rune
reading, rune galdr, meditations,
offerings to house spirits, land spirits,
- Trance possessory events
(uncommon in modern practice,
usually not private but in small groups
by invitation only)
Contentious! This ranges from claimed
personal revelation from Northern European
deities, landwights, alfar/disir to simply feeling
a sense of connection with the divine in
Heathen ritual as described above. Often,
personal experiences are derided as “UPG”
(Unverified Personal Gnosis) or the delusions
of those who want to be “special” by
Heathens who don’t feel connection or
presence of any/all of these types of spiritual
At a basic level​: Eddas and Sagas, popular
authors such as Paxson, Thorsson, et al.
Intermediate​: Old or public domain
scholarship, lay scholarship such as
published in Idunna or Odroerir or on private
websites, familiarity with online “authorities”
Advanced​: modern academic scholarship,
cross-disciplinary insights, deep knowledge
across basic and intermediate sources
Shunning or ostracization; subject of negative
gossip; being labeled “fluffy”, “woo-woo”,
“Wiccatru”, or similar; harsh criticism; “You’re
doing it wrong!”
Some elements of this matrix are more fully fleshed out than others. All this hints at, but leaves
unanswered thus far why adherents or practitioners of Heathenry would incorporate elements
from other traditions into their personal practice or group thew (“way”), having the benefit of a
great deal of modern research and reflexivity at their disposal, unlike the common people of the
past. Jennifer Snook’s research on American Heathenry, contrasted with Helen Berger’s
research on Neopagans (specifically Wiccans), further joined with Mary Douglas’ studies and
insights on purity and pollution and Anthony Giddens’ work on key aspects of modernity, provide
us with some answers.
In American Heathens, Snook addresses the anxiety and frustration felt by a number of her
respondents in differentiating Heathenry from Wicca. She describes, often in the words of those
interviewed, that Wicca is felt to be eclectic, loosely defined, untraditional, overly dramatic or
overly involved in “high ritual,” “fluffy,” “woo-woo,” appropriative, based on “whatever feels
good,” undisciplined, and so forth. Furthermore, at several points she returns to condensing the
impression given by her respondents that all of these negative attributes are associated with
femininity, liberal politics, and general flakiness. She further notes that authentic mystical
practices ‘under the Heathen umbrella’ became viewed with suspicion due to the association of
magic and mysticism with Wiccan, and “therefore feminine, liberal, and less authentic” influence.
In complement to this, Berger’s study of neopagans, with an emphasis on Wiccans and
practitioners of ceremonial magic, showcases these eclectic and arguably appropriative faith
paths as creative, flexible, and re-inventive in ways which match the requirements of a
disembedded, reflexive modern mindset.
Giddens’ work, as considered here, is focused on the consequences of modernity in social
relations, mind-set, economics, politics - the entire human sphere. Although he doesn’t
specifically discuss religion in detail, his framework provides a means for understanding the
vastly different ways which modern humans relate to their social, physical, and even interior
mental environments. Key in his conceptual advances are reflexivity - the process of analyzing
and reflecting on thought and action, even while undertaking either process - and
disembedding, “the “lifting out” of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their
restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space.” He further notes that while in pre-modern
civilizations reflexivity is limited to interpreting and re-interpreting solely the traditions of the past,
and evaluating all causes and events on this scale, in modernity reflexivity is constant and
forces reevaluation on a daily basis, since routine no longer has any intrinsic connections with
the past - that is, it is disembedded from a continuity or any traditional/constant context. Lastly,
and most relevant to any discussion of reconstruction of Heathenry as a tradition, “ justified
tradition is tradition in sham clothing and receives its identity only from the reflexivity of the
There are two further salient points affecting, in general, the societal view in general of
witchcraft: the first, as noted by Jenny Jochens, is that with the advent of Christianity, magic
became unacceptable to the dominant religion. Scandinavian prohibitions against magic in law
codes immediately follow prohibitions of sacrifices to or worship of Pagan gods. In examining
folkloric sources, I myself observed how the tenor of reference to consulting the Sami, even the
Sami themselves, moved from simple consultation of an expert in the field of spiritual
intercession, to something forbidden and dangerous, such that by the time folktales are
recorded from the early modern period, all “Finns” or “Lapps” (a somewhat derogatory term
given by the Norwegians to the Sami) are referred to as cursed or damned beings who are born
into pacts with the devil.
Mary Douglas, after extensive review of many cultures’ views on witchcraft as a covert, harmful,
or malign practice (or all three!), as opposed to the sanctioned and lawful, beneficial use of
spiritual power, concludes that “Witchcraft, then, is found in the non-structure. Witches are
social equivalents of beetles and spiders who live in the cracks of the walls and wainscoting.
They attract the fears and dislikes which other ambiguities and contradictions attract in other
thought structures, and the kind of powers attributed to them symbolize their ambiguous,
inarticulate status.”
Lastly, since much of the historical, textual and anthropological record of pre-Christian Northern
European religious practice is lost, we will likely never know for certain what vardlokkur actually
sounded like or contained; we may never know at all what forms of private practice Thorgeir
Lawspeaker theoretically permitted the Icelandic people to practice in private; or any other
number of things. It is into these gaps for which Wiccan, or other practices, appear to fill a need
for various forms of self-fulfillment and religious expression. Douglas’ primary aim was to identify
cultural practices in the context of religious or spiritual belief which spoke to holiness or
acceptable practices and pollution. Situations in which social boundaries are unclear or
unsettled, and in which there are no binding consequences for violating perceived boundaries,
prompt pollution-rejection actions of various sorts (denouncement, shunning, even violence).
The reactions of those using the term Wiccatru, and indeed the existence of the term itself as a
pejorative, strongly indicate that Heathen communities are using it as a social tool to prevent
Coupled with Snook’s observation that many Heathens self-identify as socially and culturally
conservative (borne out in part by the results of the Worldwide Heathen Survey carried out in
2016 by Huginn’s Heathen Hof), this fundamental uncertainty around precise boundaries of the
acceptable, along with a desire to be seen as masculine and good (and therefore accepted)
rather than feminine and derided, may explain at least some of the anxiety around Wiccan
themes or principles, in practice or in actuality, ‘tainting’ Heathenry.
Interestingly enough, in this same vein although in a context far removed from modernity, is
Jenny Jochens’ classifications of Norse women in textual evidence into four general types or
● Warriors
● Prophetesses/Seeresses
● Avengers
Whetters (Inciters)
So although a significant traditional societal role appears to have been played by women with
the power of prophecy or divining, many modern Heathens still reject these activities as not
socially or communally acceptable. I surmise that the simple evidence of women as spiritually
powerful and culturally regarded in historical practice may not be enough to overcome the
simple psychological math that feminine = bad which is so prevalent in modern Western
What are some of the differences, and what are some similarities between Wicca and
reconstructed Heathen practice? Is there a way to tell any element of ritual or personal practice
belongs to one and not the other? In an effort to separate the two, I’ve drawn up the following
matrix, with the caution that this is not an exhaustive catalog of all traits of either path!
Wiccan or Ceremonial Magic
Generic or specific God and Goddess,
but usually only one of each; distinct
divinities are seen as aspects of
generic God or Goddess and may be
interchangeable in a given rite based
on season, whimsy, etc.
Core focus on magic, mystical
thinking, and transformation of self
Delineating ritual or sacred space by
use of “calling the quarters”
Emphasis on ritual as magical working
(sometimes devoted to a specific
material end, other times devoted to a
deity or divine power)
Specific mandatory ritual tools: cup,
blade, wand, pentacle (cord, censer)
Sharing of sanctified cakes and wine
as ritual meal
Ecstatic action to “raise energy” to
define the circle
Accepting of any and all pantheons
and local terms for land spirits
Degrees of initiation; clear hierarchy
Play and creativity prized in
developing new and interesting rituals
and practices
Each human as possessed of divinity
Destiny can be known and controlled
Northern European Pagan
Specific and distinct Gods and
Goddesses; NOT interchangeable
Distinct cosmological structure:
Yggdrasil as World Tree or Axis
Mundi; Nine Worlds as specific places
Delineating ritual or sacred space by
walking the bounds with fire, use of a
cord and stakes, asperging with water
or blood
Belief that ritual serves community
Use of mead, ale, honey water,
switchel, etc. as ritual drink; usually
passed around the circle in a horn
Blades or other weapons traditionally
forbidden in community ritual space
(Concept of shared “luck” held by the
Acknowledgement and respect to
ancestors as part of ritual practice
Distinct terminology for “land spirits”:
huldrefolk, landvaettir, alfar, tomte,
No initiatory rituals or passages
needed to participate in or lead rituals
Magic seen as traditionally a female
(Destiny (wyrd, orlog, haminja) is
inherited and/or set and can be
changed only by great effort, if at all)
(Specific types of magic: galdr
[magical songs], divination by runes,
weather magic, drumming and/or
singing to invoke trance and/or
attention of non-human spiritual
Elements found in both realms
Delineating ritual space in some way
Divinatory practices
Belief in sentient spiritual beings other than humankind
Acknowledgement of, and respect for, spirits of the land
Claiming the religion is based on ancient tradition
Worldview and cosmological framework provides a basis for differentiating uniquely Heathen
practice from those elements borrowed from other traditions. In advocating for a
reconstructionist basis for revival or revitalization of historic seidr practices, I wish to emphasize
clearly that this is not to be mistaken for advocating generic “neo-shamanic” practices.
Neo-shamanism bears three key identifying characteristics, according to DuBois: a ​choice​ to
follow a shamanic path; a focus on the ​individual j​ ourney rather than mediating the supernatural
for a community; and a ​lack of shared cosmology o
​ r framework​.​ Granted, that in a religion
mostly chosen by its adherents, having few generations born and raised to it, there will be
modern seidr practitioners who feel they have chosen the path rather than the path having
chosen them as in traditional societies. However, the performance of seidr for the Heathen
community (either locally, or at large, or both) coupled with the cosmological framework of
Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds bind modern efforts at reconstructing Northern European
shamanic practice within a more traditional framework generally and indeed, to a specifically
Heathen worldview.
Returning again to Eliade, Price, and Jochens, we see the following:
Northern European pre-Christian cosmology still retains the essential framework of a
specific, named cosmic World Tree (Yggdrasil), along with different levels or otherworldly
arenas of existence (the nine worlds).
Traditionally, women were seen as having natural or enhanced capabilities in the areas
of vision and prophecy, and played roles from central to culture (community priestess,
family priestess) to marginal (wandering seeress).
Shamanic practices such as trance, singing, drumming, etc are documented from
pre-Christian Northern European cultures in various ways from textual to archaeological.
Therefore, I posit the following:
● That examination of the textual and archaeological records, while advancing steadily, is
on one hand sufficient to provide an outline of culture and worldview, it is not exhaustive;
● That following only what is known for certain will allow for reconstruction of a limited
folkway, but one with significant gaps in fulfilling living spiritual needs;
● But that taking up nearly-universal shamanic techniques again within the specific
worldview and cosmology of pre-Christian Northern European paganism provides a
potential path forward from this impasse while building upon an accepted, authentic, and
culturally-specific cosmology.
Thomas DuBois, in writing on shamanism and specifically tackling revival of nearly- or
recently-extirpated shamanic traditions and indigenous religious practices, takes on a number of
studies of tribes which have attempted a revival of lost or very nearly lost traditions. The two
examples which hold the most similarity to some of the argumentation and disagreement in
modern Heathenry are those of the Omaha and the Makaw.
In the case of the Omaha, the leaders of the tribe made a decision to attempt repatriation of
sacred objects passed to the National Museum of the American Indian. The leaders understood,
however, that this was not without risk - since the relationship of the re-acquirers would be
different from the accepted relationship of the prior keepers of these objects, they risked being
blamed by the tribe for any impropriety or misfortune that might befall after reacquisition. DuBois
observes, ‘the process of restoring an ancient ritual is no simple matter’ and that ‘the difficulties
of striking a balance between according authority to (the sacred object) and assuming authority
for one’s own culture lie at the heart of conflicts regarding repatriation.’
In the case of the Makaw, attempting to reestablish their sacred whale hunting rituals posed
different difficulties. He cites loss of traditional knowledge caused by a gap of several
generations between active practice and attempted revitalization, difference in opinion as to the
moral acceptability and tribal necessity of reviving the hunt among both ecologically minded
tribal activists as well as outside activists, and the unsettled tension between reviving traditional
ceremonies within modern secular society. DuBois remarks that ‘these thorny issues seldom
have simple answers and reflect ultimately the perplexing effects that colonial situations have
wrought within many communities which once relied on shamanic rituals as keys to cosmic and
social integration.’
While the majority of the successful revivals he showcases have fuller remnants of traditions, a
major problem facing reconstructionists of pre-Christian Northern European traditions today is
that instead of facing a gap of two or three or five generations, in most cases and for most
customs Heathens today are looking at a gap of closer to thirty to fifty generations. DuBois
further notes in his review of existing or current shamanic traditions, and various case studies in
that context, that the success of any shaman’s career is dependent upon the approval and
acceptance of their community. As his examples illustrate, even when a given person claimed to
feel a shamanic call, if they were not approved by the community for any number of reasons
(status, fit with traditional conceptions of who or how a shaman should be) then a prospective
shaman was unlikely to succeed.
All of which is to say that this effort will not come without controversy, difficulty, or community
debate; and that those who attempt to assay this path will likely not meet with universal success
and acceptance (as illustrated by Jenny Blain’s work on modern seidr practitioners). Indeed, I
myself acknowledge that this debate may only work itself out organically on the timescale of
generations, and that it will probably not be resolved within our lifetimes. However, I leave this
discussion with the opinion that the effort is worthy, and will over the long term result in a
stronger and more clearly-defined culture of distinctively Heathen spiritual practice.
Gods willing it may endure.
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