Monthly Archives: August 2013

Animism, Polytheism and Shamanism

Alright, let’s start with the update. It has been two weeks since my last post, so it is Blog Monday again! Really going to try and keep this up.

I am writing about 10,000 words a week now across two different projects, just to keep things fresh and to prevent burn out. I am adding another large section to Wanderings, which is getting a thorough work over, as well as a kind of derivative work that spins the Norse myths in a bit of a different way. A little more ‘home-grown” shall we say.

In addition, I recently taught a class about the spirituality of the old hunter-fisher-gatherers of the north, not too dissimilar from my last post. Either way, on that line of thought is where I am going to pick up today.

I have never much cared for labeling myself, because it limits what I am and is pigeon-holing to a great degree. However, generally speaking I am a pagan (Non-Christian), a heathen (a northern tradition pagan), an animist (so many spirits) and polytheist (some spirits might be called gods.) That is only the tip of the iceberg, because as an individual I am complicated. Too many layers to count.

I wanted to look into a little what each of these terms mean, at least what they mean to me. Primarily, I will focus on animism and polytheism, which are core concepts for both paganism and heathenism. Today selections are from the book “Mesolithic Europe” in the chapter called Innovating Hunter-Gatherers by Marek Zvelebeil.

As a hunter, I connect strongly with the ways of my pre-farming ancestors. While modern life is quite different from the ways of the paleo-mesolithic hunter gatherers, there are still certain elements that are meaningful to a modern practice such as mine. These elements were shared, in various degrees and types, across many of the HFG (hunter-fisher-gatherer) communities of the north, on the Scandinavian peninsula as well as Finland and beyond.

Zvelebeil breaks down the basic ideological structure of HFG’s into six basic elements. All six are deeply interwoven;

“(1) The Three-Tier World. A three-tier universe of the upper (sky) world, the middle (earth) world and the underworld (underground), which correspond to air, land and water, respectively. These layers are linked by a ‘cosmic pillar’  or ‘cosmic river’ The three-tier world is also perceived on a horizontal plane where the underworld equates with the cold north and the upper world with the south (possibly tracing it roots from the Upper Paleolithic).”

In the northern tradition these three tiers are sub-divided even farther into the familiar nine worlds (homes) that are arranged on the ‘cosmic tree’, Yggrdrasil. The horizontal aspect is just as interesting, considering that Nifelheim stands in the far north, and definitely has a few ‘underwordly’ traits.

“(2) The supernatural world. Every part of the surrounding world is seen as being inhabited by supernatural beings, or spirits, which are seen as being good and bad, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic. The power and influence of the supernatural beings varies.”

I speak of this as just the otherworld, or the hidden world, the worlds of gods, ancestors and spirits. The important part here, I think, is that the power of the spirits varies. This is where the idea of gods come in. I have heard/read it from numerous sources, but the basic idea is that the gods are those spirits who are older, wiser and will live longer than I ever will. They have great power and influence, and this denotes them as god-beings in my mind. To me at least, many older trees fall under the god category. Aside from trees, there are many ancient and nameless beings that roams the woods.

“(3) Nature, reciprocity, and the spirit world. Nature is perceived as the “giving environment”… Relationships of exchange and reciprocity with the “giving earth” occur through communication with supernatural spirits whose power and/or sphere of influence is varied. Proper conduct and relations with them ensure health, welfare, and hunting success, whereas a failure to meet obligations may bring misfortune. Communication with the spirit world is facilitated through sacrifice and gift giving.”

“(4) Reciprocity and the animal world. This revolves around concepts of exchange and reciprocity with the animal world and attempt to ensure the ‘revival’ of hunted animals. This involves the appropriate treatment of their remains (bones) following killing and consumption in order to maintain hunting success and to avoid punishment in the form of illness sent down by their spirit protectors. The spirit protectors of the animals (often local guardian spirits) also must be afforded suitable treatment where necessary.”

3 and 4 overlap and the focus here is reciprocity, also know as gebo (gift for a gift) in the northern tradition. The important part here is staying in a good and right relationship with the gods and spirits. This is a two-way street and favor from one side is met by the favor from the other. Offerings and gifts are given in return for blessing and assistance. Reciprocity is a wheel that never ends.

“(5) Conception of souls. Human and animal persons normally possess a physical self and several souls…. Dualism between a free soul and a body soul is held to be embedded in the practice of shamanism.”

Dualism smhulism, at least in my tradition there are numerous pieces of the soul/spirit. I think the general range is like 9 – 18 pieces/aspects, but I could be wrong. That is whole other post entirely.

10. “(6) The role of the shaman…. Shaman is the religious lead of the community, whose principal role is to act as mediator between the three worlds in a three level universe by practicing techniques of ecstasy, aided by his or her ritual equipment and spirit helpers…. A shaman ‘shares in the mentality of animals.’

These last two also can be taken together, and the idea that all things (I would say most things, I do not believe the Head and Shoulders in my shower has a spirit. I do not get the sensation of ‘I am washing your hair!’ when I bathe) have spirits. At the heart of polytheism is the idea that some spirits have more influence and power than others. Somewhere in all this stands the shaman, the mediator between the worlds. The shaman is the spiritual specialist, that communicates and works with the spirits, ancestors and gods on the behalf of the community. This is not to say that all tribal communities in the north had shamans, or even needed them. There are indications that the degree of specialization varied from place to place as well as across time. Sometimes the “average” person or hunter knew the proper techniques, other times a specialist was needed. It could be that a single shaman served more than one community, as a kind of wandering spirit worker. Odin certainly had such aspects.

And that I think, bring this to an end for the time being.



Zvelebeil, Marek. Innovating Hunter-Gatherers. Mesolithic Europe. Ed. by Geoff Baily and Penny Spikings.

Bears and the Ancient North

It seems Mondays may be the best days for posts, as my week is generally busy/crazy otherwise. With that in mind, I am going to try and keep a regular schedule with posting every Monday or every other Monday.

In honor of this might-be tradition, I bring you this post.

I have been doing a lot of reading lately, and I mean a lot. My living room is scattered with books and articles, much to the wife’s dismay. Personally I find it a glorious temple to knowledge, but that is just me.

My recent reading is an article with a mouthful of a name; “Bears and Meanings among Hunter-Fisher-Gatherers in Northern Fennoscandia 9000 – 2500 BC” written by Knut Helskog.  Ok, so that sets up the region, which is modern northern Norway/Sweden, Finland and eastwards into Karelia and Russia. We are talking about the far north of the Scandinavian peninsula, but the evidence indicates that this was likely the case through out the land, its just the south was more prone to be superseded by other cultural influences from central Europe (farmers, Indo-Europeans, that kind of thing.)

Suffice to say, that the hunter-fisher-gatherer (hence abbreviated as HFG) cultures persisted the longest in the northern most lands of Fennoscandia, and it is here we find rock art, artifacts and even some ethnohistorical evidence that may shed some light on how HFG’s lived in the long ages of the Mesolithic, after the ice sheet retreated and humans colonized Scandinavia.

Quite a bit of evidence remains that can tell us how the HFG’s lived, but it is also important to remember that quite a bit (more) has been lost, and cannot ever be recovered. This is important thing to keep in mind as I summarize Helskog’s article.

The ancient HFG’s of Scandinavia most likely had an animistic view of their surroundings, that is they view all things, human, plant, animal, stone as being imbued with a spirit of some kind.  As Helskog puts it;

“These beliefs are connected with animism as a world-view, that is, all beings, objects and natural phenomenon have a spirit or a soul. This means that they – whether humans, animals, plants, rocks, winds and so on – are looked upon as having self-consciousness, personal identity and will. ” (pg 212 of the article)

The bear and the reindeer/elk had a large part to play in this context, and the evidence points to the fact that the ancient HFG’s of the north structured their entire lives around these animals, and the hunt of them. As a modern person, and a modern pagan, it helps me to think of it in this way. Most of the pagan/heathen holidays are structured around the agricultural year. Samhain is a harvest festival. Imbolc and Beltaine are fertility/sowing festivals. Winter is the part of the year when the crops are fallow. The year also follows the progress of the sun, which is important for agriculturalists.

HFG’s structured their year a little differently, with their major points of the year being structure upon the hunt, or the seasonal availability of food in a given area. Here is what Helskog has to say about the bear in this context;

”As a result, the bear became a dominant symbol for the transition from winter (cold and dark) to summer (warm and light) when they woke from hibernation and from summer to winter when they entered the den to hibernate. Spring was at the beginning of the new fishing and hunting seasons, when families left shared winter village for spring fishing places.” (pg 214)

Spring, summer and winter are still warm and cold respectively, no real change there. But it is the hunting and fishing seasons that define life for the HFG’s as much as which plants are available. In my own context, who is to say that deer season is not the start of my year? Here in Michigan archery season starts Oct. 1. It feels like the start of a new year to me, and the hunt is the official start of fall in my book.

Lastly, there is the important matter of the shaman in all of this. Let me start out with another quote;

“In animistic systems of beliefs the bear, no less than a human, can understand it surroundings, communicate with other animals and humans, and a human might address the bear (or any other animals) and communicate with it when hunting. As such, hunting bears involves a complex set of rituals which might only be understood in relation to the central principles of beliefs of different groups of people. This includes the ideology of totemism, helping spirits and spirit masters…” (Pg 212)

And this leads to the role of the shaman. I touched a little on my own rituals for hunting in my post “The Hunting Heathen”. I can speak from experience that there is quite a lot that needs to be considered from the practical and the spiritual perspective.  However, the role of the shaman should not be considered absolute, and there is a variable spectrum on the specialization of the shaman across time and space. From the rock art, scenes can be pointed to where there is an unarmed person accompanying the armed hunters, a specialist of sorts, a shaman. In other scenes, there is no such figure, and all the hunters are armed, seemingly the hunters can do their rituals without a specialist. This seems to indicate that the shaman may or may not be a specialized occupation in every case. The idea of the hunter-shaman emerges here, one that has equal skill on the hunt and in the spirit world, one that can ensure the hunt is conducted properly in the physical world and the otherworld. One last quote from Helskog to bring it together;

“Within this framework shamans have a crucial role as communicator between humans and animals. Even though the nature of shamanism varies, the role of an intermediate is a common feature and the other-than-humans have to be treated with great respect or appropriate behavior. If this respect is not shown, communication might not produce the desired result” pg 212.

And that is one of the most important parts about all this, proper respect and communication. There is a connection between hunter’s and the land, a different sort than that of farmers. Most of my my own rituals revolve around getting permissions from the spirits to hunt in their realm, getting aid in the hunt, and most of all, communication between myself and my intended prey. The last is by far the hardest. “Hi, I intend to kill you.” Says I. “Ok. That is perfectly acceptable.” Says the deer. Nah, it just doesn’t happen like that.

That is where I am going to leave off for now.