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.


About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

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