Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Shaman and the Sorcerer: The Feathered Cloak

Part Two

The priest talks to God,
but God talks to the Shaman

The Feathered Cloak
There is a modern trend to claim that these medieval tales of the wildman of the forest are loaded with shamanistic symbolism and not without good reason as an important function of the shaman is to access knowledge from the gods and spirits by way of the otherworld journey. As we have seen described above, it is the supernatural spirit, the night wanderer, that Myrddin calls 'Hwimleian', that passes on occult knowledge from the Otherworld to him while he is living in the forest where he has fled following the Battle of Arferydd, prior to ultimately undergoing the threefold death; is this symbolic of the otherworld journey before a ritual death as depicted in the rites of shaman initiation? As we have discussed, there would appear to be several similarities between the tales of Lleu, Myrddin, Lailoken and Shuibhne; were they just deranged wildmen or all shaman?

We have already noted how Lleu Law Gyffes, whose ordeal we have been following since starting our journey in the remote North Staffordshire countryside, undergoes a transformation into an eagle at the closing stages of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi after Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into telling her how he can be killed:

I'll tell you gladly,' he said 'It is not easy,' he continued 'to kill me by a blow . It would be necessary to spend a year making the spear to strike me with - and without making any of it except when one was at mass on Sundays.'

'…...I cannot be killed inside a house, nor outside,' he continued 'I cannot be killed on horseback or on foot.'
'I'll tell you,' he replied. 'By making a bath for me by the side of a river, making a curved, slatted roof over the tub, and thatching that well and without [leaving] any gaps. And bringing a buck,' he continued 'and putting it next to the tub, and me putting one of my feet on the buck's back, and the other one on the side of the tub. Whoever would strike me [while I am] like that would bring about my death.'

On being struck with Goronwy's spear Lleu turned into an eagle and took flight. Gwydion finds him perched atop an oak tree between two pools in a valley which is called Nant Lleu (Nantlle), western Snowdonia. Gwydion coaxes him down from the tree on to his lap and transform him back to human form and nurses him back to health. These peculiar conditions required to bring about Lleu's death, somewhat reminiscent of the threefold demise of Myrddin, have been compared to a shamanic initiation rite. [10]
The shaman also has close associations with the eagle, the father of the first shaman, the feathered cloak being an important part of shamanic ritual to enable flight to the otherworld. The eagle is associated with prophecy and foresight in ancient British tradition. As we saw in Wizards and Wildmen Part II - Magicians and Madmen the source of the name Myrddin is still the subject of some debate between scholars; the popular claims that Carmarthen, originally the Roman fortress Moridunum, was named after the wizard are untenable and there is a distinct absence of pre-Geoffrey primary source material to associate 'Myrddin' (Geoffrey's 'Merlin')with the Welsh town. Although the precise origin of the name remains a mystery, it has been suggested that it may have derived from the Brythonic words meaning something similar to 'voice of the eagle'. Contained within the Red Book of Hergest is a poem called the 'Prophecy of the Eagle' in which the speaker is Myrddin as the Eagle. [11] 

Celtic mythology features many seers, druids and magicians who in modern literature have been compared to the shaman. In the Irish Mirabilia we saw how “… it is said of these men then when they have lived in the woods in that condition for twenty years, that feathers grew on their bodies like birds.” When the shaman puts on his feathered cloak it is to give his soul the ability of flight to the realm of the gods during his trance; significantly it is reported that early Irish bards used to wear a cloak of feathers. [12]

In the Irish tale the Siege of Druim Damhgaire (Knocklong), from the account in The Cycle of Kings, it describes how Cormac mac Art took his forces into Munster in order to exact the tribute due to him from Fiachu Muillethan, the king of southern Munster. Cormac lays seige on Druim Damhgaire, his druids dry up all the water in Munster until the opposing side is about to surrender. Cormac appears to be triumphant until Fiachu and the Munstermen decide to call upon chief mage, the Druid Mog Roith, who has a beautifully ornamented chariot, drawn by fierce and impatient oxen as fast as the March winds, who has acquired his wisdom over seven centuries. Mog Roith demands a large area of land, a hundred cows, a hundred steers and a hundred horses, fifty mantles and a beautiful girl. Fiachu has no choice but to meet the demands of the Druid.

The Druid Mog Roith is brought his brown hornless bull's hide, and his 'encennach', the bird head-dress, speckled with flying wings, and other druidic tools; “he rose into the air and the heavens at the same time as the fires and he started to beat the air, so as to turn the fires to the North, all the time chanting this spell, 'I make the druid's arrow'...” turning the victory in the Munstermen's favour. [13] The description of Mog Roith has been described as akin to an African or Native American sorceress and not typically Celtic, appearing as a typical warrior-priest. He has limitless power over the four elements of fire, water, air and earth. He has many similarities with the Shaman. [14]

Of all the pagan gods of Northern Europe, it is Odin who displays behaviour closest to the shaman. The Norse god Odin has many parallels with the Celtic god Lugus who we see descended as Irish Lugh and Welsh Lleu Llaw Gyffes. The Roman historian Tacitus equated Odin with Mercury and Julius Caesar wrote of Mercury in his Commentaries on the Gallic War as being the most popular god among the Celts of Britain and Gaul, being regarded as the “inventor of all the arts.” The god Lug(h) has a very similar epithet, 'Samhildánach' meaning "equally skilled in many arts", which is generally agreed upon as equating the Gaulish Mercury with the Celtic god Lugus.

Odin of the Scandinavians was descended from the German Wotan (Woden of the Anglo-Saxons), both representing a development of the Proto-Germanic god, *Wōdanaz. Gwydion has been linked both etymologically and mythologically to be the Celtic form of Wotan/Wodin and therefore reciprocally to Mercury.

The etymology of the name 'Gwydion' is complex and continues to be the cause of much debate between scholars. An early form of the name appears in the Harleian 3859 genealogies as "Lou hen map Guidgen" suggesting a derivation from *Uidugenos who is likely related to the Celtic god Mercury Uiducus, Mercury the woodsman, or Mercury the wise, suggesting “one who knows the knowledge of the trees” or put simply “woodwise”, with clear correlation to the Druid and underlining the association of Mercury with Odin/Woden. The word 'druid' has been interpreted from the Proto-Celtic stem *dru-wid combining the Proto-Indo-European elements *deru = oak tree and *weid = to see (as in knowledge/wisdom), therefore we can interpret “druid” as “one who has knowledge of the oak tree” which is remarkably similar to Mercury Uiducus. Modern interpretations in Welsh and Irish universally equate the word 'druid' with the meaning magician, seer, enchanter. There can be little doubt that Gwydion is a Druid, performing extraordinary magical acts throughout the Mabinogi of Math.

A more recent suggestion for the derivation of the name 'Gwydion', containing the same root *weid as in 'druid', is from the Proto-Celtic *Weidī-kondos from the elements weid/weido = know/knowing and kondos = sense. [15] The confusion of the Gwydion/Lugus/Mercury god(s) would appear to be due to the religious syncretism of the incoming Romans, blending the indigenous Celtic and Teutonic belief systems of a Northern pantheon with their own gods.

It appears to be quite clear that whichever meaning of this disputed name we accept they all would appear to be indicating an association with 'knowledge', 'knowing' or 'to know'. The word 'shaman' originates from the Siberian Tungus people's word šamán containing the Tungusic root ša' = 'to know'[16] shaman meaning literally 'he who knows' which is remarkably similar to the meaning of the Proto-Celtic *Weidī-kondos as the origin of the name Gwydion. Indeed it is Gwydion who is the prominent character throughout the tale of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Gwydion is the chief mage, sorcerer par excellence, displaying what some see as typical shamanistic behaviour; his role being similar to that of the Master Shaman; his protégé being Lleu the initiate. The similarity of the etymology of the name seems beyond coincidence but can we justifiably make a comparison between the Druid and the Shaman?

Archaic Religion
Shamanism has been termed the oldest organised religion. Evidence for this claim is based on the paintings and art of the caverns of the European Upper Palaeolithic epoch.

On 12th September 1940 four teenagers digging in a large hole left by the root ball of a large pine tree which had fallen a couple of years previously on a hill near village of Montignac in the Dordogne region of France, broke through to a narrow crevice. The boys squeezed through into a larger void decorated in magnificent paintings of horned cattle across the walls. They had discovered the Great Hall of the Bulls in the Lascaux cave system, perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The cave was found to contain a stunning collection of 1,500 engravings, 600 drawings of horses, aurochs, bison, reindeer, felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and one human, dated from 17,000 to 18,500 years old.

Lascaux may be one of the most visually stunning of all the decorated caverns but it is not the only European cave found to contain art dated to the Upper Palaeolithic, others include Altamira, Spain, discovered in 1879, Les Trois Frères, in Montesquieu-Avantès, in southwestern France (1910), Pech-Merle (1922), Chauvet, Ardèche Valley of south eastern France (1994), Creswell Crags, Derbyshire, England (2003). Over 300 decorated caverns have been discovered containing often-overlapping paintings and engravings of bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibex, mammoths, and a small percentage of human, or part-human figures, the so-called masked dancing sorcerers. The great majority of these images have been dated to the mid-Magdalenian period of the Upper Palaeolithic, about 14,000 years ago, and some substantially older. To date, the world's oldest known cave paintings have been discovered in Fumane Cave, near Verona, Northern Italy where archaeologists have found tablets of stone showing images of an animal and a human-like creature believed to be between 32,000 and 36,500 years old.

These images have been termed the origins of religion and art: the genesis of religious art, as they seem to represent more than simple hunting magic; the anthropomorphic figures, the masked sorcerers, are one of the most discussed topics in Palaeolithic Art. Clearly something was happening in the Upper Palaeolithic as attested by this fantastic cave art but the recurrent question is why did our not so distant ancestors adorn the cave walls with these images?

A shamanic explanation has been given for this ancient mystery of Europe’s ancient decorated caverns, with claims that the cave wall paintings depict scenes experienced by the shaman when in trance, the half man - half animal therianthropic figures being either the shaman in transformation or his meetings with supernatural entities. This remarkable cave art is cited as evidence of shamanism as the first religion practised by ancient hunter-gatherer people originating in the Upper Palaeolithic epoch of Europe 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. [17] It can be no coincidence that the first cave art appeared around the same time as the presumed first religious figurines dated to approximately 30,000 BC; the Lion-Man, from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany carved from Mammoth ivory and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, the oldest known ceramic in the world. The ivory figurines and the paintings clearly posses a significance beyond simply hunting, appearing to be evidence of man's first venture into a religious belief system.

The Shaman has been described as the priest of the Ural-Altaic peoples, a ritual practitioner in hunter-gatherer societies who can enter into ecstatic trance as a means for the shaman's soul or spirit to leave his or her body and go on a spirit-journey, acting as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds using a spiritual-magic to cure the sick, foretell the future, meet spirit animals, change the weather, and control real animals by supernatural means.

In describing the shaman's role as similar to that of the priest, there is, however, is an essential difference between the two as the priest is the ceremoniously inducted member of a recognised religious organisation and holds a particular rank and functions as the holder of that office that was held by others before him; whereas the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own. The spirits that visit him in vision had never been seen by any other; they are his particular familiars and protectors. In effect, shamans are mystics; their initiation is not one of office or ceremony. [18] It has been said that the essential difference between priest and shaman is that the priest talks to God, but God talks to the shaman. He is intermediary between the realms of the living and the spirits of the dead; having direct contact with the spirit world, the shaman walks with the supernatural.

According to shaman belief, the soul of the shaman climbs up the world tree towards God when he 'shamanizes', in a state of ecstatic trance. During the rite the tree grows and invisibly reaches the summit of heaven. The shaman is intercessor between man and the gods. He also has the power to descend into the realms of the dead. The shaman's spirit is believed to leave his body while in trance and journey to the otherworld. The shaman can induce the conditions of ecstasy by beating his drum or by an elaborate and exciting dance.

Essentially the shaman enters into a trance state to enable his spirit to depart on a journey to the otherworld in which he can converse with the gods and obtain prophetic information or visit the spirits of the deceased and retrieve the souls of the dead. The shaman enjoys a special relationship with the spirits, who's role is to give the Shaman the necessary information to perform healing work, but the Shaman only acts as an intermediary in the healing, as all instruction has been given by the spirit helpers. The trance state is a self induced altered state of consciousness which the shaman can enter at will. This can be induced by drumming, dancing, starvation, enforced isolation, sensory deprivation or by using hallucinogenic substances. The shaman will often put on a bird costume prior to entering trance for his flight to the realm of the gods or spirits. Shamanism can also involve the magical transformation of humans into animals. Accordingly, Mircea Eliade provides a definition of Shamanism as: "techniques of ecstasy". [19]

Technician of the Sacred
Shamanic vocation can manifest in the form of illness, sometimes this can be seen as a progressive change in behaviour where the neophyte becomes meditative, seeks solitude, sleeping a great deal, displays absent mindedness, experiences prophetic dreams and sometimes seizures. Illness, dreams and ecstasies in themselves constitute an initiation in that they transform the profane, pre-'choice' individual into a technician of the sacred. [20]

There are three possible ways to become a shaman; the first being the call (spontaneous vocation); secondly hereditary transmission; thirdly, by personal ‘quest’ or, more rarely, by the will of the tribe. [21] Shamanic initiation often takes the form of a sickness or psychological crisis. Traditionally, the evolution from ordinary human state to shaman is marked by a series of visions and dreams of the neophyte being killed, dismembered, eaten, regurgitated, and put back together by the spirits, his or her bones being replaced with quartz crystals or similar magical substances. The death and mystical resurrection by means of a descent to the underworld is followed by an ascent to the sky. While undergoing this shamanic initiation, the neophyte receives fulfilment of the divine.

When a young child is chosen to be a shaman, the neophyte is excluded from society and must exist in the mountains and remain there for a period of time, feeding on animals 'caught... directly with their teeth' later returning to the village dirty, bleeding, with torn clothes and hair dishevelled 'like wild people'. [22]

As with admission to many secret societies the neophyte must undergo essentially suffering, death and resurrection whilst enduring the following rituals:

- seclusion in the forest- face and body daubed with ashes to take on ghostly appearance: funerary masks
- difficult ordeals: beatings, torture
- symbolic burial in the temple

- hypnotic sleep: drink makes candidate unconscious
- symbolic descent to the otherworld
- symbolic resurrection

These rituals are designed to make the candidate forget his past life, on returning to the village he appears to have lost his memory, community considers while in the bush he has died and on his return consider them as ghosts. [23]

This immediately strikes a cord with the Celtic 'wildmen' we have discussed earlier enduring a period of solitude in the forest. Again, this is very similar to the motifs we have seen in Celtic literature in which we have already discussed the Hwimleian, the supernatural night wanderer, spirit of the forest, encountered by Myrddin, which has been translated at times as 'wildman'. Seclusion in the forest would appear to be a form of an initiation rite that we see experienced by the Celtic wildmen of the woods prior to symbolic death.

The shaman of the Buryats, the largest ethnic Siberian group, undergoes an initiation ceremony involving a he-goat and purification bath [24] which seems remarkably similar to the conditions that Lleu stipulates to bring about his death when he states he must stand with one foot on a buck goat and the other on the bath tub. As we have seen initiation is considered the death of the old way and start of the new.

In the Mabinogi of Math we see Lleu experiencing a psychological crisis and after being struck with a spear while in that particular pose, he then transforms into an eagle and then undergoing a period of isolation in the wilds until found by Gwydion. We have seen many of the Celtic wildman take on avian characteristics and perch in the treetops. It is the shaman who retrieves the souls of the sick and significantly, it is Gwydion who makes the symbolic journey to the otherworld to retrieve Lleu's soul from the oak tree in Nant Lleu As we saw above, the term 'dihenydd' is used by W J Gruffydd to describe Lleu's execution in the Fourth Branch, which can also be written as 'dienydd' meaning 'death, extinction of life' but containing the compound 'dien' which can have the spiritual meaning 'the separation of body and soul'. Gruffydd's choice of word would appear to be very apt as Gwydion retrieves Lleu's soul from the tree and nurses him back to full health, from then we can safely assume he has now graduated as a shaman. This episode is mirrored perfectly by the description given by the Tungus shaman Semyonov Semyon:

“Up above there is a certain tree where the souls of the shamans are reared, before they attain their powers. And on the boughs of this tree are nests in which the souls lie and are attended. The name of the tree is “Tuuru”. The higher the nest in the tree, the stronger will the shaman be who is raised in it, the more he will know, and the farther he will see”.[25]

In the Mabinogi of Math, Lleu would appear to meet the requirements of shamanic initiation; he is struck by the spear as the symbolic death of the soul, transforms into the eagle and flies to the tree tops. He undergoes ritual dismemberment while in the tree as his flesh falls from his body and is devoured by the sow below. Gwydion retrieves his soul from the tree and rebuilds him.

At first glance there would appear to be ample evidence for Celtic shamanism, but can we safely equate the Celtic sorcerer with the Shaman?

To be continued......


10. Leigh Ann Hussey - The Ordeal of Lleu as Shamanic Initiation.
11. Graham Phillips - Merlin and the Discovery of Avalon in the New World – Bear and Company 2005, p.8.
12. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees – Celtic Heritage, Thames and Hudson, 1978, p.17.
13. The Siege of Druim Damhgaire.
14. Jean Markale - The Epics of Ireland: Ancient Tales of Mystery and Magic – Inner Traditions 2000, pp 183-187.
15. Proto-Celtic - English, University of Wales, 2002.[PDF] 'Gwydion' would therefore be interpreted as 'knowing sense'. *Weidī-kondos would have descended into the Brythonic form *Vedicondos, which in turn would render Old Welsh *Gwydichonn, giving the Welsh Gwydion.
16. The word's etymology is uncertain and often disputed, however, it does appear to be connected to the Tungus root ša- "to know". According to Michael Ripinsky-Naxon the term 'SHAMAN' is derived from the Tungus-Mongol, or the Tungus-Manchu noun word 'saman' which is constructed from the Indo-European verb root 'sa' meaning 'to know'.Thus the French 'savoir' and the Spanish 'saber', “to know”, produce also linguistic relationships with such words as 'witch' and 'wizard' from the Indo-European root “to see” or “to know” as in the French 'voir' and Latin 'videre' and the German 'wissen', “to know”. Hence the cognate saman conveys the literal meaning “he who knows”. It is very possible that the Tungus-Mongol saman possesses a cognate in the Sanskrit 'sramana', meaning “an ascetic”. While in Pali, a samana, 'a beggar monk' may represent a true, but a later, cognate of the Altaic saman. - Michael Ripinsky-Naxon, The Nature of Shamanism: Substance and Function of a Religious Metaphor, State University of New York Press, 1993, p.69.
17. Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams - The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves – Trans. Sophie Hawkes. New York: Abrams, 1998. Lewis-Williams, in particular, has pushed the theory that the cave art of the Palaeolithic period depicts the same images as experienced by modern volunteers in hallucinatory experiments carried out during altered states of consciousness. Central to the argument is that modern man possesses the same neurophysiological system as Palaeolithic man, we have not changed in 40,000 years, and therefore the ancient shamans would have witnessed the same images which they then adorned on the cave walls. This explanation for the cave art has not been universally accepted by any means.
18. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 1969, p. 231
19. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press; New Edition, 2004, p.4. First published in French in 1951, first English edition 1964.
20. Ibid. pp.31-33.
21. Ibid. p. 13
22. Ibid. p.18
23. Ibid. p.64
24. Ibid. p.116
25. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 1969, p. 256, quoted from “Legendy i rasskazy o shamanach u Yakutov, Buryat i Tungusov”, collected by G. V. Ksenofontov (Moscow 1930). Translated from the Russian (into German) as Schamanengeschichten aus Sibirien, (Legends of Siberian Shamans) by A. Friedriech and G. Buddruss, Clemens Zerling, Munich 1955, pp 213-14, While carrying out serious research into Christianity and its early history Ksenofontov, termed an 'outstanding Yakut scientist', claimed to have discovered a similarity between Christianity and 'shamanstvo' (shamanizing). The title of Ksenofontov's second book, Christ: Shamanism and Christianity indicates that he considered it was not just a casual similarity. It is incredible that such important works in this discipline have not been translated into English considering the modern popularity of shamanism.

* * *