The official religion of the whole of Europe, including the country regions, was Christianity, but in many ways it was a Christianity shaped by the religions it defeated; many of the customs surrounding Christmas, for example, are of pagan origin.
Pagan myths and beliefs also survived unnoticed in folktales and festival rites, as noted in “Russian Folklore and Shamanism.”
Sometimes, as with Iceland’s late adoption of Christianity in the tenth century, the official conversion of the country served the purpose of commercial integration with the dominant mainland culture, rather than reflecting a true change of faith.
Thus it is not surprising that scholars have reason to believe that shamanism remained a living tradition in the most northern parts of Europe, especially in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, even into the seventeenth century, as the entry “Nordic Shamanism” discusses.
Moreover, if one holds that the essential characteristic of shamanism is a direct mystical visionary experience of the spirits or the Otherworld through an out-of-body journey, often induced by a psychoactive sacrament or a technique of ecstasy, the various Gnostic sects of the early Christian Church, perpetuated, despite persecution, and repeatedly reintroduced by the Crusaders from the Holy Land, would qualify as European versions of shamanism.
Examples would be Marcionism, Valentinianism, and Carpocratianism, heresies of the early church, and Manichaeism, a rival of the church in those early centuries.
In the Middle Ages, the most famous of these sects was known as the Albigensian heresy, from its center in the town of Albi in the south of France.
The founders and ritual functionaries of these sects were certainly shamanistic, in the sense that they were charismatic healers, spiritual guides, and teachers, as was the pagan Apollonius of Tyana, as noted in the entry “Classical World Shamanism (Ancient Greece and Rome),” and indeed the Jesus described in the Gospels, as discussed in “Christianity and Shamanism.”
At the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism had long been an important religion, especially in the imperial army.
The worshippers of the Persian god Mithras, through the seven stages of initiation, a common theme in Eurasian shamanism, sought to reverse the taking on of evil associated with coming into human birth and free the soul to rise past the planetary gates to the outer rim of the Universe for a transcendent vision, the common aspiration, according to some, of Stoicism and all the Gnostic sects, as noted in “Classical World Shamanism (Ancient Greece and Rome).”
Mithraism, with its psychoactive sacrament of haoma (the soma of the Indian Vedic tradition) persisted in the East as Zoroastrianism, including a “Eucharistic” meal of bread and an entheogenic potion.
Christianity easily assimilated motifs from the sacramental religions it replaced because of its essential similarity, including its own version of the Eucharistic meal, which was originally psychoactive and continued as such for certain of the elite.
Thus the great medieval mystics like Hildegard von Bingen and Teresa of Avila could be considered shamans, as could many others of those canonized as saints by the Catholic Church.
Shamanistic paganism has been seen as persisting, as well, in the occult sciences, through the practices of the alchemists, highly respected in their time, who claimed to know the secret of the pliable botanic stone of the philosophers and the drinkable gold, the elixir that conferred ultimate knowledge and the experience of rebirth in a liberated state.
Similar secrets cemented the bond of societies such as the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. The Grail legend is a perfect example of the syncretism and forced esotericism of “shamanism” after the triumph of Christianity.
All of these traditions, however, were mysteries, with their carefully guarded secrets divulged only to the initiates. Hence, deprived of the evidence presented by the great religions and sciences prevalent in early postclassical and medieval Europe, the scholar must seek indications of European shamanism in a reexamination of antique rites and religions, such as the great Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece, as noted in “Classical World Shamanism (Ancient Greece and Rome),” and from surviving traces of the once thriving tradition that still persist in bizarre rural customs, funeral rites, witchcraft, magic, herbal/traditional medicine, folklore, and folktales.
Such traces of these traditions still persisting are discussed in the entry “Witchcraft in Russia,” and noted in the taboos and esotericism of certain marginal peoples such as the gypsies, often from the fringes of the more developed centers of European civilization, hence, in Russia, or among the Lapps, as discussed in “Nordic Shamanism.”
They are also covered in the entry “Finno-Ugric Shamanism,” which describes these traditions among the northern Finns and their Hungarian ethnic brothers in the Carpathian mountainous forests.
Moreover, more recent phenomena include the pagan revivalism of the literary elite, as discussed in the entries “Neo-Shamanism in Germany” and “Paganism in Europe,” and attempts to restore the original sanctity of witchcraft, as discussed in the entry on “Witchcraft in the Modern West.”
Fortunately, much of European “shamanism” survived deeply enough, due sometimes to a late conversion or strong resistance to Rome and the Church, so that its mythos could be recorded, as noted in the entries “Paganism in Europe,” “Finno-Ugric Shamanism,” and “Russian Shamanism Today.”
The Celts were Indo-Europeans who spread through the main areas of Europe, including Ireland. In Ireland, which remained beyond the reach of the Roman Empire, their ancient shamanic traditions persisted most strongly, even after the Christianizing of the island, as recorded in their great epics and in their folklore, discussed in “Celtic Shamanism.”
Druid priests were so named as “seers” (from the root *wid-) of the sacred “oak,” drus, which is host to the psychoactive mistletoe in its branches and the sacred fungus at its base.
Certainly there seems to be no question that the root *wid is present. Interestingly, that root is present both in words for seeing and in words for knowing (in Greek the verbal root for “seeing” [widein, Latin videre] is also the root for “knowing” [eidenai or we-widenai] as the condition that results from seeing), suggesting how basic visionary shamanism is to the Indo-European tradition of knowledge.
Thus an idea is something archetypal that is seen (widea), and along the same lines, a theory (theoria) is an expedition to go someplace to see a sight, as in a theater.
In Celtic lore, as discussed in both the entries “Celtic Shamanism” and “Paganism in Europe,” this world is coexistent with another, nearby and overlapping, subterranean, into which one may suddenly drop, the Faerie land.
The entry “Fairies and Shamanism” explores a comparison between some European fairy tales—French, Scandinavian, and Scottish—and shamanistic concepts.
These common characteristics may include the election of the hero by a fairy, similar to the election of a shaman by the spirits; the curing of illnesses by a spiritual journey; and the alliance of human beings with nature spirits or shamans to achieve a needed spiritual connection.
This older European fairy tradition can be seen to have its continuance in modern concerns related to the search for identity and a connection to the natural environment.
The other realm gives meaning to this, being the universal shamanic source of nonordinary power and wisdom. Celtic shamans, like the heroes of classical myth, are expected to journey to the other realm through magical gateways to bring back inspired information of incalculable value to their society, opening the pathways between the realms upon which the continuing stability and health of the people depends.
In both traditions, knowledge is achieved through ecstatic rapture, with the poet bard originally experiencing inspiration as possession by an overmastering mind, or Muse.
Carl A. P. Ruck
Articles about Shamanism in Europe :
“Celtic Shamanism”: Pagan Celtic Spirituality
Classical World Shamanism (Ancient Greece and Rome )
Fairies and Shamanism