Shamanic Wicca: Feeling It in Your Bones
Article ID: 8518
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 5,700
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Posted: June 21st. 2004
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Witches were among the shamans of Europe. Although the word shaman originated in Siberia, today it refers to a universal set of spiritual practices that people have in common all over the world. The oldest roots of Witchcraft were shamanic; more recent developments have incorporated many aspects of ceremonial high magic. What are aspects of Shamanic Wiccan practice?
Wouldn't Odin's hanging from the World Tree for nine days and nine nights until he found the runes be a description of a shamanic initiation or a vision quest? How about the Norse practice of dancing until going into a trance to be able to gain prophetic insights? The sauna is the same process as the sweat lodge, differing only in a few cultural details, being both a spiritual and physical cleansing. Consider the method of prophecy practiced by the Oracles at Delphi, where the Greek priestesses inhaled the vapors seeping up from the earth while they meditated on the seekers' questions. One of the classic tools of the shaman is the use of herbs for healing and for achieving altered states, and the Greeks practiced that thousands of years ago. So did Witches throughout Europe and the British Isles.
Shamans are adept at journeying into other realms. Isn't that exactly what is revealed in the Celtic legends of Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin or Turlough O'Carolan? In some cultures, shamans cast bones, stones or sea shells, but in European cultures they cast runes. All around the world, to mark special occasions, shamans would dance, wearing masks and special costumes. Shamans beat drums to invoke the spirit realm in cultures all around the world. The ancient Greeks and Romans played drums, usually of the tambourine type, in processions and festivities, which we see depicted on carvings and pottery. Tools and methods vary from country to country. In one culture a shaman uses tobacco, sage or cannabis, in others copal, frankincense, sandalwood, cedar, juniper or pine. In one culture, they use a drum made with elk or deer hide, in another cow, fish or goat skin. In one culture they beat the drum with a stick, in another, with their bare hands. The tambourine and the frame drums without jingles that are played with bare hands appear to have the longest history of use in European traditions, and to me, they have the best feel for use in ritual. They are among the least expensive drums you can buy, and they have the added advantage of being able to be played while walking or dancing because they are so lightweight and portable.
Ceremonial high magic, from sources such as the Kabalah, Crowley, Enochian Magic, Golden Dawn, and so on have contributed other elements to various branches of Wicca, where lots of details have to be taken into account with complex formulas involving specific colors of candles, specific styles of altar cloths and robes, specific mixes of incense and oils and other correspondences; invocations in arcane languages, and a precise schedule for these activities. Shamanic Wicca uses more improvisation and simple, primal methods.
Depictions of masked dancing are as old as the cave paintings found in France and Spain and we see it again in the art of the Greeks and Romans. In the Medieval and Renaissance Eras, we see illustrations of people dancing around the fire playing tambourines, and yes, some are riding their brooms. Patricia Crowther, Doreen Valiente, Caitlin Matthews, Lady Sheba, Gabrielle Roth, Mickey Hart, Layne Redmond, Nigel Pennick, Jan Fries, Chas Clifton and Evan John Jones are among the authors who have written about the uses of dancing in ritual, frequently in combination with drumming and masking, while examining the deep significance and power of these time-honored practices.
Usually you will find the use of drumming, dancing, chanting, and body painting used synergistically. What could be simpler than painting your face? We could use charcoal as our ancestors no doubt did, before they discovered colored pigments. Charred wine corks work just fine. They give a very primal feel, yet they wash off very easily. Economical, too. They are included for free in the bottles of wine you uncork for sharing during the ritual. Although the majority of covens, in my experience and observation, wear robes, relatively few people seem to make a habit of face or body painting for rituals. Try this and see how it transforms the energy of the circle. I think of it as the spirits of our ancestors and spirit guides joining in with us. Drumming and dancing in circle with your face painted creates a very shamanic energy in the rite.
Casting runes? Anyone can make a set of runes by burning the symbols on bits of wood or painting them on stones worn smooth by water. I even have one set of little cardboard squares marked with a pen. You can also make the rune shapes with your body. Any of these methods is lot easier than making your own tarot deck, wouldn't you agree? Plus once you have made your set and cast them, you have a very personal connection to that oracle.
Is there any reason to believe that people throughout history had a rainbow of different colored candles to choose from? No. For most of our history, candles were made from beeswax or tallow, without coloring added. In a shamanic style, you can use whatever size or color you happen to have.
Special knives for athames? I do have one, because that is the way I was taught, but I have long believed that this is just a modern twist. In earlier times, a good knife was a valued possession, all the way up until the time of the American settlers. To me, it only makes sense that the knife they had on their belt that they used for doing household chores or farm work, cutting food, or cauterizing wounds was the same knife they reached for if they needed one in ritual. As practical people, I don't think our ancestors would have bought perfectly good knives and then dulled the blade, just for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps wealthy magicians did so for the same reasons we now do, but that's because we can buy knives very inexpensively, so having an extra one around is no big deal.
Wands? More likely they used a staff or walking stick rather than a jeweled wand. Once again, carrying something that served more than one purpose would have been much more practical. Or perhaps just a simple tree branch with some runes carved into it, or bells attached, as in the Celtic silver branch.
How do you decide on the time for a ritual? Simple. The changes of seasons, solstices, equinoxes and full moons. Do I pay any attention to precise astrological movements of planets? No. I celebrate Samhain on November 1, or the nearest Saturday after it, although I am aware that some traditions would say that it should be celebrated at 15 degrees Scorpio. We use the Saturday after the generally accepted calendar date for all Sabbats. No sense having members stress out in rush hour traffic to try and do a midweek ritual, or make things difficult on the members who work night shift jobs during the week.
Take another example. All astrological calendars and Witches' calendars now note void of course (v/c) moon times and advise us not to do magic during those times. But the ancient people did not have any watches or clocks that measure time as precisely as we do now, so they would never have been able to say "the moon goes v/c at 1:12 pm." Not only that, but the practice of calculating v/c moons only became popular during the 20th century. So how would ancient people decide when to celebrate the full moon? Simple. They celebrated when they looked up in the sky and saw her. That's the same rule I follow, regardless of v/c notations on the calendar. Here's an analogy. We all know that the moon rules the tides. If we put a message in a bottle and throw it into the ocean at low tide, it may not travel far, but as soon as the tide turns, it will take off. So it is with the magic we do. The moon will move it. Once the bottle is in the ocean, it will move with the tides. Our magic is moving in a cosmic ocean. Once set in motion, it moves with the cosmic tides.
Do you need to learn special words to chant? No. Some people make up beautiful chants of their own. Sometimes they just make sounds without trying to form words. Chants in a shamanic way come from inspiration, rather than formula. And, yes, we do know and use some of the same chants many other Pagans and Witches use.
The shamanic methods enliven every cell of a participant's body and facilitate access to the altered states that we seek to create in ritual. Shamanic Wicca is a more body- centered approach to the mysteries that our ancestors honored. To use a body analogy, Shamanic Wicca is more heart-centered and gut-centered, rather than head-centered, in its methods. When you participate in a Shamanic Wicca ritual, you know it with every fiber of your being. It utilizes a very physical approach. That is not to say that there is not an intellectual or philosophical component to it. After you have done something, you will know something, and feel something, and your awareness will have shifted through the taking of this action.
Although I apprenticed and am initiated into Wicca, I am well aware that what each teacher teaches is, to a greater or lesser degree, their version. I like to use techniques that I feel are closer to the roots. My discoveries are a result of experimenting and expanding upon what I was taught, and the process is still evolving.
For example, one day it just struck me as a simple truth that it would be an important learning experience and traditional way to have a container garden on the patio of my apartment and really get to know and raise and work with a few herbs. Getting familiar with the energies and growing habits of even a few herbs has taught me a great deal. I now know, for example, that thyme can be used in cooking, as a medicinal tea, in a healing bath, and burned as an incense. All those uses are as close at hand as a large flower pot outside the back door.
Although the shamanic approach is extremely cost effective, the key is that it is also intensely experiential. I now have a sense that I am working with the herbs in the same way as our ancestors did. I feel that it is this experience that connects us to the ancient ways. The earthiness of tending plants activates all our senses simultaneously: we touch them, see them, smell them, taste them. We can hear the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds pollinating them. We can actually watch them respond when we water or prune them.
The intense experiential nature of group unity becomes real when we drum, dance and chant together. These simple attunements can draw a group of people together in minutes. Energy can be raised and people bonded together through the power of music alone. I get the sense that these were at one time central characteristics of all Witches' rituals, yet many groups today treat drumming, dancing and chanting as embellishments or optional activities. I also feel that old-fashioned storytelling was important to the perpetuation of ritual, yet many rituals do not include this element either. Notice that one of the primary teaching vehicles of all ancient peoples was storytelling.
Our ancestors were practical people, and that is how they survived. When I put myself in that frame of mind to ask, "How would this have evolved?" and "What is the simplest possible way to get the job done?" these are some of the answers I have come up with. I am not asking anyone to simply believe me. I am suggesting that you try some of these techniques and see how you like the results you get, as a way of deepening and strengthening your practice. We all have one thing in common: we only keep the parts that work for us.
Location: Longmont, Colorado
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Bio: Dan Liss has been practicing Wicca for more than 10 years, and leading and teaching covens since the mid '90s. He has organized many open public rituals, one of which was featured on CNN at Samhain 2002. For 15 years he edited metaphysical magazines serving metro Atlanta, wrote for the national music trade publication New Age Voice, and has been published in the magazine Pangaia. He now focuses his energies on his coven, writing books, and drumming for the Pagan band Evocation. Dan is currently seeking a publisher for his book on Shamanic Wicca.
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