Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
The Gods who walk the Earth.
Although the main focus of Anglo-Saxon Twilight is the period before the Vikings made any significant impression on British culture, there are some topics which can only be fully understood by looking at whether the later Viking influences – and some modern day assumptions – have unduly coloured what was (or, in this case, was not) happening in earlier Anglo-Saxon England.
What follows is provisional and may well evolve if I ever devote more effort to looking at this aspect. However there is a fairly clear set of assumptions and deductions.
Immanence and transcendence
The first assumption is that pre-Viking Anglo-Saxon worldviews were immanent, not transcendent. In other words, there was no 'supernatural' and there were no 'Otherworlds'. I have already discussed this in The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol but here's a recap:
At the deepest levels there was a profound difference between the Christian worldview and that of most traditional religions. Christianity regards God and all those who live in Heaven as being somewhere else to this world – even though the 'somewhere' is never specified. The technical term is 'transcendent'. The antonym is 'immanent', which has the sense of 'indwelling or inherent in this realm'.
I cannot prove that early Anglo-Saxons had an entirely immanent worldview. But the absence of any words which readily translate as denoting otherworlds or a transcendent supernatural – and the sheer length of time it took before such ideas became part of the general worldview – does strongly suggest that the pre-conversion deities walked the Earth in a manner which would have been alien to Christian ways of thinking. The Old English term aelf hame – 'home of the elves' – is often referred to as an 'otherworld' or 'supernatural realms'. However, as I will discuss later in this article, this is simply imposing modern ideas on words which had no such sense originally.
When Jewish worldviews met Greek thinking
From the perspective of Judaism, the big mistake of Christians is their believe that God made his Son manifest, or immanent. From the perspective of Graeco-Roman thinking from around the time when Christ was alive, not only would there have been nothing remarkable about Christ as a god who walked the Earth, this would have been the natural way of thinking about deities. However this is just one of many the syncretic 'mash ups' of Judaic and Graeco-Roman worldviews which characterise early Christianity.
From the perspective of a Germanic pre-conversion immanent worldview, one of the 'attractions' of Christianity, if I can put it that way, is that Christ was indeed immanent, just like the Germanic deities. Many other aspects of this eastern Mediterranean cult may have seemed much more exotic, but this was one aspect that would have seemed unremarkable. Germanic and Graeco-Roman theologies had more in common with Christianity than with Judaism.
Shamanism is transcdendent
From the perspective of immanent pre-conversion Germanic and Anglo-Saxon worldviews then there are no Otherworlds. Not only does this mean there is no concept of Heaven of Hell or any counterparts. It also means there are no Otherworlds for a shaman to travel to. You have to have a transcendent worldview before you can be a shaman. In other words, shamanism is alien to cultures which only have an immanent way of thinking.
Because modern secular society 'borrows' its worldview rather too uncritically from Christian precursors, modern secular thinking – including rather too many academics – naturally assume that a transcendent worldview is shared by everyone. So we see glib references to 'otherworlds' and 'supernatural beings' in discussions about cultures – such as Chinese and Japanese – which do not have concept of either otherworlds or the supernatural.
Blame the Vikings
But, I hear you protest, what about books which claim there was either Anglo-Saxon or 'Celtic' shamanism? Most of the evidence suggests a complete absence of such beliefs or practices, while the rather flakey 'evidence' produced by the proponents of such shamanism also makes perfect sense in a non-shamanic context. The slim and questionable evidence for British shamanism was most likely 'imported' into Britain along with other other aspects of Viking culture.
Bear in mind that all the literature which purportedly reveals evidence for Anglo-Saxon or Celtic shamanism was written down after contact with Vikings and quite some time after the conversion to Christianity. In other words, several centuries after contact with transcendent worldviews.
Vikings are associated, at least by the British, with Denmark and Norway. This is a gross simplification as they had an extensive trading empire across the Continent. For example, when some settled near the River Volga they were known not as Vikings but as Rus – and so gave their name to Russia.
Sometime back in the mists of time, before a whole series of migrations, the Vikings started out in what is now Denmark and northern Germany. We can think of them at this time as a fairly typical Germanic society. As such they shared a worldview pretty much the same as the people who would become the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – all from this same part of the world – who migrated to England.
When the Æsir met the Vanir
One of the first phases of migrations for the culture which was to become known as Viking was across the Baltic Sea to southern Scandinavia. There they encountered the indigenous people who lived by fishing and farming. These people were not Germanic, but part of a very different culture which had also migrated extensively. Scholars refer to the languages and culture as 'Finno-Ugric'. It survives today only in Finland and Hungary, but originated in the lands between those two extremes.
So far as we can tell the Vikings initially lived peaceably alongside the Finno-Ugric people in southern Scandinavia. But steadily the Vikings took over and the Finno-Ugric farming and fishing culture was pushed back further north, where the only option for survival was reindeer herding. These are the people who used to be called Lapps but are now the Sámi or Saami.
There are any number of major differences between the worldviews of Germanic and Finno-Ugric societies. Yet the Vikings seem to have been able to bridge these differences. The best guess is that when the Scandinavian sagas refer to the conflict between the two groups of gods, the Æsir and the Vanir, they are referring to a mythologised mis-remembering of what happened when the Germanic pantheon encountered the Sámi's deities (although various alternative explanations have also been suggested).
We know that the shift in culture when the Æsir 'took over' from the Vanir was quite radical – more so than the subsequent shift from paganism to Christianity. It is hard to imagine such a substantial shift in society without considerable cultural contact – and the only real candidate for such significant syncretism would be when the Vikings settled alongside the Sámi in southern Scandinavia. Direct proof of this assumption is unlikely to be found – but the available evidence fits this scenario better than any other option.
Making nonsense of shamanism
We could argue forever about what the word 'shaman' really denotes. One leading exponent of modern British shamanism, Philip Shallcrass, has flippantly remarked that the word has come to mean 'anyone who bangs a drum' – and I rather share his frustration with the accuracy of this remark!
Among academics who are not members of departments of comparative religion or ethnography the words 'shamanism' and 'shamanistic' have come to be associated with supposed trance states. Archaeologists, especially those associated with prehistoric rock art, are particularly prone to this schoolboy howler. As the relevant literature would inform them, were they to make the effort to read it, many undisputedly shamanic cultures (such as those in western Siberia) do not use trance-states as part of their rites, but instead narrate their journeys to the Otherworlds by means of song and such like. Trances are induced by some shamans – but by no means all.
In any event, the concept of 'trance' is folk psychology – the term is used to refer to a number of neuro-physiological states. For example, we are in light trance when driving or watching television. However neither of these are normally regarded as shamanic activities. This is not a trivial 'put down'. By using an unspecific word such as 'trance' as a key criteria for claiming that specific activities are 'shamanic' then there is every risk of making almost anything we like into shamanism.
Making Christians into shamans
Just to prove the point, here's my very own attempt at using wonky definitions of shamanism to come up with some utter rubbish…
As the professional hypnotist Richard Sutphen has observed, Christian worship is strong on trance states. Here is his account of 'How Revivalist Preachers Work':
If you'd like to see a revivalist preacher at work, there are probably several in your city. Go to the church or tent early and sit in the rear, about three-quarters of the way back. Most likely repetitive music will be played while the people come in for the service. A repetitive beat, ideally ranging from 45 to 72 beats per minute (a rhythm close to the beat of the human heart), is very hypnotic and can generate an eyes-open altered state of consciousness in a very high percentage of people. And, once you are in an alpha state, you are at least 25 times as suggestible as you would be in full beta consciousness. The music is probably the same for every service, or incorporates the same beat, and many of the people will go into an altered state almost immediately upon entering the sanctuary. Subconsciously, they recall their state of mind from previous services and respond according to the post-hypnotic programming.
These illustrations by the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen depict Christian doctrines but might easily be mistaken for Indian mandalas or Tibetan thangkas. Similarly her ecstatic visions could be mistaken for 'shamanic' visions.
And it's not only modern day Christians who are 'shamanic'. The first-hand accounts of medieval Christian mystics' visions (such as Hildegard of Bingen; see Wilby 2005: 220–2 for a detailed discussion) are more shamanic than many ethnographer's accounts of shamanic practices. Likewise, in a different cultural context spending thirty days in a desert seeking initiation, still less spending three nights on an 'Otherworld journey' in a tomb and then being reborn would be deemed evidence of a shamanic initiation. Being able to resurrect a seemingly-dead patient – as with Lazarus – would be regarded by some as prima facie evidence of shamanism.
Now imagine that the Crusades had gone in favour of the Muslims, and Europe had become an Arabic-speaking region with little tolerance of the legacy from the Holy Roman Empire, and these 'shamanistic' activities were among the few fragments of Christianity which had come down to us. Scholars would conclude that Christianity was a shamanic religion.
The moral of this fable is that, if we knew as much about now-lost traditional beliefs and practices partially recorded by ethnographers as we know about Christianity, then we might also realise that the apparent evidence for shamanism in these traditional societies is also a distortion of a much more complex worldview.
Making sense of shamanism
Among the Evenki people of Sibera the word sama:n is the correct way to address the person you ask to perform magic on your behalf. More pedantically, a sama:n is one of about eight 'specialists' who you might ask to do some magic.
Any other use of the word 'shaman' is an analogy to the Evenki word sama:n. Thanks to a very influential work by Mircea Elaide, first published in 1951 as Le Chamanisme et les techniques archa´ques de l'extase and then translated into English over a decade later (but just in time for the Hippies to pick up on it) as Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. Until the early 1980s it was about the only book on shamanism which was readily available in English.
Influential as Eliade's work has been, it has always been severely criticised by informed ethnographers. Eliade was not an ethnographer, his discpline was comparative religion. In the 1940s he had the notion that shamanism was the original religion of mankind, and sought evidence – very selectively at times – to fit his theory. There is little about Eliade's book which stands up to the test of time. Shamanism is not some primordial practice, neither is it a 'technique of ecstasy'. Indeed there is no such think as 'shamanism' except as an invented label to create the illusion that a great diversity of traditional beliefs and practices have more in common than is actually the case.
But Eliade's muddled presumptions about a universal shamanism have befuddled the thinking of many people since. And because shamanism is a made-up – and all-but imaginary – concept, this original muddle has been further confused as the word has been used to lump together widely disparate worldviews and practices. (See Tolley 2009: 66–71 and Sidky 2010 for two thorough 'dismantlings' of the assumptions of previous scholars.)
'Shamanism' is defined differently by every scholar who has looked closely at the subject. Much more often 'shamanism' is used without any overt definitions to mean 'just what I choose it to mean' by a vast number of less-thorough scholars, not to mention a much greater number of popular writers. As a consequence, the words 'shamanism' and 'shamanistic' have become Humpty Dumpty words:
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a
scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither
more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can
make words mean so many different things.'
The worldviews of societies claimed by scholars to be linked with shamanism share several diagnostic features, but not all such societies share them. Furthermore, many of these features are known from societies where anything resembling shamanism is unknown and unlikely. Four useful guides through the maze of pitfalls in shamanic studies are Hutton 2001, Price 2002, Stone 2003; DuBois 2009 and Tolley 2009.
A practitioner of efficatory magic.
Female shaman of Krasnoyarsk District. From Johann Gottlieb Georgi, Beschreibung aller Nationen des Russischen Reichs (1776).
A practitioner of efficatory magic.
John Dee with his assistant Edward Kelly.
So, if what shamans think is not diagnostic, then it must be what they do which is distinctive. But, contrary to much wishful thinking, neither trance states nor spirit helpers are essential. Some shamans are known for their divinatory powers – but there are many more non-shamanic diviners in a great variety of traditional societies, not least the seiðr of Germanic societies. What shamans do which has fewest overlaps with non-shamanic practices is to cajole the spirit world into effecting changes in the material world – Clive Tolley refers to this as 'efficatory magic'. But even this attempt at a key characteristic is deeply flawed as there are many practitioners of efficatory magic who are certainly not shamanic. After all, we do not think of John Dee and his assorted successors in the Western high magic traditions as shamans.
What shamans must believe
In summary, there is almost nothing unique about what so-called shamans do or believe. The exception is that practices involving travel to one or more Otherworlds – and this is characteristic of a great many practitioners who can reasonably be labelled 'shamans' – must live in a culture where there is general believe in the existence of Otherworlds. Without this core belief in the existence of Otherworlds then there is nowhere for shamans to travel to meet their 'spirit helpers'.
From the secularised Christian worldview which has been unselfconsciously adopted by a great many Western academics, the assumption of such Otherworlds is a natural one (see Seeing past 'secular' assumptions). However, from the perspective of, say, Chinese scholarship (where the underlying worldview is immanent rather than transcendent) then such an assumption would be counter-intuitive. If I am correct in suggesting that Anglo-Saxon worldviews were essential immanent before significant contact with Christian or Viking ideas then there is little possibility of there being any practitioners who travelled to Otherworlds as part of their magical activities. Which fits very neatly with the absence of any clear evidence for shamanism in Old English literature (see below).
To state what I hope is the blindingly obvious, belief in Otherworlds does not make a culture shamanic. This would take is straight back to the Christianity-is-shamanic fallacy, as Christian doctrine requires a belief in an Otherworld called Heaven – although a belief in the Otherwold called Hell is optional in some Protestant denominations.
What the Sámi did for the Vikings
I hope you're getting ahead of me here. Almost all pre-conversion Germanic cultures reveal no evidence for a belief in Otherworlds – everything about their worldview seems to be immanent.
The only Germanic society which does reveal some evidence for Otherworlds – and also some arguable evidence for shamanic activities – is the Vikings. Neil Price and Clive Tolley take somewhat opposing positions on the reality of Viking shamans, with Price arguing for 'yes' and Tolley generally concluding 'nay'. However Ronald Hutton has suggested there is a middle ground which needs more consideration (Price 2002; Tolley 2009; Hutton 2011).
If we accept Tolley's suggestion that the Vikings 'acquired' shamanism from the Sámi – and there is no other source – then this is consistent with a major shift in worldviews which accompanied the Æsir's supremacy over the Vanir. That major shift would have included transcendent and Otherwordly deities being incorporated into a worldview which had hitherto been entirely immanent.
Several scholars have argued that Óðinn or Odin has various 'shamanic' aspects. Other scholars, such have Tolley, have argued that as Óðinn is principally associated with divinatory practices rather than efficatory magic then we should be far more cautious about making such claims. The reality is that Óðinn evolves rapidly in the course of a few centuries. We should think of the more-or-less homogenous Óðinn of Snorri's sagas as more a brutal 'tidying up' exercise by Snorri than an accurate reflection of his sources. Once more the relevant scholarship is arcane and difficult to summarise concisely. (See Tolley 2009: 462 and preceding pages for an undiluted account.)
There is every reason to think that the evolution of Óðinn was directly linked to continuing contact between Germanic and Sámi cultures. But thinking of him as 'shamanic' muddies rather than clarifies the complexities.
Steve Pollington has written an excellent study of Anglo-Scandinavian deities which combines the latest scholarship with an accessible style of writing. If you want to step out of the Anglo-Saxon Twilight into the Anglo-Scandinavian sunrise then read The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of early England (Pollington 2011).
Back in the early 1990s Hilda Ellis Davidson was the first to recognise that understanding of Norse mythology required a knowldge of Finno-Ugric myths too, because of the resemblances between the two. However, the extent to which Sámi culture influenced Viking ideas is still being researched. For example, Triin Laidoner has written an MA thesis looking 'at the possibility of strong Sámi influences' on the development of Loki in Old Norse mythology. When her work is published in 2014 I will add an update to this section.
If the Æsir-Vanir contest of the sagas was associated with a shift from an entirely immanent to a transcendent worldview, it would also neatly explain why when the Vikings encountered Christianity (initially when they settled in eastern and northern Britain from the late ninth century, as the conversion of their Scandinavian homelands was still some centuries in the future) there was little friction. Historians have sometimes been puzzled by how quickly Viking settlers in Britain adapted to Christianity. Perhaps a major part of the reason is that they had already made the shift to the transcendent worldview associated with Christian doctrines. Indeed, we might want to think of them as ahead of the nominally Christian Anglo-Saxons, who may not to have dropped an essentially immanent worldview until the tenth to twelfth centuries.
Shamanism in Old English literature
Back on 1989 Stephen Glosecki published a book called Shamanism and Old English Poetry. He suggests that in these poems, such as Beowulf, the eye of faith can glimpse an 'implicit' shamanic initiation legend. However Glosecki's faint evidence for shamanism in the poetry of Anglo-Saxon England all relies on sources which have southern Scandinavian connections and were written down by people who were trained clerics.
The best we can say is that the authors of these poems were describing how they imagined pre-conversion beliefs to have been. But their imaginations were firmly within the worldviews of Viking and post-conversion culture. We simply cannot be sure that before contact with the Church or Vikings the Anglo-Saxon worldview included 'shamanic' aspects.
While the Scandinavian literature provides a number of descriptions of activities which fit fairly comfortably with what is understood by the term 'shamanism', the same is not true for the Anglo-Saxon literature. In the opinion of Ronald Hutton Hutton 2001: 129–49; 2013: 305) the evidence used by Glosecki is much less clearly shamanistic and always capable of different interpretations.
There is, so to speak, an elephant in the room. Or though in this case it's more like a very large tree in the room.
One aspect of Scandinavian lore which seems most clearly shamanicis the World Tree, Yggdrasil. Humans live in the middle between an Upperworld, supported by the branches of the World Tree, and an Underworld, into which the roots of the World Tree delve deeply. Shamans can travel up the trunk and branches or down through the roots on their journeys to meet their spirit helpers and such like. Finno-Ugric shamans ritually ascended the World Tree, passing through a series of heavens. While not a prerequisite of shamanic cultures, such World Trees providing access to the Otherworlds are entirely consistent with other shamanic cultures.
A classic depiction of Yggdrasil, the Scandinavian World Tree.
However when we look at north European lore there is certainly a world tree too. It is referred to in some of the sources as Irminsul. However archaeologists usually use the term 'Jupiter pillar' to refer to these, on the assumption that they are not so much indigenous expressions of faith but merely emulate the triumphal columns erected by the Romans once they conquered Gaul. Be that as is may, the scant evidence we have is that these columns are not thought of a 'shamanic' world trees which aid access to the Otherworlds.
Irminsul seems more like the Irish tribal trees, the bile, or the World Tree of Latvia and Lithuania myths, the Hindu kalpavriksha, the tree in the Garden of the Hesperides and the Semitic tree of life. And World Trees are closely related to various World Pillars and World Mountains. These are part of belief systems which are only sometimes shamanic.
To me this suggests that the World Tree in the Scandinavian sagas – which provides access to the upper and lower Otherworlds – is an elaboration of ideas brought from northern European. Again we must suspect that these more transcendent aspects were 'borrowed' from Sámi worldviews, while the original Germanic Irminsul was seemingly entirely immanent.
Aelf hame is not Hel
The Old English term aelf hame is the precursor to the modern English words 'elf home'. But simply because the words aelf and hame evolve into 'elf' and 'home' does not mean that the words still retain their original sense. First impressions are that aelf hame is the 'home of the elves' in the same manner as we use the expression 'home of the fairies' or 'fairyland'. And, to some degree, this is valid.
However if we refer to aelf hame and its denizens as 'otherworldly' or 'supernatural' then we risk thinking of aelf hame in ways which reflect modern thinking rather than Anglo-Saxon mentalities. In other words, we are thinking of aelf hame from the perspective of a transcendent worldview rather than the more probable immanent worldview of pre-conversion Germanic cultures.
The best evidence for this assertion comes from Irish mythology. In Gaelic the counterparts to both English fairies and Germanic aelfa are the aos sí (also spelt aes sídhe) or daoine sídhe (pronounced 'deena shee'). Aos sí and daoine sídhe both mean 'people of the mounds'. I will use the term aos sí for convenience.
According to 'The Book of Invasions' the aos sí walk among the living. The realm of the aos sí is an invisible world which coexists with the world of humans – a 'parallel universe' in the parlance of modern sci-fi writing. In the medieval and later literature they are variously described as ancestors, spirits of nature, or goddesses and gods.
The aos sí are believed to live underground in the prehistoric cairns and Iron Age ring forts commonly referred to as ráths or sídhe. Unfortunately English writers have use the word 'sidhe' to refer not to the mounds but to the aos sí themselves.
The best known of the sí is perhaps the banshee, from the Irish bean sí,which is often translated as 'fairy woman' but should be translated as 'woman of the mounds'. However such a sí woman would be presumed to be old and ugly – although, as the myths recount, she is more than capable of changing her appearance to deceive mere mortals.
Despite much muddled thinking by modern writers, the original literature about the aos sí is not describing an 'otherworldly' or 'supernatural' race. Rather it is describing other-than-human entities which are entirely immanent in their ontology. Thanks to Alaric Hall's detailed study Hall 2005) we have a fairly clear understanding of what is was to be an aelf in Anglo-Saxon England. And my reading of Hall's discussions is that they were also thought of as entirely immanent.
To underline the difference, think of the journey to Hel as described in the Scandinavian sagas:
The Norse myth of Baldr's death tells of Hermóðr's ride to the land of Hel on Odin's steed Sleipnir; on the way he crosses the Gjallar brú, the gold-roofed 'echoing bridge' over the river Gjoll. Saxo Grammaticus gives the story of Hadingus, who is taken on a journey to the underworld by a mysterious woman; on the road they cross a bridge over a river strewn with weapons. Saxo also tells of a river that separates the world of men from a realm inhabited by monsters, spanned by a golden bridge forbidden to travellers; and the paradisal land Odainsakr of EirÝks Saga Viðforla is reached via a stone bridge. The most famous bridge in Norse myth is Bifrost, the 'trembling way' that is popularly identified with the rainbow. Bifrost stretches from Miðgarðr to Asgarðr, terminating at Himinbjorg, the home of its watchman Heimdallr.
And that's just the bridges that need to be crossed. To get to the realm of Hel other serious hazards need to be circumvented. These legendary journeys suggest that Scandinavian concepts of Hel may be every much as Otherworldly as the Christian otherworld which adopted the same name. If Hel is part of a transcendent worldview then an If encounter with Hel herself is very different to inadvertently encountering a bean sí while walking past a sídhe at sunset. And, I believe, very different to encountering an aelf (or any other land wight for that matter – Who were the landwights?) in the English landscape before, say, the ninth century.
However the key word here is that Hel may be Otherwordly and transcendent. While my reading of the sagas suggests that Hel is less immanent than we might expect if it was part of a more Germanic worldview, Alby Stone (pers. comm.) considers that Hel is still immanent. As to whether Valhalla is transcendent or immanent is equally contentious. My argument would be that as the heroes never return from Valhalla – death is a one-way ticket – then it is not immanent. This would make notions of Valhalla more akin to Christian concepts of Heaven than any known pre-conversion Germanic beliefs in afterlife. But Hel and Valhalla do seem to be on the cusp of immanent and transcendent worldviews – and that would of course be entirely consistent with a syncretic blending of Germanic ideas with Sámi and, subsquently, Christian worldviews.
When it comes to understanding Óðinn and other Scandinavian deities, we should not be surprised if some accounts present them as immanent – gods who walk the Earth – and other accounts present them as Otherwordly travellers – 'shamans' if you must. This is because Óðinn is a composite of Germanic and Sámi worldviews, with a good deal of Christian influence seeping in too by the time most of the sagas are written down.
At the risk of repeating myself once too often, what we must be careful not to do is assume that such late Scandinavian sycretism was also part of the pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon worldview. All the evidence suggests that it wasn't, even though many writers – not least the authors of books which are most accessible to the general reader – make just such an assumption.
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2014