British Shamanism

British Shamanism originates from the time that Hunter-Gatherer-Fisher peoples roamed Britain before 6,500 BP (Before Present).  Have a look at the time-line for an understanding of the changes in ancient Britain.

 

The word "Shaman" comes for the Tunguska language and they are the ancestors of the Evenk people of Siberia today.  Their region encompasses the River Yenisei, whose southern range embraces both Lake Baikal and Ulaanbaatar.  

 

Since its adoption by Westerners from the 1600s, "Shaman" is now a universal word that is used to refer to a person who communicates with spirits, through entering a trance state, usually by use of ritual, in order to practice healing or access information.  Although, a Shaman is really much more than that (see the next page, 'What is Shamanism?').  

 

Any person fitting this general description would be expected to have a unique collective name within the language of the culture they belong to.  We don't know what an early British Shaman would have been called.  We can have a bit of fun speculating, though. 

 

The Mabinogion, and particularly, the Four Branches, might be of use here.  Pryderi's name is probably the best clue we have.  The Four Branches are tales of the transition in Britain from Shaman to Neo-Druid to Druid, through the very turbulent times in the Neolithic.  His name means Pryd, meaning the name of the Land, and Deri, meaning oak.  The Welsh word for 'magician', which is the word used in medeival manuscripts to describe a shaman, is Derwyn, meaning 'white oak'.  The word for 'white' when found in a word in the Welsh language historically, always denotes that a thing is of or belonging to 'Spirit', and is fitted onto many names, such as Branwyn (White crow). 

 

Even though the Welsh language is the oldest language of Britain, it is unlikely to have been in use in the Mesolithic, being an Indo-European language.  But who knows?  

 

Interestingly, the experts are not too sure of the original meaning of the word "Shaman" but is seems to be a doing word, rather than the title or role of a person.  Some say it translates as "to leap, jump or dance" which brings to mind the Masai.  Others say that it means "to heat oneself" or "one who is on fire" which connects nicely to the descriptions of the San Bushmen when in shamanic trance, who speak of burning up.

 

 

About 6,500 BP, the culture of the Neolithic farmers began to spread throughout Britain and life started to change. 

 

Hunter-Gatherers continued with their methods during a period of transition, and the farmers would have continued to believe and practice the old ways too.  By 5,500 BP farming communities were settled throughout Britain.

 

There is a fundamental difference between a Hunter-Gatherer mind-set and a Neolithic Farmer mentality, manifesting in two particular cultural changes:  the concept of ownership and the expansion of aggressive actions.

With farming, the concept of ownership eventually becomes established.  Previously, people did not think about being the owner of things as individuals, and certainly they would not have considered that a person owned the land or animals, nor anything within the realm of Nature.

With the advent of Farmers came the necessity to claim ownership of animals, the need to own a defined area of land to graze or plant crops, the importance of increasing their herds and the size of the land they own.

 

Ownership begets aggression, to protect what is owned, and this changes the balance between male and female, as masculine power and aggression becomes more valuable to the society than nurturing and creative female energy.  

 

Some people think that Hunter-Gatherers were nomads, whilst Farmers were settled, however, recent Mesolithic house finds have shown hundreds of years of steady occupation by Hunter-Gatherers and archaeologists are changing their minds about their nomadic lifestyle. 

 

Indeed, we know from tribal groups that exist today that Hunter-Gatherer cultures roam over a large territory, similar to certain predatory wild animals, but they do not leave their known lands or environment.  They stay where they know the landscape, the animals, the seasons, the plants, the trees, the spirits and allies of the Land.  They move around within that landscape according to the land's rhythms and seasons, for to do so is a part of their lifestyle and survival.

 

Hunter-Gatherers, essentially, stay put within a large area of Land which remains wild according to Nature's laws. They do not build enclosures or walls.  They do not impact the Land or own it.  Their buildings are not permanent structures, such as a stone farmhouse, because they will make a house for the season, live there several months, then move to a new area and construct another impermanent house, as their lifestyle and needs dictate.  Come the season, they will return to the first house and rebuild it from the ruin it has become, thus a building may indeed be utilised by Hunter-Gatherers over a vast period of time.    

 

Farmers, on the other hand, cannot stay in one place.  How do they divide the land, fields and farmstead between their children?  One child, generally the eldest male, inherits the land and herds, and the other siblings travel afield to find their own lands to cultivate, thus increasing the land ownership of the larger family alliance.  With neighbouring families claiming land similarly, the next generations always need to travel further and further to find and claim their own piece of land.  This gets harder over time and it is easy to see how aggression, violence and war increase in the lives of the people, both in terms of protecting what one has and claiming what one needs to survive.    

 

After several generations, farming families travelled far and wide looking for fertile lands, moving into new landscapes and continents, taking claim and settling everywhere.  This approach accounts for the speed at which agriculture spread throughout the world from its origins in the Middle East.  It also accounts for the increase in conflict and aggression.

 

This begs the question, who had the better and easier  lifestyle - Hunter-Gatherers or Neolithic Farmers?

It depends on when you choose to stop the clock.  Prior to the introduction of farming methods, Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers had it best, if you ask me.  Once Farming exists alongside, neither are having a good time, it seems, and then, when farming ways are settled, the hunters are more or less done for. 

 

Hunting, in a Land that provides for the needs of the tribe, can be good indeed.  A party of hunters go out to hunt once a week, perhaps, and return laden with food for the whole tribe.  Everybody eats well and then the tribe settles into a period of eating from the larder, having processed the food from the hunt, until it is gone, when they need to send another hunting party out.  This, alongside frequent gathering of plants, roots and seeds for their staples.  This leaves room for periods of making clothes, houses, jewellery, pots, and all sorts of decorative artistic items.  And time for celebrations, dancing, courting, laughing, singing and spiritual activities.  

 

The Farmers, however, would have had it very tough at the start.  Bad weather could ruin an entire years' worth of work and effort.  Bad luck and sickness could wipe out an entire flock of animals.  Until there had been several good years of their investment, this could be life-or-death disastrous.  Also, it is necessary that they work from dawn to dusk, every day of the year, as any modern farmer with all their technology will say.  They had large families to share the work load, but then they also had many mouths to feed.  Once up and running, however, they have more food and a consistent supply, leading to more stability.

 

The problems for Hunter-Gatherers derives from the interface between themselves and any other culture.  Their way of life is completely dependent on the maintenance and security of the delicate connection between human and Nature. 

 

When Hunter-Gatherers found themselves living in a world alongside Farmers, that secure connection was compromised and it was only a matter of time until their way of life broke down, as is happening now for the tribal groups in the Rainforests of South America.

 

The new farming ways destroy Nature as the land is claimed and fenced off from the wild world.  They reduced the number of wild animals available and the size of the tribal hunting territory, leading to starvation.  Their practices and presence, now and in the past, introduced new diseases which can wipe out Hunter-Gatherers who are without immunity to the new germs.  

 

A good understanding of what it may have been like in Britain in the Neolithic can be appreciated by watching cowboy films about the times when western peoples were clearing the plains of the native peoples in America, in order to settle their farming lifestyles.  We know how much violence and death occurred.  We know that the situation led to violence between the indigenous tribes as well, as they tried to survive with less and less resources to survive with.  We don't know whether, in Britain, most of the Hunter-Gatherers adopted farming, as the historians would have us believe, rather than incomers with farming ways desolating the existing population.  A combination of both, we may presume. 

 

In Britain and elsewhere, it is in this context, on the cusp between the beliefs and memories of the old ways alongside the practices of the new, that all the ancient structures were erected, from enclosures (spiritual not practical structures) to long barrows to great circles like Avebury. 

 

What do spiritual people do when their lives and culture are in danger of being wiped out?  They appeal to the spirits of Land, Sky, Water and Air.  However, it is the Neolithic Farmers who built the monuments. 

 

There they are, working their fingers to the bone to make a living, and yet at the same time, appealing to the spirits of their ancestors and putting much-needed energy and effort into building these structures to allow this to happen.  Why?  Because a huge part of staking a claim and rising to power through aggression and ownership is achieved through proving rights through ancestral alliegances.  We like to think these are the mystical, spiritual, deep and meaning mysterious monuments of our ancestors, and they are, but they are just as much, sorry to have to say it, political statements of power-over.

  

These are the momuments of the cults of ancestors.  These are being built, at the time, by desperate people.  And the Four Branches stories of Bran and Gwydion explain a lot when looked at from this perspective. 

So, in Britain, after farming arrived in the Neolithic, everything started to change, albeit very slowly at first. The impressive ancient monuments were constructed after this change began, during the years of transition.

 

 

It is not really clear when Celts first came to Britain.  It is possible they arrived in several waves, as separate and possibly disconnected tribes, hundreds of years apart, and maybe they first arrived earlier than we realise.  The Celts are important because we have information about them, and they belong to a continuum of tribal peoples occupying Britain who integrated some of the older beliefs and practices into their culture. 

 

We know very little about the times of the Hunter-Gatherers, except for rare artefacts that imply Shamanic practice, like the Red Deer stag head-dresses of Star Carr.  Star Carr was occupied 9,500 years ago.  Archaeologists found twenty-one Red Deer head-dresses there, all worked with tools and with holes for tying onto the head.  These objects speak strongly of ritual and magic.  It is possible that the Celts still carried the lore from those earlier times despite the differences in their lifestyle and the amount of time that had passed.

 

The pace of change today is so fast compared to the past, but even so, we still have access to information that dates back thousands of years. We know about many things from the past because even in these years of rapid change, artefacts and information has been preserved.  Back then, hundreds and hundreds of years could pass with minimal change in lifestyle and beliefs.  The new technologies of the time, agriculture, animal husbandry, pottery and metal-working, would have had a huge impact in their own ways, but were also incorporated into the existing beliefs.  So it is probable that in the time of the Celts and Druids, despite all the fundamental change that had occurred, they still retained something of the old knowledge, wisdom and practices from the time of Shamans in Britain. 

 

When the Celts arrived, they were a minority elite who imposed their language and culture on the majority indigenous population.  In order to manage a smooth transition, they would have acknowledged the existing practices and beliefs of the majority, or they would have faced strong opposition.  We know some things about the Druids, and there is some evidence that they inherited or adopted some of the earlier Shamanic root ideas, or perhaps they already believed them, since the places they had travelled to Britain from also shared the same history. 

 

There was a gradual transition over thousands of years and some of the most fundamental beliefs from the distant past did not die out until well after the Romans had massacred the Druids on Anglesey and the Christian church of Rome was established in Britain. 

 

The early Christian church was not a threat to the loss of spiritual wisdom from the past due to the Nature-based values and practices of the early Celtic saints; St Patrick, St Dymphna, St Melangell, to name but a few.

 

They viewed the story of Christ as that of a great Shamanic-type healer, a man they could identify with, and from that perspective, Jesus' teachings and actions made complete and utter sense.  After the Synod of Whitby, 664 AD, things started to change, as the power of Rome took root in Britain and the concepts of good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and devils slowly took precedence.   

 

But the knowledge, wisdom and secrets of the past are still there.  Even today, the Land remembers, and if the Land and the collective consciousness of Britain and the British retain the wisdom and secrets of the past, then surely we can access them still.