Touching Earth: Shamanism in Modern Britain
by Gordon MacLellan
No. We have no direct, inherited tradition.
No. We do not belong to a single, identifiable community.
No. We are not necessarily Celtic.
No. We do not even have elders and definite ancestor connections.
Yes. We live in the land called Albion we are inspired by its Dream and we work with the people that live in these islands now.
It can all begin to sound like a litany of defiance: a sort Of anarchic dismissal of tradition. But it is not. Who "we" are, where we come from, the path we follow into the future is a celebration.
I write as a "shaman" working in Britain with spirits who belong to this land and to the fusion of human and spirit world that have grown up over the thousands of years that humans have lived here. I live in a society where its shamanic past is either long gone or well forgotten and even the richness of its folklore is often denied and scorned. But here we have communities who still care for the places they live in and who try to find ways of celebrating the bonds between people and landscape.
For me, the shaman bridges the distance between community and world: helping people listen to the world they are part of and smoothing the ripples of human impact upon that world. The shaman's world is one populated by spirits: of ancestors, of food plants and animals, of the other living beings who share the physical world and the awarenesses of landscape, habitat and environment who in Britain we might call Faerie. Through trance, the shaman journeys into the spirit worlds and returns, communicating needs and desires in both directions: walking between the worlds. In general, I think this coincides with established views of shamanism: communicating with spirits through ecstatic trance, but in modern western societies how that is achieved may now differ from traditional forms.
I have discussed elsewhere the roles and techniques that I see modern shamans using and that discussion is not the purpose of this article.1 Suffice to say, I feel that western societies still need that mediator between human and non-human worlds but without recognising either the role or the traditional methods of working, modem shamans have to find new ways of engaging humans with the living world that surrounds them. We rarely live in communities that will gather and support, observe or listen to a dancing, tranced, animal-masked shaman.
In this article. I would like to pick up ideas on the inspirational sources of a shamanic practice that is growing - from new seeding or old roots it is difficult to say, here in Britain.
That image of the shaman as being, or crossing, a bridge between the worlds. is a useful one to hold onto. In established shamanic cultures, that bridge is built by the shaman with her own blood and bone in trance and is supported by the strength of the culture she lives in. Here, the shaman may act as the protector of tradition as that is an important tool in keeping the bridge open. In a society, however, where that bridge is not recognised, the culture the shaman works in rarely supports her work and everyday concepts and behaviours might work to block the bridge if it could ever be built in the first place. The physical support that comes with a community that will drum or sing with the shaman on her travels, or who will gather and with their very presence help the journey to the Otherworld. is lacking. To speak in public of communication with spirits who are our ancestors or the character of a place taken form and voice is usually to be mocked and ignored. Without recognising a world that lives and breathes and has its own sentient vitality, there has been little recognition of any need to relate to that world in anything other than a purely material basis. So here, modern shamans often seem to be agents of change: in their eyes, working always to open communication between the worlds. This is where the anarchism comes in - a willingness to walk through anything, challenge convention, to break, avoid, unsettle anything that "blocks the bridge". The need for communication is there, the road must be opened and as subtle ants. creeping ivy or charging elephants, the shamans of the western world must face the walls that hinder them.
The shaman moves between human and non-human worlds and owes an allegiance to both. We are not in a world where the human community is living on the obvious edge of survival as we might have known in the past. Our lifestyles may set us in peril in a longer term as we hasten the deterioration of our environment, but that edge of starvation, drought or death through exposure is not immediately evident. Now the spirit worlds are also looking with some despair at our impact on physical and non-physical worlds and are making their own demands upon shamans for explanations and support. We are expected to explain the what and why of our society's action and it is to the spirits’ credit that their perception and expectations in relations with humans are changing. The sources of that awareness are quite simple. The spirits tell us. The shaman’s responsibility lies in both directions: human and spirit and part of a shaman’s success lies in being accepted by the spirits. The paths into the Otherworld are not defined: we all use different routes: some drum and sing or wait in stillness or dance until in their dance they move in all the worlds at once. The results, however, are common: we meet spirits. Spirits who are definite presences, who speak to us with their own characters and their own perspectives on the worlds we all live in and their concerns about the futures that are unfolding around us.
Shamans working in a western society where there is no clear surviving tradition to tap into must find new ways of building those bridges between the worlds. We may find threads of connection to our past, links to our ancestors, and traces of ideas that we can pick up and use, but we act now for the people who are around us now, not in some long-gone then or some hoped for still to come. We belong to the moment whose air we breathe as we work. And if that action draws on an old tradition so be it, but it is just as likely to call for a change in that older pattern or for the shaping of a new one. The task awaits completion and the shaman's job is to complete it.
Without an inherited strand of teaching and culture, purists may cast doubt upon the authenticity of a modern shamanic practice. But I believe the truth of a shaman lies in her work: she is defined not by external verification but by her role and actions within the human and spirit communities she works with. And if that is in new ways and in new situations then so be it. It may make for a patchier pattern of work and a more precarious path as so much has to be discovered as we go along, but where does a new shamanic practice come from? When does it become a "valid path"? We are not looking for sociological vindication. We are becoming what we will be: the proof of the working will be in the relationships between communities, land and spirits, not in pages in a book.
This is Britain and this can be a strange land to live in. Magically it remembers being "the Islands of the Mighty", training ground for Druids, home of Bran and Arthur and Avalon and a thorn in Rotuan flesh for years. The hills are still dreaming of the Wild Wood and given half a chance would grow it anew. People come and go, their impact may be great at the time but to the hills and the long slow dream of those lives we are of little moment. The root of the magic here is that ancient rolling presence of a land dreaming of what might be and while we may flicker across those dreams like flies we are still a part of them. In one of those irritating contradictions of magic, we have a land that measures time in eons and changes slowly. barely noticing us, it seems, but where we belong in those dreams and where our lives and our living are important as the fine details, giving precision and colour to the passing moments. We are both nothing and valuable at the same time.
The human history, of Britain may be measured in waves of invaders. of settlers, of war and unease and continuing prejudice. But to the land, whoever is here becomes a part of it all: where you live is where you are. You may hunger for other places and feel exiled. estranged. alien, but here you are. Your breath changes this place. Your feet touch this earth here. It is this land that feels your presence and those who live in this land see you.
And so we are absorbed. in time, all those colonists - invaders. migrants or pilgrims, become incorporated into the Dream the land dreams and their stories and their gods slide into the Otherworld and there the shamans find them. Over the generations, new people mix with older, some barriers fall and leave an increasingly diverse society: a colourful tapestry of communities. And these are the communities where the shamans work. We do not live in a single shamanic culture where people recognise the role and know we have a job to do. We are bound to the land and the people who live on it, working with a potentially huge tangle of cultural groups with apparently different needs and perceptions and different traditional ways of relating to themselves and to the environment.
If this is the human world the shaman works in, then there is the spirit world. For me, the spirit realm of Britain is the Otherworld:
"The Otherworld is the abode of spirits: there we meet the talking foxes and watch the shapes of the stone people unfold from the rocks on a hillside This is the shaman’s world. She moves through an Otherworld that may correspond exactly with the territory she calls home but here is midnight and a world frosted with energy like ice on every leaf where the mist at dawn is a swirling, pouring cloud of spirals. spilling out of damp hollows. And the "Other" is not ‘other’ at all, but this world, the mundane physical world."2
I call it "the Otherworld" out of my own background. using a mixture of Celtic perceptions of the land of the dead and the realm of Faerie. It is an "over there" that is "over there" as an idea and as an easier way of soiling out experiences than as a definite separation Of one world from another. The Otherworld is always just "over there", "round the corner", "waiting". The end result. however, is not a particularly Celtic world. It is simply itself and everything that is around us now. or that the land in its dreaming remembers. lives on there. There we encounter the accumulated residents of this land. There I meet with spirits who "technically" arrived with the Vikings in their longships. or find Saxon Wayland in his smithy or meet the Faeries who pick and choose and have used human stories to shape themselves over all the long years of human presence here. There are distinctly Celtic presences and even older people who say they have always been here, stones taking shape and voice and watching all of us living and dying... And the wolves we lost from the everyday world a couple of hundred years ago, they are still hunting in the wood of the Otherworld for the land still remembers them.
When we as humans: shamans, magician, Christian, Pagan or whatever, start to explore our spiritual heritage, things do get turned round and it can become all too easy to dismiss what has come lately. Easier to avoid most of the last two thousand years. If we look far enough back we can detour round worrying dilemmas of historical accuracy in traditions and confusions over the precedence of spirits - are Celtic demigods more important than Saxon forest spirits? - because it all becomes speculative. Go far enough back and we can always be right and everyone else can have missed a vital clue. Curse the Christians - and the Normans - and the Vikings - and those loutish Saxons, militaristic Romans, Hanoverian kings, Scottish Presbyterians, industrial revolutions, occasional Spaniards Denying whatever you like and harking back to a Celtic Golden Age seems to be a useful escape from addressing the blend of all that is of Britain. Call to our remote ancestors and forget the generations that lie between. But beware of the earlier ancestors. the ones the Celts displaced. those heroic. majestic and very bloody Celts. Watch for the little dark people who think very different thoughts Of our famed Celts.
But to live and breathe now is to be offered access to that rich, erratic heritage. With its long layers of history, crowded into these small islands, the Otherworld of Britain unfolds into a wonderful array of forms and there the shaman may meet people who hail from Saxon, Nordic, general "English" ancient Celtic or other less definable roots.
There is a heritage of folk tradition in the ordinary world too. From everyday domestic customs around shoes, may blossom, yellow butterflies and the magic of snails to full-scale community ceremonies there are relics of a magical past. Some celebrations are famous: Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss and the Abbott's Bromley Horn Dance are well known while others, like individual mumming and pace-egging plays have survived on a purely local scale. Some are ancient, some might be recent revivals or complete inventions. That is not the point. Historical precedence is not everything: if a ceremony evolves because on some level it is needed, then it is there and its power should be recognised and respected. Even in a rowdy pub or village hall, a mumming play can command attention with its own bawdy irreverence and in its clowning still reach out a finger to touch the heart. A whisper of a different awareness.
I would not claim that such events are shamanic or evidence of a shamanic past: they lack the directed ecstasy and spirit communication of a shamanic ceremony. They may be powerful celebrations or the last throes of dying traditions, but they chart the ways communities relate to their local environment. They are signposts for community workers (shamanic or otherwise) to find the paths that encourage people to relate to the world they live in again and often provide inspiration for more spontaneous new work. It is interesting, for instance. that in this land of horses, racing and horse-goddesses, the horse's magical role is still celebrated. Some creatures, like Padstow’s two horses, survive while other hobby horses fall apart (literally. in some plays3) and still new ones are appearing as Hobby Horses return in modern mumming plays and as chaotic elements in street theatre and environmental protests. For a modern shaman who works with horse spirits dancing the Hobby horse opens whole avenues of the Otherworld with associations unfolding back to that Celtic past but which are still active and moving within living communities.
That folk tradition of ceremony and celebration is also a living thing: it grows and changes all the time. While our folk tradition is largely rural, most of our population is now urban and it is here that a lot of growth takes place. People still want to make connections: with themselves, with each other and to mark the changing world around them. Old customs survive. or are revived or whole new ones arrive or evolve.
On a national scale, Tree Dressing Day and Apple Day initiatives of recent years have brought tree-centred celebrations to all parts of the country. Inspired by the work of the London-based environment/community/arts group Common Ground, Tree Dressing Day happens in the first week-end in December:
"The purpose of the day is to encourage people to create our first cross cultural festival celebrating the trees in their streets, parks, front gardens or locality by decorating them - socially and publicly The idea is to draw attention to the trees which we take for granted and no longer notice, to highlight the importance of long-term tree care and to motivate people into looking after their local trees."4
It is more than just that. Tree Dressing has provided a focus and incentive for a wide range of exciting and inventive arts projects involving people of all ages and experiences in activities that celebrate both the trees and the human communities that live around them. Now, with hundreds of events across the country, it is becoming well-established in the calendar of celebrations. Apple Day in October is another Conunon Ground concept "celebrating and demonstrating that variety and richness matter to your locality and that it is possible to affect change in your place"5- highlighting the loss of and encouraging the conservation of individual apple varieties. The wider implications of this draw people into planting new orchards. using local resources and recognising the value of "local distinctiveness".
Other things happen individually with small, regular public events that mark the turning ot' the year, changing seasons in a city park or town square or are spectacular celebrations of human creativity with inner city carnivals or the fire festivals that were a feature of life in Manchester until the last couple of years. Here, Viking longships. flying dinosaurs and spectacular bonfires were centrepieces in wild but choreographed events involving hundreds of local residents while runes ran in fire across the walls of apartment blocks.
Some of the most exciting ceremonies have grown with grassroots environmental action. Whole rituals take shape through the need of people to draw upon their own energy, to recognise their strength and to acknowledge the land and their feelings for it that bring them to battle on its behalf. Ragged and half-formed at times, these are thrilling events for all they represent: growth that breaks traditions, bridging class, belief and age distinctions, bursting with energy through those walls of convention that dismiss the strength of the individual and the importance of a sense of place: new rituals that leave people empowered and ready to act.
This is the world of the modern shaman: in touch with an Otherworld that brims with it’s own vitality and with the opportunity to meet a human population that is changing: recognising its need for a sense of connection slowly and expressing this in both old and new ways. We do not claim that what is happening around us is shamanic but perhaps that we relate to these events in a shamanic way and our contribution to them is a shamanic one: part of our role is to bring the presence of the spirits back into this human world and to explain to the spirits what it is they meet around them in this world now.
We do not tap into an extant tradition. but most of the other shamans I know, myself included, find we tend to work with a particular strand within all the layers of the Otherworld: drawing strength and inspiration from that particular root - maybe a Nordic/English or a Welsh Celtic one for example. These are not exclusive, I would describe my ‘route’ as basically a Celtic/Scottish one but the spirits I work with are described from relatively recent "British" folklore - that mixed bag of witch. Faerie, boggart and hobgoblin worlds that we meet through folk-tales - as well as older Scottish sources and occasional presences from high Celtic myth. The spirits come and a "family" forms - a group of associated beings. with the shaman as the physical presence within the group. They come as themselves: identifying spirits through stories is a useful convention: we can both agree to a shape and size that seems to coincide with the character of that spirit but to assume that because this spirit here is being a hobgoblin does not mean that it is a hobgoblin out of a Middle England farm and to assume that it will go on behaving the way the stories tell us it should can be downright dangerous for the shaman and insulting for the spirit. Again. perhaps in an established shamanic culture such relationships are more settled and are maintained by the ongoing exchange between spirits and humans but here we have new patterns being formed and there is a sense of wild adventure and excitement in the whole process - for both shamans and the spirits themselves.
It is difficult describe relationships with spirits. My "family" and I work as a cooperative: the bonds that hold us are based on mutual respect and love and maintained by our work and our celebrations. It is perhaps easiest to look at it all as a set of friendships: we are together and like good friendships we have our times when we work well together and times we do not but, overall. we are "the family", we stay together, we help, protect and empower each other and the collective is stronger than any of its individual components.
A shaman working in modern Britain. then, may form bonds with spirits out of a range of traditions, draw upon a variety of mythologies and enjoy contact with the diversity of this culture, but the heart of the shaman's role is to serve. That service works in both directions - from human to Otherworld and from Other to human worlds.
The former is often the harder these days: we are expected, by the spirits. to draw people into a clear relationship with their world, but we do not live in a society where we can turn round and say "we need to do this, because the spirits want it of us", and expect to be listened to. We have to find ways of involving people in the world that they will respond to and that will offer them new understanding and help them make their own decisions about the world we all share. The days of the shaman as the outspoken spiritual guide have gone and expectations have changed, on both sides of the bridge. Our human communities may feel confused at times and uncertain but people are claiming the right to make their own choices and now this seems to offer a powerful path into a human community with a strong connection to the land. A lot of our role these days whether we are individual healers or "bridge-builders" for whole groups lies in empowering people. We work across faiths, trying to be open to whoever looks for new ways of looking at their world, at the celebrations of life.
And the spirits are still there, watching. listening and realising that their relationship with the human world is changing, too. But here the shaman’s link between spirit and human worlds becomes almost split. While in the past the ceremonies that spoke from one world into the other were there in the public awareness and maybe took place in public, now we find the shaman’s human work in one place and time and the connection with spirit happening somewhere else at a different time. The link may seem tenuous but the strength of the bond remains: the shaman still travels between the worlds, it is just that the bridge has stretched a bit.
In relationship to environmental and personal spiritual matters, people are becoming much more aware and informed and prepared to reach their own decisions and act upon these. And the spirits see and feel a new opening for a strong world within these changes: Their relationship with humans has changed and they have had to accept that people do not recognise them as they might once have done. but a population of humans with the strength to think and see and act out of their own awareness is changing our Otherworld. Love and respect for the land protects the spirits. The spirits I work with, both as "family" and in more occasional contacts, on the whole are finding that they do not particularly want or need a world that recognises them and pays them respect as individuals but they do expect a world that respects the land and people who respect themselves. Like a spiritual or magical reflection of an ecological process, as one area changes others are affected. That respect for both ourselves and our environment leaves us, humans, stronger and a readiness to behave in a more respectful way towards the land echoes through the Otherworld and strengthens that world in turn. And then it returns: a land that renews its strength through the spirits who walk across it is a more nourishing land, more inspiring to live as part of and so humans are touched, their own actions coming right round again. Regardless of human beliefs, the spirits that are the living world awake and watching, celebrate the strength both of humans and of their home. That is the goal they set their shaman intermediaries.
All of this is part of a modern shaman’s work - often unseen, unguessed. interfering busybodies, maybe. but working always to keep the bridges open. Passage over those bridges may be less obvious than in other cultures, but the connections are renewed so spirit can listen to human, human can listen to human, human can listen to his own heart and somewhere can feel the touch of warmth that opens their eyes to the world they live in.
Shamans now are working there among communities, drawing inspiration from the Otherworld, and, through this, working in a wider context with the people around them. I work with the mixed communities of Britain's cities: I feel the land and its awareness and the people who live here and find ways for the two to listen to each other. It may not look particularly Celtic, or of any distinct historical type. but its inspiration derives from the variety of our past and from the stilt-legged stalking spirits who are taking shape among the tall buildings of our cities. It may not sound shamanic, in the traditional sense. but it is about listening and looking. about being open and healing, and the spirits walk with me. I work with groups in environmental celebration and performance. while others work with individuals in healing and still others work among small groups of people. Those damn shamans get everywhere.
No, we are not organised.
No, we do not meet up and sort ourselves out into any sort of coherent movement.
Individual, independent. bloody-minded and pervasive and harder to pin down than mist. we work with anyone we can to celebrate the love that lies between earth and people. We are still the go-betweens between human and spirit worlds, but the boundaries have changed a lot. Instead of being clear guides and communicators between those worlds, we have a new role now: to open people up to a sense of wonder in their world and in themselves. There lies the strength that supports all the living worlds. The wing of joy.
- Harvey, G & Hardman C eds. "Paganism Today", Thorsons, London & San Francisco 1996: chapter "Dancing On the Edge"
- Alford, V "The Hobby horse And Other Animal Masks", Merlin Press. London, 1978: "he is always very old, can hardly stand. yet is for sale, shakes himself to pieces " of the Wild horse with the Cheshire Soul-cakers’ plays
- "Common Ground" general leaflet: Common Ground. Seven Dials Warehouse 44 Farlham Street, London, WC2H 9LA. UK