Sunday, June 15, 2008

Shamans and Druids

I was taking a Father's Day walk this Sunday along the Boardwalk on one of the Beaches near where we live. My 12 year old was asking me if I would rather be a large flying bird or ride on one. Since my 34 year old son had got her interested in World of Warcraft last summer I knew where this was going. I said, "If I could turn myself into a large bird and fly myself then I would rather do that but only if I could then turn myself back into a man." She said, "Oh. You're a druid." I said, "The real Druids and Shamans aren't what you see in games, Dear." She said, "Oh! But they are pretty similar." I said, "Maybe."

I told her we would research about the historical Druids and Shamans. Along the way I found out several things that I didn't know, for example, that Merlin is considered a Druid by several historical scholars, which might make Morgane, a Druid too, if they considered women Druids too. There appears to be a lot of historical debate about that, even though todays Neo-Druids consider women Druids equal to men.

The most compact version of worldwide Shamanism I found at:

And the site on Druids at:

The site that talks about Merlin being a Druid is:

My first real introduction to the world of Shamans came when I was in my early 20s in college studying Cultural Anthropology. Since from what I have read today one could say that the Druids were and are a formalized specific type of cultural Shamanism. However, using this type of definition one could also say that all religions on earth are formalized cultural forms of localized Shamanism. However, I believe there would be no real argument among Cultural Anthropologist in regard to all Shamanism and Religion that ALL religions began at their root at some point as various forms of Shamanism before they became formalized into their present forms over thousands of years.

This is one reason why understanding how Shamanism and Druids are only one evolution of many many many different forms of formalized religions is so interesting to so many people.

I would now like to share some quotes from these sources. The first is from the Wikipedia shaman site I found above at:

begin quote:
Shamanism refers to a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spirit world. Practitioners of shamanism are known as shamans. There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world, though there are some beliefs that are shared by all forms of shamanism:

* That spirits can play important roles in human lives.
* The shaman can control and/or cooperate with the spirits for the community's benefit.
* The spirits can be either good or bad.
* Shamans engage various processes and techniques to incite trance; such as: singing, dancing, taking entheogens, meditating and drumming.
* Animals play an important role, acting as omens and message-bearers, as well as representations of animal spirit guides.
* The shaman's spirit leaves the body and enters into the supernatural world during certain tasks.
* The shamans can treat illnesses or sickness; they are healers. endquote

Since this denotes what all Shamanistic religions both tribal and beyond base their beliefs on it is a good place to start. Next, let's look at Druids from this internet address:
begin quote.

A Druid was a member of the priestly and learned class in the ancient Celtic societies of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland. They were suppressed by the Roman government and, later, the arrival of Christianity.[citation needed] Druids combined the duties of priest, arbitrator, healer, scholar, and magistrate. Despite neo-druidic believers, it is unknown whether or not women were historically allowed to serve as druids.[citation needed] Evidence both for and to the contrary is cited by writers of the neo-druid revival. endquote

begin quote.

The earliest records of the name druidae (Δρυΐδαι) is found in the works of Greek writers such as Sotion of Alexandria, who was cited by Diogenes Laertius in the third century CE.[1]

The Celtic communities Druids served were polytheistic. They also show signs of animism, in their reverence for various aspects of the natural world, such as the land, sea and sky,[2] and their veneration of other aspects of nature, such as sacred trees and groves (the oak and hazel were particularly revered), tops of hills, streams, lakes and plants such as the mistletoe.[3] Fire was regarded as a symbol of several divinities and was associated with cleansing. Purported ritual killing and human sacrifice were aspects of druidic culture that shocked classical writers.[4]

The druids looked for omens in the shapes of the clouds, and sought "signs and seasons" in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars.[citation needed] Their calendar year was governed by the lunar, solar, vegetative and herding cycles.

The four main Gaelic holidays observed by Gaelic druids and their people included

* Imbolg (February 1), which marked the earliest signs of the coming spring
* Beltain (May 1), a time of community gatherings and moving of the herds to summer pastures
* Lughnasadh to celebrate the ripening of first fruits and the many-skilled deity Lugh
* Samhain to recognize the end of harvest, the time of sacrifice, and the lowering of the barrier between the world of the living and that of the dead

The timing for these four festivals was determined by seasonal changes in the natural world, or possibly by combined lunar and solar calendar. In modern times, remnants of these festivals are still observed by the descendants of the ancient Celts, though often in a Christianised or secular manner.

Modern attempts at reconstructing, reinventing or reimagining the practices of the druids are called Neo-druidism. Endquote.

Similar studies could be made regarding the Shamanic roots of all major religions and sects. For example, to study the shamanic roots of Christianity you would have to trace back through Judaism which is a root religion for Christianity.

If you are tracing Buddhism back to its shamanic roots you would move to the root religion of Buddhism which is Bramanism(ancient Hinduism). The shamanic roots to Christianity would begin or end with Abraham(depending on your point of view) and go back 40,000 to 100,000 years into prehistory or more.

The next quote is a critique of sorts and fairly scholarly, so I'm putting this quote last as it may be a little to esoteric for most people. However, I found that the idea of there even being a possibility that Merlin was actually a Druid very fascinating.

begin quote.
Green's book is divided into ten short chapters, with much of the text contained in illustration captions and sidebars. Chapter subjects include "Finding the Druids," "The Celts and the Supernatural," "The Druids in Classical Literature," "Digging up Druids," Sacrifice and Prophecy," "The Female Druids," "Sacred Places and their Priests," "Druids in Irish Myth," and two chapters on recent neo-pagan druid history "Druids Resurrected," and "Druids Today." Much of what Green has to say is speculation, presented as fact or scholarly hypothesis, like her ruminations on druidic prayer: "Druids and their peers would have conducted solemn prayer rituals for the whole tribe or community on important occasions. Lesser priests might lead small communities in prayer, and the head of the household perhaps led private family prayers" (32). Unfortunately, there really isn't a lot of data one way or the other about druid praying in the pre-Christian era. Green asserts this and similar ideas without referring to sources or even using the resources of comparative religion as support. Later, next to a lurid engraving of Merlin that includes many of the romantic trappings of the druid revival, Green refers to Merlin as a druid, something that may have been the case, but makes me uncomfortable since neither the poetry attributed to Myrddin nor the Arthurian medieval corpus describe Merlin as a druid. In her chapter on female druids Green almost immediately moves from female druids to witches, writing "Both the early Irish and Welsh myths mention witches, who sometimes possessed the additional role of teachers of war craft to young heroes" (93). No medieval Irish or Welsh text mentions witches. None. Witch is a modern English word, and has very different (though related) meanings from its ancestral medieval relatives. The figures Green refers to are presumably women like Scathach, who tutors Cu Chulainn. Scathach is specifically referred to as both a flaith (prophetess) and a druid. Scathach is not called a witch, and using the word witch in reference to her and similar figures brings Germanic and contemporary associations into a discussion of ancient Celtic practices. Later in the same chapter (98) Green does discuss the concept of witchcraft in a broader context, but then creates a worse problem, in my opinion, by inserting Fuseli's engraving of the witches in Macbeth. The caption attempts to draw a link between the Macbeth witches, and the Morrígan of medieval Irish literature. Aside from the fact that they are both sets of three, there is no relationship between the two female triads. The Morrígan, remember, was a shape-shifter, and the descriptions of the three members of the triad vary. Shakespeare was emphatically not drawing on Irish myth in Macbeth. endquote.

Like I said, it is pretty esoteric and relatively unfathomable unless one has read the book being reviewed or unless one intended to read the book with a very critical historical eye.

For most of us regular people it is just sort of fascinating to see how all relgions sprang up from various shamanic forms over thousands and thousands of years into what they are now. So, the next time you are travelling and visit local shamanic rituals in progress, think about how your religion, too, began at one time in this way.

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