Home Sociology Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism
The third mode of contemporary Pagan engagement with indigenous animism is “reimagining,” in which concepts such as animism and sha- manism2 are applied to one’s own geographical context and/or cultural heritage. This stems from a desire for one’s religious practice to be rooted in what is perceived as one’s heritage, a heritage that one has become disconnected from. This may also involve appropriating concepts such as
“indigenous” and “native” for the purposes of reclaiming an imagined European past, or for recovering connection to land and nature in postindustrial modernity.
The “core shamanism” of Michael Harner has presented to a modern western audience the fundamentals of shamanism, derived from the practices of various indigenous cultures. These core practices, such as entering into altered states of consciousness through the use of drumming or hallucinogenic substances, communicating with animal spirit guides, and so on, are regarded as applicable even to those in a contemporary western context (Harner 1980). Some strands of the neo-shamanism influenced by Harner focus on “re-embedding” these indigenous spiritual practices “in the context, landscapes and cosmology and cultural knowledges of Northern Europe” (Blain 2002: 143, citing Lindquist 1997; see also Znamenski 2007: 273-320). This includes applying the category “shaman” to the ancient druids (e.g. Forest 2014, see Wallis 2003: 85-9) and imagining a “Celtic shamanism” (Matthews and Matthews 1994; Matthews 2001), both following a theme in Celtic Studies scholarship (Jones 1998: 197). The trend may also be seen in the Heathen practice of seidr magic3 as reconstructed from Norse tradition (Lindquist 1997; Blain 2002; Wallis 2003; Kraft et al. 2015), or seeing evidence of an ancient Gaelic shamanism surviving in nineteenth-century folk practices (Harris- Logan 2005, 2006).
This relocation of shamanism to the history of northern Europe4 is in part an attempt to sidestep cultural appropriation, as well as a desire to ground practice in one’s own land and heritage. For example, the “English Shamanism” of The Apple Branch justifies their approach thus:
Most modern shamanism automatically includes symbols and animals from places people may not feel connected to (my daily life isn’t strongly affected by Bison or Jaguar, for example, and I wouldn’t properly understand Lakota symbols on drums) ... our members have a lot of respect for Native American and South American cultures, as well as the many others which enrich the modern shamanism movement. That is precisely why we do not borrow from them. Appropriating from the sacred rites of other cultures can be disrespectful as well as ineffective. (Blake 2011)
Similarly, leading Druid Philip Shallcrass, also known as Greywolf, tells Robert Wallis that he avoids using the term “shamanism,” because it is “a culturally specific term for spirit workers in Siberia.” While his practice of Druidry, working “with the spirits of the land, of the gods and of our ancestors,” involves using a rattle for calling spirits, drumming for entering into a state of altered consciousness—practices similar to those used in Siberia or South America—Shallcrass insists that the Druidic tradition is “a native European (more specifically British) way of communicating with and responding to the spirits of place, of the gods and ancestors and of the natural world ... What we do is Druidic because we define Druidry as the native spirituality of these lands. If we were Siberian, we’d describe what we do as shamanism” (Wallis 2003: 85). Wallis pushes Shallcrass about his “sensitivity to the issues concerning the ‘stealing’ of native traditions,” while at the same time describing the use of a Native American-style sweat lodge at a gathering in Britain. Shallcrass (2003: 89) replies, “I went into that sweat lodge not because it was Lakota but because it was there.”
John Matthews claims that he devised his “Celtic shamanism” in response to a vision given to him by a Native American shaman, who instructed him to return to Britain to discover “his own native British sha- manic tradition” (cited in Jones 1998: 198). Caitlin and John Matthews (1994: 2) also describe John’s conversation with the Lakota elder, who, when asked “if he had anything to say to our people, working with a fragmented and in some instances forgotten tradition,” answered that “there is no such thing as a forgotten tradition. It is possible to neglect such traditions, but these can always be recovered.”
Jenny Blain (2002: 147) notes that most practitioners of Heathen seidr do not refer to themselves as shamans, preferring “seidwoman” or “seid- man,” in order to “avoid appropriation” of indigenous cultures. Thus, their “quest for meaning turns to the ancestors—and to those spirits of place, animals and plants [and] landscapes, both physical and cosmological, in which the seeker feels most ‘at home’” (Blain 2002: 158). In notable Druid Emma Restall Orr’s exploration of animism, The Wakeful World, she chooses to focus on western animism, “not the animism of the Amazon rainforest or South East Asia,” but that within her own British context and geographical location: “the journey of this book is one that stays within my own ecosystem. Both philosophically and spiritually the roots of my thinking are found deep in my own heritage of Western thought and culture” (2012a: 8).
Despite the reflexivity and sensitive intentions of the thinkers and practitioners discussed above, I remain somewhat discomforted by discourse on the “native spirituality of the British Isles” or “our own heritage.” This is because as well as guarding against imperialist colonization of other cultures, emphasis on European heritage can morph into the language of “land and blood,” as, for example, in some extremes of east European Native Faith (Ivakhiv 2009) or instances of “paganism ... being pressed to the cause of spiritual Aryanism in Europe” (Gallagher 2009: 585). Here, it should be underscored that xenophobia and racism are resolutely not part of most contemporary Pagans’ spirituality— the opposite in fact—simply that Paganism’s “relationship with ethnic, historical, national, social and political boundaries” (Gallagher 2009: 578) is not unproblematic. If Druidry is asserted as the native faith of the British Isles, implicit within that assertion is that other spiritualities (Christianity, but also Islam and Hinduism) are not native, and this is troubling when the extent to which a spirituality is “native” implies something about its relative value. It also runs the risk of implying that some spiritualities belong in this geographical context, thus implying that others do not belong, or at least do not belong quite as much.5 As Gallagher (2009) has discussed, contemporary Paganism in Britain is predominately white, and while it may desire to be inclusive of those whose ancestors arrived in Britain rather more recently than the Celtic or Anglo-Saxon ancestry of white Britons, it is understandable that focus on the worldviews of the ancient inhabitants of these isles is hardly attractive to current inhabitants of, say, Pakistani or Caribbean descent.
Another issue regarding animist worldviews and shamanic practices reembedded in European traditions is that, despite the richness of (some6) Pagan reimagining of personal relatedness with the more-than-human world in terms of reconstructed folklore, myth and fragments of history, arguably the introduction of the mythic element highlights how contemporary animism lacks the particularity of indigenous animist relations, which concern very particular places and species. It seems that many western Pagans need mythology, such as the “Celtic” tree alphabet (Ogham) or Bardic poems about birds, in order to justify, or make more profound, their own personal spiritual relations with trees and birds.
However, perhaps the emphasis on myth and tradition is less about origins, and more about community, in the sense that locating animist myths in the European mythic tradition enables a communal imaginary, rather than atomized individual relations to the other-than-human world. Piers Vitebsky (2003) has argued that indigenous shamanism is embedded in the community and the particular ecosystem, and that fragmented, postmodern, postindustrial societies’ neo-Shamans can “never authentically recapture the holistic vision of indigenous knowledge”
(paraphrased in Sanson 2009: 446). In response to this, Wallis (2003: 9) suggests that for some neo-Shamans, “[t]heir life-transforming experiences empower their world-views to the extent that, while they are often discordant with the West, it is nevertheless socially integrated ... A new sort of shamanic local knowledge is thus produced.” The use of ancient myth may enable this “local knowledge,” providing a means of re-enchantment for one’s religious community and local physical context. Myth and particularity are not necessarily mutually exclusive: in Wallis’s writing on his spiritual practice, we see a balanced combination of the specific and the mythic: he “works with” the plant mugwort, relating to that which grows along the banks of his local canal, as well as its importance in the Anglo-Saxon poem, the Nine Herbs Charm (2012: 24-37). He writes, “[m]y engagements with Mugwort have re-ordered for me my place in the world, the places in which I am en-placed, and contributed to an ongoing process of re-enchantment, a creative and magical act which resists the conventional worldview, even if I cannot fully escape it” (2012: 36).
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