‘ve been noticing in blogs, forums, podcasts, and from talking to other Witches in person that many within the Pagan and Witchcraft community don’t know the answer to this question or even where to look to find it. Shamanism doesn’t just refer to Native Americans or Siberians – European Shamanism did exist and still does today. Is Witchcraft Shamanism? Yes and no. Yes because Shamanism can be found at the root of almost every spiritual and religious tradition on the planet including both ancient Pagan religions as well as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Did I just say that? Yes I did! Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed were shamans in the sense they all could fall into trance, hear the voices of the spirits of ‘God”, and bring back knowledge and wisdom from the spirit world to help their people.
No, Witchcraft is not Shamanism, because it has evolved from its roots in Shamanism into something else. Modern Witchcraft traditions, such as Wicca, are mainly European-based (even in the New Worlds) and their foundation comes from the Western magical traditions which, although have some similarities to Shamanism, have diverged from it and become more esoteric and ceremonial rather than rude and of the common people like Shamanism. But do UK Cunning Folk, Norse and Celtic seers and magicians, ancient Greek sorcerers, and Eastern European folk magicians have roots in Shamanism? Yes they do! The practices of European folk magic are closer to ancient Shamanism than modern traditions of Witchcraft are. The base beliefs and practices of the rural common folk in Europe and elsewhere are more akin to Shamanism than any modern religion and spirituality today.
How can it be that Shamanism is found worldwide? I must be making this up right? Shamanism is an experiencial spirituality. Its beliefs, traditions, and vocabulary vary with locality and culture, but the core stays the same because the practitioners are all sharing similar experiences with the otherworld and the supernatural beings who dwell there. The cosmology of Shamanism does not differ continent to continent. This is too uncanny to ignore. There is too much evidence that once upon a time humankind all shared a spirituality no matter how much land or ocean separated them. Thanks to the advanced leaps and bounds by modern archaeologists and anthropologists, this idea has turned from conjecture into reality – it has been proven. The likes of Mircea Eliade and Margaret Murray can now rest peacefully in their graves knowing that, although their theories were before their time, they were on to something bigger than anyone at the time could’ve imagined.
Now does this mean that just because you identify as a witch you can say your practices are similar to an Altaic or Sami shaman? No, it does not because you are not from that culture and learned in their beliefs, traditions, and practices regarding their particular form of shamanism. However, if the form of witchcraft you practice is absolutely steeped in Norse folk magic and beliefs, you could identify yourself with seidr and call yourself a seiðkona (if you were a woman that is). Just because the essence of Shamanism has been found to be universal does not mean every form of Shamanism is the same. Just like any Pagan religion, it will only work and make sense if you practice within a cultural context.
If you wish to learn more about Witchcraft’s roots in Shamanism and the comparison of the two specifically – I highly recommend the following works to you. If I could only pick two books for the person new to this concept to read they would be The Way of Wyrd and North Star Road. I would start there and then venture into the academic worlds of Ginzburg and Wilby.
- Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby
- Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath by Carlo Ginzburg
- North Star Road: Shamanism, Witchcraft, and the Otherworld Journey by Kenneth Johnson
- Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk-Traditions by Stuart A. Harris Logan
- Shamans Sorcerers and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion by Brian Hayden
- So You Wannabe A Shaman, Huh? by Joe Wilson
- The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the 16th and 17th Centuries by Carlo Ginzburg
- The Way of Wyrd: Tales of an Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer by Brian Bates