Monday, November 30, 2015

Yakut - People of the Frozen Meadows - .

Be inspired by some of the richest and often least utilized cultures, their mythology, and fairy tales.

This article centers primarily around the Yakut, however, it also includes some information inspired by Steppes and other Siberian cultures where noted.

The translation for the above song begins:

"You showed me the most beautiful Alaas* in the world.
I always keep that quiet evening in my eyes,
where was the moon swimming amongst the clouds."
(Translation courtesy of

This song in continues to describe the wonder of the Alaas and the persons desire to dwell there. The Alaas, (a generally circular meadow surrounded by dark forests which formed as the lake in the center shrank leaving rich, fertile grasslands behind) was the center of Yakut life. Portions of the Yakut population and their language came from the herdsman to the South (near Mongolia), however, thousands of years ago they traveled to the cold forests of Central Siberia, only surviving as pastorals by discovering the many Alaases which doted Lena Valley.

Here in these valleys the Yakut lived in their thick winter homes, protected against the cold and the evil spirits of the forest and underworld by the warm spirit who lived in their fire. The rich grasses of the Alaas having provided hay for the horses and cattle which lived in their barns through the snowy month. With the coming of spring the tiny Winter village of 3 or 4 families would migrate to the larger summer villages of half a dozen or so homes. These summer homes were located in beautiful Alaas where their horses and cattle could feed, and where they could use nearby Alaases to make hay. When fall came this hay was transported to their winter homes which were located closer to the trees sheltered from the cold Siberian wind.


As with all ancient societies people's lives revolved around the food that they ate. Because the Yakut mostly lived off of dairy from horse and cattle they spent their summers and the fall cutting hay, they moved to better pastures in the summer, woke early to milk their animals, lived around herding their animals in the alaas. People move to larger summer villages because it takes more people to gather and make the hay for their animals, and to smaller winter homes because of the necessity of taking care of their animals. Food determined how big their villages were, where they were located, when people woke up, what they did with their days, etc.

Dairy was a defining fact of people's lives. with cheeses and sour milks making up the bulk people people's calories. The wilderness itself also provided a large portion ofpeople's foods, from fish and wild game to roots and Phloem (new pine bark peeled in June and ground into a powder and mixed into milk). Almost all of this was mixed with milk, fish, animals, roots, and more would be mixed into the milk and frozen to store through the winter. Interestingly enough, however, the Yakut were one of the few Siberian people not to eat mushrooms or berries with great frequency.

Because of the meat which hunting and fishing provided much of the Yakut's tales center around this act. More importantly the Yakut's need to go into the dark northern forests gave them ample opportunities to encounter the dark spirits and monsters of their land. It is always an interesting question of how a people will survive in a fantasy world which is potentially filled with.

Perhaps the best way to answer this question of survival in a fantasy world comes from the idea that each region has a spirit, a deity which oversees it. So long as the hunter gives an offering to the spirit of the forest before entering it the spirit of the forest will help keep them safe. However, if the hunter steps off the primary hunting paths they will find themselves in a more dangerous spirit realm, or if the forest king is distracted, sick, or other wise occupied the hunter might encounter something dangerous.

Not all of these spirit lords were tamed, however, for wild feral alaases and forests, once which didn't have people within were home to more dangerous spirits, spirits who were likely to cause illness and even attack those who entered them. In this way it's easy to explain how there can be safe and dangerous regions right next to each other.

Returning to the Yakut's life which often centered around their food each spring began with the foal being weaned away from their mother so that the people could milk the horses, which was then made into Kumiss (a slightly alcoholic beverage made from fermented horses milk.

Soon there after people would be able to leave their winter homes to graze their cattle and catch the spawning fish.

June was known as "Pine Month" when the people would collect the pine to make a sort of flour.

July was the hay making month,

August was the Hay drying and stacking month.

In September people would return to their winter homes, where they could rest a little, living off the stores of food they'd gathered in the summer.

A Few Recipes

Heat sour cream, add cranberries and other sweeteners.

Cook horse meat. Add some cool horse broth and flour, stir this together, serve with raw onions.

Boil milk, stir in flour, sour cream, boil it a bit more before adding butter and salt. Eat while hot.

Boil fish in the cold water, near the end of the cooking add milk, green onions, mustard, pepper, and salt.

Because most of their food came from horse milk and meat the Yakut had many rituals regarding the horse itself. Magical winged horses were the greatest of companions and advisers to heroes, it was more of a sin to beat a horse than it was to beat a person of lesser rank. The bones of the horse were hung in the trees as it was wrong for them to touch the ground.

"The most important festival among the Yakut is connected with the preparation and use of kumiss, and is called ystyax, or kumiss festival. It has both a social and a religious significance. During the summer, in olden times, every rich man arranged a kumiss festival, at which all members of the clan assembled and were entertained. Other people, and frequently whole clans, were invited; and during the festival, defensive and offensive leagues were concluded. Every such festival commenced with sacrifices, and was accompanied with songs, dances, games, horse and foot races, and other contests.
Two kumiss festivals in honor of deities are arranged during the year by the owners of large droves of mares. One of them, in the spring, is consecrated to the Supreme Being and the head of the benevolent deities of the "creators" (ay^), — to Lord Bright-Creator. The first milking of mares in the spring is also consecrated to the Supreme Being. The spring festival is called Ayy. y'syaxa ("kumiss festival in honor of the 'creators'"). Spring, as the period of the revival of nature, appears as the season of happiness and abundance. In the prayers addressed to the "creators," they are implored to bestow their blessing upon the people.
The spring kumiss festival takes place in the open air. In the midst of a large smooth grass meadow a kind of altar is erected. This consists of two posts with a crossbeam, and three young birch-trees with young shoots on them. The altar is hung round with sacrificial horsehair, and on the ground in front of it are placed ornamented birch-bark and ox-hide barrels filled with kumiss. The skin barrels are tied to the altar-frame by long ornamented straps of soft elk-leather. This is done so that the vessels, when softened by the liquid in them, shall not collapse. The ceremony commences by sacrifices to Lord Bright-Creator and to other " creators." Their names are uttered by the steward of the festival, who may be a shaman or an elder member of the clan. The sacrifices consist of libations of kumiss, in the direction of the dawn, to every deity; and formerly horses were often consecrated by being driven to the east.
The plate just referred to represents one act in a spring festival.2 In front of the altar stands the steward, having on one side of him the owner of the drove, and on the other the latter's wife. All three face to the east side of the sky, where the benevolent deities have their abode. On the right side of the altar stand nine innocent youths in a row, and on the left a row of nine pure maidens, with goblets filled with kumiss consecrated to the benevolent deities. The splendid festival attire worn on this occasion by a Yakut girl,

The trimming consists of valuable fur, silver pendants, and other decorations.
The steward addresses a prayer to the "creators," begging for blessings, — increase of horses and cattle, a good harvest of hay, good health for the people and animals, and an abundance of food. Then he takes the kumiss-festival ladle (ysyax xamy.yaha), and makes a libation, in the direction of the dawn, to the benevolent deities. Then, while making a libation to the ground, he addresses the local deity, "the owner of the place" (an doidu iccita), asking him not to harm the inhabitants of the spot and the members of the clan. After that, the steward, with the help of the sacrificial ladle, proceeds to divine. He throws the ladle towards the sky: and if it falls with the front part upwards, it portends the granting by the deities of future abundance; and all the people utter the joyful cry Uruf
Then the boys and girls give the goblets with the sacrificial kumiss, according to the directions of the steward, to the elder and honored members of the clan, both male and female. These, after placing themselves, — the men on the right and the women on the left of the altar, — drink off the kumiss from the goblets, and pass them on to the less important and the younger people. Behind every honored or aged member of the clan, sit or stand his domestics, less esteemed relatives, young men, and laborers. He looks after the welfare of each of these. When the goblet is emptied, it is given back to the steward or the host to be filled.
At the same time, not far from the altar, other stewards are preparing tables, or simply boards on the ground, on which are placed piles of horse and cow flesh, and dishes of melted butter. Every chief of a family or clan receives a large portion of meat and butter, which he divides among his people.
The whole day passes with songs, round dances, games, races and other contests, and shamanistic performances. The poetical choral songs of the young men and girls, in praise of the spring and love, are most interesting. Trostchansky relates, also, that during the kumiss festival the change of winter to spring is personated in a contest between two men. One of them, dressed in white, represents spring, and is called "son of 'creator'" (ayy. uola). The other, clad in black, represents winter, and is called " son of evil spirit" (abasy. uola}.
The autumnal festival is celebrated in honor of the destructive forces, and is therefore called abasy-ysifax. This festival is dedicated to the evil spirits (abasy.lar), the inhabitants of the west and the representatives of darkness and night, in order that they may not interfere with them in winter, the time of the year when starvation, disease, and death are imminent. This festival, also, takes place in the open air, but at night.
The first night of the festival is in honor of Big-Lord (Ulu-Toyon) and the evil spirits of the upper world subordinate to him. The second night is in honor of Axsan Duolai and his subordinates, the evil spirits of the lower world. To all of these evil spirits, in addition to the libations of kumiss made to the benevolent deities, blood sacrifices of cattle and horses are also made. This ceremony, according to Trost chansky, is superintended by nine male and nine female shamans."
("Kumiss Festivals of the Yakut and the Decoration of Kumiss Vessels" by Waldemar Jochelson)

Ichchi - Spirit Masters

Ichchi or master, is a spirit which lives in all things. Each plan or animal, and natural phenomena or topography has an Ichchi. Even objects such as knives or stoves has such a soul. These Ichchi are not necessarily good or bad, but it's important to keep on their good side by feeding and entertaining them. When people walk into a new territory, the forest, a mountain pass, they make an offering to the ichchi. When they get ready to eat they might offer scraps of cloth or food to the stove, and they will leave offerings at sacred trees and the boundaries of their lands. This is called feading the ichchi. The grassland itself had an ichchi which they had to provide for in order to begin gathering hay.

During such feedings people remain quite and respectful. Ichchi could be dangerous, especially if they weren't used to people and such people were loud and disrespectful. When a man moved into a new land there was always the danger that the Ichchi would dislike and curse them, ultimately leaving them to grow sick and die.

The land in which the Yakut lived has one of the harshest winters of any place human's live. The challenges of living in such a brutally cold environment is exemplified in the following folk tale,

"In a village lived an old woman who set out one winter morning to fetch some water. She went to the watering hole in the ice and broke the layer of ice which had frozen that night. She scooped up some buckets of water and began carrying them home. On the way she slipped and fell, spilling the buckets of water onto the hem of her dress so that it froze to the ice, trapping her out in the cold storm...."

At this point the old woman begins negotiating with the sun, clouds, wind, fire, etc. asking each in turn to free her.

Social Structure

The Yakut lived in extended family groups which were part of larger clans that were ruled over by chieftains known as Toyons. When a woman married into another clan she moved to her husbands home, as a result the women of each village, people's mothers had grown up among a neighboring people, so the ideas of the Yakut continued to mix around and spread between clans.

The political system wasn't that much unlike the Feudal wars of Medieval Europe, Japan, but most especially Mongolia, though unlike these societies there was no larger entity such as an Emperor or Pope which brought even a semblance of unity to the Yakut. As a result the Yakut didn't really view themselves as a single society, instead there were nearly a thousand different clans of 400 to 5000 people each, all of which engaged in near constant warfare with each other.

In essence you have the Toyons who ruled over the owners of the Alaases, each of whom paid taxes in dairy goods and meat to their lord and who ruled over a group of slaves, serfs, and lesser workers. Finally there were hunters who lived on the margins, as the poorest of people's often didn't even have cattle of their own, instead living almost entirely by hunting.

In many ways this situation was to be expected because there were a limited number of Alaas's the clans would often go to war with each other, conducting cattle raids or attempting to gain more land to feed their growing numbers. Because of this the "kingdoms" such that there were were always fluid and variable in size. One Chinese source claims that they could muster together 5000 troops, a fairly substantial number in the history of Northern warfare.  Still it's likely that only a few people actually fought in wars as forging iron weapons and raising horses only for fighting would have been expensive. Further, at least in tales, poverty was a near constant problem, and the poorest of people likely never actually fought in war.

As with all societies poverty and starvation were a constant and very real threat, in one tale;

"One year for some unknown reason the hunting went so poorly that a young man and his family had nothing to eat. Despite their starvation, however, they didn't begin to steal from their neighbors or turn to banditry the way many would have. Finally one of the brothers went and sold himself into slavery to a rich man."

Being a fairy tale, however, this is not the end of it, for the wicked rich man revels in the suffering of others and gives the young man an impossible task and flays him alive for failing to complete it. He does this to his slaves one at a time, until finally a young man who is impossibly strong sells himself to the rich man. This young man completes the wealthy man's every request and becomes so popular among the slaves that the wealthy worry that he might stir up a revolt.

Still, despite such poverty the Yakut had managed to find a way to live in parts of the north that were virtually uninhabited by other people's, making them by far the largest Siberian population, with more than ten times as many people as the neighboring Evanki.

Quest Idea - Lead a slave revolt, keeping in mind that the frigid winter is coming when no one will be able to get food.

Winter War - Wars were often waged in winter, a time when even travel by sleigh was dangerous but when people had the free time to engage in war.


As with many people's Shamans began manifesting through serious mental problems, running off into the woods, screaming wildly, and generally behaving in bizarre ways. This was known as the Shaman's sickness, a time when people were overcome by the spirits which sought to force them to become shamans, to work for the spirit world on behalf of the shamans. Given the small size of their communities most of them probably wouldn't have had powerful shamans, so when a serious illness struck someone would have to be dispatched, perhaps across dangerous wilderness to go to the village where the shaman lived.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Shamanism for your RPG

Although there have many books which have included a shaman class in Dungeons and Dragons, and other table top RPGs they all miss one key aspect of shamanism.

Shamanism isn't so much a class as it is a calling, for anyone could become a shaman including the small children of the Alps who Perchta led to battle, or the blacksmiths of the Celts, the blind girls of Northern Japan, and even Robin Hood. The spirits would call on shamans to help them work with the mortal world. Sometimes the local Fairy Queen might call a shaman to help her provide the people of a land with healing, or to rob from the rich to give to the poor. Other spirits would call shamans to help battle the spirits of the underworld which sought to hurt humanity, and sometimes darker spirits would force a person to help them spread illness and evil.

What's important for your RPG is that perhaps you shouldn't treat shamanism as a class, so much as you should treat it as a way of providing your characters with quests. A shaman could be a cleric, a druid, a wizard, a thief, a fighter, etc. All of these might have skills that are useful to the spirits.

There were three primary ways which these shamans would work with the spirits, fairies, and gods.

Many shamans, especially those of Greece and Japan would become possessed by the spirits they worked for. These spirits could then work through them, casing healing spells, providing advice, foretelling the future, etc. There were people who lived in caves in Ancient Greece who would be possessed by nymphs in order to help the nymphs town. Nymphs in Greek lore were often the founder and guardians of cities. More than this they were often the great, great, grandmother of the people in the city. So a nymph would choose a person to possess so they could aid their down. This person gained a companion who had a lot of knowledge and some healing spells, but little else. So in terms of a game a group of adventurers might by chosen by a nymph to protect a town, in return she can provide them with knowledge and information, some divination and healing spells (sort of like if they had a few scrolls and potions) but in truth they would gain very little but a lot of jobs to help protect a city.

In Japan there were villages of Miko (shamanistic figures) who would travel the countryside (often with a body guard). These Miko were in constant danger from bandits, from lecherous samurai, from the spirits of the dead, etc. Often they would be hired by a village to become possessed by the spirits of the dead to gain instructions on how to improve harvests, etc. The Miko might have to battle evil sorcerers who controlled armies of magical shape shifting foxes, travel into the mountains to battle and ultimately calm angry kami and spirits of the dead, or seek out stolen treasures.

The point is that while being possessed by spirits might provide an adventurer with quests it would provide only limited support in battles.

RPG's tend to treat familiar spirits as servants, as a benefit of a specific class, but in truth familiar spirits were very often the lords of the witches who served them, or companions, only the most powerful shamans had familiars who they controlled.

In some cases a familiar spirit was scent by the Fairy Queen, the Sky Gods, the Lord of the Underworld, etc. In order to direct a shaman. In such cases it might be best to treat the familiar spirit as an employer or a companion rather than an only occasionally thought of servant. Indeed you could have a game where one of the characters plays a familiar spirits who serves the Queen of the Fairies and which levels up just like the players do.

Sometimes shamans would serve evil spirits, not always by choice. There are many cases where an evil spirit would kidnap and torture a person until they agreed to serve. Often these people would curse the bride and groom at weddings, steal milk, blight crops, cause illness, spread discord, and evil kill people for their spirit masters. Such people could be anyone the spirits could torture into submission and in lore were often simple farmers, shepherds, etc.

Enter the Spirit World
Perhaps the best known shaman power was their ability to enter the spirit world. This ability, however, provides very little advantage in most circumstances. Granted a shaman can heal the sick by entering the underworld and battling or negotiating with the spirits which caused the illness. They can help the crops grow by battling to steal the fertility of the land from other spirits and shamans. However, both these things are more like quests to achieve a certain goal, rather than a power in and of itself. Often (though not always) the shaman isn't even entering the spirit world on their own, they are doing so with the help of the spirits. So it would be easy to simply say that a group of characters serves the spirits and so the spirits will bring them into the spirit world to complete certain quests.

Again the most important thing to understand about shamanism is that while there might be specific classes surrounding it, most of the shaman's "abilities" have nothing to do with a specific class, rather the shaman is a calling, an opportunity to give the players of your rpg or the characters in your story interesting quests.

Stay tuned for a few more of these quest ideas in future articles.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Journey's to Fairy Land

A drum sounds in the chilly Alpine night calling you from your warm bead to climb upon a giant hare. Over snowy hills and icy rivers you ride into the spirit world where an army of shamans from your homeland has gathered to defend next years crop against evil witches.  Few benandanti, cunning, shamans, or whatever else you might want to call them ever chose this life, they were compelled to it. Called by the fairies on some dark night or in some lonely place.

Most of us will never experience the spirit world of the shamans, the witches and the cunning at one time people believed the spirit world was all around them. For fairies lived not just in the forest, but also under the thresholds and hearths of their houses, in the fields where they farmed, in the rocks on hills overlooking their village. Often times what we find in folk lore is that the spirit world isn’t a place, its a state of mind. Those who have studied shamans call this state of mind ecstasy. (European Shamanism)

Take Anne Jefferies, for example. As a witch in the 1600s she often entered the fairy realm, or at least her soul did, her body remained behind, just as a shamans body remains when they travel into the spirit world. Anne Jefferies  was always a bit of an odd one. She was a young servant girl who was known for doing things that even the boldest boys were afraid to do. Among these things was her seeking out the fairies.

Turning up fern leaves, and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time. “fairy fairy and fairy bright; Come and be my chosen sprite,”
 She never allowed a moonlight night to pass without going down into the valley, and walked against the stream, singing: ‘Moon shines bright, waters run clear, I am here, but where's my fairy dear? (Hunt, 1903)'

At first the fairies ignored her, finally, however, she heard a suppressed laugh and a ruffle under the branches in the garden. When she went to search for the sound she heard a musical laugh and ringing, Suddenly she felt afraid or whoever might be watching her. Finally six handsome little men in green appeared, the grandest of which wore a red feather, and it was this one who spoke to her with a bow.

Ultimately these fairies brought her to the fairy court,

"She was in one of the most beautiful places—temples and palaces of gold and silver. Trees laden with fruits and flowers. Lakes full of gold and silver fish, and the air full of birds of the sweetest song, and the most brilliant colours. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were walking about. Hundreds more were idling in the most luxuriant bowers, the fragrance of the flowers oppressing them with a sense of delicious repose. Hundreds were also dancing, or engaged in sports of various kinds. Anne was, however, surprised to find that these happy people were no longer the small people she had previously seen. There was now no more than the difference usually seen in a crowd, between their height and her own. Anne found herself arrayed in the most highly-decorated clothes (Hunt)."

The only unusual aspect to Anne's story is that she sought out her relationship with the fairies, there were many others who were brought into the fairies court, often before the fairy Queen or King. Here they were typically ordered to use their new found powers to help humanity. Other times, as in Russia a girl might stumble out of the woods covered in moss, with the whispers of the forest fairies still in her ears.

Another man in France was taken into the forest by the spirits who ordered him to "rob from the rich to give to the poor." Such an order was common for the fairy queen to give. This is likely the source for the original Robin Hood tale.

In Japan there was a young boy who was taken into the mountains and raised by the tengu and mountain kami for a time before being returned to the humanity in order to help people navigate the changing world.

What's important to understand from such stories is that most witches were chosen by the fairies because they wanted to help humanity. Fairies have built our civilization, indeed at one time each technological advance was attributed to them. We might abuse or misuse their technology, just as a little kid might throw his Legos, but many fairies are not against cities or civilization (though some are).

Perhaps most common of all in fairy tales are those who enter the spirit world in order to help the fairies work. Take, for example, the Russian Tale of "The Girl in the Well" in which a girl falls into fairy land where she is asked to clean up after sheep, feed animals, and do other menial tasks for which she is paid in great wealth. Often times stories of the devil trying to purchase a persons soul are corruptions of stories about a forest or water fairy trying to get a person to become their servant for many fairies had trouble with household choirs, or simply couldn't be bothered with them.

There is another reason for fairies to seek out humans, for "when the fairy tribes under the various kings and queens have a battle, one side manages to have a living man among them, and he by knocking the fairies about turns the battle in case the side he is on is losing."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fairy Wars Part 2

You can learn more at "Fairy Wars Part 1)

Books often divide fairies into two courts, however, there were often many hundreds, even thousands of fairy courts. In Irish lore, for example, each district had different fairy kings and queens to rule ove them. Thus each land could be said to have it's own fairy guardians who battled the fairies from other lands in order to protect not only themselves, but the people of their lands. According to "Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries" (Wentz)

The invisible Irish races have always had a very distinct social organization, so distinct in fact that Ireland can be divided according to its fairy kings and fairy queens and their territories even now; and no doubt we see in this how the ancient Irish anthropomorphically projected into an animistic belief their own social conditions and racial characteristics. And this social organization and territorial division ought to be understood before we discuss the social troubles and consequent wars of the Sidhe-folk. For example in Munster Bodb was king and his enchanted palace was called the Síd of the Men of Femen; and we already know about the over-king Dagda and his Boyne palace near Tara. In more modern times, especially in popular fairy-traditions, Eevil or Eevinn (Aoibhill or Aolbhinn) of the Craig Liath or Grey Rock is a queen of the Munster fairies; and Finvara is king of the Connaught fairies. There are also the Irish fairy-queens Cleeona (Cliodhna, or in an earlier form Clidna,and Aine. 

As you can see, even the small island kingdom of Ireland had multiple fairy courts, each of which was in near constant competition with the others. Of course each of these kingdoms could be much larger than the human land where they were supposed to be because as I point out in my article on "Elf Kingdoms"

In European lore kingdoms of elves and fairies were often times found in tiny forests. In Shropshire, among other places, for example, any small batch of trees could could contain a fairy kingdom. Most ordinary humans walking through these small batches of trees wouldn't run into the fairies or elves, or even know that there was a kingdom which stretched for miles contained within them. The fairy and elven kingdoms in these woods were in a magical dimension which could only be reached under specific conditions, such as walking counter clockwise around a certain tree or hill.

In Yeat's "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry" a man named "McAnally tells how once a peasant saw a battle between the green jacket fairies and the red. When the green jackets began to win, so delighted was he to see the green above the red he gave a great shout. In a moment all vanished and he was flung into the ditch."

Human's it seems were very much involved in the politics of the fairy realm, perhaps much like we are involved in rooting for our own local sports teams. There is, however, one difference. When the fairies of one land lost to those of another they would steal the fertility from the other land. Therefor the winners of these wars would have a good harvest, while the losers would have a poor one. We perhaps see remnants of this idea in the rituals of the benandanti of Northern Italy and other Alpine traditions. Here Perchta or some other fairy queen would leave shamans and fairy like beings to do battle with witches who sought to steal the fertility of the land. Such witches were almost always from neighboring villages. It makes sense to presume that such battles might have once been between rival villages for the fertility of the land, to insure that they, not their enemies had a rich harvest.

What we see from this is that humans and fairies were often dependent on each other. This, however, wasn't always the case. In lands as far flung as Ireland and Japan humanity had to battle and defeat the spirits of the earth in order to gain the right to live, hunt, fish, and farm.

In Japan, for example, there were a Kami which appeared as serpents with horns. These kami attacked the people trying to turn a valley into farms. Finally a hero arose who defeated the kami and drove them into the mountain forests. He then made a treaty with them that people would provide them with offerings and prayers in return for the land they'd taken and rich harvests. In Ireland the Druids helped to defeat the Tuatha De Danann, driving them them underground. Among the Komi people of Siberia, the Koreans, and Manchurian peoples,  heroes defeated forest and lake spirits in order to force them to allow people to hunt and fish in previously sacred forests.

The idea of humanities war with nature is likely as ancient as humanity.

It makes sense that these wild nature spirits would also become the deities of war. Again Wentz states that;

It is in the form of birds that certain of the Tuatha De Danann appear as war-goddesses and directors of battle, and we learn from one of our witnesses that the 'gentry' or modern Sidhe-folk take sides even now in a great war, like that between Japan and Russia. It is in their relation to the hero Cuchulainn that one can best study the People of the Goddess Dana in their role as controllers of human war. In the greatest of the Irish epics, the Tam Bó Cuailnge, where Cuchulainn is under their influence, these war-goddesses are called Badb (or Bodb) which here seems to be a collective term for Neman, Macha, and Morrigu (or Morrigan) each of whom exercises a particular supernatural power. Neman appears as the confounder of armies, so that friendly bands, bereft of their senses by her, slaughter one another; Macha is a fury that riots and revels among the slain; while Morrigu, the greatest of the three, by her presence infuses superhuman valour into Cuchulainn, nerves him for the cast, and guides the course of his unerring spear. And the Tuatha De Danann in infusing this valour into the great hero show themselves

It shouldn't be surprising that many fertility goddesses or "Earth Mothers" and goddesses in general were more likely to be deities of war than peace. After all the earth is very often associated with the realm of the dead and with human territory. The Swan Maidens of the North were both war goddesses and Grim Reapers, serving either Odin or further east the lord of death Erlik. Among the Kalmyk(the only Buddhist Nation in Europe) the Swan Maiden's closest friend was a tiger in the underworld who sought to devour those who entered her realm.

None of this should be surprising because, just as the Roman's and the Hun's did,, anyone who was more skilled at war would ultimately consume their neighboring cultures. This means that those cultures which believed in war like deities where far more likely to have survived the constant migrations of the past.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Early Samurai

The early samurai were largely defined by the wilderness and perhaps most interestingly by the first people's of Japan. For Japan's rugged nearly impassible mountains were covered in primal forests that made in nearly impossible for the Imperial Court to finally take control over the whole of Japan. Their poorly trained army of conscripted peasants continued to loose battle after battle to the Emishi, the armies of hunter gatherers and agricultural people's who wouldn't bend to the Emperor's control. As the peasants died the amount of rice the Emperor could collect from them in taxes decreased. Realizing that he couldn't afford to continue to fight the way he was he tried starving the Emishi out, passing laws against trading with them, but smugglers earned too much money from their fine horses and other goods to stop. Finally in desperation he turned to the hunters within his territory. From the ranks of these people the Imperial Court considered primitive came the Samurai.

These early Samurai understood the mountains and wild places of Japan, they knew how to use bows, how to fight a guerrilla war. They were able to use this knowledge to help the Imperial Court take over the whole of Japan.

In early Japan these Samurai lived in the country, on the farms from which they collected their taxes (A thousand years after their formation the Shogunate would force them to live in cities where he could control them). Here they waged small wars with each other to conquer ever more land or settle innumerable disputes. These early samurai were more likely to fight with bows than swords. Japan is a mountainous uneven land, so rushing an enemy with a sword can be very difficult if not impossible.
Even duels between samurai often took place with both of them firing and dodging arrows.

In this world honor came from victory, indeed many of the early heroes of Japan can be said to have been very similar to later ninjas (and many samurai were ninjas, in fact there were classes which taught samurai how to sneak into buildings and rob them). A samurai might hide in an outhouse or a tree and assassinate their unsuspecting enemy. One of early Japan's greatest heroes, Yamato, finds victory against his enemies first by dressing as a woman and then killing the unprepared man. He then travels to the land of another enemy named Idzumo so he makes friends with him. 

So, having secretly made the wood of an oak-tree into a false sword and augustly girded it, he went with the bravo to bathe in the River Hi. Then, His Augustness Yamato-take getting out of the river first, and taking and girding on the sword that the Idzumo bravo bad taken off and laid down, said: " Let us exchange swords! " So afterward the Idzumo bravo, getting out of the river, girded on His Augustness Yamato-take's false sword. Hereupon His Augustness Yamato-take, suggested, saying: "Come on! let us cross swords." Then on drawing his sword, the Idzumo bravo could not draw the false sword. Forthwith His Augustness Yamato-take drew his sword and slew the lclzumo bravo. Then he sang augustly, saying: "Alas that the sword girded on the Idzumo bravo, and wound round with many a creeper, should have had no true blade!" So having thus extirpated the bravoes and made the land orderly.

In addition many samurai could be likened to bandits, vikings, people who raided villages for money. They were often brutal and thuggish. This is clear in fairy tales which treated them as monsters, very much like an oni. They would attack poor travelers. In one tale a samurai demands that two craftsmen hand over everything they've saved over the course of years of work. When they refuse he kills one of them and chases the other for a ways. To a large extent this began to be the way many ordinary people viewed vagrant samurai, as bandits or simple thieves. They broke into people's homes, slaughtered merchants and peasants, and generally caused trouble.

In one story a young man's father is killed and his land taken in war. Deciding that it was beneath him to work and being a fearless warrior "he decided that he would feed himself through highway robbery. So he began to work in the Etschigo Mountains and soon became one fo the most feared predators there was. The mountains were full of other bandits but they knew that Jiraiya was indisputably the most daring and boldest of them all so they came to ask him to be their leader. Jiraiya agreed and soon became a bandit king without peer. After some time however he was not happy with his fate but lived with the hope that he would in time gain enough money to raise an army against his powerful enemy; the daimyo who had murdered his father."

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Agricultural Shamanism and the Fairy Realm

(I have a list of fairy tales with shamanistic elements at the end of this article)

It is often presumed that shamanism comes from Siberia and the America's and that it didn't exist outside these regions. However, Winkelman (1990) found in his seminal work that nearly every culture has a history of shamanism. Many of these traditions continued in agricultural and pastoral societies. After all the folk religion which forms the basis of shamanism is about building a good relationship with the spirit world, with the fairies. The Sami particularly believed that;

The relationship with nature and its forces is not submissive but active. Humans can, when necessary, influence the powers of nature by giving, offering, sharing, asking, promising, taking care of, showing respect to, or assuming the shapes of animals. Offerings were made to the natural spirits only when necessary: for example, when a spirit was known to be angry because people had broken some rule. One did not ask spirits for help, but for goodwill and patience while one stayed in their area. Every geographical place was considered an entity in which the physical dimension was in balance with the spiritual one. (Delos Initiative)

People could plead with nature and its spirits throughout Europe, asking them for help. This relationship and the magico-religious ideas which came with it didn't end with the coming of agriculture or Christianity.

Take for example the benandanti of Northern Italy who would send their souls out of their body and riding upon rabbits, cats, or other animals would battle evil shamans for the fertility of the land and livestock. This is clearly connected with one of the most important jobs of shamans in Hunter Gathering societies, that of sending one's soul out of their body and into the spirit world to gather game animals to the tribe (and often battling shamans from other tribes in order to do so)

The benandanti were some of the most respected people in their society. Parents who's child was born with a caul over their head would keep the caul, telling their children of their duty to protect their villages crops when they got old enough. What likely got the benandanti into trouble was that their role began to shift as time went on to that of witch hunters. Once they began accusing people of being witches the families and friends of those accused began to rebel against them. This mixed with pressure from the Catholic church ultimately broke their power base.

The Sami pastoralists (reindeer herders) had strong shamanist roots into the last century, as did Japan where certain shamans would ride on bags of rice (representing their spirit horse) in order to obtain a good harvest from the Mountain Kami or even Buddhist Deities.

It's interesting to note, however, that the shamanism of pastoral and agricultural societies tended to be quitter than that of hunter gatherers. The Sami's shaman, as well as those of Northern Italy, would lay down and enter a trance, becoming so still it seemed that they were dead. Further while in this state it was believed to be dangerous for other people to be around them. The Shaman's of Japan often entered their trance with an audience, but they did so by staring into a bowl of water, with gentle chanting, the playing of a stringed interment. In Siberia Shamans would jump around, while a chanter and drummer sang loudly, often with the whole village present. The Pygmies of Africa would gather together and sing and dance wildly until they entered a trance state and were able to see the spirits of the forest. I don't know of any agricultural / pastoral shamans who sang or danced loudly in order to enter their trance like state. In general it seems to have been much quitter (if you know of any exceptions to this, please let me know about them as I would be very interested).

I can't be certain why shaman figures seem to be different in agricultural societies, however, it has been found repeatedly that our jobs tend to alter our personality in semi-predictable ways. In agricultural societies, for example, its been found that crops which require corporative farming such as rice and cotton cause cultures to become more collectivist. On the other hand crops such as wheat or individual cattle ranches tend to produce more individualist cultures. So it would make sense that there is a difference between those who hunt and fish for their food and those who farm it. It's important to understand that these differences are required for a people's survival and that it would be wrong to argue which method of survival is better or worse.

As agricultural societies urbanize such that creative people

Fairy Tales and Agricultural Shamanism
Agricultural Shamanism often shows up in fairy tales, though as with all shamanistic tales the meanings of these stories aren't always readily apparent to outsiders.

Take for example, the British story of Yarrley Brown a young hears a voice calling out for help. When at last he looks under a rock he sees a tiny male fairy covered in hair. This fairy thanks him for his help and from that point on assists him in farming. There is one problem, however, which is that the young man's co-workers and neighbors come to fear him because of his relationship with Yallery Brown so he becomes ostracized. Finally, feeling alone and angry he curses the fairy who grows angry and says that he'll ruin his life from that point on.

The important thing to keep in mind when reading a story like this is that people once believed that it was "dangerous to speak directly about the inner lives of shamans” Kira Van Deusen (2001),  “It which is why they discussed these using stories. Many of the pieces of fairy tales come from this need to discuss the spirit world in stories as well as from the magical beliefs people held about how the world functioned.”

The Yallery Brown has a number of motifs which are important to many Shamanistic tales;

1-Shamans often felt ostracized in many societies. Living within the world of fairies and spirits is lonely, which is why the last potential shaman in one Mancheria had an exorcist banish the spirits away from her so that she wouldn't have to become a lonely shaman. Other cunning in England, though respected, were also often lonely. They might benefit from work the fields with the help of their spirit companions but they had trouble connecting with other people.

2-Often shamans would gain their power by aiding a fairy or spirit. Sometimes, the spirit would pretend to need rescuing in order to try to test the shaman or to get the shaman to interact with them.

3-In Russia and Siberia people would often avoid strange looking rocks because they were afraid that if they touched them the spirit within would force them to become a shaman like figure. Rocks were an important home for spirits. The Sami of Northern Europe, many people's of North Africa, and the Japanese all viewed rocks as one of the primary homes of their deities.

4-Perhaps the most important part of the tale of Yallery Brown, and the moral is that, if the spirits seek to force you to become a shaman you must accept your role as a shaman. Yallery Brown was in essence a warning tale which taught that no matter how bad being a shaman is, it's far worse to have the spirits angry with you.

Why Shamanism Vanished

1-Shamanism competes with the leaders of any nation for power. This is why the Emperor of Japan outlawed Shamanistic practices multiple times starting about 1300 years ago. After all a shaman which communes with deities and spirits can state that the emperor is displeasing the divine beings. (This is also why the Christian Churches of Europe worked so hard to discredit anyone who said they could talk to angels or god)

2-The spirits are demanding. People who become shamans suffer through poverty (often demanded by the spirits), the shamans sickness (they appear to be mad or have epileptic fits), and more. As societies present new opportunities for the creative and intelligent to become rich many of these people decide not to become shamans, resisting the call of the spirits and even going so far as to hire exorcist to get rid of the spirits who seek to turn them into shamans.

3-Structured societies demand more normalized behavior. The oddity of the shamans sickness and the spirits causes people to reject the shaman.

These things all happen even in what we would consider ancient societies. The Greeks, for example, began to reject the call of the nymphs 2500 years ago, the Japanese Emperor Outlawed Shamanism over a thousand years ago. Of course even then the importance of shamanism persisted in these societies until the rise of the middle class in the past fifty years.

List of Fairy Tales With Shamanistic Elements
Since it was forbidden to speak of the secret lives of shamans and spirit journeys directly they were often told in stories which contained some of the elements of a shamans experience. These are a few stories with these elements.

Yallary Brown

The Serpent Wife (page 103)
A man goes out into the woods alone and meets an animal who becomes his wife. This mystical wife helps him to gather food and do his work. Basically this story has all the elements of shamanism in an agricultural setting.

Jack and the Bean Stalk
A young man who everyone considers a fool (shamans often struggled with this early in their lives) encounters a strange spirit who gives him magical beans that allow him to climb up into the heavens.

Well at the Worlds End
A Girl is sent to find a well at the end of the world. When she is at her lowest point she meets a spirit guide in the form of a frog who helps her.

Childe Rowland
A man must retrieve someone's soul from the lord of the elves whose taken it to the other world. One of the most common motifs for a shamans epic.

The Grateful fox
A young man saves a fox who helps him become rich.

Baba Yaga
With the help of a mouse a young girl over comes Baba Yaga (who is often considered a guardian to the realm of the dead and is likely related to many important spirits to shamans in Eurasia.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

3 More Fairy Tales Every Witch Should Know

You can read the first three tales every witch should know here.

This is one of the most complex and important fairy tales so far as Irish shamanism is concerned. In general it tells the story of three girls, each hired one at a time to watch over a corpse which rises up and causes trouble. The youngest of the girls is the only one able to survive through the night, but she does far more than this. She follows the corpse into the "Other World" the realm of the dead and brings it back to life (one of the most important jobs of early shamans was to cure illness by entering the realm of the dead and retrieving the sick persons soul).

This story has a number of important moral magico-religious points including;

1-Be Kind - It's through kindness that the protagonist gets her fairy familiar who helps her in the realm of the dead.

2-Blessings and curses have a magic of their own
In this story the older two girls refuse to take their mother's blessing which is a clear sign that they aren't prepared to enter the  world of magic. After all a mothers blessing has power, as shown most clearly by the Scottish Fairy Tale "Maol a Chliobain" in which one girl gets tied up while she's out seeking her fortune "but her mother's blessing came and freed her."

There are a number of European stories in which the mothers blessing seems to take the form of a familiar spirit including one of the "Baba Yaga" stories from Russia in which the Mother's spirit/blessing lives on in the form of a doll given to the protagonist.

3-When you encounter the other world have a response.
The first thing the corpse dose when he gets up is ask the girl watching him if they are alone. Failing to respond to this ends with his curse. The youngest daughter, the protagonist is quick to respond with a Celtic rhyme to gain protection from the fairy realm;

"All alone I am not, I've little dog Dog and Pussy, my cat; I've apples to roast, and nuts to crack, And all alone I am not."

The Tale of St. Demetra

This story is interesting because the first part mirrors almost perfectly the story of "The Rape of Persephone." Except the Greek Goddess is called a saint, and Hades the Lord of the dead is replaced by a Turkish magician. What's more the story shifts from a myth about a deity to the story of a shamans journey and finally that of a heroes saga. What we see than is that three ancient myths are stitched together to make a new fairy tale. This story is worth reading because it shows how old myths and folk religious ideas were morphed into fairy tales.

A few of the rules this, among other fairy tales, gives us for understanding folk religion are;

1-Many of the ancient gods and folk religious ideas survived in fairy tales. Indeed, many fairy tales might tell bits and pieces of stories that pre-date the Ancient Greek religion. It should, for example, be of interest to note that Hermes's original fairy tales make him more like a fairy then a Greek deity. What's more Hermes and Dōsojin of Japan are both represented by Phallic symbols and are deities of the journey, as is Odin. While one could write this off as coincidence there aren't actually that many deities represented so by a phallic symbol, so the fact that all three which are are so similar to each could indicate that they all have a common origin thousands of years before on the steppes.

Japan's earliest deities also appear to have been water women who took the form of snakes, a motif which is also present in the Alps and other isolated parts of Europe. So it may be that these ideas existed in the common ancestor of the Joman of Japan and the European Hunter Gatherers 10,000 years ago. Of course it's difficult to say this for certain, but regardless these stories are very, very old.

2-Many, if not most, fairy tales are really multiple stories and ideas which have been stitched together. So instead of a single idea or story they have multiple ideas and stories and the same character can originally have been multiple characters from different tales. This means we must at times try to understand pieces of fairy tales to get to their root.

“The Bear and the Peasant”

Once upon a time a certain peasant lost his family and was left alone with no one to help him in his home or his fields. So he went to the Bear and said, "Look here, bear, let's keep house and plant our garden and sow our corn together."

And bear asked, “But how shall we divide it afterwards?"

“How shall we divide it?" said the peasant, “Well, you take all the tops and let me have all the roots."

“All right," answered bear.

So they sowed some turnips, and they grew beautifully. And bear worked hard, and gathered in all the turnips, and then they began to divide them.

And the peasant said, “The tops are yours, aren't they, bear?"

“Yes,"   he answered.

So the peasant cut off all the turnip tops and gave them to bear, and then sat down to count the roots. And bear saw that the peasant had done him down. And he got huffy, lay down in his den, and started sucking his paws.

The next spring the peasant again came to see him, and said, " Look here, bear, let's work together again, shall we?"

And bear answered, “Right-ho! Only this time mind! You can have the tops, but I'm going to have the roots!"

“Very, well,” said the peasant.

And they sowed some wheat, and when the ears grew up and ripened, you never saw such a sight. Then they began to divide it, and the peasant took all the tops with the grain, and gave bear the straw and the roots. So he didn't get anything that time either.

And bear said to the peasant, “Well, good-bye! I'm not going to work with you any more, you're too crafty!"

And with that he went off into the forest.

The bear in Northern Russia could be said to be the lord of the forest, the lord of the land, a form of deity who in the early days likely helped the farmer. However, because the farmer was greedy and tricked the bear he was left alone at the end of the story, with no one to help him.

You can read the first three tales every witch should know here.