Explore the strange shamanism, spirit realms and fairy worlds of Europe – which were the inspiration for stories such as “Alice in Wonderland” and characters such as Gandalf from “Lord of the Rings.”
Encountering the Fairy World
Take a deep breath but don’t let it out until you close your eyes, take another breath,now hold it for a moment and let it out a little slower this time. For just a moment you feel a sudden calm, a strange and odd sensation as your mind clears ever so slightly. For that brief moment you have almost touched on the world of fairies, almost, but probably not quite. Most of us will never experience the spirit world of the shamans, the witches and the cunning; and yet 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. It can be entered into by the most skilled shamans with a simple rhyme, a moment of meditation, a whispered prayer. Others must spend hours chanting, must go catatonic, dance and sing wildly, or perform a complex ritual to enter the spirit world. What’s important, however is that people do not enter the Fairy World only one time, they do so often.
Although there are a number of names for those who are able to enter the fairy realm, the spirit worlds in Europe we’ll call them the ‘cunning’ who typically work with good spirits, and ‘witches’ who typically work with evil spirits. Both of these are decedents of a shamanistic traditions and so together can be called shamans, for both would go on spirit journeys and both tended to have spirit helpers, often known in Europe as familiar spirits.
The First Encounter
A few hundred years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire a woodsmen was working in a glade of trees when he was overcome by a swarm of flies. Soon after he retreated into the wilderness for over two years. When he finally emerged from the forest, dressed in the skins of wild animals, he’d grown a bit wilder, more than this, however, he claimed to be the Messiah. To prove this he began to heal the sick and soon he’d gathered a group of three thousand followers. Followers he ordered to begin robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Eventually he was labeled a heretic, and accused of using magic to deceive people. (McCall, 1979)
Within this story we see the remnants of Europe’s shamanistic past cropping up, as it so often does, long after it was supposed to have been stamped out.
The story of this woodsman’s journey to becoming a shaman, didn’t begin in a church, it began in a glade of trees. But these trees were once a church, for the word ‘temple’ derives from a Germanic word for wood as Europe’s pagans believed that the gods dwelled in such glades. These were not the all powerful gods we think of today, for at times woodsmen could threaten to cut down their trees in return for wishes. Among the Mari-El the story of a woodcutter doing this ends with the wood cutter forcing the spirit of the tree to make him rich and powerful while among the English a similar tale ends with the fairy tricking the woodcutter as so often happens.
It is the flies which point me to Europe’s Shamanistic past, for the souls of the dead and other spirits were often believed to appear in the form of flies (as well as in the form of butterflies, birds, and other animals). So as with many shamans of Eurasia this man was surrounded by a swarm of something which symbolized spirits after which he fled into the woods as if he’d become possessed. At this point he was no longer in control for the spirits had made him theirs. When he emerged from the forest he had strange powers and abilities. As with the shamanistic sorcerers of Russia he soon gathered an army of followers and eventually had to be stopped by the authorities.
This story is in many ways typical of witches and cunning in Europe, for few of them ever seek out their rolls. Instead the shamans roll is most often forced upon them when the fairies and the spirits come. A girl named Ann was sewing in the garden when seven fairies came to her and offered, as much as demanded that she work for and with them. Other people were traveling between towns, driving their cattle out to pasture, or laying sick and dying when the fairies or demons came to them and demanded that they work together. (Wilby, 2006)
This demand could become very intense for the fairies would not take no for an answer, they would often torment a person, driving them into hysteria until they agreed to work with them. For spirits desire to work with humans, even as they avoid and resist contact. In other words, while fairies might live in the woods and the hills, they seek people out. In Russia it was believed that spirits would hide in barns, in the forest, in abandoned houses, old mills and other places; waiting for the shamans to call them.
Familiar Spirits and Spirit Helpers
I summon to may aid the leshie (forest spirits) from the forest, the (Vodianye) water spirits from the water: and you, leshie from the forest, vodianye from the water, come to my aid against my opponent fist fighter, and enable me to defeat my opponent fist fighter with my own fists. And you leshie and vodianye from the water, take the rock from this corpse and place it on the hands, or feet, or head of my opponent fist fighter…. And just as this dead man is heavy from the earth and rock, so too may my opponent fist fighter be too heavy to lift his hand against me…. (Ivantis, 1992)
Prayer/Spells like the above which was intended to help someone win a fist fight were common for people throughout Europe to chant for help with everything from finding treasure to curing tooth aches. But some few, such as the cunning and witches were not only able to call spirits to them, they often had a specific familiar assigned to help them. These spirits would aid them in healing, cursing, stealing, finding thieves, etc. They also helped to teach the witch and cunning many spells and with their journey into the Fairy World. Further the difference between a cunning and a witch, between a good shaman and an evil one was often simply the spirits they used. This is interesting because a person rarely had a choice as most often their spirit, whether good or bad chose them. Evil spirits could just show up to a person and begin demanding work, tormenting the person and those they loved until they gave in and agreed to work with the evil spirits. By the same token a greedy person could have good spirits come and force them to heal and help others for no pay. So in order to understand cunning and evil witches we must understand why it is that fairies would want to work with people and why people might give into them in the end.
The Mischievous Sorcerers
Many if not most evil sorcerers in folklore were mischief makers, much like the people who put tacks on chairs or slash peoples tires for amusement. Its true that people believed sorcerers did many horrible things, such as causing illnesses which killed people, They also blighted peoples crops so that the person might starve to death, and so forth. Still in many cases it was believed that they did this simply for the enjoyment it gave them. Such sorcerers would fly off to their meetings where they would do such silly things and drink their wine from the heads of dead horses, and play music using the feet of dead men. Although evil such behavior strikes one as more the childish activities of a psychopath who can never really mature than those of a brilliant person with a real goal in mind.
European Spirit Journey
The fairies told the girl;
“If you won’t go home to your mother, go forward, go forward; mind you take the right road. Ask Four Feet to carry you to No Feet at all, and tell No Feet at all to carry you to the stairs without steps, and if you can climb that–”
“Oh, shall I be among the stars in the sky then?” cried the lassie.
“If you’ll not be, then you’ll be elsewhere,” said the Good Folk, and set to dancing again.
The “Stars in the Sky,” An English Folk Tale
There are some few people who can send their soul from their body and into the spirit world or fairy land at will. The spirit world of European Lore is conceived of as being very much like our own world, it has an up and a down, mountains and trees, it often even has villages of people who live among strange creatures, but don’t otherwise seem different from you or me. At times, however, the spirit world is a strange place, one very much like the world Alice found herself in when she went to Wonderland, or like Neverland where Peter Pan lived. And as with these tales the purpose of going to the spirit world in European Lore is often to learn something philosophical or metaphysical. Monks, Nuns, and even Pagan priests often explored the other worlds to discover the nature of god, other people seem to gain some other lesson from their experience. A cunning or witch can enter the spirit world at any time they wish by going into a trance and sending their soul from their body. In order to get to the spirit world their soul often rides on a familiar spirit in the form of an animal or uses a familiar spirit as a guide.
Often times the shaman will take a journey to the spirit world for practical reasons, the cunning and witches would go their to meet with others of their kind, to gain new magical items, negotiate deals with spirits and learn new spells.
Others still would go to the fairy realm in order to save the souls of those who had been stolen away. In the tale “Childe Rowland” a knight goes into the fairy realm in order to save someone who walked widdershins around a church and so was drug off to fairy land. To save the person they loved this person went to Merlin who told him to behead everyone they met in fairyland. After beheading a number of fairies they finally battled and defeated the elf king.
In the Baltic Nations there are tales of cunning who would send their souls from their bodies in the form of wolves in order to battle with evil witches who are trying to steal the seeds from their fields or blight their crops.
Sending ones soul out in animal form to do battle was a typical theme in European Lore. Even witches would take the form of wolves, cats, dogs, horses and the like in order to attack people. In Germanic legend their were also warriors who could go to sleep in order to send their souls out to battle as giant bears or boars. A soul which has left a shamans body could at times act much like a ghost, having the ability to become invisible, to change shapes, to squeeze through impossibly small cracks (but it couldn’t pass through a solid wall), to fly through the air, and to be stronger and faster than a human could be.