How likely is it that the pre-Christian Norsemen use hallucinogenic plants in their rituals, or the gonzo version: Did “The Vikings” get high on magic mushrooms? Shamanism both modern and ancient is also a practice which has a great deal of interest among modern western populations. Spiritual traditions of pre-Christian European peoples are of real interest to modern Europeans and the diaspora with much ink shed on the subject.
I am aware that other writers on European traditions have tackled on this issue but I have chosen not to refer to their work in this field relying instead on the source material, archaeology and supporting work done in anthropology and works on shamanism in general.
What is known about the Pre-Christian (henceforth Heathen) beliefs of Northern Europe? Well enough exists to make evidenced assertions and yet there is so little evidence that most assertions can be reasonably refuted. Both shield maidens and Berserks
can be evidenced from sagas and histories yet both can be easily dismissed as embellishments and works of fantasy. Human belief, ritual and spiritual outlook is a slippery enough subject even in modern literate times, we are dealing with a culture which ended a thousand years and more before our time, whose stories were written down by people who did not share their beliefs and lived themselves hundreds of years after the last heathen societies converted.
There was a pantheon of Aryan (we’re taking that word back!) Gods worshiped across the Eurasian world. In the North they are known to us as Odin, Thor, Loki and a host of others. In the Germanic world these “Aesir” gods shared the Pantheon with the gods and goddesses of a fertility cult. How this came to be is beyond the scope of this article but it is sufficient that these beings are attested to in archaeology and poetic devices which attests to their being a real phenomenon in Northern Heathenry. These beings also seem to have been worshiped along side an animist belief in land spirits, elves and localised spirits in the manner of the more or less common to rural peoples world-wide. Though unlikely to have been so formalised the result may have been something akin to the Shinto-Buddhist spirituality of Japan.
Religious practice certainly consisted of rituals marking the stations of the year similar to what we can see today in mainstream society but probably conducted with more sincerity, harvest festivals, the Easter fertility festival Yule and so on. This marks the community bonding aspect of ritual practised by all societies including, dear reader, our post modern, secular society.
Alongside this more mainstream religion was witchcraft and a practice called “seidr”. This word seidr was translated by the brothers Grimm to mean “seethe” in the sense of boil. Interestingly the etymology of the word shaman also means seethe or boil. Seidr and witchcraft were seen as being somewhat less official and indeed were subjected to both restriction and then finally violence by later Scandinavian kings. How much interplay with mainstream heathenry and seidr there was is hard to tell at this remove. The Oseberg tapestry found in the famous Norwegian ship burial contains very strong shamanic elements and was almost certainly associated with an elite figure
Viking war leaders are known to have held pacts with “entities” and the myths and legends themselves are filled with strong shamanic themes of shape shifting and “travelling” . A witch or visionary was employed by the entire community in Greenland for her insight. It is also worth noting that both witchcraft and seidr were associated with women though in a later purge a great many “seidrmen” were killed. Seidr was considered unmanly indeed Loki excoriates Odin:
“but once you practised seid on Samsey
and beat the drums as witches do
in the likeness of a wizard you journeyed among mankind
and that I thought the hallmark of a pervert”
It is hard to say whether the Norse thought that this carried the modern sense of being a “pervert” or rather, in those more robust times, it just meant being a bit too clever, not direct and just downright sneaky. Archaeology has uncovered many pieces of jewellery with shamanic themes, especially of waterfowl, in addition to rattles and other paraphernalia still used in modern shamanic cultures. Combined with the literary sources it is safe to say that some kind of shamanism was practised in Norse communities as it was in neighbouring Sami communities until recent times.
Shamanism, as writers like David Lewis Williams and Graham Hancock have argued, is the oldest expression of spirituality known to humanity. Almost certainly the impulse that drove Ice age Europeans to create unspeakably mysterious and incredible works of art deep in the earth was what we might call “shamanic” in origin. Pretty much universal among “primitive” societies the cosmology and practices of shamanism are remarkably consistent. Of course over great spans of space and time there is divergence in general the broad outline is shared and indeed there are very specific ideas that are near universally expressed. The role of the shaman them self is regarded as an intermediary between humans and a spirit world, the shaman often functioning as a seer or healer. Often the shaman goes through dreadful ordeals both physically and in the spirit world and and it is certainly not a path for the weak minded or faint hearted.
Consistent to all shamanic cultures is a belief in a multiple world cosmos, the imagery of the double helix, entopic phenomena, spinning tunnels, hatchings and so on and at deeper levels meetings with therianthropes ,that is half human half animal creatures, and conscious though ambivalent entities . Shamanism as practiced by indigenous peoples is most certainly not a postmodern neo-religion of kumbayah and platitudes and indeed the meetings with “spirits” are often terrifying and exercise a great deal of mental, even physical torment on shamans.
The experiences that a shamanic practitioner encounters can be induced by a number of means, drumming, fasting, painful ordeals isolation and through chemicals. Lewis Williams and other researchers have managed to induce the experiences in laboratories using a variety of methods. All methods are caused by stimulating the brain to produce its own endogenous hallucinogen DiMethylTryptamine.
Paul Bahn centred his argument against Lewis Williams “shamanic hypothesis” for the origin of cave art on the purported absence of suitable psychedelics in Ice Age Europe.While Lewis Williams reacted to claims that he had not “experienced” a shamanic journey by claiming that he “didn’t want to fry his brain”. It is interesting that both men overlook the wide range of methods employed to incite this phenomenon and perhaps speaks to our own culture’s obsession with “the drug war” and the quick-fix nature of this pharmacological age. Indeed despite what many proponents of hallucinogens say few indigenous groups do actually use plants to induce shamanic trances and instead use isolation, drumming and other techniques.
We have stated the case that there was likely a shamanic aspect to the Heathen religion of the Norse cultures, an argument that is widely accepted and not too controversial. Sadly we are lacking both the archaeological evidence of a bowl full of magic mushroom tea and the saga “Ragnar ate a mushroom and visited the clockwork elves”, so what is available?
In Njal’s saga the decision about whether to adopt Christianity was taken by a man who went into isolation and wrapped himself in a blanket to achieve a kind of “isolation tank” effect. This was a technique also used later in Scotland and Ireland for inspiration. Devoid of outside stimulation the brain creates entopic phenomenon, shapes and lights before the eyes, these can morph into tunnel like effects and at deeper levels lead to powerful hallucinations.
There was an “animal” dance performed by Varangian guards in Byzantium which was thought to be linked to an animal-warrior cult, archaeological finds of burnt bear claws and other iconography also hint at animal-warrior cultic practices .
Odin is attested to have suffered many agonising ordeals for wisdom, hanging himself for the runes (lit.mysteries) and drumming with the witches on Samsey. As stated, rattles and shamanic effects are also known in archaeology. So there is some evidence for the physical methods of shamanism, as for plants there is a dramatic image of a mushroom on the Oseberg tapestry among much shamanic imagery and I have read that the Icelandic word for the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria ) mushroom is “berserker”, though this has proven very hard to confirm.
It is widely believed that the Greek Elusinian mystery was based on an hallucinogenic drink, but hallucinogenic use in Europe is more implied and suspected until recent times. Certainly Siberians used agaric mushrooms though through most of Europe grow safer Psylocbin mushrooms. The first recorded “use” of psylocybin mushrooms in modern times was the accidental poisoning of a family in Green Park London in 1799. It is interesting that this use took place in a major city during the industrial revolution. It is unlikely that a rural family would have made such a mistake.
In addition to the continued association with agarics with fairies throughout European art history,
I have heard that agaric mushrooms can be quite potent and when used as a smoke or shamanic smudge their more noxious effects can be controlled. This put me in mind of the lines from Grimnir’s sayings:
May he have Ull’s protection and that of all the Gods
whoever first quenches the flames
for the worlds lie open for the son’s of Gods
when they lift the lid off the kettles.
There is certainly nothing as explicit as the Central American depiction of mushroom cults. A small scale private mystery cult is implied in the sources pertaining to Norse culture and in common with many such societies the mysteries would be jealously guarded. While a plant agent would not be required I suspect that mushrooms were used by at least some pre-Christian groups although the practice was probably not all that widespread and may indeed have been contained within a select religious group. Knowledge of and probably use of some kind of hallucinogen, likely mushrooms makes the most sense in the context of elements of the sagas and archaeology but as is so common with much of the past the mysteries that they knew they kept to the grave.
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