View Full Version : Techniques of Ecstasy Among the Ancient Germans

Thursday, October 13th, 2005, 12:24 PM
In the religion and mythology of the ancient Germans some details are comparable to the conceptions and techniques of North Asian shamanism. We will cite the most striking instances. The figure and the myth of Odin—the Terrible Sovereign and Great Magician—display several strangely "shamanic" features. To acquire the occult knowledge of runes, Odin spends nine days and nights hanging in a tree. Some Germanists have seen an initiation rite in this; Otto Höfler even compares it to the initiatory tree-climbing of Siberian shamans. The tree in which Odin "hanged" himself can only be the Cosmic Tree, Yggdrasil; its name, by the way, means the "steed of Ygg (Odin)". In Nordic tradition the gibbet is called the "hanged man's horse" and certain Germanic initiation rites included the symbolic "hanging" of the candidate, for this custom is abundantly documented elsewhere. But Odin also ties his horse to Yggdrasil, and the occurrence of this mythical theme in North and Central Asia is well known.

Odin's steed, Sleipnir, has eight hooves, and it is he who carries his master, and even other gods (e.g. Hermódhr), to the under-world. Now, the eight-hoofed horse is the shamanic horse par excellence; it is found among the Siberians, as well as elsewhere (e.g., the Muria), always in connection with the shaman's ecstatic experience. It is probable, as Höfler supposes, that Sleipnir is the mythical archetype of a many-footed hobbyhorse that played an important part in the secret cult of the men's society. But this is a magico-religious phenomenon that goes beyond the bounds of shamanism.

Describing Odin's ability to change shape at will, Snorri writes:

His body lay as though he were asleep or dead, and he then became a bird or a beast, a fish or a dragon, and went in an instant to far-off lands...

This ecstatic journey of Odin in animal forms may properly be compared to the transformations of shamans into animals; for, just as the shamans fought one another in the shape of bulls or eagles, Nordic traditions present several combats between magicians in the shape of walruses or other animals; and during the combat their bodies remained inanimate, just as Odin's did during his ecstasy1. Of course, such beliefs are also found outside of shamanism proper, but the comparison with the practices of the Siberian shamans is inescapable. And all the more so since other Scandinavian beliefs tell of helping spirits in the shape of animals visible only to the shamans, which is even more clearly reminiscent of shamanic ideas. Indeed, we may ask if Odin's two ravens, Huginn ("Thought") and Muninn ("Memory") do not represent, in highly mythicized form, two helping spirits in the shape of birds, which the Great Magician sent (in true shamanic fashion!) to the four corners of the world2.

Odin is also the institutor of necromancy. On his horse Sleipner, he enters Hel and bids a long-dead prophetess rise from the grave to answer his questions. Others later practiced this kind of necromancy, which, of course, is not shamanism in the strict sense but belongs to a horizon that is extremely close to it. The scene of divination with the mummified head of Mimir should also be mentioned, suggesting, as it does, the Yukagir method of divination by the skulls of ancestral shamans.

A prophet becomes such by sitting on tombs, a "poet" (that is, one inspired) by sleeping on a poet's grave. The same custom is found among the Celts: the fili (poet) ate raw bull's flesh, drank the blood, and then slept wrapped in the hide; during his sleep "invisible friends" gave him the answer to the question that was troubling him. Or again, a man slept the night beside corpses or in graveyards. The underlying idea is the same: the dead know the future, they can reveal hidden things, and so forth. Dream sometimes plays a similar role; the poet of the Gísla Saga reports the fate after death of certain privileged persons, of which he has learned in dream.

We cannot here examine the Celtic and Germanic myths and legends devoted to ecstatic journeys in the beyond, and especially to descents to the underworld. We will merely remark that neither the Celtic nor the Germanic ideas concerning life after death were free from inconsistencies. The traditions mention several destinations for the dead, coinciding on this point with the faith of other peoples in a variety of destinies after death. But Hel, the underworld proper, lies, according to the Grimnismál, beneath one of the roots of Yggdrasil, that is, at the "Center of the World". We even hear of nine subterranean levels; a giant professes to have obtained his wisdom by descending through "nine worlds below". Here we have the Central Asian cosmological schema of seven or nine hells corresponding to seven or nine heavens. But what seems to us more significant is the giant's claim: he becomes "wise"—that is, clairvoyant—after a descent to the underworld, a descent which, by that fact, we are entitled to regard as an initiation.

In the Gylfaginning ( Prose Edda ), Snorri recounts how Hermódhr, riding Odin's steed Sleipnir, descends to Hel to bring back Balder's soul3. This type of infernal descent is definitely shamanic. As in the various non-European variants of the Orpheus myth, in Balder's case the descent did not produce the expected result. That such a feat was considered possible, we are further informed by the Chronic Norvegiae: A shaman was trying to bring back the soul of a woman who had died suddenly, when he fell dead himself from a terrible wound in his stomach. A second shaman entered the scene and revived the woman, whereupon she related that she had seen the first shaman's spirit crossing the lake in the form of a walrus, and that someone had hit him with a weapon, the effect of the blow being visible on the corpse.

Odin himself goes down to the underworld on his horse Sleipnir to revive the volva and learn Balder's fate. A third example of such a descent is found in Saxo Grammaticus, with Hadingus as hero. A woman suddenly appears while the latter is at dinner and asks him to follow her. They go underground, traverse a damp and shadowy region, find a beaten path along which well-dressed people are walking, then enter a sunny place where all kinds of flowers grow, and reach a river, which they cross by a bridge. They come upon two armies engaged in a battle, which the woman says goes on forever; they are warriors fallen on the field who are continuing their fight. Finally they come to a wall, which the woman tries to cross; she kills a cock that she had brought and throws it over the wall; the cock comes back to life, for, a moment later, they hear it crowing on the other side of the wall. Unfortunately, Saxo breaks off his account here. But he has said enough for us to find, in this descent of Hadingus under the guidance of a mysterious woman, the familiar mythical motif : the road of the dead, the river, the bridge, the initiatory obstacle (the wall). The cock that revives as soon as it reaches the farther side of the wall seems to indicate the belief that at least certain privileged persons (that is "initiates") can count on the possibility of a "return to life" after death4.

Germanic mythology and folklore preserve yet other accounts of underworld descents, in which "initiatory ordeals" can likewise be found (e.g., crossing a "wall of flame", etc.), but not necessarily the type of the shamanic descent. As the Chronicon Norvegiae attests, the latter was known to the Nordic magicians, and if we take their other exploits into consideration we may conclude that there is a quite marked resemblance to the Siberian shamans.

We shall do more than mention the "wild beast warriors", the berserkir who magically appropriated animal "fury" and transformed themselves into beasts of prey. This technique of martial ecstasy, attested among the other Indo-European peoples and parallels to which have also been found in extra-European cultures, bears only a superficial relation to shamanism in the strict sense. Initiation of the military (heroic) type is distinguished by its very structure from shamanic initiations. Magical transformation into a wild beast belongs to an ideology that extends far beyond the sphere of shamanism. Its roots will be found in the hunting rites of the paleo-Siberian peoples, and we shall see what techniques of ecstasy can develop from a mystical imitation of animal behavior.

Odin, Snorri tells us, knew and used the magic called seidhr: by it, he could foresee the future and cause death, misfortune, or sickness. But, Snorri adds, this sorcery implied such "turpitude" that men did not practice it "without shame"; seidhr remained the concern of the gydhjur ("priestess" or "goddess"). And in the Lokasenna Odin is reproached with practicing seidhr, which is "unworthy of a man". The sources speak of male magicians (seidh-menn) and female magicians (seidhkonur) , and we know that Odin learned seidhr from the goddess Freyja. So there is reason to suppose that this kind of magic was a feminine specialty—which accounts for its being considered "unworthy of a man".

In any case, the seidhr séances described in the text are always conducted by a seidhkona, a spákona ("clairvoyant", prophetess). The best description is that in the Eiriks Saga Rautha. The spákona has a highly elaborated ritual costume: a blue cloak jewels, a head-piece of black lamb with white catskins; she also carries a staff and, during the séance, sits on a rather high platform, on a cushion of chicken feathers. The seidhkona (or volva, spákona ) goes from farm to farm to reveal men's futures and predict the weather, the quantity of the harvest, and so on. She travels with fifteen girls and fifteen youths singing in chorus. Music plays an essential role in preparing her ecstasy. During the trance the seidhkona's soul leaves her body and travels through space; she usually assumes the form of an animal, as is shown by the episode cited above.

Several features connect seidhr with the classic shamanic séance: the ritual costume, the importance of chorus and music, ecstasy. But we do not consider it necessary to regard seidhr as shamanism in the strict sense; "mystical flight" is a leitmotiv of magic everywhere and especially of European sorcery. The specifically shamanic themes—descent to the underworld to bring back a patient's soul or escort the deceased—although attested, as we have seen, in Nordic magic are not a primary element in the seidhr séance. Instead, the latter seems to concentrate on divination, that is, belongs rather to "minor magic".

Source (http://www.galacticapublishing.com/archive/2003/solstice/pt_techniques_ecstasy.php)