Book review – Last of the Shor Shamans

shorshamanI have long had a deep interest in the practices of indigenous shamans, especially those of Siberia and Mongolia.  Sadly I’ve never been lucky enough to learn from one, and so my understanding has always come from the books that are available.  The most well known are the sections within MIrcea Eliade’s classic ‘Shamanism’, and those of Sangarel, with her books being very much tailored towards the practice of Buryat Shamanism more than an anthropological study of the subject.

So, to find this book, ‘The Last of the Shor Shamans’, is a gift indeed. It is an exquisite book, just 96 pages long, but packed with information on the dying traditions of the shamans of the Shor Mountain region of South Central Siberia. Translated into English for the first time, this book deserves to be considered a classic of shamanic studies.

The book begins with an introduction by Lynn Roberts, explaining how she came to meet some of the Shortsi peoples when she took a group of North American and Europeans to this remote part of the world to learn from the native shamans who still practiced there. The authors, Alexander & Luba Arbachakov, bring us details of the Shor world view followed by a wonderfully detailed description of the ‘kam’ (the Shor word for shaman), how they are chosen, what they do, how the do it, how they live, how they dress, what tools they use and more. We are given some details on Shor shamanic rituals, before we are then introduced to the lives of seven shamans.  Each one was interviewed and recorded, and the insights gained are remarkable. We are told their stories and given elements of each of their individual practices, even down to the details of some of the words they use in their ceremonies.

We are then treated to the text of sound recordings made by the authors of the kamlanie verses of two of the kam themselves – shamanic verses that have never been published in English before.

To be able to read and study the traditions of this shamanic society is a wonderful privilege, and brings me a deeper understanding of my own shamanic practices and how they relate to those of these ancient people.

Whilst the book is written from an anthropological point of view it is incredibly useful to the serious student of indigenous shamanic practice. It is a wonderful contribution to those of us who treasure such insights.


Stonehenge and that tunnel thing

Other than my work with HAD I no longer have anything to do with Stonehenge other than on a deeply personal level. So this long and interesting article by Mike Pitts poses some profound questions. Of course we would all want the presence of the A303 to be removed from this landscape but the question remains at what cost – and by that I don’t mean the monetary cost. In essence Mr Pitts suggests that to build the road presents an enormous archaeological opportunity that supersedes any other issues. Everything else, he seems to argue, is detail and can be resolved. If we want the A303 removed there will be destruction somewhere, he argues, so why not in the WHS so that we can dig and dig and dig. 
For me this misses the point completely. By digging a huge tunnel across this sacred landscape we continue the destruction of it; but unlike our recent ancestors this won’t be done through ignorance of what we are destroying, but instead deliberately and opportunistically for the benefit of the archaeologist. By doing so we dishonour our deep ancestors, we dishonour those who created this landscape over thousands of years, and we dishonour ourselves. Yes, move the A303, but move it with honour and deep respect for those who built Stonehenge and what surrounds it, for those who lived and died here. After all, this isn’t just about the archaeologists. Is

Book review – Natural Born Shamans

naturalbornshamansLLast November I attended the Gatekeepers Trust Conference that’s held in Pewsey annually. As always there were wonderful speakers over the two days, including Peter Knight, my geomancy teacher Patrick MacManawey, authors of ‘The Spine of Albion’ Gary Biltcliffe, poet Jay Ramsey, traditional traveller folk-song collector Sam Lee and others. One of the others was the shamanic practitioner Imelda Almqvist, who I knew from social media and publicity and advance notice of book releases sent to me by the publisher Moon Books.

Imelda’s subject was “Gods of Portals, Life Transitions and Liminal Spaces”, where she explored (quoting from the Gatekeeper Trust website):

‘Liminal places are where ancient gods await and human beings are touched by the Divine. What is the function of such places in the landscape and how can we open sacred space intentionally to facilitate healing, rites of passage and to breathe new life into the teachings of the ancient mystery schools.’

The talk was wonderful and was accompanied by samples of her spellbinding and amazing artwork. It was without doubt one of the highlights of the entire weekend.

By coincidence, later that day I found myself sitting next to Imelda and we spoke for a while, including a short discussion about her recent book ‘Natural Born Shamans – A Spiritual Toolkit for Life: Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages.’ I had to confess I hadn’t read the book as it seemed that it wasn’t something that I would find useful. After having listened to her talk and  our later conversation I was inspired to go out and buy a copy to see what wisdom there was within.

The book is written from the point of view of a shamanic practitioner and a mother of three boys, whose experiences in bringing them up led her to insightful practices that resulted in her forming the group called ‘Time Travellers’. She writes:

‘The notion of teaching shamanism to young children and teenagers seemed overwhelming (where to start?!), but I created The Time Travellers programme in London, UK, and it is still running four years later.’

Eventually, with much prodding from her own spirit guides, as well as other parents and shamanic practitioners working in the same field, Imelda came to realisation that there was a need to share her work, and so allow others to benefit from her experiences in working with her own group. Again, to quote from the book:

‘I have received many emails from colleagues asking about my shamanic work with children and teenagers. They have referred many people based all over the world to me: parents, grandparents, teachers and professionals in other fields. People tell me that they need pointers, ideas, tried and tested session plans. I gradually realised that I perhaps I was sitting on material and experiences that could be helpful for others.’

The book is set out in three distinct parts; the first covers the foundations of the work she is covering – subjects such as:

  • what is shamanic parenting
  • shamanic basics
  • working with children – fears and prejudices
  • parental consent

and so on.  Here there is much wisdom to be found, and the wealth of Imelda’s experiences shines through, giving those who may enter this area of teaching some confidence that they are learning from someone who has ‘been there and done it’. Refreshingly there are parts where she lets us know where the best laid plans can go wrong, and so we learn from those mistakes without having to discover the pitfalls ourselves.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a section which will teach you to be a shamanic practitioner – it assumes some considerable depth of understanding, knowledge and training in the practice of shamanism, so if you are looking for a book covering those aspects, this isn’t the one for you.

In part two we are offered a detailed array of practical session plans that can be used and adapted for use once you set up your own group work with children and teenagers. It defines each session in some detail, giving guidance on from and structure, what to say, where to hold the work and how to follow up each session. There is an introduction to the subject of each session, followed by teaching notes, preparation guidelines, the session itself, and where appropriate further notes that may be useful.  The topics are wide and varied, covering from the playful to deeper work around subjects such as bullying and death. While these sessions are aimed at a range of ages, from the relatively young to those in transition between childhood to adulthood, they are a wonderful inspiration for those who may hold regular shamanic sessions with older individuals, and with a little adaptation could well be used to bring out the childlike innocence that many adults have lost. Play and laughter and plain and simple fun are wonderful tonic to the soul and spirit whatever our age!

Part three is entitled ‘Rites of Passage’ and gives a detailed and experiential view of the way ritual and ceremony can be incorporated into the lives of children and teenagers. It covers just about any aspect of transition that we are likely to come across, and doesn’t shy away from the ‘difficult’ areas which modern society attempts to hide away in the shadows. As a ceremonialist as well as a shamanic practitioner, I found this section really enlightening and useful and once again, with a little work, everything here could be adapted for other age groups. We as a culture ignore ceremony too often, and to re-awaken the need for ceremony within our own communities can be a wonderful gift of service; for that alone this book is worth buying.

My understanding of working with others, especially with children and teenagers, would have been the poorer had I not been inspired to buy and read this book, and I am deeply grateful that synchronicity brought me to that Conference and to find myself sitting next to Imelda. This is a wonderful book or anyone who regularly works with others in their shamanic practice, and particularly good for those who find themselves working with young people. I highly recommend it.

Almqvist, Imelda. Natural Born Shamans – A Spiritual Toolkit for Life: Using Shamanism Creatively with Young People of All Ages – John Hunt Publishing 2016


Small gods

Would that I were a storyteller and wordsmith; but I don’t fool myself. I’m not. My skills, such as they are lie in other areas; but that doesn’t mean I haven’t the deepest appreciation of those who can weave a tale into story and into modern myth. It’s a skill we desperately need so that we can, first of all, accept the fact that we are destroying the land because we have accepted the stories we have been sold and told; the stories that we have to have more, bigger, better. But we don’t. If we wake up, open our eyes, snap out of the trance we are collectively held in, then maybe, just maybe, we will change our perspective and understand that we need to once again listen to the land, and then to retell the stories she is telling us. I really believe it is the stories we can tell, the myths we share, that can change the direction we are travelling. Ah, if we would but stop and listen.
This essay by Dr Martin Shaw is long, but oh so worth making the time to read.

The Place of Belonging

So often the writing of Sharon Blackie touches my soul – this beautiful post from her blog resonates deeply with me.

The Art of Enchantment

A few years ago now, The Place of Belonging was the title of a book I was going to write. I never did; instead, I wrote If Women Rose Rooted, and some of what I’d intended to say about place and belonging went into that book, and some will go into The Enchanted Life, the book I’m working on now. Sometimes I think I’ll always be writing about it, because although the psychology of place and the myths and stories of place have been at the heart of my work for so long now, it seems that there is always something more to learn.

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Stepping down, moving on

For the last ten and a half years I have been honoured and privileged to lead and organise the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr; or to give it its more linguistically correct name, Gorsedd Côr y Cewri. Every solstice, both summer and winter, we have gathered at Stonehenge to honour the season and the spirits of place. Cor Gawr – as it is almost always abbreviated by everyone who knows it and attends – is, I think, unique. It requires no membership of any Order, Grove, or any other organisation you can think of; it requires no adherence to a particular spiritual path, or indeed to any path at all. The only restriction it has is on numbers, and that is set by English Heritage. Where Open Access is totally open in terms of numbers, the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr is only allowed a maximum of 100 folk at midsummer, and 80 at midwinter. Open Access is important and wonderful as a free celebration, secular or spiritual; but because of that English Heritage restriction on numbers the Gorsedd is able to offer a more focused and spiritual experience than otherwise would be the case. We meet at dawn on traditional Midsummers Day, a day celebrated still in many countries – and, no, it isn’t the same day as the solstice (confusing I know).

Cor Gawr also meets again on a date near the winter solstice, at dusk; which may well be much closer to the season and the time of day that was recognised and honoured at the Stones by our deep ancestors than some would imagine.

I was deeply honoured and not a little surprised to be asked to take over leading and organising Cor Gawr in 2005, by Emma Restall Orr, who was then the Head of The Druid Network. It was around Samhain that year when she asked if I would take on the responsibility and after a few days of deep consideration and contemplation, not to mention a few long talks with Emma, I accepted. Part of the agreement was that there would be a dedicated team of priests working alongside and with me, and that arrangement continues to this day. A few of the original team have left and a few have joined, but the team remains the backbone of the Gorsedd and the ceremonies that take place at each solstice. Without them I doubt there would still be a Cor Gawr.

Over the years things change and evolve. It’s said that one thing that never changes is there is always change; that is certainly the case with Cor Gawr. There have been considerable changes at English Heritage and relationships that had been built up over many years ended; the departure of Peter Carson from the management of Stonehenge was a huge blow to me personally. Others have quickly come and gone, though the Gorsedd has always managed to agree access on its traditional dates and times. Of course the move to the new visitor centre some mile and a half from the Temple proved a significant challenge as access is outside normal hours – pre dawn near to the summer solstice is early! Still, agreement was reached, and Cor Gawr continues to enjoy excellent relations with English Heritage.

Throughout the more than ten years I’ve been organising the Gorsedd I’ve really enjoyed my time leading Cor Gawr; there have been challenges and there have been a few (mostly minor) battles fought and won. But times change. I am now in my 66th year, and I confess to having one or two health issues; my energy levels are not what they were. 

But perhaps most of all there are things I want to do while I still can, and there are times when I’ve been unable to do some of the, because of my commitment to Cor Gawr. My spiritual path continues to evolve, as our paths always do, and it no longer feels appropriate for me to act as the lead for Cor Gawr, or to continue as the organiser. The facts are that I am much more of an introvert than perhaps I may appear; I have never felt comfortable being in the public eye, and have tried to remain in the background as much as its possible to while leading a public ritual! While I’ve done one or two with journalists I admire and trust, I’ve declined many an interview and a number of opportunities to speak on radio and TV. That simply isn’t me. I have never been one to seek publicity, preferring what I do to speak for itself. So, it is time for others to step forward and take Cor Gawr on into the future with fresh vision and fresh ideas. For now the remaining priests will work as a collective, organising the Gorsedd, and they will decide what direction Côr y Cewri takes, how it evolves, and how it is run.

I have had a wonderful ten years, and I thank each and every person who has ever attended the Gorsedd while I have been organising it; I am deeply in your debt. For, as was once said in a Cor Gawr ceremony, without you there is no Gorsedd.

I wish you health and prosperity. May you all walk your onward paths in beauty, honour, love and peace.

A sudden storm

When the rain finally arrived it came with such force that the water in the small pool became a cascade of what seemed to be small fountains leaping upward in graceful silver parabolic curves, with each drop creating a balletic dance of nature and geometry. The sound on the bright green hawthorn was a steely crescendo that acted as a counterpoint to the booming thunder that had been rumbling in the skies to the south for some time; like shimmering cymbals amidst an uneven unpredictable rhythm of drums. It had been as if nature was giving me time to prepare for the small apocalypse that now fell upon me. Sparrows delved deeper into the burgeoning growth for shelter while bees continued their foraging for pollen amongst the rosemary as if nothing had changed even as huge droplets collided with a select few, their bodies sent careering momentarily in wild and unpredictable directions. Undeterred by the random and apparent violent force of such a chance encounter, the unfortunate victim simply returned to the prior task as if nothing of any importance at all had occurred.

Drenched by the storm, entranced by the magic of the moment I gazed upon this hypnotic scene as the parched earth became enriched and nourished by the torrent; the heady scent of rain on dry soil filled my senses with the sheer joy of being alive to witness and experience such miracles. Enchantment seemed to be palpable; all I needed to do was stretch out a hand to touch it.

As quickly as it arrived, the storm passed; moving ever north westward the rain came to an abrupt and unexpected end and the sounds of its passing began to quietly fade into the distance and memory. The sun reappeared where a few moments ago there had been dark clouds; the garden now steamed with the heat and humidity of the day as the calming gentle murmur of bees and birds returned.