Were there shamans in Britain before the Romans?

We’ve been having a somewhat scholarly discussion at the Lazy Gecko cafe about whether the effigies on the landscape zodiac do actually pre-date Christianity, and also whether the Celtic stories, which I think they depict, can be verified to be rooted in an older mythological oral tradition. It’s really got me thinking…

However, I can answer the former question with another… if the landscape effigies were built in Christian times, at a time when the monkish scribes were recording everything, then why did no-one report on them until the 20th century, unless it was a much older, secret and oral tradition?

To the latter, about the dating of the myths, I would point out that the stories contained in the Welsh myths are built around templates which are also found in much older cosmological myths, some dating to 3,000 BCE. In the Jesus story, this template is much more obscured, and only visible to those with the keenest eyes and even then, the Gospels have to be read in context with the buried Nag Hammadi gospels which resurfaced in the 20th century.

But here’s what I think is the killer – the Gundestrop Cauldron, which dates to around 200 BCE, shows a scene on one of its panels which is remarkably similar to one from The Children of Llyr, a Mabinogion story which featured a cauldron of rebirth into which were put the Irish warriors, head first, to be reborn as a sort of zombie army.

Gundestrop 1

Another panel of the Gundestrop Cauldron shows the Lord of the Animals, seated cross legged with a boar on one side and a stag on the other – the boar and the stag are classic Celtic totem animals, exclusive to that culture.


But apart from whether or not these stories are pre-Christian, they are certainly non Christian because they are resoundingly shamanic, at a time when the Romans had done their level best to make sure that all traces of what they called paganism had been wiped out. Of course, shamanism is a Siberian word, and I just use it as shorthand in this context. As John Matthews writes in the Introduction to his book Taliesin, The Last Celtic Shaman

“The use of the word ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanism’ requires some explanation in the context of this book, and it is important to establish at this point what is meant by it. The word is such a fashionable one, and used so easily by so many different groups, that it has become open to misuse and misinterpretation. On the one hand, there are those who believe that shamanism (which is a word of eastern origin) is a foreign system ‘imported’ into this country in the last few years to describe something which never happened here. This is manifestly nonsense. Shamanism is simply a word for something which took place all over the ancient world. Shamans were the interpreters of the gods, the doctors and inner guides of their people; they kept the records (orally) of every family in their tribe – important when intermarriage could so easily occur in small communities – and they were the recorders of the life of the tribe itself, both inner and outer. They were in fact performing the same function as the Bards, Druids and Ovates of Britain and Ireland.”

These ancient Irish and Welsh stories, songs and poems are full of shapeshifting heroes with the archetypal ‘fire in the head’ and many of the stories read like initiations. There’s a ‘great tree’, (or World Tree), people who vanish for years into the Otherworlds, an Underworld, talking animals, the inner sight, and a poem called The Seige of Drom Damhgaire even gives us a magical battle between two shamans.

This is the Song of Amergin, which he purportedly sang as he stepped on these shores from Spain with the conquering Milesians after the last Ice Age.

I am the wind that blows across the sea;
I am a wave of the deep;
I am the roar of the ocean;
I am the stag of seven battles;
I am a hawk on the cliff;
I am a ray of sunlight;
I am the greenest of plants;
I am the wild boar;
I am a salmon in the river;
I am a lake on the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the point of a spear;
I am the lure beyond the ends of the Earth;
I am the god who fashions fire in the head.

That last line, about the fire in the head, refers to what has been called the shaman’s calling card. My experience is that the heat starts to build when I’m drumming. Then, during the journey, I feel the fire just to the right of my crown. It feels like a flame burning and the deeper and more intense the journey, the hotter is burns.

The great Celtic warrior Cuchulainn was said to show the “hero’s light” or flaming aura around his head when he was excited and frenzied for battle. According to the stories, when the light appeared, he could perform his most famous “salmon’s leap” and cover great distances or heights. This aura eventually was co-opted by the Christians and became the halo.

It is said that some Tibetan monks trained in yogic traditions can raise their body temperatures to melt snow. The !King in Africa call this natural body heat “boiling energy”.

The explorer Knud Rasmussen met with Eskimo shamans who told him: “Every real shaman has to feel an illumination in his body, in the inside of his head or in his brain, something that gleams like fire, that gives him the power to see with closed eyes into the darkness, into the hidden things or into the future or into the secrets of another man.”

The Jivaro of the Amazon describe the shaman as one who gives off light, “particularly in a ‘crown’, an aura from the head” when the shaman is in an altered state of consciousness.

So it’s difficult imagine all these stories about great shamans being shared very easily around the hearths of post Roman Britain, or at least such a vast and humongously rich whole body of work being developed from scratch at that time, right under the noses of the Christian priests and monks. For at least several thousands of years before Christianity, everyone around the world had their own orally passed on stories which contained cosmological lore. So why wouldn’t the people with the rich grave goods of the Hallstatt culture (c. 800 BCE–450 BCE) who we think became the Celts, have their stories? And if these aren’t they… then where are they?

However, it is an an ongoing debate and it’s one that may not even be settled in our lifetimes. We can only dig up as much as we can, and then hand the baton on to the next generations. But for me, it is an important quest, because at the heart of it is our search for the wisdom of our ancestors, who knew about the Sovereignty of the land and much more. This is why I’m using these stories, reflected from the stars above, to act out ceremonies and dramas on the land, which our local spirits appear to appreciate.

My work is firmly planted in this world as much as it derives from guidance and inspiration from the other worlds. A shaman is just a workman who serves the needs of the tribe or the community. Samadhi can wait… for this lifetime, anyway.

The Sacred Sex Rites of Ishtar

Shamanic sexual healing and sex magic

by Ishtar Babilu Dingir

Shamans and high priestesses in Neolithic times were in touch with the spirits of the land, and so were able to transmit their wisdom to the king or pharaoh in sacred sex rites during his coronation night. These became known as the Sovereignty rites, because they fired up the king’s higher brain centres, giving him a superior intelligence and thus the ability and the right to reign.

Our ancestors have left us magical keys in their orally passed on myths which, like messages in a bottle, can help us find the way to spark up that wisdom again, in ourselves.

Ishtar Babilu Dingir is a shaman and mythologist who is regularly in communion with the spirits of the land where she lives in Glastonbury, Somerset. In The Sacred Sex Rites of Ishtar, she has laid out the way for the ordinary person to ignite their own route to Sovereignty through shamanic sexual practises and also by learning to communicate with the spirits of the land.


  1. downbythebrook

    Great article and excellent points made by Jenny. I rejected Christianity for the same reasons. I feel more akin to the Druidic path; indeed the nature spirits and trees have often spoken to me in woodlands. Funnily enough this started in Greenwich park when I was living there a few years ago. I went for walks and fed squirrels nuts there- The squirrels started appearing in huge numbers and they took nuts out of my hand. Then I found myself doing little rites without planning them, all happened naturally. Being of Welsh and Irish ancestry I have read some of the Celtic history and I do feel that the Druids were quite shamanic. To my dismay Celtic history(Iron Age) is dismissed in mainstream education and my city museums have even removed them from their timelines and the artifacts have gone from display.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. caigwyn

    It is such a tragedy that the Romans and consequential Christians hid our past so completely, and so good you’re surfacing the old stories. Thank you!


  3. Jenny Fletcher

    Look in churches all across Britain and you will find pagan carvings of Sheila Na Gig and the Green Man and other very unChristian curiosities, because the craftsmen that created them maintained links with the ‘Old Religion’ and I am quite sure still do. .

    It was necessary to do a little judicious blending and paralleling of the Christian story with older beliefs to make it easier for people to understand and adopt new ideas. To me, Christianity has always felt totally foreign and disconnected with our land and that is why I felt unable to accept it.

    Those who press the idea that Britain is now a Christian country should remember what was taken into Christianity from the old beliefs, both of Britain and Rome. They must acknowledge the growing movement that British people wish to do more to re-discover and re-inherit our most ancient history and cultures and include it in the curriculum of every British school. Out with the strange idea that we didn’t have any history worthwhile learning about before the Romans came here which was what I (as a senior citizen) recall being told when I asked about it.

    Liked by 3 people

If you liked this article, or have any comment about it, please do give me some feedback here.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s