Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey, by Kenneth Johnson
Crossed Crow Books, 979-8985628173, 212 pages, January 2023

From accusations of shapeshifting and spirit flight to keeping the company of bestial familiar spirits, the testimonies recorded during the European witch trials bear an uncanny resemblance to ancient and universal shamanistic practices. In his classic work Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey, author Kenneth Johnson posits that European witches were indeed practicing a form of shamanism, “the world’s oldest spiritual path.”1 This view has already been well articulated in Eliade Mircea’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951), and the scholarly works of Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, such as Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1966) and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (1989), but Johnson builds upon historical evidence for the purpose of reconstructing ancient shamanic practices for modern witches.

Johnson is a professional astrologer and the author of several books, including Mythic Astrology (1993), which he co-authored with Arielle Guttman, and Jaguar Wisdom: An Introduction to the Mayan Calendar (1997). Johnson is originally from California, but currently resides in Mexico. He also spent a decade in Guatemala, where “he was initiated into the indigenous Mayan priesthood as an aj q’ij (keeper of days) in November of 2017.”2 Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey is his personal favorite among his published works.

I read a previous edition of this book, published by Llewellyn under the title of North Star Road (1996), and I didn’t realize this was the same book until I started reading it. It was nonetheless a pleasure to revisit this superb work, as it contains a wealth of information and was one of the most influential texts in my transition from mainstream Wicca to the more shamanic practices of Traditional Witchcraft. This new edition, published by Crossed Crow Books, includes spiritual exercises inspired by Johnson’s tutelage under Russian shamans. It also has a foreword written by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, author of Craft of the Untamed (2014) and Seven Crossroads at Night (2023), and a preface by Robin Artisson, the author of An Carow Gwyn: Sorcery and the Ancient Fayerie Faith (2018) and several other works on Traditional Witchcraft.

Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey is interspersed with beautifully written fictional vignettes that capture glimpses of shamanic witchcraft practices throughout Europe, such as “Greenland, AD 1000,”3 which features a priestess of the Norse goddess Freya practicing seidr; “Northern Italy, 1600,”4 which dramatizes the spirit flight of an Italian benandante, or “good walker,”5 who protects the harvest by fending off evil spirits with a fennel stalk; and “Scotland, 1662,”6 which glimpses the trial of Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie.

In the introduction, Johnson provides a brief historical survey of the environmental and cultural factors that led to the witchcraft trials, “a holocaust that, we should remember, took place not during the so-called Dark Ages, but during the more ‘enlightened’ age of the Italian Renaissance and the early years of the scientific revolution.”7 In the tumultuous 1300s, the Black Death, crop failures, peasant revolts, and the uprising of radical religious movements, such as the Cathars and Waldensians, contributed to a widespread fear of “an epidemic of witchcraft.”8 Inquisitors believed heretics were members of a diabolical cult, “formed about 1375, which called upon demons who often bore the names and attributes of old pagan divinities, and which met by night in ceremonies called Sabbats.”9

These so-called witches anointed themselves with flying ointments made of hallucinogenic herbs and took flight in spirit, either astride animals or riding broomsticks, riding the night winds to the Sabbat where they danced in orgiastic rites with a horned devil. Johnson suspects that there could have indeed been a witchcraft crisis cult, which arose in response to the drastic decline of medieval society. By returning to traditional shamanic beliefs and blending them with folk Christianity, members of this hypothetical cult may have been attempting to end “aristocratic dominance through magical social revolution.”10 One of the most fascinating theories Johnson presents is that the medieval dancing plague was the shamanic dance of a crisis cult.11

The ancient spiritual practice of shamanism involves the practitioner entering trance states and traversing the spirit realm, from the heavenly heights of the gods to the Underworld of the dead, in order to bring back knowledge and healing wisdom to the benefit of their community. Although the word “shaman” originated in Siberia, Johnson claims that shamanic practices are the spiritual foundation upon which many world religions were built.

In “Part 1: Otherworlds,” Johnson explores the shamanic view of the cosmos.

“According to the cosmovision of the shaman, the North Star is the axis around which all things revolve,” Johnson says.12 “When shamans depart upon their spirit journeys, they often take the road to the North Star.”13

According to the Buryat people of Siberia, the sky is a great tent punctured with stars, and the North Star is the central pole which holds up the heavens. The stars themselves are a herd of galloping horses tethered to the polestar. In various cultures, the axis mundi, or world axis, is envisioned as the central pillar of the cosmos, embodied in the World Mountain, the World Tree, or even the Maypole. Using this axis, the shaman can navigate the three realms of Heaven, Earth, and Underworld. When depicted as a tree, the branches are imagined to reach up to the abode of the Sky Father, and the souls of unborn children roost in the boughs, as well as an eagle, the primary totem of shamans, and the “Bird of Prey Mother,” who lays the eggs from which shamans are born. The roots of the tree burrow deep into the Underworld, where a great serpent dwells.

Through comparative mythology, Johnson provides compelling evidence of similar shamanic beliefs throughout the world, citing examples of several World Trees, such as Yggdrasil, the World Tree of the Vikings; the great ceiba tree of the Mayans, which grew from the back of a crocodile; the Kabbalistic Tree of Life; and the Underworld cypress tree of the Orphic mysteries. The World Tree even appears in the witch trial of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), as she was accused of dancing around a “fairy tree”14 when she was a child, suggesting the survival of ancient shamanic practices in early fifteenth century Europe.

Variations of the World Mountain also appear in many cultures, from megalithic monuments, volcanoes, and Mayan pyramids to the abode of the Greek gods on Mt. Olympus. In the witch trials, the World Mountain appears as the home of the witch goddess. In the early 1500s, an Italian peasant accused of witchcraft named Zuan delle Piatte confessed that Venus had whisked him away to the Sabbath upon black horses, and he had visited Herodias in the mount of Venus. In 1630, a German witch confessed to traveling in spirit to visit the goddess Holda in a mountain called the Venusberg.

“All our images of the Goddess in the Mountain or Tree are ultimately metaphors for the kundalini or ‘serpent power,’ a feminine energy both sexual and spiritual that has its origins at the base of the spine and, during spiritual practice, travels up our own internal World Tree or Mountain to the crown of the head—at which point we experience enlightenment,” Johnson says.15

Just as the shaman’s tent is mobile, so is the center of the universe. The moveable axis mundi, or World Tree, corresponds to the upright spinal column unique to human bipedalism. The skull, which is the spirit house of human consciousness, is elevated to the heavens, and the earth goddess or Fairy Queen slumbering at the base of the spine is the kundalini serpent.16

According to Buryat mythology, the first shaman was born from the union of an eagle and a human woman, “which, symbolically, tells us that shamanism is ‘born’ from the union of the enlightened consciousness which dwells at the top of our own internal World Tree with the feminine potency that sleeps at its base.” 17

“Though one may be born to a shamanic vocation, one attains power and mastery only through initiation,”18 Johnson says. Shamanic initiation may manifest as being called by spirit voices and having a vision of death and dismemberment, followed by a rebirth experienced during a physical illness or a bout of madness, which we would perceive in modern times as a psychotic break. In European mythology, the Norse god Odin is the most obvious shamanic figure, as he was wounded by a spear and sacrificed himself to himself on the World Tree. There are also Welsh legends of Merlin in which he was once a warrior who went mad and lived in the woods like a wild animal after a traumatic experience on the battlefield. The Orphic myth of the death and dismemberment of the Greek god Dionysus is another striking example of shamanic initiation. As a child, the Titans murdered him and cooked him in a cauldron, which echoes the inquisitors’ grotesque fantasies of witches have cannibalistic feasts, involving the boiling of unbaptized babies in cauldrons and the use of their fat in flying ointments. 

“The Old Bone Goddess,”19 with her cauldron of death and rebirth, is the one who resurrects the shaman. She is the “Bird of Prey Mother”20 of the Siberian Yakut shamans. When the shaman’s magical powers have ripened and are ready to be activated through initiation, she dismembers him and feeds his body parts to demons. Then she reassembles his bones and resuscitates him.

I wonder if modern society’s disassociation from traditional shamanic practices can cause such initiations to manifest through traumatic life experiences, rather than just dream visions. After I performed a formal self-initiation ritual, I had initiatory dreams and visions, but my waking life also catastrophically fell apart, and it coincided with my Saturn Return. I lost everything, from material possessions to family members, and experienced frequent psychic attacks by a shadowy demonic entity that appeared to be attached to an abusive boyfriend. When it finally withdrew, several months after I escaped that toxic relationship, I heard it tell me that it was sorry for what it had put me through, and I never felt its presence again. It wasn’t until I read this book that I realized that the ordeals I experienced were part of an initiatory dismemberment and I came to terms with the fact that the Dark Mother to whom I was devoted had allowed those horrors to happen to me as part of the process.

Wicca, with its sugar-coated love and light Mother Goddess, did not adequately prepare me for the brutality of my shamanic witchcraft initiation, and reading the previous edition of this book, North Star Road, revealed the harsh truths of my spiritual path. I share what happened to me as a cautionary tale, because I initiated myself not fully understanding what I was getting myself into. I thought I was adequately prepared after studying Wicca for over a decade, rather than the customary year and a day, but the witch’s path is riddled with rose thorns, and true wisdom comes through suffering.

Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey fills in the gaps of knowledge that are missing in mainstream pop culture witchcraft. Johnson elucidates how ancient shamanic practices infuse the folkloric witchcraft of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and are the backbone of witchcraft today. This is an essential text for any serious practitioner who has been called by the spirits and seeks to reclaim their shamanic roots.