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Witchcraft and the Shamanic Journey, by Kenneth Johnson

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.

Meeting the Melissae, by Elizabeth Ashley

Meeting the Melissae: The Ancient Greek Bee Priestesses of Demeter, by Elizabeth Ashley
O-Books,1803412496, 360 pages, October 2023

It’s more than likely you’ve heard about the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret ritual which lasted for more than 4,000 years in Greece kept hidden by the threat of death if revealed to outsiders. Maybe you’ve read about the famous people who ventured to undergo this rite–Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Aeschylus–and questioned the impact it had on their contribution to the world. Or perhaps you’ve wondered if hallucinogens, such as kykeon or ergot, were involved in the divine experience those who were initiated into the mysteries came away with.

But have you ever stopped and wondered who the people were overseeing the ritual? If you look up the Eleusinian Mysteries on Wikipedia, there’s a whole page dedicated to the priesthood, yet absolutely no link for the priestesses. All that’s mentioned on Wikipedia is that these priestesses were the High Priestesses of Demeter and Kore (Persephone), one of the highest religious offices that enjoyed great prestige, but there’s scarce information about who these women were or the role they had within the ritual. As someone who is fascinated by ancient priestesses, I certainly wanted to know more!

In Meeting the Melissae: The Ancient Greek Bee Priestesses of Demeter, Elizabeth Ashley has done a beautiful job of unveiling the long-forgotten priestesses of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Melissae. The Melissae, which translates to “bees”, were some of the most influential priestesses of Ancient Greece, but modern scholars, just like Wikipedia, have largely neglected their role in the secret ritual. Unbeknownst to Ashley, her curiosity about the latin name of Lemon Balm, Melissa officialis, would spark a sacred journey as she set out to learn more about these fascinating women and their mysterious cult.

“Mystery work – as in the Mysteries of Eleusis, the domain of Demeter’s Melissae priestesses – is drawn from one’s own internal revelations. Peeling back layers of femininity, it reveals your part in life’s mystical pattern. Through it, one recognises the sacred privilege of being chosen as Earth steward.”1

The book begins with Ashley’s description of how she began to explore these priestesses of Demeter, including her initiations to the shamanism of the bees. Next, she spends a good amount of time teaching readers about bees themselves: different roles  in the hive, their life cycle, how they communicate, pollinate, and reproduce – and so much more! I learned a ton about bees from reading this book; I had absolutely no idea of the complexity and synchronization of inner workings of the hive. I have an entirely new appreciation for bees and now see them in a whole new light, especially after reading about their sacred symbolism in both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.

“A potted version of some of his Orphic beliefs is a person was born with Dionysian perfectly pure spirit, housed in evil, chaotic Titanic flesh. Spirits were believed to drift down from the Heavens, disturbed by the chaos of creation, moving around on the breeze, accompanied by the bees, until children were born. At that moment, the bees then accompanied the Dionysian spirit down to Earth, where it was breathed into the body at a baby’s first gasp.”2

The flow of this book is a bit like a bee’s might appear: clear direction but a little bit this way, then a little that way, moving forward though often looping back in a circuitous route. There’s a lot to piece together, but there’s an intuition to Ashley’s transmission of information. She writes:

“Not all Melissae were priestesses, and not every priestess was known as Melissa. Likewise, contrary to what herbal texts would have us believe, they were not only affiliated to Demeter, or indeed only to Greece, being found much further afield in Asia Minor and Egypt for instance. They belonged to a tradition that had originated from many thousands of years before.”3

Therefore, to fully paint a picture of the Melissae for readers, Ashley covers a wide-range of topics, such as the life of ancient Greek priestesses and how one became a Greek priestess. Then she specifically goes into detail about the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, Artemis, and Aphrodite before going even further back to the Minoan Priestesses and snake priestesses. She guides readers back in time to festivals (Thesmophoria) and rites (The Elusianian Mysteries, of course!) to highlight the connection to the Melissae.

My favorite chapter was titled “The Blood Mysteries”. She describes how M. officinalis is “profoundly involved with gynaecology, reducing period pain, balancing mood, and even guarding against post-natal depression.”4 Though she could not find any direct information association the Melissae with menstruation or sexual medicine, she came to the realizatino that Aphrodite’s girdle is the “sexual and gynaecological meridian”5, and working from this she pulls together compelling ideas about “family planning and colony control”6.

Though this book is extremely well-researched with plenty of references to follow up on, Ashley did not approach this undertaking as a scholar, but rather a woman on a quest looking for answers. The process of connecting with the Melissae involved soul-searching, opening up to new spirit guides, and piecing together bits of what was revealed to her. Ashley is very transparent about her journey, and in turn, she becomes a guide for the rest of us in the path to resurrect the ways of these lost priestesses.

“These reflections of the womb shamans have been brought down entirely from meditating and dreaming with Lemon Balm plant, with Melissa essential oil, CO2, and hydrolat, from using meditation techniques I have learnt and, of course, from spending time with the actual insects.”7

In recent news, bees have become a concern in the face of climate change. Changes in precipitation have been limiting their ability to collect food for their offspring, leading to a smaller population the following year. Bumble bees are one of the most susceptible species to the change of temperature. Concerns about bee population have led to encouragement to plant wildflowers and avoid the use of insecticides.

At the same time, one might assert in the face of patriarchy that the way of the priestess is also being threatened with extinction too. Might the bees and the priestesses of our world come together once again? After reading Ashley’s journey, I have hope that women of the world can rebuild their hive once again. For those who feel the calling to restore the divinity of both the bees and path of the priestess to its rightful place in the natural world, Meeting the Melissae is calling for you to dive in.

Shamanic Dreaming, by Carol Day

Shamanic Dreaming: Connecting with Your Inner Visionary, by Carol Day
Findhorn Press, 1644117037, 192 pages, February 2023

Discovering Carol Day has been an experience. She is a remarkable woman, who lends herself to many walks of life. As an author, counsellor, nature educator, and constellation therapist, Carol is used to “working with imaginary realms. Holding space within nature, and multi-realm environments”1

I enjoyed the circular, cyclical elements within Shamanic Dreaming: Connecting with Your Inner Visionary. All of life is cyclical–all of the universe in fact. This concept is something that speaks to me and something I often ponder about, as we see several different cycles regularly. The changing seasons, menstrual cycles, and the circle of life. Planetary spheres. They’re all connected in similar patterns. 

Also, the actor within me thoroughly enjoyed that the book is cleverly laid out in “Acts”, much like life itself. You can split your own play into as many acts as you like, but the point is that we’re all only on this earth for a snippet of time and Carol wants us to deepen our connection to the “calling of the land”2 to make your time here a fulfilling experience.

In Act One you are invited to ask yourself, “Why am I here?” and “What is going on?”.

Day has developed a practice, which she shares with you in the book, to aid people in being open to their visions. She talks about knowing yourself, knowing the visions that you see, and trusting in this process.

The book allows you a hands-on approach and asks you to attune yourself to everything all around you. There are tasks for you to complete throughout, all of which can bring a deeper understanding of your mindset and learning to be present.

I recommend quickly browsing the book before you begin, as some tasks require items you might not just have lain around, such as a shamanic drum. If you’ve already got one, great. But just check beforehand, because getting all ready for one of the tasks only to find you’re missing the key ingredient can be a huge disappointment. 

Day explains to us how we can connect with the vibration of the universe and how this can be beneficial for seeking out your “knowing”. This isn’t a book just to read, it is for you to make a connection, it’s a companion for a specific time in your life. To tune in and be peaceful. To lean into where you need to be in life and in the universe. 

Act Two allows you to travel through the past, present, and future. Kind of like a modern-day Christmas Carol for those who want to reconnect with the universe. No need for any Scrooges, just an openness to all things.

You’ll be guided throughout to connect with the nature of the universe, to find your own spirit guides, to be creative, and learn how to be quiet and be still. How can you be enlightened? What do you find when you open your mind? You shall set intentions across several realms. And learn how to respond to callings, how to interpret the messages, and what to do with those that you receive.

This book literally has everything, from the vibrational settings that we receive when partaking in Shamanic Drumming to the connections we can make with the Fav

We eventually lead into the practice and process of dreaming and how to call the ancestors into your dreams. All the while keeping yourself grounded and safe. 

Life’s grand plan for us all, for you individually, is waiting within these pages, ready to be unleashed and your first step on this path is right here in Day’s Shamanic Dreaming.

The very lovely illustrations that accompany the text are hand drawn and have a slight Quentin Blake style to them. They’re a beautiful accompaniment to this very real, open, and organic guiding system that Day has kindly shared with us. 

If you’re trying to find your place in the universe and you know there’s something else waiting, but it’s just out of reach, maybe Shamanic Dreaming has your answer, waiting patiently just on the horizon.

Animal Spirit Wisdom, by Philip Kansa and Elke Kirchner-Young

Animal Spirit Wisdom: A Pocket Reference to 45 Power Animals, by Philip Kansa and Elke Kirchner-Young
Earthdancer Books, 1644111154, 112 pages, May 2021

The lovely little paperback, called Animal Spirit Wisdom: A Pocket Reference to 45 Power Animals, by two shamans named Philip Kansa and Elke Kirchner-Young is a nice encouragement to open one’s mind to accepting the wisdom and assistance of animal spirits “energy from other dimensions,” as they write on page 8. Philip and Elke have been on a journey, for over 21 years between them, to share the wisdoms of this native tradition, known as Power Animals, or Animal Totems. I personally took their encouragement to heart as I read through this book, because I already have a love for animals in the world of mundane biology. I was quite interested in what the spiritual plane had to offer from animals too!

This book brought me a feeling of warmth and friendliness. I could really grasp the concept of calling a power animal to one’s side as a companion. This was my first true introduction to animal spirits, so I will need to gain more knowledge on the practice, before I might incorporate it into my own spiritual practices. That said though, I look forward to trying out the exercises written in this book, because unlike many other references I’ve seen, Animal Spirit Wisdom seems to take a gentle, guiding approach, rather than a strict format that stresses a lot on technique. That’s not to say the strict approach is wrong, however the easy going nature of this book seemed to match the writer’s intentions perfectly.

Reading through Animal Spirit Wisdom feels like you’re taking a spiritual walk on a path of nature with two friendly tour guides showing you the way. There is a schedule, for Philip and Elke shall also guide those next in line to be lead, but you must also stroll and allow the power animals to come along the path when you’re both ready to learn and grow from the experience.

Animal Spirit Wisdom is written in a succinct, organized style, and it features a clear and precise connection exercise with which to call on each of the 45 spirit animals referenced. Phillip and Elke also include a brief list of keywords and helpful descriptions for ideas on how calling forth any of the power animals may aid and protect you. Each spirit animal page contains adequately sourced and vivid images, which allow for the perfect visual aids for beginners.

I was only slightly confused by one part of this book, but I think that’s because I was taking things literally. I’ll only include my bamboozlement here, because I’m still not completely sure about it. On page 9 of Animal Spirit Wisdom, our shamans state “in order to discover your animal, make a spirit animal journey (see p. 12) with a shaman or another spiritual teacher.” As shown in the quote, there is another page number listed to see. On page 12 there is a whole exercise titled “A Spirit Animal Journey.”

Now, since our authors are shamans themselves, I’m inclined to believe they are indeed the “shamans with us,” so to say, on this particular journey. I don’t know if this might seem nit-picky, but I honestly wasn’t sure if that’s how I’m supposed to read these particular sections, or if I should actually contact either shaman directly and seek their counsel, as it were. Either way, don’t let the confused mutterings of a beginner sway you. The aforementioned curiosity didn’t take anything away from the book’s experience at all. I simply wish to remain transparent and forthcoming with my review.

Overall, Animal Spirit Wisdom by Phillip Kansa and Elke Kirchner-Young was a truly impactful and enlightening reading experience. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone, of any level, who is interested in acquiring an introduction to the tradition of spirit animals. I genuinely believe the two beautiful shamans who put this book together delight in sharing this very knowledge with you. After my journey through these pages, I am moved to see the animals around me in a much more spiritual light. I wonder if the power animals will know my awe for them. Yeah, they probably will, as they’re the ones with the wisdom, after all.