European Shamanism - A Search for Traces

Sources and Cultural Change

It may be more than an academic problem to answer the question whether shamanism existed in Europe. It could be of personal relevance as well to know if our modern shamanic practice is not only common in foreign cultures, but has also been common in the regions of Europe. Looking at the problem from an archaeological perspective, we need to consider that lamentable few sources have been preserved. We may have enough to partly reconstruct prehistoric everyday life, food resources, settlement patterns or burial rites. However, in order to reconstruct spiritual concepts or religious systems, we would need written sources. Alas, there are none for thousands of years of European Prehistory.

Additionally, there is no such thing as “the” European Prehistory. On the contrary, Prehistory consists of a series of varying periods of different and – in parts – great length. Homo sapiens has been roaming Europe for app. 40.000 years. The better part of it – 32.000 years – were spent as nomad, leading a palaeolithic life. Subsequent periods after about 6000 BC, characterised by a sedentary lifestyle, should not be seen as homogenous phases without cultural change. Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age led to highly differing cultures, existing side by side and/or one after the other. Large scale cultural change is part of historical developments all over the world, and is explicitly represented by the archaeological record. Spiritual concepts as part of cultures are clearly subject to change as well. We need to take into account the existence, disappearance and reappearance of certain phenomena on a broad geographical and chronological scale. Shamanism may have been one of those phenomena.

Scientists and non-scientists alike often connect shamanism and the Palaeolithic (1), based on objects like masks made of antlers, female or hybrid figurines, or cave paintings (2). This connection might also be related to comparable natural circumstances of Palaeolithic and well documented recent shamanic cultures in the northern circumpolar regions. Whether or not the existence of Palaeolithic shamanism is legitimate is due to debate – however, it is possible.

Shamanic Tools and Graves

Along with a significant lack of reliable sources, we also need to deal with methodological questions, such as how to identify shamanism in the archaeological record in the first place. Shamanism is a complex matter, which developed different manifestations in different cultures all over the world and, maybe, over long spans of time. Core Shamanism identifies certain basic characteristics, such as the experience of non-ordinary reality and spirits in an altered state of consciousness, facilitated by different means, such as drums, rattles or sticks. We could try to identify tools of this kind, by searching through our collections of archaeological objects. Drums are usually made of organic material, they only survive under certain conditions. If, by sheer luck, they can be excavated and preserved, they might still be interpreted as simple musical instruments, while at the same time an interpretation as shamanic tool would be valid, too. Nonetheless, it is important not to forget that cultures without objects which may (or may not) be interpreted as shamanic tools are not necessarily cultures without shamanism. As we know, altered states of consciousness can be reached by means which leave no archaeological trace whatsoever, like simple sticks or psychoactive substances.

Another way to trace prehistoric shamanism is trying to identify individuals as shamans (3). Certain graves are labelled exceptional burials (germ. “Sonderbestattungen”) by archaeology, so one could interpret those lying in them as shamans. Even if the term is not defined conclusively, it may still be possible to identify religious specialists whenever a grave differs from usual burial customs. If, for example, most of the individuals in a graveyard are buried with their head to the north, and a few persons lie heading south, those are, of course, exceptions. Unfortunately, shamans in recent cultures may or, more importantly, may not be treated in a different way once they have died. On the contrary, they are buried in much the same way as everybody else in their respective cultures. Their tools often receive special treatment, like destruction or deposition at a place other than the graveyard, etc. Ergo: Shamans are, obviously, not necessarily to be identified by their graves. This is certainly right for recent shamanic cultures, and it may also be the case for prehistoric periods. In general, the reasons for exceptional burials range from certain social or gender roles to unusual deaths, violence (victim or culprit), or disabilities, just to name a few.

Celts and Vikings

In shamanic as well as scientific circles, so called “Celts” are a popular issue. “Celts” are connected with the later European Iron Age. This is not the place to review an intensive discussion about a questionable term which is going on among archaeologists (4). More importantly for our case, there is the notion of an (alleged) strong link between “Celts” and shamanism, as abundantly distributed in neopagan literature and the internet. Authors such as Caesar are cited as reference to the Druids, whose activities are connected with shamanic work on a regular basis. Additionally, numerous Irish and Welsh Sagas have survived, including the motif of a “Celtic Otherworld” – as the realm of the dead, or of elves, etc. – which is then considered an equivalent of non-ordinary reality. We cannot be sure whether this interpretation is correct, and if Iron Age people undertook journeys there, in a state of altered consciousness. This question, again, cannot satisfactorily be solved by archaeological means.

Written sources, if they exist at all, are a main supplement for the explanation of material sources, as can be shown impressively by the following Scandinavian example. We know about a scene told in Eric the Red´s Saga – the very Viking who discovered Greenland as a place to settle in the 10th century. A seer has been invited to prophesize for a whole household. The saga describes her clothing, her taking place in a throne-like seat, holding a staff in her hands. She asked the assembly to sing the “Vardlokkur” for her, special songs. One woman stepped forward, announcing that she herself is a Christian, who had learned those heathen songs from her foster-mother when growing up in Iceland. After this woman has sung the songs, the seer thanked her profoundly, as a lot of spirits had been attracted by the singing, which would enable her to divine for the assembled people. There can be little doubt as to the interpretation of this scene as that of an example of shamanic practice. At the Swedish site of Birka, graves of women have been found who were placed into their graves in a sitting position, holding a staff in their hands (5). We may identify them with characters of the Sagas, whether we call them seer or Völva. It is entirely our modern decision if we want to call them “Shamans” as well.


(1) Street (1989); Neugebauer-Maresch (1993); Hahn (1994); Street/Wild (2014).

(2) See Leskovar (2015).

(3) Reymann (2015).

(4) Pauli (1980); Chapman (1992); Collis (2003); James (1999); Karl (2004, 2008); Rieckhoff (2007); Leskovar (2012).

(5) Price (2002:140f.).


Chapman, Malcolm (1992): The Celts. The Construction of a Myth. London/New York: Palgrave Schol.
Collis, John (2003): The Celts. Origins, Myths and Inventions. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

Hahn, Joachim (1994): Menschtier- und Phantasiewesen. In: Der Löwenmensch. Tier und Mensch in der Kunst der Eiszeit. Begleitpublikation zur Ausstellung, Sigmaringen: Thorbecke. 101-115.

James, Simon (1999): The Atlantic Celts. Ancient People or Modern Invention? London: University of Wisconsin Press.

Karl, Raimund (2004): Die Kelten gab es nie. Sinn und Unsinn des Kulturbegriffs in Archäologie und Keltologie. In: R. Karl (Hrsg.), Archäologische Theorie in Österreich. Eine Standortbestimmung. Wien, 7-35.

Karl, Raimund (2008): Feine Unterschiede. Zu ›Keltengenese‹ und ethnogenetischen Prozessen in der Keltiké. Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft Wien 138, 205-23.

Leskovar, Jutta (2012): Kämpfen um die Kelten. Archäologische Argumente in der neuheidnischen Literatur und der Keltenbegriff in der Fachliteratur. Keltische Forschungen, Allgemeine Buchreihe 2. Wien: Praesens.

Neugebauer-Maresch, Christine (1993): Zur altsteinzeitlichen Besiedlungsgeschichte des Galgenberges von Stratzing/Krems-Rehberg. Archäologie Österreichs 4/1, 10-19.

Pauli, Ludwig (1980): Die Herkunft der Kelten. Sinn und Unsinn einer alten Frage. In: L. Pauli (Hrsg.), Die Kelten in Mitteleuropa. Kultur—Kunst—Wirtschaft. Salzburger Landesausstellung 1. Mai – 30. Sept. 1980 Keltenmuseum Hallein, Salzburg: Amt der Salzburger Landesregierung, Kulturabteilung, 16-24.

Price, Neil S. (2002): The Viking Way. Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Aun 31, Uppsala.

Reymann, Andy (2015): Das religions-ethnologische Konzept des Schamanen in der prähistorischen Archäologie. Frankfurter Archäologische Schriften 28.

Rieckhoff, Sabine (2007): Die Erfindung der Kelten. In: R. Karl/J. Leskovar (Hrsg.), Interpretierte Eisenzeiten. Fallstudien, Methoden, Theorie. Tagungsbeiträge der 2. Linzer Gespräche zur interpretativen Eisenzeitarchäologie. Stud. zur Kulturgesch. von Oberösterreich. Folge 19, Linz: Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum Linz, 23-37.

Street, Martin (1989): Jäger und Schamanen. Bedburg-Königshoven. Ein Wohnplatz am Niederrhein vor 10.000 Jahren. Röm.-Germ. Zentralmus., 49-53.

Street, Martin, Wild, Markus (2014): Schamanen vor 11000 Jahren? In: Eiszeitjäger. Leben im Paradies. Europa vor 15000 Jahren. Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn 2015. Bonn, 274-287.


Photo Credit
Reconstruction drawing of a grave at Birka, Sweden, from the age of the Vikings (Price 2002:141). Jutta Leskovar is archaeologist, head of pre-historic collection of the Upper Austrian State Museum and a member of the faculty of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Europe.

The article is based on a lecture at the event ´Shamanism in Europe´ in the House of Music Vienna, organised by the FSSE, on October 22nd 2017.