The ancient peoples of Europe liked masks and religious rituals more than you.
I would be suspicious if you saw the Europeans today. The use of masks and shamanism were part
and part of everyday life in the ancient Western European tradition, the researchers say.
Stories abound about African and North American tribal shamans, but not a
Much is known about the participation of ancient European peoples in masked ritual or
magic practice. That is why discovering the similarities between the ideas behind
masks from all over the world and those originating from European soil, is a
discovery of intriguing and real beliefs.
The less obvious link of European societies to shamanism or religious ritual that
For example, the customs or magical activity of the Native Indians of North America in the past
due to the more ‘sanitized’ way in which Europe has developed due to the church
interference in people’s lives. The dominance of the church virtually eliminated any heathen.
It was not until after 1960 that Americans experienced a resurgence of the
interest in shamanism, so much has been known about the European version of
the practice of magic and the use of masks. There is more verifiable information on
the true roots of Western European civilization than was initially suspected.
“The spirit, if not the exact practice of shamanism, has been transmitted through
The generations of Europe ”, believes an authority on the subject, Leigh Ann Hussey.
The first recordings of ceremonies with masks were found in the caves of the
Trois Freres (Three Brothers) in France where paintings of a Paleolithic scene
which represents the European animism of the first order.
Ian Bracegirdle, a mask expert, describes the cave: A central figure is standing wearing
the head and antlers of a deer. He is standing, like a shaman, surrounded by animals.
Animals that are important to the culture it represents. Some of the animals don’t
already exist in this area. Ibex, reindeer, bison, deer and horses. The shaman, that’s why
it is what appears to be, he stands, a human figure among potential food.
It is believed that the Paleolithic cave served as a place where hunters began.
The sorcerer or shaman was a symbol of sympathetic magic. He wore ears and horns
of a deer, the eyes and beak of an owl, the bearded face of an old man, the tail of a
wolf, bear paws and dancing shaman’s paws. He stood in front of
painted hunting murals. The shaman served as a mediator between humans and their
revered animal relatives.
This is practically the best evidence in tangible form that we have of the experience of our ancestors.
animistic beliefs. Its origin dates back 10,000 years and is accompanied by a large number of
myths and stories that show that our ancestors had many similar ideas. A close analogy
It exists in the stories of Kernunnos, god of the forest of the last Celts. The masks express
animism to some extent.
His information is confirmed by Ms Hussey, who went hunting in Europe.
shamanism and discovered when he examined ancient sources, that he did not need
borrow from other traditions. “It is clear that tribal Europe had a shamanic force
tradition like, for example, any of the American Indian tribes, “he said.
Summing up the general symbolism that unites masks from around the world,
Bracegirdle says that there are many striking similarities between ancient cultures.
from the Pacific West Coast of North America and the tribal traditions of Africa. Symbols
that all these cultures share are related to fertility, the hunted animal, ancestors,
initiation to rites, circumcision, real and symbolic cannibalism, healing and crossing
to the spirit world for guidance and healing powers or to appease the gods or
the ancestors are the ideas that accompany the masks.
Not much has been passed down from generation to generation in a long time
recognizable shape or form, but one of the most powerful links is the seasonal
nature of many traditions that we still know. In the UK, the green man and the
The hobby horse are two powerful examples. “For me there is a tremendous link that is
linked to the very nature of the people we are and how we have developed. Our
The formative roots now live in our societies ”, believes Bracegirdle.
Links to ancient beliefs can also be found in many European languages. When
We say in English that we are going crazy, we even refer directly to the shaman
ecstatic state. The adjective comes from the noun ‘berserker’, or ‘berserk’, the Old
Nordic for ‘wild warriors’ or ‘champions’. ‘Ber’ refers to ‘bear’ and ‘serkr’ to ‘shirt’ or
These berserkers became frantic in battle, howling like animals, foaming at
mouth, and biting the edges of his iron shields as if acting on a Nike
commercial. Berserker is first recorded in English in the early 19th century, much later
These savage warriors ceased to exist. This is illustrative of how tradition apparently
interrupted, still lived.
Similar “bear doctor” stories have been found among California tribes. In some
cases, the Berserkr or the Ulfserkr would even eat the heart of the bear or the wolf to gain their
Energy. Another festival of hearts occurs in the seiðr trance, as described above.
Not much was known about Western shamanism until it came to the fore in the 1960s.
and the undoubted expert in the field is the late Mircea Eliade, a historian of religion
who taught at the Sorborme in Paris and later at the University of Chicago.
He described shamanism, or ‘witchcraft’ as it is also known, as not a religion but
more like a technique. Shamanism, he says, ‘is not strictly healers,
magicians or healers’. This is the conclusion of extensive studies of the phenomenon.
around the world in his book ‘Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy’.
believes that shamans are not the same as priests; may have coexisted with
priests or have even fulfilled priestly and shamanic functions. A shaman
he was more of a mystic than a priest or minister.
A shaman was not “possessed,” as many people now believe, says Eliade. Neither
Was the shaman a trance medium or channel? “Shamans control spirit beings
who they work with, or at least they don’t give up on them. As a medium or
channeler, a shaman may appear unconscious when working, but upon returning, the shaman
the shaman can know where he has gone, “he says.
The shaman is not the instrument of the spirits. Traditional shamans heal people
through their trances, accompany the souls of the dead to the Otherworld, and
communicate with the gods. “This little mystical elite not only runs the
the religious life of the community, but, as it were, guards its “soul”.
Modern processions where you can still see ancient masks being worn include
processions in which giants and witches are exhibited. These and others
masquerades are among the most powerful tangible links we still have with the ancients
In well-known children’s stories and folkloric narrative, the links are also obvious.
Dragons, for example, are examples of creatures that pervade every alley you can imagine.
from ancient folklore and mythology, straight to the stories of modern times. Descriptions of the
The benevolence of the beast ranges from the playful Puff (from Peter Yarrow’s song) to the sinister
Smaug in “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien. Babylonian legends portray the queen of
Darkness as a multi-headed dragon: Tiamat. Sleeping Beauty from Walt Disney
features a battle between Prince Philip and the evil Maleficent over a curse that
It can only be broken by three fairies. Likewise, the Germanic myth “Die Nibelungen”
culminates in the battle between Siegfried and the giant Fafnir, who has transformed
himself into a dragon in an effort to become scarier.
Our reaction to the physical characteristics of the dragon is another element that
share with and that connects us with our ancestors. Around the world the beasts are
typically depicted as huge lizards, larger than elephants on average. The long fangs are
they are generally accepted as twin horns of variable length. Western cultures in general
They include large bat wings that give the dragon the ability to fly. Eastern goal
dragons, usually wingless, use a more magical means of flying. Eastern dragons too
They tend to be more snake-like in nature, albeit with front and rear legs.