Shamanism & The Nordic Goddess
by Monica Sjöö
The arctic peoples believe that everything has a Mother and that all of Nature is ensouled. The most important Mothers are Mother Earth, Sun and Moon. The Sun was always female in the north – the Sun’s lifegiving power after the long dark winter is experienced as the life-giving warmth of the Mother’s womb. Both are the source of life and the Ahkkas are Her daughters. They are the protectors of women and of animals, and especially of mothers about to give birth. The Celto-Germanic Triple Mothers, the Matronae or Deae Matris, were also called Mother Earth, Sun and Moon Woman. They were the ancient creator Goddesses of the past, of Old Europe, who had survived. The Romans called them “Sorceresses of the early days”.
They were the same Triple Goddess as the Norns of Scandinavia, and they belonged to the Vanir people, a people of Old Europe who entered Scandinavia ca. 4000 BCE, bringing with them the Disir, their great female ancestral deities. These were the ancient collective mothers of the tribe who had taught the people time-reckoning, lunar wisdom, agriculture, prophesy and magical oracular powers at the beginning of time. Clearly there is a relationship between them and the Ahkkas of the Saami people, and perhaps their common ancestry dates back to the Paleolithic caves of the Ice Age in Europe.
In Scandinavia during the time of the matriarchal Vanirs, Shamanism was always a women’s tradition and belonged to Freya, the great VanaDis or queen of the Vanirs, and her sejdwomen or Valas. This tradition survived all through the Bronze Age, which was still a time of the Goddess, through the more patriarchal Iron Age with its Indo-Germanic male deities and priests to the beginning of the Christian era.
I grew up as a child in Åmgermanland which is south of the North, though still a magical land with great rivers, lakes and mountains. Some Saami people still live as far down as this. There is an alternative community called Skogsnäs where I’ve spent time in recent years. It is situated inland from Härnösand, a small city on the Baltic where I was born, and it is surrounded by large pine forests where even brown bear live wild and where are plenty of elks, huge majestic animals.
Not far from Skogsnäs there is a great river called Nämforsen, where several thousand petroglyphs are all carved on the cliffs, rocks and islands in and by the river. Here again was a major summer-gathering site, with remains and reconstructions of dwellings covered in skin. The petroglyphs date from ca. 4000-3500 BCE, and had already been studied in detail in the 1940s by the archaeologist Gustav Hallström. Petroglyphs continued to be carved here over 1500 years, obviously as part of rituals. This is a very important site and I felt lucky to be able to spend time there, drawing the images and experiencing the great power of the place. This was, like Vuollerim further north, a major ritual centre. There is an indwelling power in the rocks themselves and in the mighty river, which is presumably why the ancient peoples chose this particular spot to set up camp and carve images.
A great number of the images are of female elks. There are also images of what I interpret as Shamanwomen standing on Spirit-boats that bring the souls of the dead to the magical Otherworld of the Goddess. There was no fear of the dead and they were buried close to the living. On these boats there are elk-cows heads carved on the prows and sterns, where the Vikings later carved Dragons heads. There are figures holding elk-staffs and figures with raised arms, the universal posture of priestesses of the Goddess drawing down the lunar and solar energies, acting as antennae to the Universe. Here is the Great Mother of the animals (also the Great River and Water Mother) as She was before in the darkness of the Paleolithic caves, where pregnant animals were painted again and again, and the Goddess would swell, give birth, die and be reborn as the Moon in Her changes. Shaman women dedicated to Freya still carried the magical staff.
Nordic Mother of the Animals
But of course the Swedish male archaeologists see nothing of all this and speak of powerful and commanding shaman-men, great violent warriors struggling in combat with Nature, and the one solitary image of an elk with an arrow lodged in it is the one that is always reproduced and dragged out as evidence. Never mind that the Saami, like all indigenous peoples who have a sacred relationship to Mother Earth and all her creatures, never wantonly kill. Nämforsen was however a major hunting ground and traps were set in the rivers to catch elk. Hunting sites dating to 4000 BCE have been found. [Above – Nordic Mother of the Animals]
To the Norse people the Pole star was a place of secrets and mysterious powers. Many arctic peoples believed that the Great female Bear constellation Ursa Major, that circles the pole star, was the point of entry to the Upper world. Some believed that Ursa Major is the Cosmic Elk cow with Ursa Minor as her calf, and that the Elk ran out of the Heavenly Taiga and carried off the Sun on one of her antlers. These beliefs are rooted in hunting societies of great age in Siberia and elsewhere. The Elk cow and the Bear Mother are embodiments of the great Arctic Mother of the animals who was also an amazon and a great hunter. In later times she was called Artemis/Diana. Remember the woman who was buried in 4000 BCE with her hunting gear and who also was a mother of many children! Every bone of the Bear was preserved and put in the proper place on the skin and then buried. It was believed that thus the spirit of the Bear would be reborn. The Old Woman and Old Man Bear are intelligent and strong. The Mother Bear is particularly fierce and dangerous when protecting her cubs.
Amongst the Shamanic Altaic Mongol peoples of Siberia there were/are memories of the first shaman woman’s clan and of the magic powers of the first woman Shaman, or Ancestress of the clan, who came from an animal that they called the Mother Animal. The Altaic peoples experienced Earth as a conscious, animated enspirited Great Being and took pains not to offend Her. To dig or wound the Earth with sharp instruments was a great sin and had to be atoned for. It was felt that one must not anger the animated waters, stones or trees, whose spirits had names such as Water Mother, Forest Woman, Field Old Woman, Mother Wind and Her noisy children. There were also many male spirits of nature.
Sun Goddess & Petroglyphs
The Bear stars had guided peoples up north and the Pole star was their still centre of the universe. The Ursa Major was seen as a great source of celestial powers. She was the image of the source of life. The Bear Mother thought to bear her cubs parthogenetically, because she emerged from the hibernation cave with her cubs, alone and after being in there for months. The Great Bear was seen as a great avatar of resurrection, of life after death, as her cubs were born in the winter cave miraculously. Clearly at Nämforsen, with its great number of petroglyphs portraying elk cows and spirit boats with elk cows heads, the elk cow was the original Mother animal who gave shamanic powers to the ancestral mother of the clan. It was the ancient Mother of the animals, the Birthing sky and earth Mother, who was honoured and communicated with here.
Further north in Sweden from Nämforsen and near Umeå there is another great river called Norrforsen. Some sixty or so petroglyphs were discovered there as late as 1984. It was only when archaeologists dragged a torch along the rocks, where they guessed such images might be found, that they were discovered. Perhaps they were meant to be seen during moonlit rituals? These images are younger and from ca. 2100 BCE. Here the elk cows appear as if X-rayed and the ships no longer have elk cows heads on their prows. Here was a major summer camp for salmon fishing. What strikes me at Nämforsen and especially at Norrforsen is that the elks are carved on great red-coloured boulders where there are fissures looking like vaginal clefts, and it is as if the elks are born out of the living menstrual rock. [Above – Nordic Sun Goddess & petroglyphs]
In the Paleolithic Ice Age caves there are vulva-like red ochre chasms where painted murals are to be found of animals, often pregnant. Below the chasms there is the whispering and roaring of the waters in the Underworld. Did the ancient peoples communicate at such numinous places with the spirits of the dead, both animal and human, as well as those about to be born? Animals were our equals in early Shamanic cultures. Did the Ancestors speak from the watery depths through shamans, women and men? All waters were sacred to the Mother and water remembers. Blood-waters flow in our bodies and brains: our menstrual cycle corresponds with the tides and lunar changes. Mind was surely born as ancient women studied the lunar movements across the skies.
Nearly all Siberian peoples have common names for the woman shaman or Shamanka, which indicates how ancient it is, and the word for woman shaman relates to the Mongol word for Earth Goddess. In different Altaic and Finno-Ugric tribes (such as the Saami) the woman shaman was named after the two Bear constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. The Great Bear Mother or Ursa Major was seen of supreme importance to all Arctic peoples. She was the great Shaman Goddess who later became known as Artemis/Diana and was brought by horse-riding Amazon women from the Russian steppes. These Amazon women warriors, who ever since the Bronze Age fought to defend the ancient rights of the Mothers, founded many cities such as Ephesus in Turkey, where their great temple of the many-breasted Diana was one of the wonders of the ancient and classical worlds. Originally She was the Great Mother of the wild animals that had survived from the Paleolithic age. She also took the form of a great Elk cow.
Did the people who painted the petroglyphs in the great rivers communicate with the animals born from the womb of the great Elk Mother? Were they atoning for the hunt to follow? Surely they knew that the clefts in the rocks or cliffs were gateways between the world of the living and that of the dead. I have come across, in both north and south Sweden, huge cleft boulders that give the impression of having been used as sacred sites of death and rebirth. One such boulder in Skåne down in the south reveals walls of purple crystal within its vulva-like passage. The story goes that it broke in half when thrown by a giant or troll. Sick children would be pulled through natural clefts made by tree trunks or branches in the belief that the power or life force of the tree would heal. [Above – Petroglyphs]
I spent a magical night at the time of midsummer, when the sky stays luminous all through the night in the north, with a small group of women at Nämforsen. We had decided that we wanted to communicate with the ancestors that dwell there. We borrowed a boat and rowed out to one of the small islands in the river where there is a mass of spectacular carvings on a sheer cliff-face just above the waters. A few of us started to rhythmically play or tap the rock and entered into a trance state while doing so. It just “happened” and it felt powerful and right, as if we were enacting an ancient ritual.
Was this how the petroglyphs were used? The very powerful energies of that night, as well as the sheer beauty of the sky as it reflected the light in the lakes amongst the dark trees of the forest surrounding the river, has stayed with me ever since. It inspired the painting “Nordic Mother of the Animals” [reproduced on first page of this article]. Was the great Elk or Bear Mother also seen as the ancestress or creator of the humans, as well as the animals who are our sisters and brothers?
This article is taken from the book “The Norse Goddess” by Monica Sjöö [Dor Dama Press, 2000. Details from Meyn Mamvro Publications, 51 Carn Bosavern, St.Just, Penzance, Cornwall TR19 7QX.]
Paintings by Monica Sjöö.