Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Anthropologists speculate that pre-Christian shamans wore antlers and animal hides in a ceremony to imitate hunting, thereby attracting deer to their tribal lands. Some believe that these rites were performed as a spirit journey, perhaps to commune with a totem. The original Herne may have represented this concept. Up until the 1920s, Siberian shamans practiced similar rituals, and photographs were taken of them wearing antlered hoods. One of the paintings in the Lascaux cavern in France is of an entity with a bison head and human feet, who appears to be carrying a short hunting bow. He was discovered in 1940. A similar image was etched on a bone found in 1928 in the Pinhole Cave in the Creswell Crags of Derbyshire, England. And let’s not forget the famous “Sorcerer” of Les Trois Freres. These images strongly resemble the masked figure of the stag, bull or horse in many English mummers’ plays and hoodening rituals. These folk customs, documented from the Medieval period onward, could not possibly have used the cave art for inspiration, as the prehistoric carvings and paintings were not re-discovered until much later. Hoodening rites and the cave images existed independently of each other, leading me to conclude that wearing animal skins was an authentic Pagan ritual, etched in primal human memory, which survived into the modern day. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the Derby Tup, the Mari Llwyd, the ’Ooser, hoodeners and the stag accompanying some Morris dances may all have derived from the ancient hunting or shamanic practice of a man wearing an animal skin for ritualistic purposes. These customs may also suggest an image seen while in a trance state, or it might represent transformation into an animal. Perhaps hoodening rites were originally intended to mimic a human “becoming” a totem.

The “stag-pole” or “ermula” of Saxon Europe may be a ritual tool which was used for a parallel ceremony. A stag-pole is the skull of a male deer, or a set of antlers, which are affixed to a long wooden staff. It may represent male fertility, a boundary marker, a warning to potential invaders, or an insult to enemies. It could have been used as a grave marker for an important individual such as a shaman. The modern Cornish pellars’ staff or “gwelen” is used as a magical implement. There are still several Stagpole Inns and Stackpole Streets in Britain today. In the late 1800s, a few taverns in the Highgate region of London required customers to swear an oath of fealty on a set of antlers. This custom, called “swearing on the horns”, was perhaps the remnant of an older fraternal rite practiced by huntsmen.

1 comment:

  1. There are some remarkable similarities among very wide-ranging shamanic cultures. Totemistic animals are indeed widespread, altered states of consciousness, the wearing of animal skins, too. Many cultures have the concept of the spirit world that can be 'entered' under certain circumstances: usually, it is described as a rather risky venture, not for the unprepared.

    It is hard to escape the idea that they all stem from some initial source, which probably would have to have flourished at least 20-25000 years ago, as humans were starting to spread out over the world.

    I would be very interested to see a large-scale comparative study of world shamanic beliefs.