Shamanic Ascension: History, Folklore, and Knowledge

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality - Michael Harner 2013

Shamanic Ascension: History, Folklore, and Knowledge

A long way to go

a long way to climb

a long way to go to the sky

Grizzly Bear


high behind the clouds


make a circle

in the sky

a long way to go

a long way to climb

a long way to go to the sky

fire beneath

this house

many fires

these fires

my ancestors

my people

a long way to go

a long way to climb

a long way to go to the sky

dead uncles

dead shamans

they hand me two rattles

they give me

this song

I’m singing

a long way to go

a long way to climb

a long way to go to the sky

—Shaman’s song from the Tsimshian people of the Northwest Coast of North America1

The Foundation’s work to bring knowledge of shamanism and shamanic healing back to the West has been one of its major educational tasks, since shamanism essentially disappeared from Europe and the West during the last two millennia. How did that happen? Up to about two thousand years ago most northern and central Europeans lived in ways somewhat similar to those of many North American Indian peoples prior to Columbus. They subsisted through hunting, gathering, fishing, and, in most places, agriculture, living with their own spirits and shamans. Then they were invaded and conquered by outsiders in the name of civilization, specifically Mediterranean, or Roman, civilization.

Julius Caesar’s legions accelerated the imposition of the religion of Rome on the peoples conquered and enslaved. In the classic manner of “civilized” conquest, the Romans imposed not only their centralized government on the vanquished but their official church-state religion too. The later conversion of Rome to a “Christian empire” led to a development obviously not advocated by Jesus Christ when he said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.” The Christian state-church now made it possible, through taxation, to render to Caesar and God simultaneously. This practice was continued into the twentieth century by the imperial church-states of Central and Eastern Europe, Caesar being transliterated as “Kaiser” and “Czar.”

What Caesar’s legions did not accomplish was completed by the “Holy Roman Empire” by the end of the seventeenth century, with not-so-holy military and political alliances aimed at converting all the natives of Europe to the one true faith, regardless of the bloodshed required. Stigmatized and persecuted as “witches,” “wizards,” and “sorcerers,” shamans were virtually exterminated in Europe south of the Arctic Circle by the “Holy” Inquisition of the Church and by militant Protestant groups.

In the far north of Europe, above the Circle, where the influence of Church and State was slower to impact native life, some of the more remote Sami or Saami (formerly “Lapp”) people tried to keep their classic shamanism alive despite persecution that was often violent, the shamans being called “witches,” as I pointed out in Hallucinogens and Shamanism.2 To escape authorities, some Sami shamans hid their drums in remote locations and used them in secret. When discovered, the shamans were seriously punished, even killed, and their drums confiscated or destroyed. Some of these finally ended up in museum collections. To this day they are often called “witches’ drums” by Sami converted to Christianity or by outsiders, lingering evidence of the not-too-distant days of persecution. Among traditional Sami themselves, the instrument is called “the magic drum.”

The Sami were famous in the past for using their magic drums to journey to other worlds, and for painting the hide heads of the drums with maps showing the realms to which they traveled. The painted Sami drums that survive in museum collections typically show the near-universal three worlds of the shaman (Upper, Lower, and Middle) and the types of spirits and deities that the Sami encountered in each (see Plate 6).3

Hearing that the shaman’s drum had finally disappeared among the Sami, I wanted to see for myself. In the early 1980s I twice went north of the Arctic Circle in Finland, Sweden, and Norway.4 There I learned that the past was not entirely the past. At that time in “liberal” Scandinavia, government-supported missionaries still prohibited the use of the shaman’s drum among the Sami people. This became evident firsthand in northern Sweden in 1983, when I, my wife Sandra, and some Sami friends visited a few rural Sami households. I carried my drum in a case.

A Lutheran priest followed us from house to house and questioned the people after we left to find out what we were doing with our drum. I found similar Episcopalian missionary pressure a few years later among the inland Inuit in Canada, forcing the people to abandon the shaman’s drum. As had been the situation for centuries elsewhere, the noise of the drum for journeying made shamans an easy target for identification and retribution.

The Sami shamanism of the twentieth century was a shamanism decimated by history. While the few remaining shamans continued to make special offerings on mountaintops, nowhere could I find the shamans using drums to journey. A few Sami still secretly made and used drums, but apparently only for shamanic divination, lightly tapping on the drum’s painted head to ask questions answered by the movement of a small bone object on the surface.5

Wishing to learn if anything remained of shamanic healing methods among the Sami, and having a personal health problem at that time, I was able to make an appointment with the famous Sami healer, the late Mikhail (“Miracle Fox”) Gaup, at his home near Alta in northernmost Norway. When Heimo Lappalainen and I arrived at the appointed time, the house was dark and appeared empty.

Heimo knocked on the door several times. No answer. We waited more than half an hour. Finally he went back to the door and pushed on it. The heavy wooden door slowly opened, making a creaking sound like something from a horror film. There was nothing before us except a somewhat dark and apparently unused room. I found another door inside, which I started to open.

Suddenly I was shocked by someone who came from behind and threw me to the floor of the next room. Dazed, I looked up to find a huge young man towering over me who shouted loudly in a language I could not understand. He then left me on the floor and exited the room in another direction.

Heimo helped me off the floor and explained what the young man had shouted, more as a challenge than a question: “Do you believe in the power of the Sun?”

This was one of those high points in anthropological fieldwork. Not only had I learned, dramatically, that Sun worship survived in this remote part of the European continent, but so did an ancient Sami shamanic practice of shocking the patient prior to doing the healing. The young man was clearly Miracle Fox’s assistant. I replied positively to his question. Indeed, who could question the power of the Sun?

Now I had real evidence that some shamanism was still alive in Europe!6 I will not share the healing details, but it was done the way Miracle Fox often did it, away from any possible witnesses, behind the closed door of the bathroom! I do need to mention that he did not use the drum journey nor even a drum.

From working with Mikhail on a later visit, I discovered that although he knew how to tap the drum lightly for divination, he apparently did not know about journeying with it. In fact, the last case I could find of traditional Sami use of a drum for journeying was reported in the early 1930s in northern Finland near Lake Inari. I say “traditional” because drum journeying is now slowly starting to return there, partly because of help from the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and my former students, one of them a Sami.

Christianity has not been alone in attempting to eradicate shamanism. Ironically, “godless” Communism in the former Soviet Union also found shamanism to be a threat in northern Eurasia, including those Sami dwelling within Russia. The Soviets could not afford to have shamans constantly in contact with the spirits when, according to Marxism-Leninism, spirits could not possibly exist.

Furthermore, the prestige and influence of the shamans was seen as a threat to the authority of the local Communist officials.7 Among the Amur River peoples of southeastern Siberia and their indigenous neighbors just across the border in northernmost China, for example, the mere possession of a shaman’s drum could result in on-the-spot execution or life imprisonment by the Soviets, or by the Chinese Communists during the Cultural Revolution.8 Unknown hundreds, possibly thousands, of native Siberians were killed or died in labor camps because of their shamanic “heresies.”

The persecution of shamans is historically known for many other major civilizations, including those of China, Mongolia, and the Islamic world. For example, when Islam penetrated parts of Central Asia centuries ago, local claims of ascension experiences were deemed heretical. Although some shamanic practitioners of a sort still exist in Uzbekistan, for example, they assimilated themselves into Islam as imams and no longer journeyed to other worlds.9 This seems only prudent. Similarly, in Mongolia shamans were once executed in the name of Buddhism, and in China they were persecuted during various centuries by Confucians as well as Buddhists.

The worldwide persecution of shamans, while not compassionate, was politically logical, for shamanism by its very nature is a threat to the authority of those who establish and control state religions, or who consider religions of any type a threat to their political power. Persons practicing shamanic ascension, for example, often get spiritual instruction directly through the same kinds of experiences and from the same realms as the most exalted founding visionaries of state religions, as we shall see later. This is inherently subversive. After all, if common people can be bearers of divine revelation, this interferes with the creation and maintenance of monopolistic religions based primarily upon the reported words and miracles of their founders.10

It is an ironic tragedy that the once-shamanic Europeans, after being converted to Christianity, commonly subjected other indigenous peoples of the world to the same conversion processes that their own cultures had once experienced under the Romans. This Earthwide spiritual destruction took longer to reach some regions than others. While knowledge of shamanic ascension and other journeys virtually disappeared from Europe11 until recent work began to restore its practice there, it survived longer in remote places on other continents, where some indigenous shamans still journeyed and practiced shamanic ascension, the topic to which we now turn.


As I have long pointed out to students, relics of the once-widespread indigenous knowledge of shamanism suggest that some contemporary Western folktales and rituals may have their genesis in ancient European knowledge of shamanic ascension and cosmology. For example, many tales include special or magical spots in nature or human structures that are used in ways parallel to shamanic journey practices. In shamanic ascension, an important step is the selection of a “take-off” site or departure place. A few examples are presented below. This knowledge was shared by the Foundation in courses with students, the “Westerners,” before they undertook ascensions themselves.


Some indigenous shamans in Siberia and northern North America utilized as a focal point the smoke from the fires kept in the center of their houses. They closed or covered their eyes, visualized the smoke, and ascended through the smoke hole in the roof. In the South American tropical forest, the Warao shamans often ascended to the Upper World on the smoke of their two-foot-long sacred cigars.12 Among the Monguor people of China, a shaman can rise on the smoke of burning incense, which is like a “living road to heaven.”13

Shamanic ascension through a dwelling’s smoke hole probably was practiced in ancient Europe also, surviving into the Middle Ages and early Renaissance as the “witch’s” flight, as I have indicated elsewhere.14 Gradually, however, the smoke hole was largely replaced by the fireplace with a flue, chimneys having come to England in the thirteenth century. Thus the first woodcuts and paintings of European shamans (called “witches”) typically show them going up through chimneys.15 The lingering British folk beliefs about the magical powers of chimney sweeps are probably not unrelated.

Ascending to the Upper World, the Siberian Chukchee shamans visited the Polar Star, called the “Upper Being” or even “Creator.”16 As Bogoras reports, the Polar Star gives refuge to visitors “oppressed by their foes in their earthly life” and “then sends them back with large presents and provisions.”17 The presents were presumably brought back on a nonordinary sled drawn by a reindeer, a classic way for Siberian shamans to journey in nonordinary reality.18

Some writers have argued that such reputed behavior as going up and down chimneys and flying through the air in a reindeer-drawn sled was the pure invention of New Yorker Clement Moore, who in 1823 wrote the children’s favorite “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“ ’Twas the night before Christmas …”). Its roots, however, seem to be much deeper, in the shamanic past, as I have long suggested to my students.

Saint Nicholas was a bishop who lived in Turkey during the fourth century and was famed for making magical journeys through the air to such places as Italy. Not surprisingly, at one point in his life he was persecuted and tortured by the Church. That he lived in Turkey is not surprising, since Turkic-speaking peoples were famous for their practice of shamanism, which they have maintained continually in Central Asia.

Perhaps because of his presumed ability to fly across seas to distant lands and return successfully, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of Mediterranean and other European sailors, including the Dutch voyagers who founded New Amsterdam (later to be known as New York City) in the early seventeenth century. The Dutch made him the patron saint of New Amsterdam19 and also brought from Holland the tradition of Saint Nicholas delivering gifts to homes during the Christmas season.

When the English seized New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, their culture mixed with that of the Dutch, and their descendants adopted the Dutch folk tradition of Saint Nicholas’s Christmas visits. They also adopted the medieval Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, a term that is still used in Holland. The “r” sound in Sinterklaas softened and disappeared, as it often does in New York–style English, with the result that throughout the United States today we speak of “Santa Claus.” The various clues given above suggest that our present-day Santa Claus may have his ultimate origin in Siberian shamanism, possibly mediated by the Sami people.


Sacred trees, or poles made from them, can serve as ladders to start an ascent from the Middle World. In Siberia, the home of the word “shaman,” such a tree is commonly a birch or larch. It may stand in a sacred grove deep in the forest or be a post with notched steps to make a ladder that sticks up through the smoke hole of a yurt or tepee.20 A post with notched steps is likewise used by the Mapuche shamans in southern South America to start their ascents, which (like the Siberians) they make with the aid of drumming.21 (See Plate 10.)

Similarly, California Indian shamans sometimes visualized climbing the center post of their ceremonial “round house” in a way reminiscent of using trees for ascension purposes in Asia.22 The center post is the most sacred part of these houses, partly because it connects this Middle World with the Upper and Lower ones. Similarly, in Siberia the saplings sticking up from the smoke holes in shamans’ yurts and tepees represent the World Tree or World Pillar connecting the worlds.23

The concept that the individual shaman’s tree or post is the World Tree or World Pillar is found in many indigenous societies, an idea related to the shaman’s departure place being the Center of the World, or Universe.24 In many shamanic cultures of Siberia, the North Star is commonly seen as the top of a pole or World Pillar, since all the other stars rotate around it. The North Star’s alternate name as the Polar Star both in northern Europe and Siberia reflects these origins, and our use of the term “North Pole” is directly related.

Among the Buryat of Siberia, the stars were viewed as a slowly moving herd of horses tethered to this North Pole.25 Similarly, the pre-Christian Germans and Scandinavians spoke of the World Tree or World Pillar, Yggdrasil, to which was tied the god Odin’s horse. Odin’s horse was probably the constellation we now know popularly as the Little Dipper, with the handle of the dipper his horse’s tether, since the last star in it is the Polar Star, or the top of the World Pillar or Pole.

Like the giant catahua (ceiba) tree among the Conibo, Yggdrasil not only stretched into the Upper World, but its roots also went down into the Lower World.26 It seems very likely that the Scandinavian myth of Yggdrasil descends from shamanism, since European shamanism survived the longest in northern Scandinavia compared to its existence farther south, although the Sami shamans in the north were also persecuted as witches.27

The Anglo-German maypole, used in celebrating the warming influence of the spring sun, may be part of this same tradition, with the dancers “tethered” to the top of the pole as they circle around it, much like the stars circling around the North Pole. Occasionally the maypole is still climbed in Europe, much in the way Siberian and some South American indigenous shamans sometimes climbed ladder-like poles or trees to start their ascents to the Upper World.28 Today in Germanic countries, the maypole may have three horizontal rings placed equidistant along its length, and the motif of three rings on a pole also survives in Mongolia, where they represent the Upper, Middle, and Lower Worlds on the handheld shaman’s staff.29

The evergreen winter solstice tree (the “Christmas tree”) came to America reportedly from Germany, which shares the World Tree tradition with Scandinavia. It seems like a miniature reminder of Yggdrasil, the “always green” World Tree symbolized in pre-Christian Sweden by a huge evergreen tree near the pagan temple in Uppsala.30 The star traditionally placed atop the Christmas evergreen tree echoes the Polar Star, now reincarnated as the Star of Bethlehem. The lights (formerly candles) on the branches, circling the tree, remind one of the stars circling the North Pole. Nineteenth-century Christmas trees had representations of angels hanging from their boughs, not unlike how the Siberian Evenki (Tungus) shamans’ spirit helpers and guardians were thought to sit on the boughs of small trees that shamans cut and erected in their dwellings to represent the World Tree.31

The contemporary American Christmas celebration of December 25th is only a few days removed from the (northern hemisphere’s) winter solstice date and seems to retain shamanistic elements. It is partially a survival of solar traditions, such as keeping a Yule fire burning to encourage the Sun to strengthen its light.32 Perhaps unconscious honoring of the sun persists not only in Sami shamanism, as previously noted, but also unconsciously in Germany today, where large evergreen trees may be cut and erected outdoors on a mountaintop the evening of a saint’s day conveniently close to the summer solstice date. Wood is stacked against the upright tree to make a pyre whose flames can be seen on other mountain crests where similar fires burn. Traditionally, families gathered near the fires for feasting, while their children frolicked in the gentle Midsummer’s Eve as the sparks of the bonfires rose up into the night sky.33 Such summer solstice bonfires on mountains in Germany were reported in pre-Christian times by the Romans. A few modern German summer solstice participants that I interviewed seemed unable to provide a conscious explanation for the bonfires built today around evergreen trees on mountain summits.


Mountaintops were often used as shamans’ departure points, even on isolated islands in the Pacific, as among the Samoans.34 Much as a specific arboreal departure site for shamans could become for them the World Tree, a particular mountaintop could become in the shaman’s consciousness the Cosmic Mountain.

The Cosmic Mountain was well known in the shamanic cultures of Siberia and Mongolia.35 Just as the World Tree became known as Yggdrasil in the myths of northern Europe, so did the World Mountain or Cosmic Mountain become standardized in the mythology of India and Tibet as “Mount Meru.” In mythic times, according to the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, Mount Meru was climbed through the “power of yoga” by the spiritual master Narada.36 His ascension appears analogous to shamanic ascent, as I found in comparing practices with some yogis when in India.

Beyond this Cosmic Mountain, it was said, lay Shambhala, a mythic land of perfection. Many have since searched without success in ordinary reality for Mount Meru, hoping to reach Shambhala through various earthly expeditions.37 However, as shamans know, the true lands of perfection lie beyond the Middle World and beyond ordinary reality.


In northeastern Siberia, Chukchee shamans wishing to ascend to the Upper World focused on recalling a place where they had seen the rays of the setting sun filtering down through the clouds. The sunbeams then were used as an inclined path to start off for the Upper World.38 In an analogous manner, the Cubeo of the Upper Amazon climbed up the Milky Way from the night horizon.39


Another way to ascend to the Upper World was in a whirlwind, tornado, or waterspout. In the shamanistic western North American Indian Ghost Dance of 1890, the song of an Arapaho participant in what probably is now Kansas reflects this kind of experience. In this song of his ascension, he combined with an eagle spirit while spiraling upward in a whirlwind or tornado:

I circle around

I circle around

The boundaries of the earth,

The boundaries of the earth

Wearing the long wing feathers as I fly,

Wearing the long wing feathers as I fly.40


Among the Chukchee of Siberia, a rainbow remembered by a shaman41 is one of the classic departure points for the Upper World.42 In some shamanic cultures this portal is known as the “rainbow bridge” or the “rainbow road.”43 Similarly, the seven bands of color in the rainbow are seen as seven steps to be climbed.

For the Australian aboriginal peoples, the ideal rainbow was one that a shaman had seen rising up from a waterhole, since the same site could be used to go down to the Lower World and up on the rainbow to the Upper World. The Australian shamans sometimes climbed up a rainbow as if it were a rope.44