North Star Road

February 19, 2008

North Star Road: Shamanism, Witchcraft & the Otherworld Journey by Kenneth Johnson
Llewellyn Publications, 1996 

“Everything is full of souls.”
— Belibaste, Cathar preacher

The problem with the contemporary backlash against Margaret Murray’s theory of one unified witch-cult is that the pendulum has swung too far into the camps of historians who believe that the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were either A) A mass delusion, B) A culmination of increasing social tensions between neighbours, and/or C) An attempt on the part of the Church to obtain land and wealth from women by torturing them until they confessed to strange and bizarre things. 

Although I’m sure (well, as sure as you can be about history) that causes A, B, and C are all quite possible and may have had a large part to play in the witch trial era, I’m not so sure that we should be so hung up on the materialist theories that we ignore all the weird shit that people were doing during that time period. We end up thinking that because there was no organized witch cult as purported by Murray, and because most people who confessed to witchcraft were innocent Christians who’d been horribly tortured, nothing involving witchcraft, magic, or paganism occurred.  

North Star Road, although originally proposing to show that shamanism is at the heart of all religion, focuses on the pagan remnants and ecstatic cults that existed in Europe up until the seventeenth centuries. I’m not sure I believe everything the author has come up with, but it’s certainly interesting. It is also referenced with endnotes and a bibliography, but it is not an academic text. The standard rule for all books applies: Don’t just take the author’s word for it, do some research yourself. Also, North Star Road owes a lot to Carlo Ginzburg’s books, The Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, so if you’ve already read them, you’ll see where some of Johnson’s theories originated. 

Throughout the book, Johnson compares the shamanic beliefs of many cultures. I’m not sure that I’d make as much of the similarities as he does, and sometimes I had trouble following the jumps from culture to culture and practice to practice. I just get it into my head that we’re discussing the Mayan cosmology and then suddenly it’s the Norse, and the Celts, and the Orphic Greeks! The book aims for breadth, not depth. 

Starting off with comparisons of shamanic worldviews and initiation rites, the book goes on to discuss what Johnson calls The Old Bone Goddess in all of her regional aspects. As a ‘hard polytheist,’ I don’t see all of these goddesses as just faces of a greater one, but rather just different beings having a similar function (that of shaman creation) within their own cultures. I guess I’m a lot more divisive than the author, but any way you look at them, Mother Hulda and Baba Yaga are fascinating.

Although Chapter Four is entitled Totem Animals, it’s actually a nice overview of helping spirits. Johnson also touches on shape shifting and werewolves, which leads into the next chapters: Traveling in the Spirit and Geography of the Otherworlds. He states that various cultures “maintain, and perhaps even create, their own mental geography of the world beyond” (137) and suggests that times of social upheaval and despair cause changes in the Otherworld. He continues this by inferring that the change in reports of Otherworld journeys from visiting a blissful Faeryland to visiting a demonic Sabbat is the result of the changing perceptions and beliefs about the world.

The pagan Horned God, or Master of the Witches, is discussed in his various guises, followed by a chapter on the Sabbat’s origins. Johnson lists the standard characteristics of the Devil at the Sabbat, and compares many underworld, Otherworld, and animal gods. He also offers his thoughts on the Sabbat (ie. Did it physically occur, or just in the Otherworld? Did folk festivals and feasts blur with out-of-body-experiences to create the Sabbat?).

I wasn’t as interested in the section on crisis cults, and the “shamanic exercises” at the back of the book are fairly new-agey. I’m still not convinced that material from such a diverse range of cultures was needed, as it sometimes caused confusion and implied a universality that didn’t exist. However, this is a fascinating book with a fair amount of good information. The copious illustrations are a nice touch. There are great ideas here, but they are occasionally pushed and stretched into the realm of nonsense. Keep your saltshaker in hand while reading. 

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