In this book, author Evelyn Rysdyk sets out to reconstruct the shamanic practices of Scandinavian hunter-gatherers and format those practices so modern Pagans can enact them in a fulfilling way. I think she has succeeded admirably.
The Norse Shaman begins with an explanation of shamanism and trance states in historical context going back as far as the Upper Paleolithic. Rysdyk describes the shamanic worldview as dynamic, animist, and consisting of multiple “worlds” or realms. None of this is new or revolutionary, but the author does a good job of putting the information in context for modern shamanic practitioners. She describes the beginning of the shamanic process, both in historical terms and for the individual practitioner, as a connection with the ancestors. I was fascinated by the information about ancient female shamans as well as Rysdyk’s description of the path Norse shamanism took from Paleolithic to Viking times. The book focuses largely on women as shamanic practitioners and the connection with the goddess Freyja (Rysdyk’s spelling). I suppose men could do these journeys as well, but the specific practices of seiðr, as Rysdyk describes them, are meant to be undertaken by women.
After presenting this background information, the author gives the reader instructions for journeying to make this connection with both their shamanic ancestor and their power animal. This is the foundation for Rysdyk’s Norse shamanic practice; the relationship with the shamanic ancestor and the power animal forms the basis for subsequent journeys. And believe me, there are plenty of journeys to take!
Each section in this book includes at least one shamanic journey, and sometimes several. The format for all the journeys is the same, so once you’ve gotten used to the method, journeying becomes a familiar, comfortable, and powerful tool for spiritual growth. The information you learn in each journey becomes an intrinsic part of subsequent journeys, so be aware that you can’t skip around in the book or do the activities out of order. You don’t need years of experience in shamanic practice to undertake these journeys safely and effectively, but you do need a basic grounding in shamanic methods, which this book doesn’t offer. If I had to describe this book in terms of college classes, I’d say it’s definitely a “201 course” and not a “101 course.” The author points out the need for this background and suggests her excellent book, Spirit Walking: A Course in Shamanic Power, as a resource. But any reliable introductory work, like the ones by Michael Harner and Sandra Ingermanson, would do.
Moving into the realm of Norse mythology in terms of shamanic practice, Rysdyk offers insight into the Norns as representing the unfolding of reality, both the material and immaterial realms. She writes, “…the Norns transform intangible energies into the physical reality in the same way the vibrations of speech are captured in a written alphabet.” For me, this is a truly profound explanation of deity and cosmic processes. It provides a powerful symbolic gateway for shamanic and oracular work. Remember, the Norns’ sacred well at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil is the source of all wisdom, where the shaman goes to contact the divine. The author also offers an excellent explanation of Ørlög and Wyrd in the broader shamanic sense rather than the narrow definition as fate/karma. I like how she depicts spirit walking as a first-person transformational experience.
The majority of the book is taken up with the subject of seiðr, the Norse oracular practice. Rysdyk includes information about its historical roots as well as its relation to archaeological finds and women’s work such as spinning and weaving. She details the necessary tools for seiðr practice (staff, hood, cloak) including instructions for how to make them yourself and activate them as partners in your spirit work. Sacred songs are a big part of seiðr, and Rysdyk gives instructions for journeying to find all the different ones necessary for this kind of shamanic work. She also includes some less well known tools including masks and talismans, and gives instructions for organizing a community seiðr ritual. I liked the author’s explanation of how to use seiðr in the modern world, its practical and spiritual uses in the “here and now.” These include divination, healing, and reconnecting with nature and spirit. In terms of reconnecting with nature, Rysdyk describes how to undertake útiseta, an outdoor vision quest (an overnight vigil) that’s especially important for us modern folks who don’t live in such close connection with the plants and animals and their spirits anymore.
Though the author focuses on Freyja as the “ultimate shaman” and helper/guide, she also includes an insightful chapter about Odin as well. He is also a shamanic deity who has much to teach us. Rysdyk offers a couple of deeply transformational journeys in this chapter.
Rysdyk places a lot of emphasis on journaling about your experiences in order to reflect on them. I like that she doesn’t expect you to have immediate clear insight after every journey. Instead, she notes that you may need to sit with the experience for a while before you can understand it. I’ve found that to be true with all kinds of spiritual activities, but especially shamanic journeys, and I’m gratified to see it spelled out like this so readers aren’t as likely to feel inadequate if they don’t have an immediate epiphany about any given journey.
The book includes several helpful appendices, including a brief introduction to shamanic journeying. As I noted above, this really isn’t a “101 course” in shamanism. This short appendix won’t substitute for the proper training in basic shamanic techniques. I really recommend that readers get some training, or at least read one or more of the books I listed above, before undertaking the series of journeys in The Norse Shaman. The appendices also include instructions for making your own seiðr hood and a list of helpful resources from organizations and music to shamanic supplies and books.
All told, The Norse Shaman is a thorough, well-researched, well-organized journey into Norse shamanism. It’s not for the beginner, but for anyone who has already learned the basics, it’s an excellent resource and an enjoyable adventure.
~review by Laura Perry
Author: Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Destiny Books, 2016
pp. 252, $18.95