How the vital links connecting us with our own European shamanic ancestry are revisited and strengthened in modern cultures.
Europe’s Bison, Bison bonasus species, the king of the boreal forests, once rained over vast swathes of the Eurasian landmass as far north as Sweden and Caucuses in the south-east. It is believed that million years ago overpopulation of bison led to some of the ancient bison separating from the herd and traversing northern Eurasia in to what is today North American territory via the Baring Strait, starting a bison population there. This iconic animal captured the imagination of Aristotle who wrote of the beast. It could be said that bison is to the Europe’s scarce wilderness what leopard is to the tropics’ Rainforests, at least in its natural and magical powers’ symbolism. The majestic mammal had roamed from one end of Celtic Europe to the Sayan Mountains, the evidence of which is found and preserved for a curious naturalist to witness.
It is not a surprise then to see that the Polish and Belarussian heraldry is imbued with its symbolism, as it largely remains today. With the demise of the species, the bison has faded into background as a cultural symbol, which meant fewer art references, over the decades. Nevertheless, this well-established symbol with its many visual reminders present in cave art, the coats of arms, art and literature it seems will always keep the king’s mantle. The place the bison has earned in the collective psyche of people of this wide region has traditionally been interwoven with the unique relationship arising from land’s ethnobotany and rich folklore. Medicinal plants that become the building blocks of the bison, nourishing and sustaining it, also bring healing to people and go hand in hand with animal totem power that this animal symbolically and spiritually evokes. These attributes have certainly been captured and utilised by our predecessors who had written this animal and its land magic into their daily scripts.
The Shamanic remnants of the Eurasian cultures
To this day culturally diverse Slavic peoples are under the awe of this majestic animal. I strongly believe that our journey back to our shamanic roots, on the European soil, requires us to revisit and relearn perhaps the quality that unites us all and that is our tribalism. This term can conjure up in our modern minds divergent images. However, for me, it is the knowledge of one’s land, wisdom of the flora and fauna that is part of the land we are immersed in and have benefited from for as long as we can trace it back to our ancestors who had lived connected to it in a way that is no longer possible for us to experience in Europe. To be of the land is intrinsic to our survival and prosperity, without healthy soil and water ecosystems life is not possible and neither it is desirable. The one major cultural difference that strikes me, whenever I delve into the studies of European ethnobotany and how this has shaped the uniqueness of its cultures, is the idea of permanence of the world and incessant nature of resource abundance. The idea that this cornucopia of nature’s gifts for the man will never cease is not a new story that is retold. It is this blind spot that has brought many species extinctions and undermined the intricate and harmonious ecology of the primary forests. We nearly lost Europe’s biggest and most powerful symbol – the bison as all its three subspecies had been hunted down since the times immemorial and almost disappeared at the end of the 18th century. With that we have lost some of the rich plant and animal heritage created by its admirers and protectors. Today we all are co-creating hindsight for the future generations that will be assessing the power and aptitude of our foresight in dealing with the Earth’s resources. We will not be judged by our high-tech creations alone but far likely it will be our ability to replenish what we have used up and squandered put under the scrutiny.
Bison and its conservation – how this works in central Europe
Historically, when states’ borders shifted frequently, the bison was under the protectorate of the kings and tsars not without the ulterior motif of keeping the bison for their own hunting pleasures. They bestowed the responsibility of feeding the ruminants in winter upon peasants living near the forests. The bison was killed for its hides, trophies, meat and drinking horns yet it was the vital protein supplies that fed the Prussian and Russian armies during Poland’s occupation that led to the killing of the last bison cow in 1919 in the Bialowieza Forest.
Thus the act cemented the fate of the lowland bison in Europe. The species made its come back to various nature reserves and zoos in the times of peace mainly thanks to the efforts of a Polish naturalist Jan Sztolcman who presented the idea of saving the bison at the International Congress for Nature Protection, Paris in 1923. As the interest in preserving this unique key species is growing so are its numbers closely overseen by Bison Specialist Group IUCN and other especially created bison wildlife units within National Parks which have bison breeding programs. They key to the species protection is our ability
to protect tens of thousands of hectares of biomes that are not only biologically rich but also ecologically sensitive to changes. Considering that just one bison requires tens of hectares of forest to feed and thrive without the overgrazing its own habitat, this gives us an idea of the scale of the conservation task. As these animals ruminate in the open spaces adjacent to the forests, they keep the reforestation processes back by removing a lot of the green mass. This in turn greatly helps maintain high biodiversity of forest ecosystems. The bison is an “umbrella species” – its protection ensures the survival of many other plant and animals species that are linked in their mutual ecology. Our medieval ancestors had known this and so did the more ancient cultures before them before the advances of science could confirm this. It was the knowledge gained from a deep understanding of complex relationship of nature and man that led to this near worship of the beast.
What are the Shamanic links and why is bison a key power animal in Eurasia
A cult beverage distilled from rye, flavoured with the bison grass, can be traced back to the end of the Middle Ages when the first written recipes appear and it is likely to be older than that. In Poland the two species of the bison grass – the aromatic grass -Hierochloe odorata -and the forest one – Hierochloe borealis- have long been believed to be an aphrodisiac and the plant that imparts its strength on to those who drink the grass infused beverage, known as żubrówka. The drink wasn’t a sacred brew for the Polish feudal aristocrats (shlachta) but the magical powers of the grass were inferred from the folklore, which was rooted in the beliefs more than facts and which had a true basis in close observation and ultimately understanding the grass and the bison, which feeds on the grass. This knowledge has filtered down the centuries of shamanic past of the nomadic and sedentary tribes that inhabited the vast forested regions where the bison once lived in huge numbers just like on the American plains.
The bison grass is endemic to cold climates of northern Eurasia and North America. The Indians call it the sweet grass or ‘hair of Mother Earth’ and treat it as four sacred plants in addition to bacco, cedar, and sage. They ceremonially apply this sacred plant in smudges during the Sun dance and peace pipe gatherings by burning the grass mixed with other plants to attract good spirits to them. Also the sweet grass was woven into ceremonial baskets by women making them, following the offering of tobacco that was made during cutting the grass for this purpose and in keeping with shamanic traditions.
In Europe, there are accounts of this grass being added by Russians to flavour teas and French added it to tobacco and sweets, possibly for medicinal benefits in the way Native Americans brewed it for common ailments such as colds, sore throats and other infections. In Europe the bison grass is protected. The grass grows throughout the forest and the bison seeks it out as its favourite food. It can be replanted through propagation. A skilled harvester removes blades with a sickle at the ground level, leaving the roots intact, which in turn promotes new growth. Once picked, the grass is dried naturally in a warm place on wooden racks before it is utilised. Individual stems are separated to be inserted into bottles and the rest is steeped in water and alcohol and then filtered to achieve the correct maceration extract of high quality. In central and eastern Europe, bison grass also enriches dishes and is commercially applied in cosmetics
and medicines such as essential oils. The Hierochloe’s aroma is a combination of honey, fresh hay and musk, characteristic of the bison’s fur smell. The chemical compound responsible for the aroma is coumarin that has been found in over 800 species of plants and micro-organisms. Found in fruit and vegetables and also in aromatic healing plants notably green tea, cinnamon and peppermint, this ubiquitous chemical is said to be anticancer, antiallergenic, anti-inflammatory and antithrombotic if its uptake is high enough. This gives credence to the common beliefs in the Polish lore that the beverage infused with the bison grass strengthens the body. Another chemical found in the bison grass is phytol and together with coumarin are today proved to be effective in repelling mosquitoes.
Also worth noting are the qualities that are attributed to the bison such as wisdom, strength, dignity and beauty that are intrinsic to the way in which the forest dwelling pagan folk of Europe or the Indians of the North American continent perceived this mammal and behaved towards it. We know that reverence and stewardship of nature are central to paganism and animism of our ancestors. They can distinguish between the visible biological attributes and its hidden, occult elements and teach us that they are in constant cosmic interplay. Inherent in this indigenous worldview is the idea that to undermine the balance of nature is to undermine the very survival of man.
Plant medicines of the Old World
Observation and scrutiny of plants and their uses have unlocked many secrets that today form ethnobotany. Furthermore, etymology, folklore as well as references in art and literature are also sources of this sacred knowledge together with records left in journals of traders and missionaries versed in the matter. Plants that are referred to as ‘teacher plants’ are central to the Shamanic traditions worldwide and when they are ingested, smoked, or snorted, a shaman gains hidden knowledge and is able to heal and guide the community and its development, holistically.
The majority of psychoactive plants are found in the New World where they are integrated into the community through the Shamanic practices within the religions of the Native Americans. These are biochemically advanced flowering plants and mushrooms such as a well-known Flay garic mushroom, Amanita muscaria. Out of the world’s 120 psychoactive plants or so only a handful, 15 to 20 grow in Europe. These are the Solanaceous plants such as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), belladonna (Atrapa belladonna), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and datura (Datura metel).
The number of psychoactive plants of the Old World is likely to be higher, however little is known as the academic research has been focussed on the New World with many ethnobotanists and anthropologists exploring Americas and South East Asia where these healing plants are still in use today. Eurasian land could still harbour such plants not recorded by science that our predecessors had harvested and used medicinally, ritually and entheogenically i.e. for the purpose of spiritual advancement. The closely guarded sacred wisdom among the indigenous groups, oral transfer of Shamanic traditions and the Christian crusades against the paganism and animism had also played part in the drastic loss of this knowledge from the lore of the Eurasia’s cultures.
In the Old World the understanding of nature’s sacred elemental power and healing potential is quite recent and today science confirms a lot of these ancient findings due to advances made in the sixties. What is really fascinating is the fact that Shamanic philosophy, whatever continent it is practiced on, not only endows one with the medicinal knowledge but it also gives us a template for alignment with nature – a universal spiritual guidance for the humanity in order to coexist in harmony with nature.
Podrecznik Najlepszych Praktyk Ochrony Zubra. Sourced online as pdf.
Kulturotworcza rola zubra. European Bison Conservation Newsletter Vol. I (2008) pp.161-190.
Skąd wziął się żubr. http://www.zubry.com
Main banner image of Shamans from http://siberiantimes.com
Bison relief in Altamira cave from http://www.spain.info
Bison in snow from http://naukawpolsce.pap.pl
Image of Zubrowka vodka preparation from https://poranny.pl/zubrowka-kultowa-wodka-z-trawka-powstawanie-historia-drinki/ar/5351702
Image of a Blackfoot man holding sweet grass braid: original source: Northwestern University Library, “The North American Indian”: the Photographic Images, 2001
Image of henbane https://www.britannica.com/plant/henbane
Image of mandrake https://www.britannica.com/plant/mandrake
Image of Blackfoot Indians making sweet grass medicine painted by Joseph Henry Sharp. Original source: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons [ https://americanart.si.edu/artist/joseph-henry-sharp-4394%5D
Information about Holy sweetgrass uses by Native American tribes: http://www.nativetech.org/plants/sweetgrass.html