PHOTO STEFAN CELIK
Linda Wormhoudt (1966) lives in Amsterdam where she writes and teaches about north-western European shamanism. She researches sacred places in the Netherlands and Scandinavia and reintroduces rituals around the transition of life to death. We meet in the part of town she calls home over a cup of Turkish tea in a restaurant constructed as a pile-dwelling on the water. When Linda speaks she does so with a mixture of matter of factness, passion, wit and slight provocation. Shamanism in an urban context? 'Shamanism is part of being human, wherever, whenever. The crow clan lives in my street. The heron knocks at my door.' A voice from Holland's Boglands.
We are having this conversation in the year 2018. Shamanism is not something that belongs to a far away past?
Shamanism belongs to man. It is not bound to a certain era but is part of being human. It has to do with tribe; you can't survive by yourself for a long time. Originally we lived as nomadic tribes that followed the animals so we could sustain ourselves. This is safer when you do it with a couple of people. Once we settled shamanism got more intertwined with agriculture. Today we mainly live in cities so the shape changes again. We adapt ourselves to the environment we create. When you live in the city you actually live in a big tribe that is subdivided in smaller tribes. But the same values that were important for traditional cultures are important for us today. We are looking for connection with the landscape and with each other.
We are still hunter-gatherers, only we do it in a different way. Where we used to go into the forest to get our food we now go to the (super)market. Often you can still see the different ways men and women go about this. The way of the hunter to go shopping would be: that's the pair of trousers I want, I get it, and I go back home. A gatherer will hang around in the shop checking out something here, trying on something there. Mostly women tend to enjoy this style more than men. When I see the Moroccan women go about on the market in my neighbourhood I see typical hunter-gatherer behaviour. They walk in a group of ten while talking and taking in a lot of space so you can hardly get by. Potential 'predators' tend to dissapear very quickly. The predators and the environment have taken on a different shape but the dangers aren't all that different. These archaic structures are in our system.
So you're also saying shamanism is possible in the city, which is very different from the cliché image of the shaman in a shack in the forest. What does that look like for you being based in Amsterdam?
The heron sits in front of my house and knocks at my door. There is a crow clan and a jackdaw clan in my street. There are a couple of plants living nearby that I see every day because I make daily walks with my dog in my direct environment. I am very aware of plants and animals because they belong to my surroundings. I don't see what is unnatural about that. Nature is everywhere, even in a flat in the city. You just have to open up for it and let go of the stereotype images of only being able to be in a shamanic way out on the heather. In the Netherlands you can't find peace and loneliness anymore, not even on the heather, so you will have to work out a different way.
But nature is closeby and the land is old. Now there might be houses on it built by people but for the land it doesn't matter. The energy of the land is under the pavement right within reach for people who are prepared to connect with it. I consider doing research in your own street in your own city essential for contemporary shamanism.
You work with north-western European shamanism. You say we are all indigenous; there is something here.
Nort-western European shamanism is an umbrella term. It is very local. I come from Amsterdam, we are sitting in a bog right now. My way of working will be essentialy different from someone's from a different place. Partly it has to do with where you come from and with your family, what is in your system and your dna, partly it has to do with the land you live on. You can come from a mountain village and move to the dunes. It might be hard to understand this new landscape but the land you live on is always your biggest teacher. We try to shape the landscape but the landscape also shapes us.
I live in the boglands, which means I have to deal with water and not much solid ground under my feet. Even when I walk to the supermarket I actually walk on a swamp. I am constantly looking for balance and feel the water currents under my feet. I will have to adapt or I have to move. But I don't want to move because I am from the bog. This is where I feel at home. I do notice that visitors from a landscape of clay or mountains can feel a lack of grip here. They think they drown or get very emotional. The other way around I don't feel fully at home when I go to other areas. I also work with the plants specific to my land. When I am elsewhere I can't do so.
You work very locally anchored. A lot of people doing shamanic work here look at Native American traditions or hold ceremonies, like Ayahuasca, that come from different continents. Partly this seems to spring from a belief that everything that used to be here got destroyed by Christianity.
I find it such a pity so many people don't dare to look at their roots. A lot of us seem to have settled with the idea there was nothing here or it was lost and it will never come back. Part of it has to do with our human history. The Second World War has left wounds, for example through the abuse of the runes by the Nazis. This makes we don't dare to look at certain aspects of our Germanic origin. I notice I often feel ashamed when I talk about our Germanic tribe. But you can't do away with a period of ten thousand year because of at most twenty years of abuse.
Also education plays a role. At school I learnt there where some people running around in hides here before Christianity but true civilization only started when the missionaries came. This image is very damaging. It is what makes us look further away to the 'noble savage'. When you are searching information about shamanism you almost automatically end up with information about the Americas and a couple of specific tribes. In the fifties and sixties of the past century anthropologists have written a lot about the Native Americans. It is great they have a tradition that is partly still alive, have managed to pass on their knowledge and are willing to share it with us. What the antropologists didn't write down was the fact they mentioned very clearly the connection between their knowledge and their geographical location.
We have to be careful with copying rituals and using them out of context. In South-America Ayahuasca is given to students in specific situations so something can change in their brains. This is done a couple of times under ceremonial guidance and that's it. It is not meant to be used every weekend as a highway to trance and easy visions as some people do here. The plants are telling more and more people here they feel abused. Native Americans were happy if they had one or two visions during their lifetime and would spend their whole life figuring it out. In the West we often demand visions every day, the one bigger than the other. It is never enough. But there is no shortcut. You will have to train your spiritual muscle building it up slowly just as a body builder does in the gym.
The moment you are sitting in a sweatlodge in the Netherlands while singing Lakota songs for the mountain spirit you can ask yourself what you are doing.What do the local spirits of the land think about you doing a ritual that fits neither our culture nor nature? My teacher, Daan van Kampenhout, had learnt from his Lakota teacher to offer tabacco to the land spirits. Once he was holding a ritual and offered fruit, herbs and tabacco. The land spirits thanked him deeply for the herbs and the fruit, then pointed to the tabacco and asked him what it was for. This was an immense eye opener for him. Tabacco is not an indigenous species of the Netherlands so the spirits had no clue.
What would be an appropriate offer here? What would our ancestors have used?
What our ancestors have used is not necessarily appropriate today. For example, they used to offer metal – we found this in the sources and archeologists have found silver and copper coins on grave hill sites. Now people say this is bad for the environment. The most important is not to do it the same way our ancestors did it but to check what is nourishing the land. Food mostly works, as long as you make sure it is something the land spirits recognize, like grains. Water spirits tend to appreciate milk. You have to keep on thinking though. Some people think it is good to give seeds to the land but when you do so in a protected heather area you damage nature. You have to give the thought of the land priority over the though of human. Actually it is very simple, you can just ask the land: what do you need right now?
Which brings us to communication. To be able to ask you have to know how to and also be able to hear the answer. Is this where the importance of voice in shamanism comes in?
Voice is the sound of your soul. In most shamanic cultures it is a tool to communicate your message. It is said you can't lie when singing because your soul comes through. When there are dissonants they will be heard. You can't wrap and hide yourself in voice. It is also said the gods like to taste voice, then they know a human is coming with a specific intention. When you come with the wrong intention they will notice at once. So surrender is important if you want to communicate with the fields of force around you. I am Linda, I come with open hands and an open soul. I would like to interact.
A lot of people doubt and have a lack of self-confidence. There is a voice in their head saying 'this is not true, I behave weird, I hope my neighbour doesn't see me, I make it up myself'. This brings a lot of interference. You don't have to switch off your head but you let your soul go ahead of you. A lot of western people need constant reassurance and want other people to tell them if what they've seen is right. They had a dream about a crow who said so and so and ask you whether that is true. I haven't met a single Native American who had a vision about an eagle going around asking other people whether he actually had it. They know and they feel: this is truth. End of the story. Otherwise it takes years before you get how it works. It is such a waste of time.
PHOTO LINDA WORMHOUDT
We don't hear much about them but in the north of Europe we have the Sami, an indigenous people with which you have connections. What can we learn from them?
The Sami are a forgotten people. They are the last traditional nomadic north-western European people, if you don't take the gipsies into account. They are fighting to survive. A lot of youngster try to pick up older traditions though a lot have been severely damaged, mainly by the Lutheran church.
I once met a Sami elder who wore a traditional object on her belt, a symbol of the sun referring to one of the godesses of the Sami pantheon. I got the chance to look at it and it looked very familiar. It turned out to be the radar of an alarm clock. Yes, she said, because we use what is here now. Before they used silver or bronze alloys but church took them away and made bells out of it. This object is as traditional as one which is six thousand year old. She wore it with pride and will pass it on to her daughter who will to hers. Sometimes our images are a bit distorted and romaticized. Once my teacher made a shamanic costume out of plastic. He didn't have wild elk in his street nor eagles on the lamp posts so he used the material which was around.
So what we can learn from the Sami is that a restart is always possible. I once asked my Sami teacher about all the shamanic drums that had been destroyed. He said something very simple: it's okay, we can make new drums. Then he said: there is one thing they can never take from us and that is our voice. They can take our drums but they can never take our voice. Then he sang a Sami song to prove it. You can take all objects away from people but you can't take away their soul. You can always make a restart. It is as simple as that. It is not gone. It is not lost. Will it be exactly the same? No. Does have to be? No. We can do it. We can make new rituals.