The Celtic Shaman – John Matthews

The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook
John Matthews
Element Books, 1991
224 pages

I’m in the middle of reading (or re-reading) all the books on shamanism and related topics currently in my home. I wanted a light read, so I pulled this one off the shelf. It’s one that I “inherited” through marriage, and while my husband normally has impeccable taste, I wasn’t so crazy about this particular book.

I suppose the main theme of this book could be “Where’s the Shamanism?” The author is apparently attempting to reconstruct the Celtic shamanic tradition; thankfully, he doesn’t try to say that the druids were all shamans. However, what this book ends up being is Celtic neopaganism with some shamanic techniques and concepts thrown in for flavor.

The book *is* well-written, though there are some typos in there. And as a book on shamanic-flavored Celtic neopaganism, it would actually be pretty good. Maybe not entirely historically accurate, but it would be functional for those who are quite happy in a modern paradigm. The author covers a lot of ground for the basic to lower-intermediate practitioner, particularly in introducing hir to this magical/spiritual system. While a lot of the material is Celtic neopaganism 101, there are some exercises which would have the potential to help the reader start on a more intermediate path.

One of the biggest problems is that the mixture of components isn’t well-blended. There’s information on Celtic mythology, including various dictionary-style lists of gods, “totem” animals (animals found in Celtic myth, but with no proof as to whether they served as clan/family totems or not), and correspondences for the directions that don’t seem to have any actual foundation in Celtic culture. (I’ll touch more on this in a minute). The shamanism portion is mainly a sprinkling of techniques, and the idea that the shaman is primarily an eco-pagan, with not too much focus on the community service. The two areas of study do not sit well together.

The issue is that there’s too much *neo*paganism and *neo*shamanism mixed into this. I can see elements of Harner’s core shamanism in there, particularly the focus on healing (as opposed to other shamanic functions), and it seems that the author has a rather incomplete understanding of what *traditional*, indigenous shamanism(s) is. Additionally, the bulk of the exercises are very heavily scripted guided meditations; shamanic journeys tend to be *much* more free-flowing and individual.

My other complaint is that while he seems to have a lovely bibliography in the back, the fact that there are no internal citations, either in-text, footnote or endnote, means that I had no idea how he used them (other than asterisks denoting which sources were particularly useful–but not why). This meant that there were a LOT of times when I sat there, scratching my head and wondering “Oooookay, where did he get THIS piece of information? Where is this COMING from?”

I don’t really feel the author accomplished his stated intention with this book. If he wanted to reconstruct the shamanic practices of the ancient Celts, then he needed to be looking at older forms of shamanism, not neoshamanism.

Two pawprints out of five.

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3 Comments

  1. sara said,

    September 26, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    I have read a lot of stuff by him, and my overall assessment is the same as yours. Where is the shamanism. I can say the same for Tom Rowan’s Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit. Very sketchy on the supporting evidence, and high on loose interpretation.

  2. Donnacha Mac Aodhagáin said,

    July 20, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Yeah, same goes here.

    In the 1990s, as an Irish teenager with an avid interest in the esoteric, magical and pagan, his books on ‘Celtic tradition’ (along with those of his wife and other authors, all from either the UK or the US) were, tragically, the only ones available. After about 3 years exploring most of it, I decided it was for the most part profoundly dishonest – simply, the cultural appropriation of Gaelic and Welsh traditions by the very society that has done most to destroy those indigenous societies that bore them. Sadly, it remains much the same today…and the truly indigenous Irish pagan and esoteric scene is unlikely to produce work of integrity for at least a generation…

    As for my copies…as much as I cherish books, with these I felt no compunction in just binning them. I’d advise others to do the same.

    • Sare said,

      November 30, 2011 at 6:02 am

      Hi there Donnacha, are you the same Donnacha that wrote a piece in Pan Gaia back in 2005,issue 42? the reason iask is i have only just read this piece after ordering a back issue and i have to say that to say England never was a Celtic country is so wrong! Most Pagans in Britain(where i am from and living) understand the historical and archeological fact that the Celts lived in many parts of Britain,including the part that became known as England! in fact in many places across England, the Celts were not just in the parts that people refer to today as “Celtic” It really is not on to try and make out that the Celts lived everywhere except England!!! There is so much evidence of the Celtic/Ancient Britons all over, Norfolk,Wiltshire,Gloucestershire,Cornwall are just a few! I am of English(before roman and saxon,thanks to dna testing) Irish and Pictish Scots ancestry that i know of, none of us can ever know where we really come from at the beginning!,and do not know a single person here that says the Celts didnt also live across England!! to be argumentative is not my intention i assure you but i had to say something after reading your article.


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