The middleworld of shamanism is understood as this earth—the plane of existence on which we and other living creatures dwell. For indigenous peoples worldwide the earth is believed to be sacred and myths tell of its creation from the body of a deity, usually a primordial mother goddess.
Native american creation myths often incorporate features of their natural environment—its springs, waterfalls and buttes. Native peoples return to these sacred sites to gather herbs, pray, fast, practice vision quests and offer thanks to the spirits who are believed to reside there.
The ancient peoples of the Near-East and Europe also inhabited their own sacred landscapes. The Egyptians believed the land was the body of the god Osiris. Each province or “nome” constituted one of his body parts, ruled over by local gods. They described their land as “the image of heaven” and the features of the landscape were believed to mirror the heavenly world above. The mythic center of geography in ancient Greece was associated with the oracle of Delphi. It was believed to be the “omphalos” or navel of the land, similar to the axis-mundi or world axis of shamans. The Neolithic peoples who predated both the Greeks and Egyptians built megalithic monuments and stone circles which are distributed across the world. Circular henges such as Stonehenge and Avebury in England mirror the circle of the horizon, as well as the paths of the heavenly bodies to which they were oriented. Often these structures are also situated over underground water sources which energetically polarize and enhance the celestial currents of energy. These sacred sites created an axis-mundi or symbolic center of the world connecting the realms of earth, sky, and underworld.
Shamanic cultures are animistic, perceiving the earth as well as the entire universe as alive and inhabited by spirits. Native american myths tell of powerful nature spirits such as the Thunderbird, whose flapping wings cause thunder, and eyes flash lightning. Their legends also speak of the “little people” who inhabit rivers and forests, uncannily similar in appearance to the faery folk of Celtic legend. If angered, it was believed the spirits could bring misfortune, causing the failure of the hunt or crops, illness, accidents or other maladies. It was the role of the shaman to mediate between the spirits and humans to win their favor, thereby assuring the health and prosperity of the tribe.
The ancient peoples of Europe were animists as well, living in a world ensouled by spirit beings. Many of the gods and goddesses in their most archaic forms were personifications of natural forces. For example Zeus, the Greek king of the gods associated with thunder and lightning had a giant golden eagle as his companion–curiously similar to the Thunderbird of native american lore. The ancient Celts worshipped the spirits of springs, lakes and trees. They revered the faery folk who were believed to dwell in nature as well as ancient burial mounds, and on occasion abducted humans to live with them in their palaces in the otherworld. Nature spirits permeated the myths of other ancient peoples as well, which tell of their intimate involvement with mankind—sometimes even entering into marriages with them. Eurydice, the beautiful young wife of the poet Orpheus, was a wood nymph. Other Greek myths tell of the love affairs between nereides—the water spirits—and humans, and the offspring that were born from their union.
In his book entitled On Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies and Salamanders, the 16th century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus wrote about the elemental spirits of the four elements of fire, air, water and earth. He insisted that these invisible inhabitants of nature are not demons and agents of the devil, as was believed by the church. Instead, he reasoned, they could be good or bad, similar to man. According to Paracelsus, whose thinking reveals his Christian bias, they differed in one aspect from humans—they have no soul—and thus no prospect for eternal life. Because of this they crave the company of mankind. Paracelsus writes: “When they enter into a union with man, then the union gives the soul.” Some of these creatures such as the nymphs resemble humans, thus marriages between them and men are not uncommon, or so he claims. The elemental spirits which Paracelsus introduced into esoteric literature have played an important role in modern western magic, and working with the spirits of the four elements is a vital part of the magician’s practice.
Shamans entered into lifelong working relationships with various helping spirits who assisted them in serving the practical “middleworld” needs of their communities–healing, divination, hunting and weather magic, dream interpretation, etc. They also worked as psychopomps, guiding souls of the recently dead to their new home in the land of the dead. In some cases souls refused to “pass over”, lingering around familiar places and exerting a malevolent influence on the living. These were often souls of people who died violently, had not satisfied their earthly desires, or suffered some other trauma which kept them bound to the earth plane. Similar to shamans, ancient magicians such as the Persian Magi as well as Greek goetes served as exorcists who escorted the “restless dead” from this world to their proper home in the underworld.
Shamans have always worked to maintain the balance between mankind and nature. A necessary task of the present day shaman or magician is that of restoring the spiritual balance of the middleworld–disturbed through urbanization, climate change, deforestation, pollution, etc. In my opinion such changes need to occur locally, and can be accomplished to an extent through establishing relationships with the nature spirits of one’s local ecosystem as well as the genius loci or centers of geomantic power. I have tried to do this is my own small way by planting trees on my property and communing with the spirits of the land in vision and prayer, as well as by leaving them offerings.
One of the most promising examples of such restorative work is the earth healing of my friend Marko Pogacnik, a Slovenian artist and spiritual teacher. Over the years he has developed his own techniques of geomancy which involve working directly with energetically disturbed landscapes, rural and urban. This could be described as a form of earth acupuncture–which Marko calls “lithopuncture”. He intuitively senses imbalances in the subtle dimensions of the landscape, asking assistance of the nature spirits which reside there. Then through meditation, visualization, group ritual actions and installation of carved standing stones he releases blockages in the site’s subtle energy patterns, restoring them to a healthy flow. Beginning with an interest in dowsing, ley lines and energy centers, he later discovered that a spiritual level of the landscape also exists–invisible geometric structures which he describes as “landscape temples”. Marko has been commissioned as an earth healer by cities around the world, and along with authors such as Alfred Watkins, John Michell and Paul Devereux, has contributed to the revival of the ancient esoteric science of geomancy, once used in the erection of megalithic sites, temples, palaces and cathedrals. Marko’s website: http://www.markopogacnik.com/