Shaman Claus

Boy, the Holidays just aren’t what they used to be. What happened to those old holiday traditions that brought the community together like stringing popcorn on the tree or singing carols through the neighborhood or recycling your amanitas infused urine for the community to enjoy for the Solstice celebration. Yes, that’s right, our current “Santa Mythology” is steeped in some strange lore that we’ll begin to explore in this story.

Shaman Claus
Shaman Claus

The origins of both medicine and religion have some similar roots. Many of them reach thousands of years back to Tengerian tradition of Shamanic myth, magic and medicine. The Tengerian Shamanic tradition of Siberia was also influential on the traditional Christmas celebration and the Santa Claus mythos connected to it, as we’ll see today.

Among these cultures are the northern Tungusic people, Lapps, Evenki and other Siberian tribes.  The Evenki were predominantly hunter-gatherers and reindeer herders as were most living in the harsh region. The Evenki people’s word “saman” meaning “one who knows the spirits” is the root of the word describing the “medicine man” type religious healer in pre-modern cultures.  An important part of the religious and healing ceremonies of the Tengerian Shamanic medicine man was the use of “fly agaric” the Amantis muscaria mushroom, better known colloquially as a “red-cap” or “toadstool.”
redcap
If you’ve seen pictures of giant red warty mushrooms in fairy tale drawings or little white spotted mushrooms in Byzantine art featuring Jesus then you’ve seen the amanitas mushroom. Interestingly enough, it’s not called a toadstool because toads are known to sit on it, rather because of a constituent that also happens to be found in “eyes of newts”(or Bufo Alvarius, the Sonoran Desert Toad) and other witchy sounding formulas.

Santa Claus (with his reindeer and red cap and stockings) is ” a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world,” according to Dr. John Rush,  anthropology instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif.

In order to prepare the amanitas mushroom (which can be a potent toxin) the mushrooms were placed in a large sock and hung over the hearth to dry. Stockings, anyone? The “gift of the mushroom” was often found beneath pine trees. This could also be an explanation for the “red, white and green” colors being associated with Christmas celebrations. The Shaman himself, when giving the gift of muscaria throughout the frozen Siberian Winter Solstice would appear dressed as a giant amanitas (with a red cap and white dots on his suit).

Even today in Lapland (a portion of Finland inhabited by the indigenous Sami people) diminutive reindeer herders wear brightly Christmas colored clothing and herd reindeers. That “elf” style hat, has a name you know. Yes, it’s a “Laplander hat.”

Lapplanders in traditional garb
Lapplanders in traditional garb

Stay tuned next week as we explain why the reindeer games were really gross, how modern civilization may not have existed if some brave souls hadn’t eaten the yellow snow and why we put a star on an evergreen and bring it in the house once a year.