Walking with the World Tree
When the shaman’s helping spirits work through objects, such as a staff, it is possible to amplify the available spiritual power.
For many peoples, the shaman’s staff is a representation of the connection between the realms of upper, middle and lower worlds and functions as a model of the World Tree. As with all true power objects, the staff becomes a living presence. As such, it is a catalyst for change and transformation–even capable of working on its own on behalf of the shaman.
In the Amazon, the shaman’s staff or baculo is made from a six-foot length of wood from a pona tree (Iriartea deltoidea, known in Spanish as chonta-kilo) which peoples in the region see as especially sacred. The staff is also decorated with special symbols, talismans and carvings which are connected to the shaman’s own power. For these people, the staff represents a connection to the Pleiades–a constellation that many Lower Amazonian people believe is their spiritual home. The staff functions as an energy conduit between the up above and down below worlds. It is a stand-in for the Axis Mundi or Center of the Cosmos.
Shamans from the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest of North America use staffs, as well. These staffs allow the shaman to access her or his ancestral spirits for help and guidance while performing shamanic healings. These implements are used to heal, combat the spirits of disease and to detect the presence of “witchcraft” or negative magic.
Among the Selkups, Enets and Nenets of Siberia, the shaman’s staff functions to help the shaman negotiate the perils in the spirit world. Since the shamans in this region sing and dance their journeys, the staff also functions as a rhythm stick. To facilitate this role, the staff is forged of iron and covered in iron rings which clang together and against the body of the staff. Thus, the staff takes the place of the shaman’s drum for journeying.
Among my teacher, Grandfather Misha’s, people–the Ulchi of southeastern Siberia–the sacred objects are most often made from the wood of the most sacred tree in the taiga–the larch. While their costumes are made of intricately sewn and embroidered cloth or fish skins, most of the shaman’s other regalia–staffs, drum hoops, the rattles and extraction brooms, spirit carvings and drum paddles are all carved from larch wood.
The Aboriginal people of Australia have ceremonies that honor the Sacred Pole that connects the people to the revelations of the Dreamtime. Echoes of the Sacred Pole may be found in the long spear which is carried by traditional hunters. This spear is used as a walking stick, pointer, ritual “scepter,” as well as a tool for gathering food. Women use a shorter digging stick much in the same way.
The shamans of the Peruvian North Coast use staffs as implements on their healing mesa. These staffs are arranged in an upright row at the head of this ceremonial altar along with swords or long knives. Holding the energy of each of the shaman’s many compadres or helpful and healing spirits, these staffs are used as a part of the all-night San Pedro ceremony.
The ancient Icelandic sagas tell us about the use of staffs in the shamanic rituals of the ancient Norse and Germanic peoples of Europe. Among these tribes, the ceremonial staff is the tool of the völva or seeress. The völva is a woman who–while in a shamanic trance–enters the roots of the great, world tree Yggdrasil to gain access to ancestral wisdom. As a part of the völva’s ritual costume, she carries a tall staff which is usually set with stones and bound in brass. This staff is known as a völ. The staff is a critical part of the ritual since the ceremonial title völva, literally means “staff bearer.”
Western shamans may use a staff or walking stick as a part of their ritual paraphernalia. One of my staffs is made from a maple sapling that was entwined by a bittersweet vine. This is significant to me as it reflects the vulnerability, we all have to the slow progress of age and disease as well as the ability that even gentle forces have to overcome something that appears to be impossible.
Choose your staff thoughtfully. When a specific tree has been chosen, ask that living being for permission to cut its flesh. Cut thoughtfully and with great care and don’t forget to leave a heartfelt offering of gratitude to thank the tree for its sacrifice. Once you have secured your staff, ask it for guidance to find out how it might wish to be decorated.
After the staff feels completed, spend some quiet time alone with this new part of your life. When holding it vertically, you may feel the energies of the upper, middle and lower worlds connecting through the center of your staff. Try to feel the flow of these energies and notice what happens inside your body. Be patient and over time you may indeed sense the strength of the great, World Tree in your hand!