Walkers of the Road Less Traveled: ‘Shamans’, Witches and other kinds of seekers as seen by the Thornish Tradition

By Jack Wolf

Over the past year especially, I have had a number of questions asked of me by the curious, which since they are repeated quite a bit, indicate to me that I need to answer them in some detail. There are two questions that I get in various forms from those who are interested in such things.

“Do Thornish people practice shamanism?”  is one of these questions.

“Are there such things as Thornish witches?” is the other.

So I think that I should cover these with the hope that those who have been asking – and those who probably will ask in the future – might get an idea of where my own folk come from on the subject.

Thornish people rarely use the word shaman or the term shamanism.

Well let me rephrase that: We may occasionally make use of those terms but the only reason we might do this would be to get across an idea that would otherwise be difficult to grasp by some. You see, some people have difficulty grasping what it is that certain, gifted folk are able to do with regard to accessing the spirit realms. They want a name for it; a label if you will and they want to know if we subscribe to that label too.

However a good many people know (or have an idea), from mainstream media and such, and unfortunately from long exposure to the caperings of the so-called New Age movement, what a shaman is supposed to be.

So occasionally a Thornish person may use that term to explain the concept to someone who has limited grasp of it.

Otherwise we leave it right alone. We do so out of respect.

The term shaman is a Tungusic word which originates with the Tungus and other related people from north central Asia and Siberia. It refers to a person who is able to enter altered states of consciousness and interact with energies and spirits for the purpose of undertaking various magico-spiritual workings. The tem shaman is specific to these indigenous tribal people. It is their cultural heritage and a description of a particular lifeway among them.

However, since anthropologists began using the term back in the early mid-20th Century and later, due to the popularity of American anthropologist Michael Harner’s works, the term became somewhat mainstream. After that there was a steady misuse of the word in areas where it had no business being used.

Eventually, after some forty years or more of being abused, the indigenous term shaman or shamanism has become a kind of umbrella term which can be seen to cover everything from genuine tribal practices to outright criminal fraud and charlatanism. Like many other terms from history and culture which have been torn out of context and repeatedly abused, such as the ancient swastika sign or even the term magic, the word shaman has been turned into a catchphrase for many things that it most certainly is not.

This is most unfortunate and in an effort to address this, Thornish people at least, tend not to use the term, never apply it to our own practices and attempt to educate people about what it really means and where it really comes from, wherever possible.

Thornish people most certainly do walk a road that involves spiritual practice – and indeed there are some among us who are gifted and who walk in the realms of spirit. Some of us walk our spirituality as a very personal, subjective thing, while others who are more gifted may use their abilities to help others.

We call these people Farers. The word farer refers to one who quite literally ‘fares’ or ‘goes’ forth’ into the Otherworld realms and while there enters into work with various energies, spirit people, ancestors or Elder Ones in order to accomplish various goals. Usually these goals have to do with oracular work or healing work. Sometimes however they are also used for offensive or defensive purposes that serve the greater balance.

To this some might say: “Well, that sounds pretty much the same as a shaman.”

And to them we would say: “While the work might be similar it is performed within OUR cultural context and is not ‘borrowed’ from the context of another people’s culture without their permission.”

I could probably write ten blog posts or more about the concepts of RESPECT and ASKING PERMISSION, since these simple, fundamental things are seemingly often lost in the swirl of most modern people’s consciousness. I could also go on at great length about the concept of HUMILITY; something which has most people either have completely lost sight of, or which most people today seem to have an erroneous understanding of.

But that’s not what I am here to talk about today. I’m here to try to provide some answers to a couple of questions and at the same time get across a bit more of what it is that people in my tradition actually do.

The term ‘witch’ is another area where people get quite off track from time to time. The word seems to bring many different ideas to various people’s minds that can include everything from tales of Hollywood inspired practitioners, to the people of Wicca and the many forms of traditional Witchcraft that have come out into the world of late. Thornish people don’t have so much difficulty with using the term witch as they do with using the word shaman because the word witch (whose etymological origins many still debate) is a more general term and not one which has specific ethnocultural origins.

So, are there Thornish witches?

Well indeed you will find that some Thornish people may answer ‘yes’ to that one. Others will probably say that the term Farer covers it quite nicely.

By the way, I am not a witch and am certainly not a Farer in my tradition. However I have been given permission to speak for Thornish Farers in this regard.

In the Thornish way we have two branches of talent, skill and interest which grow from the same root. One of these is called the Scarlet Branch and it includes those who work more in the realm of Earthly ways, such as hunting, crafting and the warrior arts. The other is called the Sable Branch and it includes those who are spiritually gifted and who work more with the realms of spirit and hidden power. I am of the former of these branches and walk in the ways of the Thornish warrior and hunter among other things.

My own definition of the term witch is thus: Witchcraft refers to persons who by various means perform acts which they hope will alter the shape of reality around them.  Some witches are herbalists, rootworkers or healers. They use various natural items and substances to accomplish their goals. Some are more aligned with rituals and other workings of a more martial or offensive nature. Other witches are more focused on oracular work and work with spirits and elemental forces (even Elder Beings and ancestors) in order to accomplish what they have set out to do. Some witches involve themselves in all of the above while others choose to specialize.

In the Thornish tradition Farers pretty much do the things I have just described. I guess it’s all about the cultural context and also the fact that Thornish people don’t believe that just any old person who feels like it can (or should) seek to wend the roads of spirit. We don’t believe that all humans are created equally in that way. We believe that some people are specially gifted with abilities that guide them into the way of the Farer.

In our cultural context, while all Farers are Thornish, not all Thornish people are Farers.

Indeed there are relatively few Farers among us. It has always been thus. To Thornish people the way of the Farer is a sacred path and those who are called to it are often compelled to do so by their ancestors, their spirits or their Elder Kin guides. It is not an easy road and often there are high prices for the Farer to pay along such roads.

So, what is it exactly that Thornish Farers do?

They serve the sacred balance of the world; they serve their allies, ancestors and other spirits as well as their families and their tradition – much as witches do. Farers tend to be cut from a much darker piece of cloth than most people who call themselves witches however. This is not to say that there aren’t practitioners of other traditions who aren’t this way, but all Thornish Farers tend to the darker roads in their work. By darker roads I refer to the deep, dark, quiet places in nature; the hidden, visceral places where danger and often heavy exertion are the price for wisdom. Thornish Farers very rarely practice any of their rites inside of modern structures, preferring the wilderness to civilized places, and almost invariably preferring deep night to the environment of day.

A Thornish Farer is very often a person of fathomless potency and because of the warrior nature inherent in all Thornish people hold the concepts of healing/creation in equal measure with harming/destruction. Unlike many ritual practitioners in today’s day and age who may like others to believe that they might be dangerous or powerful, the Thornish Farer does not go about proclaiming themselves to be anything of the sort. They are privy to some potent knowledge however, and are gifted/mentored/aided by some beings with whom it would be most unwise to trifle. Humility with the Farer, just as with any of their kin, is ingrained.

A Thornish Farer will often be found out in the wild places whenever it is possible for them to do so. The haunts of humanity are usually seen as a drain or a barrier to power and learning so the Farer tends to avoid such places.

A Thornish Farer will never personally advertise their work, nor will they ever accept payment for any spiritual/ritual act in money. It is an exceptionally rare thing indeed when a Thornish Farer would perform any work for someone not of their blood or hearth kin. The gifts of the Thornish Farer are reserved for their inner circles, the Earth and the spirits of the world, not for anything else.

So indeed we do have our own version of spiritual practitioners – even witches as some might consider them to be.

We call them Farers however and we are quite satisfied with that term.


About Jack Wolf

Canadian author Jack Wolf has been a practicing Pagan for over 30 years, walking a path that encompasses both his Northern European and Native American heritage. He counts the late Heathen Goði and writer E. Max Hyatt, Professor Mark Mirabello, Dakota tribal Chief William Hoff and American author Allan Cole among his mentors. An avid outdoorsman, Jack has spent a considerable portion of his life exploring the deep wilds of British Columbia, a vast province on Canada’s west coast. He brings a great deal of his wilderness experience to his spiritual path. Over the past 15 years Jack has studied and written about a number of northern pagan traditions, having published for the most part independently or in small journals, blogs or websites. His recent works for Mandrake of Oxford Have certainly opened up his writing to a larger audience. Jack is also the author of several other books, including Circle of Bones (2012), The Way of the Odin Brotherhood (2013), Blood and Stone (2014) co-author of Tales from the Red Moon Lodge (2014) and co-editor of A Voice from the Thornwood (winter 2014). Forthcoming works include The Thornish Path, Ullr’s Road and The Urban Tribalist, all of which are planned for a mid-2015 and early 2016 release respectively. Spiritually, Jack identifies himself generally as a Deep Tribalist and more specifically as Thornish. He is a member of a primal pagan tradition whose spiritual path involves questing for the First Knowledge – that held by our most ancient ancestors whose hearts and spirits were deeply connected to the land. The Thornish path is the way of the warrior-steward; a Deep Tribal tradition which Jack has practiced since the late 1980’s Jack holds a degree in anthropology from the world renowned University of British Columbia and has long held an avid interest in history, tribal peoples, spirituality and the reawakening of pagan peoples worldwide. He currently resides with his wife and co-author Cassandra Wolf and their daughter, in Squamish, British Columbia.
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