Ioan P. Culianu: the Hyperborean shamanism of ancient Greece

cover: Ilyas Phaizulline, "Orpheus at the Empire of the Dead"


curated by Marco Maculotti

When it comes to "shamanism" [I], we usually tend to think of the Siberian one [II], from which the term itself derives, or to the Himalayan one, which often synchronizes with the Buddhist and / or Hindu tradition, or to that of the native populations of North America, Mexico and the Andes, as well as that of the Australian aborigines. More rarely, the importance of shamanic practices for the Indo-European peoples is emphasized, although the classical sources are not poor in this regard.

We now know for sure that the Scythians [III] of the Eurasian steppes they practiced shamanism and the sacrifice of the horse, a rite later adopted also by the nomadic populations of Mongolia. Likewise, Celts [IV] and Norsemen [IN] they did not ignore ecstatic techniques, so much so that clues about it can be found in theEdda of Snorri and even in later medieval sagas and folklore. The Mediterranean populations, for their part, were no less: Greeks and Romans [YOU] not only did they maintain, albeit with some reservations, the ecstatic and shamanic practices of the populations that preceded them (for example those of the Thracians and the Etruscans), but they were custodians of a new tradition of the "solar" type (or, better to say, "Polar") than Culianu, in this chapter of his work "The journeys of the soul", connects to the divinity of Apollo Hyperborean and Leuche, the "White Island", which in myths now takes the name of "Isola dei Beati", now that of "Garden of the Hesperides", now that of Avalon.

Making extensive use of classical sources, Culianu reconstructs the group of iatromancers (as the author calls the "possessed by Apollo Hyperborean") in the history of ancient Hellas and highlights their typically shamanic powers (such as, for example, catalepsy ritual and out-of-body travel, domination over winds and rains) and the beliefs about the soul and its post-mortem survival that are already found in the Pythagorean School (after all, Pythagoras would have been one of these iatromancers) and which will then influence also Platonism and, we add, Gnosticism.

Ioan Petru Culianu (Iași, January 5, 1950 - Chicago, May 21, 1991) was a historian of religions, Romanian writer and philosopher, specialist in religious anthropology, history of religions, history of the Renaissance. Pupil of Mircea Eliade, he carried on his hermeneutic work of the history of religions, until his tragic and premature death [VII].

[I] On shamanism in general, cf. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism and the techniques of ecstasy. Mediterranee, Rome, 1974.

[II] On Siberian shamanism, cf. On the trail of the reindeer of the sky. Writings on Nordic Shamanism by Juha Pentikäinen and Anna-Leena Siikala. Curated by Vesa Matteo Piludu. Bulzoni, Rome, 2007.

[III] On the Scythians, cf. Georges Dumézil, Stories of the Scythians. Rizzoli, Milan, 1980.

[IV] On the Celts, cf. Jean Markale, Druidism. Mediterranee, Rome, 1990.

[IN] On ecstasy among the Norsemen, cf. Mario Polia, "Furor". War poetry and prophecy. The Circle, Rimini, 1970.

[YOU] On shamanism among the Romans, cf. Leonardo Magini, Shamans in ancient Rome. The Romans and the wizarding world. Castelvecchi, Rome, 2015.

[VII] Culianu was murdered in the bathroom of the University of Chicago, where he taught, by a gunshot shot in the head. In the period preceding his death, the Romanian scholar had published several articles and had released several interviews in which he openly criticized the post-revolutionary government of Ion Iliescu.

Baron Arild Rosenkrantz, "The Temple", 1931.

Ioan Petru Culianu
The Greek shamans or iatromancers

adapted from "Journeys of the soul" Postal Code. VIII.


In ancient Greece there were three deities, all three male, who could have various categories of people. Dionysus owned the Maenads […]. Ares, the god of war, possessed men in battle. Apollo owned the Sibyls. The latter also, under the name of Apollo Hyperborean, possessed a very special category of seers, the iatromancers (from the Greek iatros, "Healer", and mantis, "Prophet"), who were said to be Phoibolamptoi o Phoiboleptoi ("Possessed by Phoebus-Apollo"). These were the indigenous shamans of Greece, who rarely, if they did, formed guilds.


In a passage of the stromata (1.21; 200 BC) by Clement of Alexandria [1] the names of some iatromancers are mentioned: Pythagoras, Abari Hyperborean, Aristea of ​​Proconnesus, Epimenides of Crete, Zoroaster of the Media, Empedocles of Acragas (Agrigento, Sicily), Formino of Sparta, Polyarate of Thasos, Empedotimo of Syracuse and Socrates of Athens . It is interesting that Clement regarded Socrates as a shaman. To the list, which also contains an imaginary character, invented by Heraclides of Pontus, a disciple of Plato and Aristotle, we can add a few other names: Cleonymus of Athens, Hermothymus of Clazomenes and Leonimus of Crotone.

The most illustrious iatromancers are closely related to Apollo Hyperborean; the country of the Hyperboreans was a northern territory, described by a famous "traveler of the air", Aristea di Proconneso.

Abari comes from the North, with an arrow belonging to Apollo or on Apollo's arrow, probably a sunbeam (after all, Apollo is a solar deity). The philosophers of late antiquity recognized him as a priest of Apollo Hyperborean. At the end of the seventh century BC, according to some, or at the end of the sixth, according to others, Abari meets Pythagoras in Olympia. The latter stands up in front of the participants and shows his golden thigh, a symbol that denotes it, in the eyes of Abari, as an epiphany of Apollo. (In Crotone, Pythagoras was considered to be Apollo Hyperborean himself). The symbolic dialogue continues: Abari gives Pythagoras the arrow (or, according to another version, it is Pythagoras who takes it away from him), as a sign of submission.

Aristea is the Phoibolamptos (owned by Apollo) par excellence. Thanks to this intimate connection with the god, he made a journey to the Hyperborean lands, described in his poem Arimaspeia, which already circulated in the early sixth century, but unfortunately had disappeared before the founding of the library of Alexandria. Aristea was seized by sudden death in the workshop of a fuller from Proconnese. The fuller left him to go to warn the family, but Aristea was gone when they arrived. It is clear that he had fallen into a temporary state of apparent death but that he had since recovered. Someone saw him on the road to Cyzicus. Six years later, he returned to Proconnesus to write his Arimaspeia; this means that in the meantime he had traveled as far north as possible. It is not surprising, therefore, that none of the dozens and dozens of theories formulated on the subject has managed to reconstruct his itinerary. He did not travel in this world, but in that of shamans, seers and travelers of the air.

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Two hundred and forty years later, Aristea appeared again in Metaponto, under the guise of a crow, the faithful companion of Apollo [2]; he urged the inhabitants to erect a sanctuary in honor of the god and a statue in honor of him. The oracle of Delphi validated the truth of the request and so the two monuments were built; Herodotus informs us that they were surrounded by laurels - the plants sacred to Apollo. Other phenomena testify that Aristea was an ecstatic, whose soul could leave the body taking the form of a bird (the crow). As such, he had flown over the immense distance that separates Greece from the Hyperborean lands and back.

Arnold Böcklin-
Arnold Böcklin, “Der Heilige Hain / The Sacred Wood” II, 1886.

Once the connection of some iatromancers with Apollo has been established, we can now proceed with the description of other aspects that they had in common. Only a few perform all the functions that, together, form the portrait of the Greek shaman: sorcerer (iatros), seer (mantis), purifier (kathartes), author of oracles (chresmologos), traveler of the air (aithrobates), author of miracles (thaumatourgos) [3].

A master of sensory deprivation was Epimenides of Crete; as a boy, he went to the cave on Mount Ida (where Zeus was born) and slept there for a period that according to the authors ranges from a minimum of forty years (Pausanias 1.14.4) to a maximum of sixty (Hesychius ). According to Hesychius, he could get his soul out of the body and return it. According to Maximus of Tire (Dissertation XVI), Epimenides, during his long sleep, visited the gods, listening to their conversations and learning "truth and virtue" (aletheia kai dike) [4].

While in Zeus's Cretan cave, he conquered hunger with the help of a miraculous plant called food (literally "without hunger") by eating it in small quantities. We have elsewhere suggested an interesting relationship between the terms food e halimos, which differ only in sour spirit. halimos is an adjective that derives from the noun neck, halos, which means "sea". As a noun, halimos designates a plant of the Chenopodiacee family (Atriplex halimus L.), so defined because it grows near the sea. Antiphanes, a well-known author of comedies of the fourth century BC, attributed to the Pythagoreans the use ofhalimos in their diet.

Also food has a long history: Herodotus of Heraclea, who lived in the fifth century and author of a saga of Hercules, indicated with food a "without hunger" who had saved the life of the Greek hero Porphyrius; in his Life of Pythagoras, he asserted that the shaman of Samos also ate food - perhaps instead of halimos.

Even iatromancers refrained from feeding: Abari avoided food and it is assumed that Pythagoras died of starvation. Abari, Aristea, Bakis, Ermotimo and Pythagoras were seers, capable of predicting the future. Epimenides was able to predict the Persian wars ten years before the facts and was killed by the Spartans because he had prophesied disaster. Abari predicted an earthquake and a plague epidemic. Pythagoras predicted the appearance of a white bear in Caulonia, the presence of a corpse on board a ship and the persecutions against his disciples from Metaponto. Four legends of the fourth century BC attribute prodigies of the same kind to both Pythagoras and the prophet Ferecides of Siro. By drinking water from a well, the two were able to predict an earthquake; they correctly predicted that a ship, despite the calm sea, would sink and that a certain city (Sybaris or Messene) would be conquered. Finally Bakis foresaw the invasion of Greece by Xerxes.

Abari, Bakis, Empedocles and Epimenides were "purifiers", an activity which consisted in pushing away the miasma from a city. With miasma one could indicate the plague, but also a totally spiritual phenomenon, the result of some moral pollution. Epimenides was the kathartes (purifier) ​​par excellence. He turned away the miasma from Athens in the time of Solon. Abari purified Sparta of the plague and also Knossos. Bakis purified and healed Spartan women caught in Dionysian fury.

Willard Leroy Metcalf (American, 1858-1925), May Night (1906)
Willard Leroy Metcalf, May Night, 1906.

Iatromancers like Pythagoras, Abari and Empedocles could alter meteorological phenomena with the help of spells. Abari was able to control the strongest winds, but this was actually Empedocles' specialty, which earned him the title of alexanemos, "He who repels the winds". In fact he imprisoned the winds in leather sacks; he promised his disciples shamanic powers over wind and rain and also the ability to bring the souls of the dead back from Hades. Likewise, Pythagoras was able to calm storms and hail and to calm them  sea ​​waves. This may be the reason why, by virtue of his powers over water, he was greeted by a river with a human voice.

Empedocles, Epimenides and Pythagoras could recall their previous incarnations. Epimenides believed to have been Aeacus, brother of the king of Crete Minos. In Crete he was revered as neos koures, a local deity closely connected with Zeus. Thanks to the long trance in the cave on the Ida, he earned a well-deserved reputation as an expert in catalepsy (apparent death). Returning from his trip to the Eastern Magi, Pythagoras spent nine days in the cave on the Ida three times, taking Epimenides as his guide. Iambicus rationalized this legend, making Epimenides a disciple of Pythagoras.

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Pythagoras was even able to reconstruct the previous lives of others, even those of animals. He could also talk to the dead. Empedocles possessed a more complete reminiscence of his previous incarnations, since he was also able to go back to the vegetable and animal ones […].

Catalepsy was a feature common to many iatromancers. We have already examined the singular traditions about Aristea of ​​Proconnesus, the famous traveler of the air. But perhaps the most famous catalepsy expert was Hermothymus of Clazomenes, a seer specializing in out-of-body travel. Like a professional medium, Ermotimo lay naked on the bed. Entering an intermediate state between life and death, his soul left his body to visit various places, and then came back. Recovering from the trance, the seer could relate exactly the events he had witnessed while he was out of the body.

Unfortunately, during one of his travels, his wife delivered his inanimate body to his enemies, the Cantharides, who were likely a Dionysian brotherhood. The Cantharides burned him, stripping his soul of his body [5]. A temple was dedicated to Ermotimo whose access, due to the betrayal of his wife, was forbidden to women.

The greatest specialist of apparent death in ancient Greece was Empedocles of Agrigento, founder of the first Western school of medicine, the Sicilian School [6].


Wenzel Hablik, Crystal Castle in the Sea (1914)
Wenzel Hablik, “Crystal Castle in the Sea”, 1914.

In ancient times, visions or experiences of apparent death were not the only phenomena related to medicine, but also the out-of-body experiences of space travel, as in the legends of Formione of Crotone and Leonimo of Athens.

[…] The Dioscuro who wounded Formione was also the same who healed him. This is a characteristic ofheros iatros: he heals the damage he has done [7]. This same ambivalence of the healing hero recurs in the legend of Leonimus of Athens; he too took part in the battle of Sagra and was wounded by Ajax. Like Formione, Leonimo also consulted an oracle, who assigned him a very difficult task: he had to go to the White Island (Leuche). It takes little to understand that Leuche is an otherworldly place, where deceased heroes continue their existence. Many similar places in Greece are known and almost all share specific references to luminosity: Leuche, Licia (the Homeric island where the hero Sarpedon was brought after his death), the rocks of Lefkada, which marked a access point to the afterlife.

There were also other otherworldly realms, such as the land of the Hyperboreans, Aithiopis and the Isles of the Blessed, all accessible to the dead, but not to mere mortals. If the latter wanted to visit them, they had to somehow undergo the initiatory experience of death, after which, as shamans, they would enter the afterlife in search of a ghost, driven by clearly medical purposes. Here, however, the roles are reversed: the shaman does not embark on his journey into the underworld to find the lost soul of a patient, but rather goes in search of an otherworldly healer, capable of curing his illnesses. Leonimo finds a way to reach the White Isle, where he meets Achilles, Ajax and the beautiful Helen of Troy. When he returns to Athens he is healed.


The land of the Hyperboreans was Apollo's sunny northern paradise. According to what Aristea tells us in his Arimaspeia, the happy inhabitants of the reign of Apollo lived up to a thousand years. A German scholar has linked the name of Apollo with Abalus and with the more prosaic term of "apple" (apple). Abalo was the Isle of Apples, the land of the Hesperides; the word medieval Avalon it was only a variant of Abalus, therefore of Apollo [8].

Gustave Moreau, “The Muses Leaving their Father Apollo to Go Out and Light the World,” 1868.

[…] The closer we get to the core of Platonism, the more we realize how much iatromancers have influenced Platonic beliefs about the afterlife, reincarnation and otherworldly travels. […] In a sense, Platonic philosophy is essentially an effective synthesis of Greek shamanic beliefs, systematized and spiritualized.

Platonism is based on a strong anthropological dualism: human beings are made up of a pre-existing, immortal soul and a perishable body. In dialogue Cratylus (400c), Plato reports a whole series of puns to describe the soul-body relationship, sharing most of it. Therefore the body (soma) is the tomb (sema) of the soul, or, playing on a perfect homonymy, the body (soma) is like the jailer (soma) of the prison of the soul [9].

The incarnation (somatosis) of the soul is the painful punishment due to the fall. Forced into the body, souls are unhappy; their purpose is therefore to return to heaven, where they came from and where they wish to live forever, enraptured in contemplation of the World of Ideas, which is absolute Truth, Divinity and Beauty. However, this state is difficult to achieve due to the corruption that comes from the prolonged contact of the soul with the desires of the body. From this relationship depends how, when and where the reincarnation will take place (metensomatosis) of the soul.


Hippolyte Flandrin (French, 1809-1864), Pietà (1842)
Hippolyte Flandrin, "Pieta", 1842.

Plato shares the belief in reincarnation with the Greek iatromancers and also with many other peoples who are unfamiliar with the use of writing. This allows him to configure a complex system of posthumous penalties, based on the quality of the existence of each on earth. Those who have kept sober and frugal, focusing on the life of their own mind (which is the mirror image of the Intelligible World above), will be sent to contemplate Ideas for a long time, after which they will move on to further verification in a new incarnation. . If the soul leads a rigorously philosophical life three times in a row, it will be able to remain in eternal contemplation.

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However, this happens very rarely. Once the downward movement has begun, it becomes increasingly difficult for the soul to resist the urgent pressures of the body. The afterlife therefore had to be in constant ferment: souls ascending and descending without stopping, spending time in heaven or in the underground Hades, described in detail in the Phaedo. If the winged souls of the philosophers worthy of the eternal reward for their exceptional merits are few, just as few are those of the worst depraved who receive perennial punishment in Hell. For the latter there is a special area, Tartarus, a place of unspeakable torments from which one cannot escape.

Platonic cosmology is further complicated by the fact that the earth is imagined as concave; the bottom of the cavity - where the human world is located - has rather different characters than the surface. This takes up one of the fundamental principles of the Platonic system: what is higher is better. Accordingly, the planets, which are made of stellar fire, are better than the earth's surface, and the World of Ideal Intelligences is far superior to the planets and stars.

The earth's surface, called "True Earth", is unreachable for us, but even if it were not, we could not bear this experience, finding ourselves like fish trying to breathe air. In fact the ether - the element that is on the heads of the inhabitants of the True Earth - is to the air as the air is to the water. Consequently, those who live in this aerial paradise, which actually corresponds to the country of the Hyperboreans or the Islands of the Blessed, with the only difference of not being on our friable earth but above it, walk on the air and breathe ether.

The bottom of the deep crevices of the earth we live in is made up of low quality matter. The True Land, on the other hand, has a soil of precious stones, far more precious than ours; it is rich in gold and silver, in wonderful plants and animals. In the gorgia (523a et seq.), Plato defines the True Earth as the Islands of the Blessed; they are populated by a race of navigators of the air who enjoy a mild climate, are not subject to disease or decay and, in temples, they meet face to face with the gods: the gods in fact are none other than the radiant inhabitants of the higher ether.

Plato was not content only with using, by transferring them to heaven, the ancient shamanic representations of an earthly paradise. In book X of the Republic, to explain many of the secrets of the universe and the afterlife, he resorted to a pseudo-death scenario that seems to derive directly from the legends of iatromancers. Er, born in Pamphylia, Asia Minor, son of the powerful Armenius, was wounded in battle, suffered a concussion and for three days looked as if dead. Meanwhile, his soul came to a place in the center of the universe (probably the Surface of the True Earth), he saw souls coming down from heaven and souls ascending from Hell, he saw that they cast lots to know their next destiny. , saw that they were purified by an alternation of hot and cold and that they drank the water of Lethe (the river of oblivion), learned the law of transmigration and saw the eternal sufferings of the assassin Ardieo, held in the lowest circle of the Tartarus as punishment for his unforgivable crimes. Er's body was about to be buried when the soul returned and revived it, much to the amazement of all present.

Luigi Critone, The Island of the Dead (2012)
Luigi Critone, "The island of the dead", 2012.


[1] Clement of Alexandria (Athens, c. 150 - Cappadocia, c. 215) was an ancient Greek Christian theologian, philosopher, saint, apologist and writer of the XNUMXnd century. He is one of the Fathers of the Church.

[2] The raven is also, in the Germanic-Norse mythology, the "faithful companion" of Odin / Wotan, equally god of prophecy like Apollo, as well as, in the Celtic tradition, of Lug, who, like Apollo, holds the function of God of Light [cf. The festival of Lughnasadh / Lammas and the Celtic god Lugh].

[3] All these magical abilities that are found in ancient Greece are the same ones that are found wherever one speaks of a shamanic tradition, eg. in the Mongol-Siberian area, in the Himalayan area and among the Native American «Medicine Societies».

[4] Karoly Kerényi also wrote about the myth of Epimenides of Crete in K. Kerényi: "The mythologem of timeless existence in ancient Sardinia", Posted in Myths and Mysteries, Einaudi, Milan, 1950.

[5] This belief that, in the event that the body of an ecstatic is compromised while the soul is outside from it, the subtle connection between soul and body would be irreparably broken, it is practically spread all over the world.

[6] On Empedocles, cf. Peter Kinglsey, Mysteries and Magic in Ancient Philosophy. Empedocles and the Pythagorean tradition. Il Saggiatore, Milan, 2007.

[7] This functional ambivalence (wounding / curator) of the initiating spirit / god is also known to all shamanic traditions, in which there is always mention of a "ritual quartering" or "initiatory wound" of the neophyte.

[8] On the theme of the occult island and the koma of Apollo near Avalon (as well as of Saturn-Kronos near Ogygia) cf. Apollo / Kronos in exile: Ogygia, the Dragon, the "fall". On Iperborea or the mythical "Primordial Polar Land" cf. The ancient roots of the Indo-Europeans e Arctic homeland or "Mother Africa"?; cf. also Giorgio Colli, Greek wisdom I. Adelphi, Milan, 1990; Joscelyn Godwin, The polar myth. Mediterranee, Rome, 2001; Luigi G. De Anna, Thule. Sources and traditions. The Circle, Rimini, 2017; Gangadhar Tilak Bâl, The Arctic abode in the Vedas. ECIG, Genoa, 1994.

[9] These and those that follow are conceptions that will first be taken up by the Gnostics and by various Christian "heretical" currents, for example. the Cathars, after. On Gnosticism, cf. The religions of mystery: soteriology of the Mithraic cult and of Attis / Cybele.