Eurasian shamanic art

How the Europeans can reconnect with their shamanic ancestry and strengthen their modern cultures

Europe’s Bison, Bison bonasus species, the king of the boreal forests, once rained over vast swathes of the Eurasian landmass. As far north as Sweden and Caucuses in the south-east. We know that overpopulation of bison million years ago led to some of the ancient bison separating from the herd. They traversed northern Eurasia in to what is today North American territory via the Baring Strait, starting a bison population there. This iconic animal captured the imagination of Aristotle who wrote of the beast.  Bison is to the Europe’s scarce wilderness what leopard is to the tropics’ Rainforests. This is to say, at least in its natural and magical powers’ symbolism. The majestic mammal had roamed from one end of Celtic Europe to the Sayan Mountains. Nature preserved the evidence for a curious naturalist to witness.

Paintings of bison in Altamira Caves, Spain

It is not a surprise then to see that the Polish and Belarussian heraldry is imbued with its symbolism. With the demise of the species, the bison has faded into background as a cultural symbol. This translates into fewer art references, over the decades. Nevertheless, it remains a well-established symbol with its many visual reminders. Cave art, the coats of arms, art and literature, it seems will always keep the king’s mantle.

The bison has earned its place in the collective psyche of people of this wide region. It has traditionally been interwoven with the unique relationship arising from land’s ethnobotany and rich folklore. Medicinal plants that become the building blocks of the bison, nourishing and sustaining it, also bring healing to people. They also go hand in hand with animal totem power that this animal symbolically and spiritually evokes. Our predecessors, who had written this animal and its land magic into their daily scripts, captured and utilised these attributes.

The Shamanic remnants of the Eurasian cultures

To this day culturally diverse Slavic peoples are under the awe of this majestic animal. I strongly believe that our journey back to our shamanic roots, on the European soil, requires us to revisit and relearn perhaps the quality that unites us all and that is our tribalism. This term can conjure up in our modern minds divergent images. However, for me, it is the knowledge of one’s land. It is the wisdom of the flora and fauna that is part of the land we are immersed in and have benefited from for as long as we can trace it back to our ancestors. They had lived connected to it in a way that is no longer possible for us to experience in Europe.

To be of the land is intrinsic to our survival and prosperity. Without healthy soil and water ecosystems life is not possible and neither it is desirable. The one major cultural difference is the idea of permanence of the world and incessant nature of resource abundance. This strikes me whenever I delve into the studies of European ethnobotany.

How the land-based lore has shaped the uniqueness of its cultures

The idea that this cornucopia of nature’s gifts for the man will never cease is not a new story. It is being retold.  Could this be our blind spot? It has brought many species extinctions and undermined the intricate and harmonious ecology of the primary forests. We nearly lost Europe’s biggest and most powerful symbol, the bison. Further, all its three subspecies had been hunted down since the times immemorial. They almost disappeared at the end of the 18th century. 

With that, we have lost some of the rich plant and animal heritage that this animal’s admirers and protectors saved over centuries. Today, we all are co-creating hindsight for the future generations. They will be assessing the power and aptitude of our foresight in dealing with the Earth’s resources. They will not judge us by our high-tech creations alone. But, by our ability to replenish what we have used up and squandered.

Bison and its conservation – how this works in Central Europe

Historically, when states’ borders shifted frequently, the bison was under the protectorate of the kings and tsars not without the ulterior motif of keeping the bison for their own hunting pleasures. They bestowed the responsibility of feeding the ruminants in winter upon peasants living near the forests. In return, the ruling class benefited from the hides, trophies, meat and drinking horns. However, it was the vital protein supplies that fed the Prussian and Russian armies during Poland’s occupation that led to the killing of the last bison cow in 1919 in the Bialowieza Forest.

Consequently, this cemented the fate of the lowland bison in Europe. The species made its come back to various nature reserves and zoos in the times of peace. In short, it was the efforts of a Polish naturalist Jan Sztolcman who presented the idea of saving the bison at the International Congress for Nature Protection, Paris in 1923. As the interest in preserving this unique key species is growing, so are its numbers. Bison Specialist Group IUCN oversees the mission’s success. In addition, bison wildlife units, especially created within National Parks, have bison breeding programs. They key to the species protection is our ability to protect tens of thousands of hectares of biomes, that are not only biologically rich, but are also ecologically sensitive to changes.

Series of bison stamps: issued in 1981. Graphic design: Karol Śliwka

Considering that just one bison requires tens of hectares of forest to feed and thrive without the overgrazing its own habitat, this gives us an idea of the scale of the conservation task. As these animals ruminate in the open spaces adjacent to the forests, they keep the reforestation processes back by removing a lot of the green mass.  This in turn greatly helps maintain high biodiversity of forest ecosystems. The bison is an “umbrella species.” This means that its protection ensures the survival of many other plant and animals species with links in their mutual ecology. Today the advances of science confirm this. Meanwhile, our medieval ancestors and the more ancient cultures before them had always known this. It was the knowledge gained from a deep understanding of this complex relationship of nature and man that led to this near worship of the beast.     

What are the Shamanic links and why is bison a key power animal in Eurasia

A Polish cult beverage distilled from rye is flavoured with the bison grass. We can trace it back to the end of the Middle Ages when the first written recipes appear. What’s more, it is likely to be older than that. In Poland the two species of the bison grass – the aromatic grass –Hierochloe odorata -and the forest one – Hierochloe borealis grow in remote boreal forests in the North Eastern territory. It is a common belief that the plant imparts its strength on to those who drink the grass infused beverage, known as żubrówka.

Four ton iron statue in Spala, Poland. Monument designed by Mihal’y A. Zichy, a court painter of Tsar Alexander II

The magic of bison grass

Many claim it to be an aphrodisiac, too. The drink wasn’t a sacred brew for the Polish feudal aristocrats, called shlachta. Firstly, people inferred the magical powers of the grass from the folklore, which they rooted in the beliefs more than facts. Secondly, this had a true basis in close observation and ultimately understanding the grass and the bison, which feeds on the grass.  This knowledge has filtered down the centuries of shamanic past of the nomadic and sedentary tribes. The peoples and the bison lived side by side within the vast forested regions. Certainly, spectacular numbers of bison once roamed this corner of Europe just like on the American plains.

Historic uses of bison grass

The bison grass is endemic to cold climates of northern Eurasia and North America. The Indians call it the sweet grass or ‘hair of Mother Earth’ and treat it as four sacred plants in addition to tobacco, cedar and sage. They ceremonially apply this sacred plant in smudges during the Sun dance and peace pipe gatherings by burning the grass mixed with other plants to attract good spirits to them. Also women making ceremonial baskets would weave the sweet grass into them, following the offering of tobacco that was made during cutting the grass for this purpose and in keeping with shamanic traditions.

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Bison sweet grass – not just a vodka flavouring

In Europe, there are accounts of Russians adding the sweet grass to flavour teas. Similarly, French added it to tobacco and sweets, possibly for medicinal benefits in the way Native Americans used it. They brewed the grass for common ailments such as colds, sore throats and other infections. In Europe, the bison grass is protected. The grass grows throughout the forest and the bison seeks it out as its favourite food. It can grow via propagation.

A skilled harvester removes blades with a sickle at the ground level, leaving the roots intact, which in turn promotes new growth. Once picked, the grass is dried naturally in a warm place on wooden racks before it is utilised. Then individual stems are separated to be inserted into bottles and the rest is steeped in water and alcohol and then filtered to achieve the correct maceration extract of high quality. In central and eastern Europe, bison grass also enriches dishes and is commercially applied in cosmetics and

medicines such as essential oils. The Hierochloe’s aroma is a combination of honey, fresh hay and musk, characteristic of the bison’s fur smell. The chemical compound responsible for the aroma is coumarin, which we find in over 800 species of plants and microorganisms. Present in fruit and vegetables, and also in aromatic healing plants notably green tea, cinnamon and peppermint, this ubiquitous chemical boasts anticancer, antiallergenic, anti-inflammatory and antithrombotic properties if its uptake is high enough. This gives credence to the common beliefs in the Polish lore that the beverage infused with the bison grass strengthens the body. Another chemical present in the bison grass is phytol, and together with coumarin, they are effective in repelling mosquitoes.

Also worth noting are the qualities that we collectively attribute to the bison. These are: wisdom, strength, dignity and beauty. And they are intrinsic to the way in which the forest dwelling pagan folk of Europe, or the Indians of the North American continent, perceived this mammal and behaved towards it. We know that reverence and stewardship of nature are central to paganism and animism of our ancestors. They can distinguish between the visible biological attributes and its hidden, occult elements and teach us that these forces are in constant cosmic interplay. Inherent in this indigenous world view is the idea that to undermine the balance of nature is to undermine the very survival of man.  

Plant medicines of the Old World

Observation and scrutiny of plants and their uses have unlocked many secrets that today form ethnobotany. Furthermore, etymology, folklore as well as references in art and literature are also sources of this sacred knowledge together with records left in journals of traders and missionaries versed in the matter. Plants that we refer to as ‘teacher plants’ are central to the Shamanic traditions worldwide. When a shaman ingests, smokes, or snorts them, he or she  gains hidden knowledge and is able to heal and guide the community and its development, holistically.

The majority of psychoactive plants grow in the New World where the Shamanic practices integrate them within the community and into the religions of the Native Americans.  Such biochemically advanced flowering plants and mushrooms include a well-known Fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria.  However, out of the world’s 120 psychoactive plants, or so, only a mere 15 to 20 grow in Europe. For instance, the Solanaceous plants such as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), belladonna (Atrapa belladonna), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and datura (Datura metel) make up this group. 

The number of psychoactive plants of the Old World is likely to be higher. In spite of that we know little about them. Why? The academic research has focussed mainly on the New World. As a result, ethnobotanists and anthropologists explored Americas and South East Asia where these healing plants are still in use today. So, the Eurasian land could still harbour such plants, unrecorded by science, that our predecessors harvested and used medicinally and ritually. The entheogenic application of these sacred plants draws a lot of attention. The purpose – a heightened spiritual development. The indigenous groups closely guard this sacred wisdom. Oral transfer of Shamanic traditions plays a major factor in this. The Christian crusades against the paganism and animism completed the drastic loss of this knowledge from the lore of the Eurasia’s cultures.

In the Old World, the understanding of nature’s sacred elemental power and healing potential is quite recent. Advances made in the sixties help today’s science confirm a lot of these ancient findings.  A truly fascinating fact is that Shamanic philosophy, whatever continent we practise it on, doesn’t endow one only with the medicinal knowledge. Above all, it gives us a template for alignment with nature. In short, a universal spiritual guidance for the humanity in order to coexist in harmony with nature.    


Podrecznik Najlepszych Praktyk Ochrony Zubra. Sourced online as pdf.

Kulturotworcza rola zubra. European Bison Conservation Newsletter Vol. I (2008) pp.161-190.

Skąd wziął się żubr.


Main banner image of Shamans from

Bison relief in Altamira cave from

Bison in snow from

Zubrowka vodka preparation from

A Blackfoot man holding sweet grass braid: original source:  Northwestern University Library, “The North American Indian”: the Photographic Images, 2001



Blackfoot Indians making sweet grass medicine painted by Joseph Henry Sharp.  Original source: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons []

Holy sweet grass uses by Native American tribes: