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Vikings, Samurai, MMA, and Magic
Warrior rituals across two cultures, with modern scientific parallels.
War is a defining characteristic across all humanity, occurring in every region of the world and in all eras of history. For the entirety of known human history, people have met opposing armies in massive, destructive battles, vowing to return victorious or not at all.
War in itself is an almost indescribably heavy event – a spiritual undertaking, especially before the modern notion of materialism. As a result, it has played a key role in every form of spirituality and religion. Almost every culture which went to war held its warriors to a higher spiritual standard, and the act of putting one’s life on the line has attained a religious status across cultures.
Consider jihad, bellum sacrum, etc., and read Evola’s Metaphysics of War for more on the topic.
But I digress. Some cultures held their warriors in such high regard that they are forever remembered as fighting societies. These societies assigned special spiritual importance to warfare, and developed rituals for ensuring success on the battlefield by magical or religious means. In the pre-firearm era, two of the most famous were the samurai class in feudal Japan, and Viking society during their namesake age. These cultures never contacted each other, and were drastically different societies by all accounts, but their spiritual practices relating to war were near-identical in structure and purpose.
My aim is to explore their ritual practices and examine why they independently arrived at the same conclusions about spiritual preparation for warfare. I’ll also examine the implications of these conclusions in modern terms.
The terms “samurai” and “Viking” are used in popular culture to refer generally to certain societies and eras, but in proper historical study, their definitions must be narrowed down. The samurai were the warrior caste of feudal Japan. To be a samurai was a hereditary profession; those born into the class would train from early childhood, and the exclusionary nature of this class led to the creation of a distinct subculture, not unlike the knights of feudal Europe. However, the class formally existed from the late twelfth century until 1876, a vast stretch of history. So, I will specifically focus on the peak of samurai culture, from c. 1200-1500.
During this period, the actual skill of samurai in combat was critically important. They had not yet taken on the role of statesmen, and firearms had not yet been developed, so battles were still hand-to-hand events. Critically, the practice of magic with full belief and expectation of results was also still prominent across Japan, based upon the cosmology and practice of Shinto. These factors lead this 300-year period to be most instrumental in the study of samurai ritual practice. Additionally, samurai were upper-class and well-educated, so a large base of written work exists around samurai philosophy and practices.
“Viking”, however, is an even broader term than samurai; its roots are polemical, initially carrying the same connotation as “pirate” or “pagan”. For the purposes of this paper, the term will specifically refer to seafaring Norse society after 800 AD and prior to the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Viking society during this era followed Old Norse religion, which included a large element of daily ritual, and especially ritual practices before battle.
In Norse culture, fighting in and of itself was a mystical act. To go to war was a rite of passage into manhood; a method of forming a closer connection to the earth and the gods. Most importantly, it was a showing of personal valor in order to win a place in Valhalla, where one could enjoy constant glorious combat. With Valhalla as the ideal afterlife, war was truly central to Norse religious life, and therefore to their magical practices.
Vikings left written records during this time in the form of runic inscriptions, but more common were the accounts of those who experienced their raids and territorial expansion. Between these two sources, the archeological record, and sources about Norse religion written during its active practice, many conclusions can be drawn about Viking culture and ritual practices.
It is critical to note that these two cultures never met, nor did they even know of each other’s existence. The first verified contact between Europe and Japan occurred in 1543, when Portuguese traders landed at Tanegashima by accident; the Japanese had no knowledge of the European continent, and the Vikings certainly never knew about the existence of Japan. The distinct separation between these cultures makes the similarity in their rituals all the more striking.
The first commonality of samurai and Viking warrior practices came in their obsession with symbolic weaponry. Much of what modern academia knows about Viking culture comes from the archeological record, and a significant portion of this record involves weaponry – ornately designed, engraved, and highly regarded weaponry, displayed over mantles or buried with the dead. Runic inscriptions offer one of the most interesting angles through which to conceptualize Viking culture, and it is clear (from both recovered artifacts and poetry that survived the ages) that Vikings believed in a similar notion to Kabballah regarding runes. Certain phrases in Old Norse runes were used as spells, good-luck charms, or for medicine because of their meaning and how the representative runes were composed.
Additionally, many symbols from Norse mythology were worn or written as talismans – Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer), valknut (knot of Odin), vegvisir (runic compass), etc. Many weapon/armor inscriptions combined the two, including small symbols and larger runic inscriptions. The best examples of these inscriptions are swords, which were typically only owned by the wealthy, but similar examples could be found on spearheads, shields, and amulets worn on campaigns. The aim of including these symbols in weaponry and battle decorations was stated as being fairly straightforward in poetic accounts – to win the favor of the god called upon by the symbol, to summon strength, and to perhaps invoke an act of that god on the wearer’s behalf (for example, a lightning strike in the enemy’s lines).
Samurai symbology was essentially similar, though less straightforward. The core of all mystical beliefs held by the samurai was Shintoism, a distinctly Eastern philosophy of balance and oneness, which has some aspects in common with the pagan religions of Europe, and other aspects which are entirely its own. In Shinto cosmology, mind and matter are not split, nor is one the only true realm of reality. There is also no “higher plane” or “spiritual realm”, so to speak. The split in Western philosophy between materialism and idealism does not exist in Shinto, and many Shinto practices had the specific goal of strengthening the connection between mind and nature. This parallels Western occult philosophies based on focusing consciousness in order to “pull the strings of the universe”, so to speak – beliefs introduced in the West by Plato and Apuleius.
A similar notion to astrology also exists in Shinto, partially borrowed from the Chinese zodiac and partially unique, with an interconnected system of five elements; much like astrology, this system was a topic of intellectual study and was used to predict future events as well as in the creation of extremely specific talismans to ensure success in certain endeavors.
An individual samurai’s armor and weaponry were his most important talismans, designed in accordance with the time and place of his birth, as well as the elemental virtues he wanted to project. To wear armor out of accordance with one’s birth or with an improper combination of elemental symbology would surely bring defeat, and was avoided at all costs.
Bows were also important talismans, and they were built under strict ritual conditions. Bowmakers would meditate and pray while working, and never allowed women to become involved with the process (in Shinto, women are bearers of yin energy, the opposite of what a weapon should embody). Swords and spears were built under similarly strict conditions, but the methods of their construction were largely passed down by oral tradition; modern historians can only compare the finished product with the armor of its carrier and see similar symbology in line with his birth. Modern academics do know that the symbology of the tsuba – the handguard – was particularly important, so much so that there were craftsmen dedicated solely to producing these small pieces of metal, engraved with symbols important to the birth circumstances and goals of the sword’s bearer.
Later in Japanese history, tsubas of some privately Christian samurai would bear hidden crosses in the design; if they didn’t believe in the power of embedding proper symbology in the handguard, they would have never taken that risk and faced potential persecution. Other talismans included snake’s fangs, engraved precious metals, and pieces of paper with written spells, rolled tightly and stored in the topknot. The latter of those would include a word or phrase sometimes repeated verbally during meditation or before fighting.
The samurai also made extensive use of pre-battle meditation and ritual. A common practice before a planned excursion or duel would be to enter nature and meditate, sometimes for days (or by some accounts, weeks) on end. Achieving intense focus on the task at hand was certainly one motive for this, but in a spiritual sense, samurai were entering an altered state, removed from the person they were in polite society before. They would chant phrases meant to bring power, or invoke some aspect of nature in their favor. Sometimes, perhaps before a long campaign, samurai would engage in a cleansing ritual called misogi, in which they would bathe and pray under a waterfall.
Exactly what rituals occurred and exactly what spirits/forces were invoked varied greatly between situations and individuals’ concerns for the war ahead, but common themes included asking for assistance from Marishiten, the Buddhist goddess of war adopted into Shinto and widely popular among the samurai class. Additionally, by entering some untamed area in solitude, samurai were meant to invoke and channel their ancestors, through which they might achieve greater luck, strength, or wisdom. Shinto philosophy revolves around harmony with the world around, and the core belief behind this practice of entering nature alone was to become perfectly harmonious with everything – everything real and practical about the situation, but also the spiritual undercurrents, and how to use them to one’s advantage. The goal of this set of rituals was to achieve new harmony with the world, intense focus, and ultimately emerge as a new man – as prepared as possible for battle.
Vikings used a similar practice, especially regarding so-called “berzerkers”. To go berserk was to lose all sense of humanity and fight like a wild beast, and the Vikings believed that in order to induce this state, one must enter nature alone, meditate, and enter an altered state of consciousness. Due to a lack of written records, historians and anthropologists disagree about the exact specifics of this ritual, but in all likelihood, it varied over time and between places, and many different versions were undertaken, though all of them shared the same underlying belief and the same intentions. To the Vikings, entering nature alone was a spiritual journey through which a warrior could become “wilder” and more in-touch with the earth.
The Norse cosmology was one of life; as in, that the universe itself was once the being Ymir, and that Yggdrasil – the tree of the universe – grew through all realms, connecting earth to the cosmos. So, in order to perform any Norse ritual magic, one must be perfectly in-touch with nature, plugged into the very life of the universe. By removing oneself from society and living from the land, as well as through intense reflection, warriors aimed to achieve this state.
A second goal was to “channel” the spirit of a ferocious wild animal (typically a bear or wolf); not necessarily to be “possessed by a bear”, so to speak, but to embody the essence of it, with all its strength and ferocity. Additionally, some would consume hallucinogenic plants during this process. Anthropologists and ethnobotanists believe that the plant used was henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), which induces psychosis, agitation, a dulled pain response, and lower blood pressure. After this ritualistic process, berserkers would emerge from the wilderness to fight, choosing to fight completely naked except for a bearskin, biting at their shields and yelling unintelligibly, yet nonetheless cutting through the opposing force without attaining any wounds. To those who faced them in battle, it was terrifying.
The consumption of henbane certainly influenced this fearless state, but according to ethnobotanist Karsten Fatur, who introduced the henbane theory, the meditation and aloneness in nature were critical elements. Merely consuming the plant before a skirmish would not suffice, and judging by modern toxicology studies of henbane, would instead induce a subdued, mildly annoyed state, completely unfit for battle. Henbane was not the end-all-be-all; it simply helped along the way. The ritual practices and meditation were the crux of battle preparation.
Though these practices emerged from completely different cosmologies and wildly different cultures, the core practices have extremely similar elements and intentions. They both believed that proper preparation for battle involved a warrior first isolating himself to live among nature and achieving harmony with the natural world by meditation. The rituals also share the aim to create extreme focus on the task at hand, intending for participants to emerge as a different man, with no fear or emotions hindering his ability to fight.
On a religious level, both practices involve asking for the assistance of a spirit, whether that be an animal, force of nature, or ancestor(s). Critically, both systems of thought ask the spirit to operate “through” a warrior, rather than to assist in the coming battle. This furthers the notion of achieving an altered state of consciousness, which the Vikings then expanded through the consumption of hallucinogenic plants. Additionally, when going into battle, important symbols and talismans were worn or displayed on weaponry, in accordance with the specific situation of the battle and the individual at hand – these symbols were not worn merely as good luck charms, but rather with specific intentions and a serious amount of ritual magic involved. These stark similarities reveal something intangible about a core truth of magical practice throughout history, especially relating to warfare. However, deciding exactly what they reveal can become contentious.
For example, modern anthropologists would explain these similarities as revelatory of some element or elements of evolutionary psychology. Rituals like these are seen in warrior societies and subcultures throughout world history, and seem to have all arisen independently, so the assumption is made that there is something core to humanity which causes this.
Removing a warrior from society before a battle so that they can enter an altered state and/or invoke a spirit to “act through them” allows a society and the warrior himself to separate his identity from the atrocities of warfare. It is easier to dispel guilt by “wearing a mask”, so to speak; as in, believing that one did not fully commit acts of brutality on the battlefield, but rather one’s body did the fighting while controlled by a spirit or natural force. Additionally, the placebo effect is very real, and by believing that through these rituals a warrior will become unstoppable, he may actually achieve more with less fear in battle. A purely materialist anthropologist would explain it in these psychological terms, chalking it up to human nature. However, I fear that this interpretation is biased toward modern conceptions of warfare and trauma. The warriors of old were not particularly concerned with their warfighting “making them look bad”; that notion is the invention of pacifistic 21st-century society.
In fact, these points can be challenged with a simple matter of historical fact – these practices worked, as per their opponents’ accounts. Regarding the Vikings, many contemporary accounts describe berserkers as terrifying and seemingly impervious to pain, unable to be stopped by anything. The fear of these warriors did not simply stem from their animalistic behavior and nudity, either. Charging naked into battle was not an unprecedented practice at the time, but in previous instances, the opposing force usually cut these unarmored fighters down with ease. Romans quelling rebellions in Gaul during the 4th century encountered situations like this, and typically decimated their frenzied opponents. During the Viking Age, however, even other Vikings feared facing berserkers. Also consider the story of the berserker at Stamford Bridge, who killed 40 men singlehandedly.
Regarding the samurai, there is no shortage of poetry and written accounts about individuals becoming seemingly unstoppable on the field, causing their opponents to balk and hesitate, then cutting them down. For example, Miyamoto Musashi describes the devastating abilities of a swordsman who is calm and completely in harmony with the fight in The Five Rings. So, then, there must be something more to these rituals other than sociological factors and the desire to build a warrior’s confidence and conviction before battle.
The modern study of sports psychology says that there is something more to these practices, especially the element of meditation. MRI scans and EEGs of trained meditators demonstrate that during intense, proper meditation, most of the “conscious” elements of the brain shut down, and that through proper practice, one can induce a meditative state while performing an activity that requires skill. This state – commonly called “flow” – allows for much faster information processing, increased creativity, and improved performance. In studies of athletes entering a flow state, significantly greater performance is the most typical result, and psychological effects such as perceived time distortion have been reported. In EEG studies, athletes’ brains in a flow state are dominated by alpha and theta-band waves, associated with meditation, prayer, and subconscious thought.
Practitioners can enter a meditative trance while completing a complex physical task, allowing them to remain completely focused and maximize performance. Effects outside of a strict lab environment can be even stronger, and the practice of meditation has seen a huge rise in the world of professional sports. Especially relevant to this topic is the world of high-level mixed martial arts fighters, whose sport most closely replicates pre-firearm combat. Many fighters with dominant runs in the UFC have described achieving flow mid-fight and suddenly becoming unstoppable – against another similarly-sized, highly trained, and well-conditioned fighter. This isn’t simply a moment of remembering their training, like it is typically depicted in media, but rather an entirely different mental state, demonstrably calmer on a neurological level, which instantly raises a fighter’s skill. No flash of doubt distracts from the task at hand; no conscious thoughts cause any moments of hesitation. This state certainly explains some of the accounts of “unstoppable” warriors, who had just spent a significant period meditating and visualizing the fight ahead.
However, is this development in recent science not a rediscovery of the same concept, developed centuries ago? Sports psychology is a relatively new field, based on a distinctly materialist 21st-century scientific philosophy; and yet, through experimentation, scientists arrived at the same conclusions as the “superstitious” people of feudal Japan and Viking Age Scandinavia. These conclusions are inherently “spooky” because they deal with the mental world, and though neuroscientific analysis can shine a light on some of the mechanisms involved, there is still an air of unknowability to the study of the inner mind, and especially the state of flow. There is no formula for entering flow or fully harnessing the mind during a fight, and there is still no falsifiable theory on the psychological effects that a fighter in this state has on his opponent. For that reason, it eludes strict scientific description, and is too-quickly dismissed as “unscientific”.
The depth of the parallel between modern sports psychology and ancient ritual practice continues, though. Recent theories in sports psychology suggest that imitating the environment of a coming fight or event is an extremely helpful aspect of training – the volume of the stadium, the lighting, the smells, etc. There is no neuroscientific consensus on this practice, but the general theory states that by training in as close an environment to the actual event, athletes can “tune out” any distraction and more easily enter a flow state. By living in the elements, where a battle would occur, were warriors almost a millennium ago not doing exactly that? Another common practice in coaching fighters (although not yet fully studied) is to have a fighter drastically change his or her day-to-day during “fight camp”, the days and weeks leading up to the fight. This could involve dietary changes even after weight is made, staying at a hotel, training at a different location, etc. The aim of this practice is to induce a sort of dissociation, whereby nothing exists in an athlete’s mind except the coming fight. Once again, is this not a revival of the same practice, or at least its essence?
Somehow, through quantitative scientific research with cutting-edge technology, modern academia has arrived at the same conclusions as the “superstitious folk of centuries past” – the same people whose beliefs would be scorned by modern science for their blind adherence to religious rituals and lack of evidence-based research.
So, then, these rituals are not a story of two unconnected cultures arriving at the same conclusion independently, but rather three. Viking raiders, feudal Japanese samurai, and modern sports psychologists working with professional MMA fighters somehow came to the same general consensus, from drastically different philosophical points of view.
In examining these similarities, we must ask: are these practices not occult in nature, or at least in their philosophical underpinnings? The belief that one can influence others or the surrounding world by controlling one’s consciousness through ritual meditation reaches back into ancient Greece, based on the cosmology of Plato and expanded upon by Apuleius. Many prominent occult figures throughout history have delved into this concept, including Aleister Crowley, who wrote on the arbitrary nature of ritual except as a method of inducing proper focus and intentions. Unknowingly, modern science has verified this conclusion by re-inventing (through experimentation and research) the same practices that were once religious or magical rituals. Whether modern science is the same as ancient magic, or ancient magic was instead an accidental manifestation of modern science, does not matter. What matters is that the practices in question clearly work, under strict laboratory conditions as well as in hectic, stressful situations. The cultures that modern academia would deride as blindly superstitious were not merely performing meaningless rituals out of superstition; rather, they were effectively using the power of the mind to heighten the skill of their warriors. These same methods have been brought back into use by the modern scientific community, with no notions of magic or religion involved, simply because they function exactly as intended and described by the societies who initially used them.
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On a philosophical level, though, the common thread among the three systems of thought is panpsychist in nature. The Vikings and samurai interpreted these rituals through their somewhat animistic religious systems, and modern scientists interpret them through the lens of materialism and psychology. All three, however, agree that by focusing one’s consciousness under certain conditions, one can achieve greater control over oneself, and by extension, the surrounding world. This is not merely control over one’s thoughts or actions – the aim of these rituals is to focus one’s mental state to such an extent that one can mentally and physically dominate an opponent who is actively trying to cause as much harm as possible. This increased control over a fight may come from the power of psi (as Dean Radin might say), religion, or merely from the power of one’s own mind over body; but once again, it does not matter. Fundamentally, what is important is that these ritual practices allow a practitioner to focus their consciousness, enter an altered state, and control some aspect of their mind or the world that they had not previously been able to. According to most historical sources in the occult tradition, that is magic, no matter how the mechanism works.
So, by drawing these comparisons, especially between modern science and ancient “superstition”, hopefully we can see that ritual magic throughout history was not necessarily blind superstition, only important for religious or cultural reasons. Perhaps it was held in such high regard because it worked.
Selected Sources & Further Reading:
Price, Neil S. The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.
Price, Neil S. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings.
Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions.
Miyamoto Musashi, translated by David K. Groff. The Five Rings: Miyamoto Musashi's Art of Strategy.
Cummins, Antony. Dark Side of Japan - Ancient Black Magic, Folklore, Ritual.
Evola, Julius. Metaphysics of War.
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