Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe?

The late Poet Laureate uniquely occupied the Laureate’s chair with a bardic sensibility to the inherent presences of the land and those that live within it. His poetry and prose balance on the boundary of outer and inner worlds, and often offer a mediating passage between the worlds for the reader. Here, Brian Taylor addresses the shamanic implications throughout Hughes’ work.

Fascination with shamanism shows little sign of abating. We now have ready access to discussions of the complexity and diversity of both traditional and neo-shamanic practices, debates about authenticity and appropriation in relation to the latter, and critical commentary on Mircea Eliade, Carlos Castaneda and Michael Harner. [1] With the possible exception of Carl Jung, however, relatively little attention has been paid to assessing the contribution of Western cultural figures whose voices have been hailed as shamanic. This could, of course, be because the s-word has often been used loosely, but in the case of Ted Hughes, whose birthplace happens to be a tome’s throw from the editorial office of Northern Earth, talk of a shamanic element in the poetry relates substantively to the poet’s long standing beliefs, practices, and commitments. [2] My intention here is to consider the sober-suited laureate, and his younger selves, as precursors of today’s multifariously be-cloaked, be-feathered, and sometimes multi-qualified, neo-Shamans.

Piers Vitebsky has described shamanism as ‘a cross-cultural form of religious sensibility and practice’. Neophytes, chosen by spirits, typically undergo an initiatory period of illness or madness involving terrifying visions of dismemberment and reconstitution. They then learn to make soul journeys on behalf of their communities, or for individual clients, in order to heal, protect from harm, facilitate hunting, or, in some contexts, kill enemies. [3,4] Until Stalinist persecution drove a remnant tradition underground, Siberian shamans typically worked with spirits during dramatic public performances. This distinguishing feature has been attributed to an unusual degree of social acceptance of gifts that probably occur in all human communities, but which have been devalued to the point of cultural invisibility in the West. [5] Since the mid-20th century, however, the very shamans once caricatured as superstitious savages have been recuperated as all-wise healers, in a reverse discourse reflecting Western yearnings for a Golden Age of primordial intimacy with nature. [6]

This sea-change in values has shrouded the s-word in a protective aura that becomes problematic, for instance, where the shaman is envisaged as a normatively masculine ‘wild man’, far removed from the fluid constructions of gender encountered in various indigenous traditions. [7] From this perspective it might seem that when Seamus Heaney responded to Ted Hughes’ appointment as Poet Laureate by proclaiming him ‘shaman of the tribe’, he was invoking the talismanic property of the term in response to accusations directed against Hughes since the suicides of both his first wife Sylvia Plath, and subsequent partner Assia Wevill. Advocates for the importance of Hughes’ work have reviewed the tangle of controversy surrounding an eventful and remarkably productive life. As might be expected, much of the published material has been partisan, sometimes to the point of breaching good biographical practice, but with the passage of time a more nuanced picture has emerged of a complex and heart-rending story. [8]

Because shamanic sensibility is culturally specific, and typically awakens during periods of existential crisis, Ted Hughes’ personal story, in which a prolonged and almost unimaginable sequence of bereavements is pivotal, is by no means peripheral to the question at hand. The poetry of Wodwo, Crow, Gaudete, Cave Birds and beyond undoubtedly emerges from contested biographical terrain, but much of it, ironically, was concerned with a White Goddess-inspired proto- and pro-feminist struggle to heal and resolve anguish on both personal and collective levels. [9] There are many testimonies to Hughes’ generosity and kindness. He was arguably well ahead of his time in taking his first wife’s work as seriously as his own, in establishing an egalitarian childcare routine with her, in engaging closely with his children, in refusing to medicalise her expressions of distress, and in his environmentalism. Furthermore, Seamus Heaney’s declaration that he was a shaman was far from simply a protective gesture. We don’t have to re-invent Ted Hughes the Superstitious Savage as an all-wise healer, however, in order to appreciate his often astonishing poetry, or ponder its relevance to contemporary neo-Shamanism.

Formative years

As a young boy, Hughes had a robust introduction to the natural world. He often mentioned early memories of playing with toy animals and drawing animals. His much older brother Gerald would tell stories about American Indian hunters, whilst shooting and trapping innumerable small creatures in the Calder Valley countryside, and sending an eager Ted to retrieve their bodies. Young Ted was also introduced to his lifelong passion for fishing, and taken to a local pub to see Billy Red killing rats with his teeth. He made three attempts to keep foxes, once seeing his cubs torn apart by dogs. A first-person story based on the brothers’ last expedition involves rescuing a fox cub with the help of what may have been a fox spirit. [10]

The formative landscape of Gerald and Ted Hughes’ early years; the arrow indicates his house (to the rear behind the gable)

When the family moved to Mexborough, Gerald left home to become a gamekeeper in Devon. Ted was bereft, but continued trapping and killing small birds and mammals, sold mouse skins at school, and developed an obsession with pike. One day he climbed a bank and found himself within inches of a fox that had been climbing up the other side. Hard as it is to imagine in the era of Springwatch, he felt as though he had the animal world to himself. When Ted was 11, Tarka the Otter‘s North Devon became his magical landscape, projected over the fields of Old Denaby. By the age of 12 he was writing poetry, and during his mid-teens he began to see creatures from their own point of view. He would come to regard poems as comparable to animals, insofar as they have lives of their own, and believed that if a poem was good enough, it could summon the spirit of a real animal. [11]

As a student at Cambridge in the 1950s, Hughes had a powerful dream in which a burned and bleeding fox-headed figure walked into his room, leaving bloody paw prints on the page he was struggling to write. This prompted him to abandon English Literature for Archaeology and Anthropology. [12 ] Sceptics might argue that given his boyhood experiences this was an unsurprising image for the frustrated poet’s angst, but the dream undoubtedly galvanised his commitment to poetry. When Hughes discovered the literature of shamanism it seemed to encompass everything that was already important to him, his passion for wild creatures and for folklore, his vibrant dream life, and of course, poetic performance. There can be little doubt that he would have understood the fox dream as a visitation from his totem animal as spirit helper, and perhaps as a ‘threshold call’. [13]

In 1964 Hughes became an early populariser of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism. Taking his cue from Eliade’s concluding eulogy to the power of lyric poetry, he claimed that initiation dreams, shamanic flight and encounters with otherworldly figures, were also fundamental to the romantic poetic temperament. Shamanism suggested ways of addressing the alienated soul-state of Western civilisation, a state of separation from both outer nature and our own animal/spiritual nature. [14] From this point on Hughes consistently linked poetry with shamanism, emphasising the healing and regenerative function of both. [15]

Commemorative plaque on Ted Hughes’ birthplace, 1 Aspinall St., Mytholmroyd (now replaced with a blue plaque)

Skulls, bones and spirit music

In an interview conducted in 1970, Hughes talked about the shaman going to the spirit world in search of a cure, or to request some urgent intervention in community affairs. How were poets to accept the call in a culture that invalidated even the possibility of such work? During the previous year he had asked his brother for eagle claws and fox skulls, and reported keeping a dead badger’s teeth for a rosary, and its bones for anklets, drumsticks and sundry operations. Recalling their early adventures, he told Gerald he’d like to end up looking like a ‘red Indian shaman’. [16] Make of this what you will, but in some ways Ted Hughes’ world-view already resembled that of a tribal shaman. Like many indigenous shamans, Hughes believed that occult powers could run in families. [17] His psychically gifted mother’s ancestors included a martyred 16th-century bishop, and a founder of the religious community of Little Gidding. He identified with her Celtic heritage and totemic creatures associated with it, such as the hawk and salmon.

Like most indigenous shamans, Hughes accorded great importance to dreams. From an early age, and throughout his life, he had recurrent dreams of a plane crashing, often in flames, and turning into a spectral creature, such as the swan/angel evoked at the culmination of Remains of Elmet. [18] Someone suggested to him that these dreams were related to spirit flight. From adolescence there were recurrent dreams of pike, then salmon, and probably foxes. In 1961, when working on an oratorio of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a filmic dream with verse subtext was repeated twice in its entirety, and became the basis for a radio play. [19]

Like most shamans, Hughes was protective of the intimacies of spiritual practice, and regretted, for example, that he’d gone public about the burnt and bleeding fox-figure dream. Like many shamans he was also alert to the possibility of hostile magic, and for this reason discouraged publication of his photograph, and probably falsified astrological details in Birthday Letters. [20] Seen from this perspective, his reticence was clearly not simply a matter of temperament or gendered habit. According to Eliade, one of the functions of the shaman is to contribute towards an understanding of death as a rite of passage. Even before his own exceptional and harrowing experiences of bereavement Ted Hughes began guiding readers to contemplate their own death. [21]

If David Abram is right, the core function of a tribal shaman is to mediate between human and more-than-human worlds. Many oral cultures respond to ‘the shifting sounds and gestures’ of the animate earth, but the shaman specialises in dissolving perceptual boundaries and transcending the constraints of ordinary language. This dangerous work enables her to negotiate with non-human intelligences and keeps the perceptual membrane of the culture open to the presences, powers and mysteries of the natural world. [22] Abram’s description recalls Hughes’ notion that the key element in human language is ‘animal music’, and his belief that certain virtuosic creatures can catch the attention of spirits. It suggests he was doing similar work, albeit in a very different context. [23] Abram argues that countless anthropologists have overlooked this crucial ecological dimension of the shaman’s craft. [24] Some of Hughes’ keenest advocates are eco-critics who celebrate his biocentric perspective. Terry Gifford, for example, developed the notion of post-pastoral poetry, a key feature of which is a recognition of the processes of death inherent in a creative/destructive universe, around qualities found in Hughes’ work and epitomised in Cave Birds. [25]


Vital imaginative contact

Ted Hughes’ contemplative identification with other-than-human beings was often reciprocated. There are reports of occurrences that some, following Jung, would call synchronicities, and others might call signs, but which, partly in order to keep psychoanalysis at arm’s length, I prefer to call showings. [26]

For example, in January 1955, when writing about the snarl of a caged jaguar, he imagined a fly getting into a sleeping sheepdog’s nostril, and the dog trying to bite it. As he was writing this down, a blue fly crossed the very cold room, where no fly had flown for several months, and lodged in the poet’s nostril. Hughes extracted the insect and pressed it into his Shakespeare. This was the only time a bluefly ever got up his nostril. He was 24 at the time, and hadn’t yet published a book of poems. [27] Critical responses to his first collection, which included The Thought Fox, provoked a determination to develop a distinctive voice rooted in lived experience. Once again Hughes turned his attention towards animal manifestations of the sacred, and incorporated magical and divinatory procedures into his writing practice. The resulting series of poems for his 1960 collection Lupercal includes ‘View of a Pig’, written in the manner of crafting a spell, and his signature poem ‘Pike’, evoking a ‘magically solid’ creature, both ancestral dream figure and ordinary living fish. [28]

‘An Otter’ was written specifically at the suggestion of Pan, a spirit Hughes contacted using a ouija board. Pan was apparently dissatisfied with the poet’s initial draft and offered to help. Some days later, when Hughes was working on something else, he became aware of a scroll hanging in the air to his right. The barely discernible text turned out to be the complete second part of the poem. [29] He had yet to read Eliade, who tells us that the amphibious otter is venerated by Ojibway shamans, but given that Pt.2 of the poem celebrates the animal’s ability to remain undetected at the water surface, alert to messages from other worlds as it were, this act of attunement arguably prefigures an encounter that happened a few years later, shortly after Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had moved to Devon. [30] On the first morning of the 1962 trout season, Hughes was approaching the River Taw at dawn, when an otter jumped out of a ditch, bobbed along ahead of him, and disappeared into the water. Since river otters are notoriously elusive, this was an auspicious introduction to the river he would later spend many years campaigning to save from agrochemical pollution. Moreover, because the Taw was one of Tarka’s two rivers, it could hardly have been more biographically resonant. Hughes was apparently shocked by the realisation that he had entered his boyhood dream. He never saw an otter there again during thousands of hours’ fishing, both night and day, until some were re-introduced in the early 1990s. [31]

Fishing remained a focus for Hughes’ poetic magic. Earth Numb was written on the eve of a fishing season to lure salmon, but as a hunter’s prayer it emphasises predatory encounter rather than elements such as reciprocity, gratitude and communality, that characterise tribal first-salmon ceremonies. [32]

Reservations and recommendations

Whilst some critics lampooned Hughes’ belief in ‘mumbo-jumbo’, many others trace a shamanic thread in the mature work from Wodwo onwards. [33] Their discussions illuminate some obscure material, but need to be read with caution. Whereas Hughes was significantly influenced by Jung, many critics use his schema to psychologise shamanism. [34] Debate about Hughes’ early ‘poetry of violence’ resurfaces around depictions of phallic violence in two explicitly shamanic collections, Crow and Gaudete. Although Hughes was critiquing Western patriarchal culture in the wake of the holocaust and the atomic bomb, and wrote with propitiatory intent, even supportive critics found too many ‘facile poems of violence and apocalypse’ in Crow. [35] His reliance on Jung may account for both a belief in expressing horrific imagery as a way of invoking and controlling negative forces, and a tendency to portray intuition, emotion and sexuality in terms of a generic feminine principle. [36]

Clearly Ted Hughes’ sense of the necessity of honouring a Gravesian Goddess by rekindling a long-lost animal-spiritual sensibility needs to be assessed in relation to the cultural context of his time, and reconsidered in relation to present-day conditions and understandings. [37] That said, his influential environmental campaigning, including setting up the Sacred Earth Drama Trust to promote ecological awareness amongst children, seems unambiguously exemplary. [38] His ability to engage with both spirit worlds and the science of water pollution, his mythological and esoteric pluralism, his critical perspective on creative mythography, his sense of how lore can mediate the appearance of cosmic and animal powers, and his discussion of visionary poetry all seem relevant to current debates about neo-shamanism. And then there’s the poetry itself.


1 Hutton, 2001; Harvey, 2003; Wallis, 2003.

2 Some commentators reserve ‘shamanic’ for practices that resemble Siberian shamanism. Blain (2002:3) defines it as implying “community sanction and structuring of ecstatic/magical practice”. See also Gordon MacLellan, in Harvey (2003:371-3). ‘Shamanistic’ often implies a diluted or inauthentic variant, but this usage risks reinforcing an idealised notion of the shaman. Some Western figures with no involvement in ecology have been called shamanic. See Hughes’ discussion of other poets in Winter Pollen, 1994:271-2.

3 Vitebsky, 1995: 8-11, 57, 59.

4 The term ‘shaman’ has long been used beyond its Siberian heartland, where the second syllable is accentuated, and now functions as a loan word in many languages. Harvey, 2003:2.

5 Hutton , 2001:145, 149.

6 Wallis, 2003:62-3, citing Alice Kehoe.

7 Wallis, 2003:66-7, 230-233.

8 Roberts, ‘The Plath Wars’, 2007:85-98. Gifford, 2009. Hughes, 1998. Middlebrook, 2003. Reid, 2007.

9 Graves , 1946/1960. Hughes, 2003. Roberts, ‘The Shaman Poet and Masculine Guilt’, 2007:99-120. Skea, 2005.

10 Sagar, 2006:104, 146.

11 Hughes, 1994:10-15.

12 Sagar, 2006:40-46.

13 We can’t be sure when he first read about shamanism. See Reid, 2007:579-581, but also Roberts, 2007:19-21, 5-12.

14 Eliade, 1989; Hughes, 1994:56-59, 129-130 and essays on other shaman poets.

15 Skea, 1994:10.

16 Faas, 1980:206. Reid, 2007:294.

17 Hutton, 2001:69 argues that Eliade played down this aspect of Siberian shamanism.

18 Hughes, ‘The Angel’, Hughes & Godwin, 1979:124-5.

19 Hughes, 1995:viii.

20 Ann Skea, ‘Birthday Letters, Poetry and Magic’, http://ann.skea.com/THHome.htm

21 Eliade, 1989:509-510. Gifford & Roberts, 1981:85-6, identify a poetry of death emerging in Wodwo. For Roberts, 2007:60, ‘The Wound’, a radio play based on the Bardo Thodol,“‘unnervingly suggests what it is like to die”.

22 Abram, 1996: 7-8, 256.

23 Roberts, 2007:9, citing a 1970 interview with Hughes from the Times Literary Supplement, 1 October 1971.

24 Abram, 1996:8-9.

25 Gifford, 1999 and 2009:139-147.

26 ‘Showing’ sounds less mechanistic to my ear than ‘synchronicity’, and suggests other-than-human agency, viz ‘hierophany’, an appearance or showing of the sacred. ‘Phenomenology’ derives from the Greek phainomenon,’that which shows itself’ (from phainō to bring into daylight, and pha– light or brightness). Heidegger, 1993:73.

27 Reid, 2007:586-588, where Hughes recounts a similar incident involving copulating flies landing on the nib of his pen.

28 Reid, 2007: 630-631.

29 Reid, 2007:721. Sagar, 2006:59.

30 Eliade, 1989:316-7 and a heavily Jungian summary in Hirschberg, 1981:15-18.

31 Reid, 2007:868, 724-5.

32 Gifford, 2009:59. Coates, 2006:149-153.

33 See Gifford, 2009, for references to work by Gifford, Roberts, Sagar, Skea, Faas, Hirschberg and Scigaj.

34 The birthcharts of Hughes and Jung share several key features. Brian Taylor’s readings of the horoscopes of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath appear in The Astrological Journal Jan/Feb 2009, Vol 51(1):52-9, and Sept/Oct 2009, 51(5):19-26.

35 Gifford & Roberts, 1981: 114.

36 Nathalie Anderson, ‘Ted Hughes and the Challenge of Gender‘, in Sagar, 1994:91-115. Scigaj, 1992: 16-18.

37 Sagar, 2006:14, 18-19; Reid, 2007:580-581. This portrayal of the Goddess seems to preclude her involvement in the rational affairs of public office, or science.

38 Gifford, 2009:22-3, 25-6.


Abram, David (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous, New York: Random House.

Blain, Jenny (2002) Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-shamanism in N European Paganism, London: Routledge.

Coates, Peter (2006) Salmon, London, Reaktion Books.

Eliade, Mircea (1964/1989) Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, London: Penguin Arkana.

Faas, Ekbert (1980) Ted Hughes, The Unaccommodated Universe, Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press.

Gifford, Terry (1999) Pastoral

– (2009) Ted Hughes, London: Routledge.

Gifford, Terry & Roberts, Neil (1981) Ted Hughes: A Critical Reader, London: Faber and Faber.

Graves, Robert (1946/1960) The White Goddess, London, Faber.

Harvey, Graham (2003) Shamanism: A Reader, London: Routledge.

Heidegger, Martin (1978/93) Basic Writings, London: Routledge.

Hirschberg, Stuart (1981) Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes, Dublin: Wolfhound Press

Hughes, Ted (1994) Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, London: Faber and Faber.

– (1995) Difficulties of a Bridegroom, London: Faber and Faber.

– (1998) Birthday Letters, London: Faber and Faber.

– (2003) Collected Poems, London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, Ted & Godwin, Fay (1979) Remains of Elmet, London: Faber and Faber.

Hutton, Ronald (2001) Shamans, Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination, London: Hambledon Continuum.

Middlebrook, Diane (2003) Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, A Marriage, New York: Penguin.

Reid, Christopher (ed.) (2007) Letters of Ted Hughes, London: Faber and Faber

Roberts, Neil (2007) Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Sagar, Keith (1994) The Challenge of Ted Hughes, Basingstoke: St Martin’s Press.

– (2006) The Laughter of Foxes, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Scigaj, Leonard (1992) Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, New York: G.K. Hall and Co.

Skea, Ann (1994) Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, Armidale: University of New England Press.

– (2005) ‘Creatures of Light’, http://ann.skea.com/Emory.htm.

Vitebsky, Piers (1995) The Shaman, London: MacMillan

Wallis, Robert J. (2003) Shamans/Neo-Shamans, Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans, London: Routledge.


Published in NE123 (Autumn 2010), pp.13-19