What is Trance?

by Margaret Jones
Why is it so important to define trance to understand shamanism? No matter what definition of the word “shaman” someone chooses to use—there are many, and much disagreement—most of the people that will be included in this category will have at least one thing in common. In order to serve their community by doing things like healing, chasing away drought and famine, guiding the dead to the underworld, etc., they will enter a trance in which they access a spirit world that is invisible to the untrained eye. Trance is so prevalent among religious practitioners who are often called shamans that many people who study shamans actually base their definition of who is or is not a shaman on whether or not they experience trance. These scholars argue that only religious practitioners who intentionally enter into a trance ought to be called shamans. So, it is easy to see how in order to understand what a shaman is, it is key to have a good idea of what a trance is too. Unfortunately, just like the word “shaman,” this is not as easy as looking the word up in the dictionary…

Definitions of trance

Like the word ‘shaman,’ ‘trance’ has many definitions. A psychiatrist, for example, would probably use a very different definition than an anthropologist (a person who studies cultures), who again might use a very different definition than someone like a writer, priest, or shaman. Even two different anthropologists, psychiatrists, priests, or shamans might have very different opinions on what the word means.

All of these people would probably agree, however, that trance is an example of an ‘altered state of consciousness’ (ASC for short), that is, being in a state of mind that is different from the ordinary waking one that you are—probably—experiencing as you read this. Dreaming, extreme exhaustion, drunkenness, druggedness, meditation, spirit possession (common in many African religions), and other unusual states of mind like the deep absorption of an artist, musician, or actress in her work, and the euphoria that many people experience while participating in an exciting and crowded event like a concert, rally, or flash mob could all be called altered states of consciousness. Most people would probably not, however, consider all these ASCs to be trances.

So, which of these ASCs should qualify as trance, and which should not? This is where things get complicated.

The answer depends on who is writing the definition and how. A psychiatrist, for example, might define trance by bringing a group of people who experience some of the ASCs mentioned above into her office, having them meditate, dream, play music, etc., and then testing their reactions to various noises and sights in different parts of the room. She would observe that some of her subjects (the people whom she is studying) react more to these sights and sounds and some less and come up with a definition of trance based on their reactions.

Many anthropologists who study trance, however, would likely find this definition extremely unhelpful. Most anthropologists are interested in how people behave outside of a testing room in their everyday surroundings. Thus, anthropologists often study people by interviewing and observing them in their natural environments, rather than by bringing them into an office and taking scientific measurements of their behavior. An anthropologist would likely come up with a definition of trance by going to the homes of several different people and observing as they enter an ASC under the same circumstances that they normally do. The anthropologist would then interview the person who experiences the ASC and the people in his or her community and come up with a definition based on things like the reason that the person enters an ASC, what the experience is like for him or her and for the community, whether or not it has a function in the community, and what methods the person uses to enter an ASC.

Thus, whereas a psychiatrist might arrive at a definition of trance along the lines of “a state of altered consciousness characterized by heightened focal awareness and reduced peripheral awareness,”(Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine) an anthropologist would likely define trance as something more along the lines of “an ASC entered by a religious practitioner in which he or she communicates with beings or forces beyond ordinary perception.”

These two definitions of trance would probably include quite different groups of people. For example, say that the anthropologist and psychiatrist were each asked to determine if two different subjects were entering trance. One of the subjects is a New York businesswoman who meditates each day before work in order to cope with her stressful job. As she drifts into an ASC, she listens to a CD of Native American drum music, and she pictures resolving problems and having successful meetings with clients. The other subject is an Evenki man from Siberia. When sick people from his community come to him to be healed, he plays on a drum and enters an ASC where he communicates with spirits who will help him to chase away his patient’s illness. The reactions of each of these subjects to outside distractions might look very similar to the psychiatrist, and she might decide that both of them were indeed experiencing trance. However, despite their similarities, the anthropologist would argue that only the Evenki man is experiencing trance, not because he appears to be a shaman and is a member of a remote and exotic people, but purely because he enters an ASC in order to communicate with a spirit world that cannot ordinarily be seen or heard.

(How would a shaman who actually experiences it define trance? Unfortunately, this has proved rather difficult to discover. If any readers come across an interview that answers this question or actually know a shaman who could answer it, the author would love to know!)

Shamanic trances

In this article, we will be looking specifically at the trances that shamans experience. That is trances rather than trance because, although in some ways they are often very similar, trances experienced by different shamans can be quite different. Shamans from different cultures traditionally enter trances in different ways, and the experience for both the shaman and the observers can be wildly different.

How do shamans enter a trance?

There are three common tools that shamans all over the world use to enter trance. You can think of them as the “Three D’s”: Drumming, Dancing, and Drugs. Many shamans use all three, but plenty of others use only one or two to successfully achieve a trance. Which ones they use mostly depends on the traditions of their culture, but personal preference is often involved too. Tobacco and alcohol, for example, are frequently used by shamans all over the world before trance, although in many of these places they have been introduced rather recently and therefor are not strictly part of what we outsiders might think of as ancient shamanic tradition. Like every human phenomenon, shamanism—ancient though it may be—is always changing and evolving. Its ability to adapt is probably why it is still around today!

Drumming is perhaps the most widespread tool used by shamans to enter trance. Shamans all over the world use the rhythmic sounds of percussion instruments—drumming, rattling, tapping a stick, and even rhythmic chanting—to draw them into trance. Evenki shamans in Northern Siberia beat on reindeer skin drums, and Sora shamans in India tap with a stick on the horns of a beheaded buffalo and chant in melody. In North and South America, many shamans shake rattles, and in South and Southeast Asia some rhythmically swish a handful of rice in a winnowing fan as they drift into trance. In many cases, people from the shaman’s community add to the rhythm, clapping, stomping, or chanting with the beat.

Dancing often accompanies drumming. Siberian shamans dance as they beat on their reindeer hide drums, imitating the movements of animals and birds whose qualities they wish to emulate. Dancing is also traditional among Chinese and Japanese shamans. In some cases, people from the shaman’s community join in the dance. In Korea, for example, a shaman who is healing a patient using trance changes costume as she dances to display her connection to royal and bureaucratic spirits. The patient—if he is able—and all his family and friends dance with her. Among the San of South Africa, people from the shaman’s community dance, clap, and chant with the shaman with such enthusiasm and abandon that many of them apparently enter an ASC themselves!

Shamans in South and Central America are probably the most famous—or perhaps I should say infamous—for using the third “D,” drugs, to enter trance. You might have heard before about Native American shamans in the Southwestern United States who eat hallucinogenic peyote cactus buds in order to have spiritual visions. Because of the United State’s regulations on drugs, this practice has caused a great deal of public controversy over the years. In fact, the use of drugs to induce trance can be found among shamans everywhere from the Americas to South Africa to Siberia.

Although the examples that everybody likes to talk about are the hallucinogens like peyote (probably because the idea of a community tolerating and even celebrating the use of such “strong” drugs seems shocking and weird to many people), the familiar drugs tobacco and alcohol are probably the most widespread and commonly used among shamans. Shamans all over the world, from North America—where it grows naturally—to Siberia to India, use tobacco before they enter into trance, and many also use alcohol in combination.

Unlike tobacco and alcohol which are frequently brought in from outside, shamans prepare the hallucinogenic drugs that they use from plants that grow naturally in the area where they live. It is important to keep in mind that shamans do not use these drugs casually or for recreational purposes. To shamans, the hallucinogenic plants that they use are not simply tools used to induce trance, but are powerful and respected spirits themselves, and by ingesting them, a shaman is able to take on the spirits’ useful powers. The visions that they produce are not seen as an alternate reality, but rather are believed to reveal a true reality that is hidden from ordinary perception. (V 85) They enable shamans to access this hidden world in order to communicate with the unseen forces that affect their community’s everyday life. When shamans travel to this unseen world, they put themselves in great danger both spiritually and physically in order to act as an ambassador for their people, taming deadly forces like illness and famine, and securing the help of friendly ones. The use of these hallucinogenic drugs has been perfected by shamans over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, so one should not get the impression that simply because these substances cause hallucinations they can be taken by any non-shaman who wishes to experience trance. In many cases non-shamans participating in a ceremony are allowed take the drug along with the shaman so that they may share in the shamans visions, but only under special circumstances under the watchful eye of the shaman who is a trained expert. This is for good reason, because they can be dangerous and even deadly when taken incorrectly.

In North and South America, shamans use about a hundred different species of native plant to help induce trance. In North America, peyote, deadly jimson weed (datura), and rapidly inhaled strong tobacco are commonly used to induce hallucinations. South America, though, is the area with the most common ritual use of hallucinogenic plants. Some of the more common methods are ingesting strong tobacco snuff or the leaves of the Banisteriopsis vine, native to the lowland tropical forests. Like any drug, they have their negative side effects: All of these methods are liable to produce nausea and vomiting along with the desired visions.
Although fewer species of plant are used in Europe and Asia, shamans in these regions use hallucinogenic substances as well. The most famous example is probably the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), used in Siberia, Central Asia, and Northern India. You have probably seen pictures or drawings of this picturesque mushroom, which has a thick white stem and a bright red cap with white spots. In fact, this mushroom is so potent that it is said that a shaman may induce trance by consuming the urine of another person—or, in Siberia, a reindeer—who has recently eaten one. This method of using fly agaric, though horrifying to the squeamish, is probably a wise one. Like North American jimson weed, it is quite deadly if taken incorrectly.

Why do shamans enter trance?

As we know from the definition of trance used in this article, shamans enter trance in order to communicate with forces that are ordinarily hidden and inaccessible to people as they go about their everyday lives. Scholars who study shamans usually refer to these forces as spirits and the invisible world that they inhabit as the spirit world.

Although people can ordinarily not see it, the spirit world is everywhere and ever present, and people are constantly, though often unknowingly, affected by it as they go about their everyday lives. It exists parallel to our own, often occupying the same spaces, but is invisible to the naked eye. For example, imagine that a Central Asian farmer clears what appears to be an empty swath of land on the edge of town for a new field, but unbeknownst to him, a spirit was already using the trees that he chopped down as beanpoles to grow a flourishing crop of beans! Soon the farmer becomes sickly and his crops are devastated by pests and disease. He goes to a local shaman for help. She enters a trance and communicates with the offended spirit who lost his bean crop and discovers that the angry spirit is causing the farmer’s crops to fail and his health to deteriorate. When she returns, she informs the farmer and tells him how he can right things with the angry spirit, perhaps by making an offering or leaving the offending field.

In many cases, the shaman not only communicates with beings from the spirit world, but goes on long and perilous journeys through it, flying or climbing up its dizzying heights or down to its menacing depths to seek out spirits that reside there, sometimes even traveling great distances horizontally to far away lands in order to check on clients’ traveling loved ones. Shamans may go on these journeys to guide the souls of the dead to the underworld or to seek out a specific spirit to ask for good fortune.

There are many, many reasons why shamans need to communicate with or enter this alternate universe of spirits, too many to list here. But in general the reason will always be to intervene in the spirit world on the behalf of their community. This can mean everything from chasing away nasty spirits that cause things like illness and drought to attracting useful ones that bless their community with good fortune and health to guiding the souls of the dead through the spirit world to their final resting place.
What is shamanic trance like for the people watching?When a shaman enters a trance, he or she is rarely, if ever, alone. Trance is often part of an elaborate ceremony in which many ordinary people who do not enter trance themselves participate as helpers and observers.

It is impossible to give a general description of what shamanic trance is like for the people attending the ceremony, but I will do my best to express some of the variety that can be found. As you can probably imagine, a ceremony that involves drumming and dancing would likely be very different from one that involves hallucinogenic drugs, and a healing ceremony might look quite different from one that is meant to ask spirits for good fortune during a hunt. Even two different shamans who use the same methods can have very different ceremonies. Just like two artists who both use water color can make wildly different paintings, two shamans who both use drumming and dancing to enter trance can produce a very different experience for their observers.

Many shamans wear beautiful elaborate costumes for the ceremony, which is usually quite beautiful, elaborate, and symbolic itself. Some shamans recount their journey into the spirit world to their audience step by step, keeping their audience on tenterhooks as they navigate the dangers that await them there. Some speak to the audience in the voices of the spirits that they meet. The Sora in India may even converse with the spirit of a deceased loved ones through a shaman during trance. Some shamans go into convulsions, sweat or get goosebumps, foam at the mouth, or lapse into a still silence that could almost be sleep. Sometimes the audience simply watches and listens, but, as mentioned above, in many cases they join in, dancing, adding to the rhythm of the drums, or in some cases even taking hallucinogenic substances with the shaman.

This excerpt from anthropologist and trained shaman Barbera Tedlock’s excellent book about the neglect and discrediting of female shamans by Western scholars, The Woman In the Shaman’s Body, will give readers a taste of what a Northern Mongolian shamanic trance might look like. Several shamans participate in this ceremony, held at an ancestral shrine on a forested mountain peak, led by an experienced woman shaman who enters trance:

“As I watched with a crowd of intent onlookers, the shamans bowed in four directions and dipped wooden spoons, each marked by nine indentations, into a bowl of fermented mare’s milk. They flipped the milk into the air, prayed, and made offerings to the protector spirits of sky, earth, and water. Then they dipped their fingers into a shot glass of vodka and flicked the alcohol in each direction. As the ceremony progressed, they chanted and played mouth harps. A woman shaman named Bayar Odun began to beat her drum, establishing a rhythm that resembled a horse’s trotting gait, and soon the others joined her.

“Gradually she accelerated into a smooth canter, and then sped it up to a wild, rough gallop. Glowing with energy from this spiritual journey, she played the drum louder and faster than anyone else. The wooden frame of her “drum horse” was so large that she was able to put her entire head inside the rim and use it as a resonating chamber for her voice. The reindeer-skin drumhead boomed out as Bayar sang and talked with the spirits or scolded them. The sounds she made—a range of birdcalls, whistles, hoots, shrieks, cries, and roars—struck me as eerie and wonderful.

“Singing steadily, Bayar raised her drum above her head and twisted her body toward the left, deflecting the spirits she encountered on her flight into the sky. From time to time she took possession of a spiritual being that howled like a wolf or growled like a bear.
“Suddenly she shuddered and collapsed backward, her limbs rigid and her back arched. Her family was ready for this moment. They caught her from behind and retrieved the huge wooden drum as it bounced and rolled away. After a few minutes an assistant waved some smoldering juniper leaves under her nose in order to revive her…”

What is trance like for the shaman?

Not surprisingly, just as different shaman’s trances can be very different experiences for the observers, they can be very different experiences for the shaman as well. Generally, when a shaman leaves this world during a trance he enters another that is fraught with danger. While his body remains with his assistants, observers, patients, participants, etc., the shaman’s soul goes on a perilous journey through the invisible world of spirits. Where he goes depends on the nature of his task. If he is guiding the soul of a deceased person, he might travel down to the underworld, if he needs to communicate with spirits that inhabit the upper regions of the spirit world to negotiate the health of a patient, he might fly up on the back of a reindeer or in a canoe, train, or even airplane. Shamans have even been known to travel within the spirit world to places in the native landscape that have spiritual significance and across oceans to countries that they have never visited in order to check on a client’s loved ones. The danger on these journeys generally comes from hostile, indifferent, or hungry spirits, who may harm or try to eat the shamans traveling soul.

This excerpt from anthropologist Piers Vitebsky’s excellent book, Shamanism, is a short description of what a Sora shaman from India might experience during a trance:
“A Sora shaman fasts on the morning of a journey to the underworld, although she may drink alcohol and smoke tobacco. An assistant lights a lamp which will be kept burning in the darkness below throughout the shaman’s journey. The shaman sits down with her eyes closed and her legs stretched out straight in front of her. Then, perhaps beating a steady pulse with s stick or knife, or else swishing grain around with a winnowing fan, she sings a song calling on a succession of former shamans who are now dead. The journey which she is about to undertake is an impossible one for ordinary people, who will eventually make it once only, when they die, and with no hope of returning to their bodies.

“The earth and the underworld are linked by a huge tree, down which she must clamber. The path includes dizzying precipices on the descent to the “murky sun country, cock-crow-light country”. In order to make this journey, the shaman’s soul “becomes” a monkey, like those of the shamans who have gone before her. After some minutes of singing, her voice peters out and her head flops down on her breast meaning that her soul has departed.”

© Margaret Jones