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…”