Research Report for the Ninth Conference of the International Society for Shamanistic Research meeting in Warsaw, Poland. October 5-9, 2011.
Religious Ecstatic Trance with the Singing Shaman
Cuyamungue: The Felicitas D. Goodman Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico, explores religious ecstatic trance, an alternate state of consciousness, induced by sensory overload (rattling, drumming, chanting, etc.) while holding a specific ritual posture for fifteen minutes. As I have argued elsewhere, the work of the Institute is not neo-Shamanism (Shaman, forthcoming). It conducts research on experiences in religious ecstatic trance using ritual body postures. In 2007, I reported the results of research on the Chiltan Spirits ritual body posture by the Annapolis Group of the Institute at the Eighth Conference of the International Society for Shamanistic Research Conference in Dobogokó, Hungary. (Pilch 2007). At this present Conference, I will share this group’s research results on the “Singing Shaman” posture. Approximately thirty-five participants investigated the posture in twenty-one research sessions between 1995 and 2010. An earlier and more general report was published in 2004 (Scott and Lazarus 2004).
I. The Singing Shaman Posture
Dr. Goodman’s research into inducing alternate states of consciousness discovered that bodily postures found in ancient art, on pottery, cave walls, and elsewhere are not simply artistic representations. They are rather ritual postures or instructions that produce specific experiences in alternate states of consciousness, viz., healing, metamorphosis or making changes for the better, divining solutions to problems or answers to question, etc. (Gore 1995: ix). Goodman first saw this posture in a woodcarving from a Northwest Coast fisherman dating from around the 19th century (Goodman 1986: 184-185; for an example of such a carving, see http://www.northwestcoastindian.com/fishing.html). Further research revealed that the posture seems to have been known on the island of Crete 5,000 years ago, since such a figurine is preserved there in the Heraklion Museum. Goodman named the posture “the Singing Shaman.” It has been found on material remains in Alaska, Crete, Siberia, Central America, Melanesia, and New Guinea among other places dating between 500 B.C. to 1300 A.D. (Goodman 1990: 144-145; Gore 1995:272-277). Thus it is basically known throughout the world.
Goodman’s instructions for this posture are:
Your feet are parallel and your knees are soft. Yo do not lock your knees. You roll your fingers, as I showed you with the healing posture, the thumb on top in a very relaxed fashion. This time you are going to touch the knuckles of your little fingers. This puts your hands far up and you bend your head slightly toward the back. … As I start rattling, you will start a sound. Let it go its own way. It will eventually sound very beautiful, something like a Gregorian chant. I will lead you in the beginning. You simply start with the most open of the vowels, a, and then you let the sound do as it wishes (Goodman 1986: 185).
Her final, more precise description of the posture reads thus:
Stand with your back straight and feet parallel, about six inches apart. Bend your knees slightly. Holding your upper arms close to your body, make your hands into loose fists (as though holding an egg), and bend your elbows so that your fists meet in the center of your chest (at the heart chakra) beneath your collar-bone, with only the knuckles of your little fingers touching. Face forward with your mouth open. During the trace, make a prolonged “aah,” but do not force the sound, let it come out naturally (See also Goodman and Nauwald 2003:149).
(Editors Note: images of Singing Shaman posture available at
The posture relates to the role of sound and/or singing in shamanic activity and trance experiences cross-culturally. What follows is a summary of the research reports from the Annapolis Group of the Cuyamungue Institute.
II. The Research Experiences
The report of individual experiences vary widely. It seems best, therefore, to present the reports under these headings: sound, other than audible perceptions (e.g., visuals), and messages or interpretations.
This is one of very few postures identified by Goodman that includes sound as an element. The research reports describe what participants experienced from other participants and from alternate reality, or the spirit world. For example, Heather first heard familiar sounds, then sounds with a rhythm (5/28/95). Richard heard many love songs, true love songs (5/28/95). Singing Shaman told him to tip his head way back, open his lungs, stretch the larynx and sing the song of the world (3/25/96). Jeanne thought she made nonsensical sound. Her voice changed like an animal calling its young. ( 9/22/96). On another occasion, she heard a ceremonial chant, a blessing way (3/25/96). Molly heard harmony with the same note ( 3/28/98). Jay heard a pleasing sound, harmonies. The group rises almost in unison in their pitches. Felicitas ululates, Alannah was speaking in tongues (Cuyamungue Institute, 6/10/2000). Pat felt sound moving around her, connected to a vibrational field outside. She felt like an instrument, a conduit of sound which had overwhelming beauty (12/5/2000). Imani was connected to the singing shamans in all cultures who were planting seeds in her mouth which would blossom into song (12/5/2000).
In another research session, Jay listened intently for the sound but never heard melodies. He didn’t hear anything, so he imagined the Sanctus from the Berlioz Requiem with its six sets of tympani. He repeated the Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus to himself attempting to replicate the experience of Isaiah 6 (4/17/2001). Jan tried to avoid harmony, but it just came (2/17/2001). Joan heard Brahms’ lullaby (4/17/2001). As Jay focused on the group’s vocalization in this posture on another occasion, the harmonies were good. “What kind of music has God prepared for alternate reality,” he wondered? The group harmonies were good, solid, energizing (4/2/2002). John M. heard very nourishing, harmonious voices. He began toning [harmonizing] (4/2/2002). For Pat, the rhythms and rattle sounded like a waterfall creating circles of sounds. Rattles and sound became one with color. Vibrational energy was healing (4/2/2002). Joan sounded in a low, guttural voice, though that is not at all what she wanted. She asked the spirits for help. Her whole body vibrated. The message she got was to use her voice every day (8/2/2005). These are representative of the sound experiences while holding this ritual posture.
B. Other perceptions
In addition to reporting vibrations, sounds, harmonies and melodies, researchers also reported visuals and messages. Goodman’s research with ritual postures in general observed that seeing and hearing (visuals and audio perceptions) are the principal experiences in trance. Touch, taste, and smell experiences are far fewer. Regarding this specific ritual posture (Singing Shaman), the usual imagery is meadows and skies. Sounds heard in this posture, as just noted, differ (Cuyamungue Institute, 6/10/2000).
Joan saw a turquoise color, then a mouse in the south. She also saw the hearts of the participants (5/28/95). Heather saw a heart, and Jesus came up behind her (5/28/95). Joanna had a profound sense of “traffic,” then a calming followed by a sense of two different realities with her having one foot in each world (5/28/95). Sue felt energy moving through her lower chakras (5/28/95). Melissa also related her experiences to her chakras. “It occurred to me that the singing shaman sang to tone the chakras, so after a little scaling up and down for resonance, I toned the chakras. I noted how breathless (note: other participants – including trained singers! – felt short of breath at different times during research sessions!). This lasted for the entire posture. Then I settled on the third chakra tone. I saw rosy lavender light and some gold” (9/10/02). On 3/25/03, Melissa “tried to find frequencies to hum or sound that seemed to resonate. The best were 4th and then 4th/5th level, mostly (G sharp, A). There was a little nausea at one point, then shortness of breath and soreness in my throat. No visuals” (3/25/2003).
On 10/21/95, five participants experienced dancing with the singing (Sue explicitly): Richard saw dancing on top of trees. He also saw himself and Joan dancing an Irish jog, while Wendy saw Joan dancing with a white buffalo. Judy saw energy dancing around like wormy wiggly lines that eventually went to the sky. Bobbie saw one Rabbi dancing with the Torah, then native American elders dancing around a fire. Joan was in the center, while everyone danced.
During the session on 3/25/96, participants took journeys. Judy was open to the song of the universe with stars all around the participants. Then she took a journey to the upper world and felt energy throughout her body. Sue felt tingling and also journeyed to stars on sound waves. Though initially feeling a vibration in her chest, she eventually had a total body experience. There was more dancing experience on 9/23/96. Heather saw her adult self dancing around in a circle. Joy was dancing and gave birth to a big bird egg. Judy felt sound moving through her body. She became a reed by the water’s edge howling at the sky. Her voice was great. On 4/25/98, Judy felt a song pour out and build a channel for flying. She saw a man flying, and then a bird flying. Also saw the purple color and a golden sun. On 11/17/99, three participants sensed a high degree of heat. Joan had the sense of being in hell. Stephanie felt much heat. And Joanne got a sense of zig-zag energy from the drum.
Animals appeared in the experiences on 10/20/96. Joanna saw many. Marsha identified with wolves, and how they feel singing to the starry sky. Others had kinesthetic experiences. Judy said the sound opened her heart and went down through her feet (also Judy on 2/23/98). Stephanie and Joan felt their entire bodies vibrate.
On 12/5/2000, Jay first saw a pale white color that turned into a yellow corn field (even though corn stalks are green!). Then the color switched back to white again (neurological indication of trance), and finally drawings of flames of red. In this same session, Imani felt a huge energy surge in her body, through her heart and ending in her kidneys. Her heart was like a fire, and there was dancing around her heart. April 17, 2001, John focused on the Call of Isaiah in chapter 6 of that book in the Bible. He recreated the scene in his mind, imagining the incense, having his lips purified with a hot coal. Eventually he felt the wings of the Seraphim beating around him. (The word “Seraphim” derives from the Hebrew verb that means “to burn.” It is plausible that Isaiah was staring at the fire in the Temple and imagined the flames to be fiery beings, or Seraphim). For Jay, the wings in his trance experience were not feathery nor boney but rather like soft fur in texture. Since he didn’t hear any sound or songs as Isaiah did, he imagined Dvorak’s Te Deum which begins with tympani. He experienced two kinesthetic or physiological effects: shortness of breath at the beginning which gave way to longer-lasting breaths. Second, his heart began to pound. Was this a flare up of blood pressure? Perhaps the explanation is easier. The little fingers touch in this posture, and this finger neurologically connects to the heart which can emit its sound and emotion through the throat. Joan in this same session saw the 18% gray card of the photographer which is indicative of balance, so she felt she received a message about balance. During this experience, she heard Brahms’ lullaby. Judy, who rattled to induce our trance, had an unusual experience in that she smelled meat cooking (raw to cooked), and in the end saw a white face. Recall that Goodman said the sense of smell was less involved in ASC experiences than sight and hearing.
During the workshop on 2/9/2002, Jay felt his sternum vibrate for the first time during a Singing Shaman posture. Chorus masters have often said that at some time during a performance, a chorister should feel the sternum vibrate. Thus this experience was mostly kinesthetic for him with accompanying emotions of peace, calm, wholeness and oneness.
Singing Shaman trance experiences have some though not many messages. As already noted, on 3/25/96, Richard was given instructions on how to sing (tip head way back, etc.), and to “sing the song of the world.” In that same session, Joanna’s “ah” changed to glossolalia, which however, Felicitas identifies as semantically vacuous syllables, the non communicative side of sound or language. Joanne also reported that the tones are like telling a story to a group, but she didn’t know what the story was.
In the research session with this posture on 12/4/2000, Imani, who had a very full and rich experience, heard a message: “to sing the name of God in all the languages of the world, in order to gather the people.” On 4/17/2001, Jay who had recreated in his trance the Call of Isaiah, also switched in his imagination to Ezekiel 8 and the mysterious group of twenty-five men who put the “branch to the nose” (Ezek 8:16-18; see Pilch 2011: 17-29) The aroma of the sage used for purification before the trance session still hung in the air, and he believed that aroma was contributory to this trance in which he felt calm, at peace, grounded, and sensed the presence of God very strongly. Lisa believes from her experience that the Singing Shaman uses singing to induce trance and then also changes into a song given in trance. “I have reached notes both high and low that I could never reach in my regular consciousness. The later stage is a trance song, and I also visualize” (4/17/2011).
John’s recurring interest during Singing Shaman trance experiences is curiosity about the kind of music that exists in alternate reality (4/2/2002). Is there such a thing as “harmony of the spheres” which the ancients described? Drawing on the reports of Second (Slavonic) Enoch, what kind of music will people sing in the company of God in the sky? (Pilch 2011: 73-88). In this same session, Melissa reflected on her experience as it was happening. She felt energy moving in the hips. Then she saw a sun, a symbol sun, followed by imagoes of NW Coast Raven and a Salamander, and some cups. She raised the sound she was making, and the images disappeared. She reflected on resistance to one’s own light and connectedness. There are many lights in this room and in the environs. We must extend this to the country.
During the last research session included in this report (2/23/2010), Jay was feeling Angst about something (not recorded). Singing Shaman is identified as a celebratory posture, and as the group began the posture and its sounds, he felt happy spirits returning joy to him. He briefly reviewed key ASC experiences in his life and began to recall the hymn “Veni Sancte Spiritus” as a sign of gratitude to the Holy Spirit. He often recalls fragments of hymns and chants, which upon returning home and transcribing the experience, he fills out in full to enrich the memory of the experience and to aid in reinterpreting it on future occasions.
Perhaps it is best to begin with a consideration of the posture named by Dr. Goodman as “Singing Shaman.” Anthropologists recognize that holy men and women of all cultures (indiscriminately called “shamans” after the Siberian Tungus Shamans) are individuals who have easy and ready access to the world of the spirits and are able to broker gifts from that world to human beings (Pilch 2004: 16-17). The routine means of accessing that world is by entering an alternate state of consciousness (ASC). According to Goodman, adopting the proper ritual body posture allows the holy person (or any person) to penetrate the boundary between consensual or ordinary reality and alternate reality. In addition, activities during trance such as singing, dancing, talking and the like, produce in the subject distinctive results relative to the specific ritual posture enacted (see Hoppál 2007: 206).
Holy persons who enter trance by singing (perhaps better, chanting) may receive a song in chant or compose one after coming out of trance (Courlander 1954). Such “singing shamans” contact the spirit word through their song and keep and share the knowledge that they learn in alternate reality through song. Very often their function was a healing one, since that is the main gift holy persons broker from the spirit world, the world of the deity. Such “singing shamans” healed with a musical medicine (Newham 1999). Later in history these developed into “bards,” troubadours, Minnesingers, and the like whose function was purely entertainment.
Lewis-Williams (2002: 223-226) gives a convincing anthropological and neurological explanation of how healing through music takes place. Visions (ASCs) speak, make animal or musical sounds and communicate. The sounds can be musical instruments or spirits (persons as well as animals) who communicate, give instructions, or teach songs. “Some of these sounds derive from neurologically induced aural sensations which shamans interpret in culturally specific ways…” (Lewis-Williams 2002: 223-224). He continues: “The effect of rhythmic sound, especially drumming and chanting, is widely recognized as a means of contacting the world of spirit.” In those cultures which believe that spirits cause illness (e.g., see Exod 15:26), a holy person such as the “singing shaman” is generally believed to be able to rid the person of these malevolent spirits. She or he thus affects the physical symptoms only indirectly. According to medical anthropology, this indeed is healing, namely, a restoration fo meaning to life no matter what the physical outcomes (Pilch 2000: 24-25).
Goodman initially classified the Singing Shaman and the Calling of the Spirits intuitively as celebration postures but does not seem to have given her reasons. Gore explored some possible explanations and interpretations based on the etymology of the Latin verb, celebrare (Gore 1995:261-164) but admitted that it is difficult to appreciate the Singing Shaman posture in this category. In Goodman’s final publication co-authored with Nauwald, the posture is included in the healing category (Goodman and Nauwald 2003: 149). Calling of the Spirits is included in the Spirit Journey category. Celebration does not appear in the seven categories of postures in that book. This may explain why none of the research reports mentions healing as part of the experience in the Singing Shaman postures. The experiences may have been predetermined by mistaken expectations.
A medieval adage shared by all the philosophers was expressed in this way by Thomas Aquinas: “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur” (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 75, a. 5; III, q. 5). The English translation is: “Whatever is received, is received after the manner of the one who receives it.” Clottes and Lewis-Williams (1996:19) as restated by Pilch (2000:76) put it this way: “At least in some measure, people see in visions [they use the word ‘hallucinate’ but not in a pathological sense] what they expect to see [‘hallucinate’].” This helps to understand the reports of researchers seeing animals, or dancing, or any of the content reported above. If the posture was learned as a “celebration” posture, then its components would predictably be elements of celebration as understood by each researcher.
It is also noteworthy that very few of the research reports, apart from those that claim to have received a message in one form or another, contain interpretation. At her workshops, Dr. Goodman proffered interpretations of the reports of each participant. She based her interpretation in part on her broad acquaintance of world mythology and Native American lore. However, she also attempted to tailor it to the individual participant. During my initiatory workshop with her at the Institute, she said: “ You are a city-person, so you see light, joy, in the city.” She did not view the city this way, but it was sensitive of her to direct the participant onto a path of interpretation that would be fitting and congenial and personal (Cuyamungue Institute, 6/10/2000).
Erika Bourguignon’s analysis of the ethnographies in the HRAF concluded that 96% of the 486 small societies studied experienced alternate states of consciousness routinely. Indeed, in those societies they were institutionalized religious practices (Pilch 2000:181). Goodman pursued this further developing a ritual for inducing religious ecstatic trace which included sensory overstimulation (drumming or rattling) and holding a ritual posture for a fifteen minute period. In this article, I have reviewed the research reports from approximately thirty-five participants investigating the Singing Shaman ritual posture in twenty-one research sessions between 1995 and 2010.
It seems that the initial identification of the posture was mistaken. It is not celebratory; it is rather a healing ritual posture. This identification may have misled researchers and skewed their reports which contain no references to healing. In her final publication, Goodman reclassified the posture as a ritual healing posture. This will have to be investigated with future research.
Courlander, Harold, General Editor. (1954). The Eskimos of Hudson Bay and Alaska. Recorded by Laura Boulton. Ethnic Folkways Library. Folkways Records FE 4444. New York, NY: Folkways Records and Service Corp. Side 1, Band 3 “All Songs Have Been Exhausted” composed by a Shaman after coming out of a trance.
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