(This piece is excerpted from the author’s manuscript exploring northern European shamanism.)
Trance states and shamanism are intimately connected. James L. Pearson does and excellent job of connecting these dots in his book, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind when he writes about the etymology of the words “trance” and “shaman.” He stated, “The word “trance” derives from the Latin transitus, a passage. The verb root is transive, meaning “to pass over,” Trance is literally defined, then, as an entrance to another world. The term shaman, in turn is a transliteration of the Tungus-Mongol word šaman…and functions as both a noun and a verb. The noun-word šaman comes from the Indo-European verb root ša-, which means “to know”…As a noun it refers to “one who is excited, moved raised”; used as a verb it means, “To know in an ecstatic manner”…. Thus the shaman is, by definition, one who attains an ecstatic state. …[so we] therefore consider trance to be a prerequisite for any kind of true shamanism.”(1)
Michael Winkleman suggests that shamanism is endemic to nomadic hunting and gathering cultures. Indeed, evidence in the form of both portable objects and paintings on cave walls does support the idea that shamanism was prevalent across Europe during this time period. The abstract patterns from Upper Paleolithic cave walls–such as dots, wavy lines, spirals and concentric circles–are consistent with entopic imagery (2) or visions that one sees during the early stages of a trance state.(3) In his book, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind James L. Pearson agrees in stating, “…neuropsychological universals that result from altered states experiences do afford insights into … art that was created to portray shamanic dream experience” (4) that is, the shamanic trance state.
Apparently, we are wired for altered consciousness experiences. A study published in 1973, found that altered states of consciousness are “virtually universal in their distribution across human societies. In a sample of 488 societies… [it was] found that fully 90% exhibit institutionalized, culturally patterned forms of altered states of consciousness.” The study also concluded that the capacity to experience an altered state of consciousness seems to be “a part of the psychobiological heritage of our species.”(5)
Mike Williams, PhD in his book, Prehistoric Belief is even more straightforward in his clarity about our ancestors’ spiritual worldview stating, “Unlike people today, those in prehistory were adept at entering trance; what we now call shamanism. This gave access to alternative realms where people met and befriended entities that they thought of as spirits. To the people of the past, the otherworld of trance, and the spirits that resided there, were as real to them as anything else they encountered.”(6) In other words, our ancestors were comfortable with the knowing that there were other worlds beyond our own.
It is his belief that experiencing trance states was not an activity that was only limited to shamans. Our Homo sapiens sapiens ancestors had fully modern brains. As such they were capable of a “higher order consciousness,” which is the ability to conceive ideas of past, present and future, of the dreaming and waking states and of altering consciousness. Like us, these people also were able of holding onto the memories of dream and altered consciousness experiences. As a result, this higher order consciousness allows us to remember and relate different experiences of consciousness to our everyday existence. Directly because we humans have this ability, ideas that are born in dreams and visionary states can be used to inform and transform everyday reality.
Fire was critical to life in the north. A central fire was a pivot point around which life revolved once the Sun’s rays vanished into evening. Our ancestors spent their nights clustered around it to draw warmth, light and comfort from its marvelous flickering. In our contemporary world, it is difficult to imagine the extraordinary darkness of an ancient night. We are so used to artificially illuminating our world. For us, day and night have become blended into each other. It is only in places far from civilization that it is still possible to get a taste of the true darkness. I had such an experience in the hours before dawn while hunting in upstate New York. It was a night without a moon and the sky was so full of stars that it was impossible to discern any familiar constellations. In that darkness the old expression of not being able to see your hand in front of your face suddenly became a reality. The darkness was so complete that it was both physically disorienting and emotionally unsettling.
How comforting a fire is in such a circumstance! A fire creates a space where we can see and interact with each other. The small illuminated region around the fire becomes our whole world. The edges of the firelight also create a visual boundary. The space that lies beyond the firelight seems even darker. When gazing out to that darkness, our known world seems completely enfolded by another place.
When you sit in front of a fire in that deep darkness the objects and people around you seem to shimmer and move in the flickering light. Firelight produces a stroboscopic effect where darkness and light alternate rapidly back and forth. The rhythmic rate at which this occurs approximates low alpha and theta wave brain states. This brain activity is consistent with the experience of the shamanic state of consciousness.(7) Since life revolved around the fire, our ancestors were exposed to the trance-inducing, photic driving of firelight every evening of their lives. Altered consciousness is not only natural to our species we have been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years.
This state assists in creating new connections between neurons. In other words, trance assists the brain in producing new connections. If this is true, it is not so much that shamanism is a part of our ancient way of relating to the world around us, it is what helped us to understand ourselves (self awareness), our relationship with the world, enabled us to remember the past and ponder our future. In other worlds, trance contributed in creating us as a species. (8) In addition, there are physiologically and psychologically benefits that occur when individuals enter trance that have been observed by scientists not the least of which includes a better immune response.(9)
Trance is also an excellent problem-solving tool. Indeed, this is so clear that anthropologist, Michael Harner, PhD suggests that voluntary entrance into a shamanic trance (shamanic state of consciousness) in a counseling context is a proven concrete “problem-solving” method.(10) Certainly, most people have experienced the spontaneous shift of consciousness that accompanies a “mind-less” repetitive task such as spinning wool, or listening to a repetitive sound. While this can be disconcerting when it happens unbidden, it can also be very beneficial. When I was a young illustrator, I rode a diesel commuter train into New York City every weekday. Every morning and evening the clickity-clack of the train would lull me into a dreamy trance. During these experiences I would often receive sudden insight about a current challenge. This method became so useful to me that I earned to use my hours on the train to help me solve creative problems, especially when I was on a tight deadline.
Being able to voluntarily enter a trance state would have been an invaluable tool for locating game to a community that relied upon seasonal arrivals of migrating animals, birds and fish. The same would have been true in locating a lost member of the group, finding the reasons for illness or to discover the right plant remedy to cure it. Indeed, finding any critical information that was hidden from ordinary sight, hearing or touch could have meant the difference between thriving and perishing.
© 2014 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author of Spirit Walking a Course in Shamanic Power, Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path, and contributor toSpirited Medicine: Shamanism in Contemporary Healthcare; Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether through face-to-face contact with individual patients, workshop groups and conference participants, or through the printed word–Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives. Her web site is http://www.evelynrysdyk.com.
 James L. Pearson, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Archaeology, (Walnut Creek, CA; Altamira Press, 2002) p.74
 Visual experiences arising from anywhere within the optic system, which includes the eyes, the occipital lobe of the brain, and the many other portions of the neural cortex that process visual stimuli.
 Jean Clottes. “Shamanism in Prehistory”. Bradshaw foundation. Retrieved 2013-01-21.
 James L. Pearson, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Archaeology, (Walnut Creek, CA; Altamira Press, 2002) p.157
 Bourguignon, E. 1973 “Introduction: A Framework for the Comparative Study of Altered States of Consciousness”. In Religion, Altered States of Consciousness and Social Change. E. Bourguignon. ed. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University,1973
 Mike Williams, PhD, Prehistoric Belief, (Gloucestershire, UK; The History Press, 2011) p.20
 Timothy C. Thomason, “The Role of Altered States of Consciousness in Native American Healing,” Journal of Rural Community Psychology, Vol. E13:1 http://www.marshall.edu/jrcp/VE13%20N1/jrcp%2013%201%20thomason.pdf (Accessed 2/17/13)
 Mike Williams, PhD, Prehistoric Belief, (Gloucestershire, UK; The History Press, 2011) p.20
 Sandra Harner PhD and Warren W. Tryon “Psychological and Immunological Responses to Shamanic Journeying with Drumming’, Published in Vol. 4, Nos. 1-2 of the journal, SHAMAN, 1996
 Description of Harner Method Shamanic Counseling course, http://www.shamanism.org/workshops/calendar.php?Wkshp_ID=27