(This piece is excerpted from the author’s manuscript exploring northern European shamanism.)
Fire has always been 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 distant 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. 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. 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.
Trance is also an excellent problem-solving tool. Indeed, this is so clear that anthropologist; Michael Harner suggests that voluntary entrance into a shamanic trance (shamanic state of consciousness) in a counseling context is a proven concrete “problem-solving” method. 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 learned 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.
Technicians of ecstasy
During the days of our earliest ancestors, every individual was required to participate in the survival of the community. People of all ages and of both sexes gathered plants, bird eggs, fished, picked berries, made cordage, created shelters and gathered firewood to sustain the tribal group. Of course, as is the case today, there would have been individuals within the group who were better at certain tasks. Some people would have been more skilled at stalking game, making cordage, kindling a fire, weaving fishing nets or other tasks and so would have become “specialists” in their communities. This specialization would have been efficacious for the community as those with better skills could accomplish essential tasks more rapidly and more consistently. This would have made group survival more certain. Even as we made our cultural transition from hunting and gathering into subsistence agricultural and pastoral lifestyles, skill specialization would have been beneficial for survival success.
While entering trance state is a common human ability, as with any other human skill, some individuals are more able to achieve a trance state than others. Indeed, it is most likely that there is a genetic component affecting a person’s ability to more easily enter the shamanic state of consciousness. Just as the more nimble-fingered people would have been better at making cordage, weaving nets and preparing snares, the people either psychologically or physiologically predisposed to enter trance states at will would have become the community shamans.
In experiencing trance states with regularity, our ancestors would have experienced a blurring of what we would delineate as natural and supernatural realities. In other words, their environment would have contained both physical and spiritual beings. In the same way that all physical aspects of the environment were viewed as participants in daily survival, these spiritual beings would have certainly been perceived in a similar light. Since these beings were not usually visible in this plane of existence, the shaman’s skill of willfully entering trance would have been essential for communication with them. For this reason, the shaman would have been an invaluable member of a community.
A shaman’s role in any society is to act as a facilitator between the human realm and that of the other beings and spirits that inhabit the environment. Through interaction with them, our shaman ancestors came to understand that our intrinsic interdependencies sustain life. In a shamanic culture, individuals value harmony with their environment as they have an intimate understanding of their dependence upon it. There is a value placed upon cooperation and cohesiveness rather than mastery of and control over the environment, as there tends to be a deeper sense of the value of all aspects of life.
This is certainly a way of being that is sorely needed today.
© 2014 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author of Spirit Walking a Course in Shamanic Power,A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Shamanic Tools, Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path, and contributor to Spirited 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.
 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
 Pringle, Heather. “New Women of the Ice Age,” Discover Magazine, Vol. 19, Number 4, April 1998.
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 Ashvind N. Singh, “Shamans, Healing, and Mental Health,” Journal of Child and Family Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1999, pp. 131-134