Drumming, Hallucinogens, Paths to Ecstasy

Although shamans are noted for going into trance for doing their work, not
all rituals require it and the shaman performs many tasks in an ordinary
state of consciousness. When an altered state of consciousness is required,
however, there are many techniques which boost the shaman into the ecstatic
state of mind that allows him to take on the qualities of a spirit and
become clairvoyant and capable of spirit travel. Most rituals employ
several of these techniques together in order to bring the shaman to
ecstasy.

The setting of the ritual is crucial to the effectiveness of a ritual.
Shamanizing at night is conducive to achieving the trance state; in fact
many spirits are not as effective when called during the day. The people
attending the ritual can help the shaman reach a trance state by echoing
parts of his song, beating drums, or shouting along with the drumming.
Circle dances can raise energy and propel the shaman into the upper world.

The beating of the shaman drum is the most powerful way to induce trance.
Scientific studies have shown that repetitive rhythms at certain
frequencies can induce a hypnotic state similar to the trance of shamans.
Shaman’s drumming, however, does not have a metronome-like steadiness, but
rather will slow down or speed up, get louder or softer depending on the
state of the shaman’s mind at a given moment. Mongolian and Siberian drums
are generally large in diameter and have a deep resonating sound that will
vibrate through the shaman’s body, and the drum is frequently held near the
face or over the head so that the beat will resonate through the head and
upper body with great force.

Intoxicants may be consumed before or during the ritual. Shamans frequently
drink alcohol before shamanizing and pause at points during the ritual to
smoke tobacco. Juniper, which is mildly hallucinogenic, is used in
practically all rituals in Mongolia and in many parts of Siberia. The fumes
of juniper will be waved in the face and inhaled, and the air of the ger
will become thick with juniper smoke during the ritual. Sacred smoke is
believed to raise windhorse and is pleasing to the spirits. A more potent
hallucinogen, the muscaria mushroom, has been connected with Siberian and
Mongolian shamanism from ancient times. Mushrooms may not always be
consumed during shamanist rituals, but shamans may also consume the dried
mushrooms on order to achieve ecstasy during times between rituals.

Climbing the toroo tree is another path to ecstasy. In Mongolian the word
to go out and to go up are the same word, garah. Chabros has suggested that
the connection between those two meanings lies in shamanism. By
symbolically ascending the representation of the World Tree the shaman is
literally going out of this world into the world of spirit. The toroo tree
has nine steps, and as the shaman climbs higher and higher, at the same
time singing, the drumming and the encouragements of his audience will
bring him to the ecstatic state. Some shamans will show their contact with
the spirit world by singing hoomei (overtone or throat singing), which
consists of a base note and a whistling overtone note. The overtones
represent the contact with the spirit world while remaining physically on
earth (represented by the base tone).

Back to The Course in Mongolian Shamanism