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Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences

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"The book is clearly written for the general reader and includes many descriptions of trance experiences. It may serve as a good introduction to the nature and appeal of the shamanic revival in modern Western cultures." —Theological Book Review

"... a case study in experiential anthropology that offers a unique mix of autobiography, mythology, experiential research, and archaeological data to support a challenging thesis—that certain body postures may help induce specific trance states." —Shaman’s Drum

"This is a spellbinding and exceptionally readable book by an extraordinary woman." —Yoga Journal

"And suddenly the understanding of my own vision washed over me like a mighty wave... For life or for death, I was committed to that mighty realm of which I was shown a brief reminder, the world where all was forever motion and emergence, that realm where the spirits ride the wind." —from the Prologue

Goodman reexamines our notions of the nature of reality by studying the ritual postures of native art assumed by her subjects during trance states. For readers desiring to discover this world of ancient myths, she has included a practical guide on how to achieve such ecstatic experiences.

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One: The Call of the Old People

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On the eve of my twelfth birthday I had a severe headache, and it startled me, for I had never had that kind of a headache before. The next morning, I bled for the first time. I went to my mother, and she showed me what to do. There was great trust between us, and because she was not upset, I was not either. When the shock came, it was in a different guise. My mother took a piece of chalk and drew a little cross on the bedroom door. “This means,” she said, “that we now have an adult daughter in our house.” I puzzled over what that might mean—sex education had not been invented yet—but did not ask her. I always kept the most disquieting questions to myself.

Very soon I discovered all on my own what being an adult apparently meant, and confided it to my diary: “The magic time is over.” For all of a sudden and without the slightest warning, I realized that I could no longer effortlessly call up what in my terms was magic: that change in me that was so deliciously exciting and as if I were opening a door, imparting a special hue to whatever I chose. I noticed the curious impediment first with the fresh, crunchy snow which fell right after my birthday. It was nice, but I could not make it glow. Bewildered, I began paying more attention to my seeming disability. The orange glow of dawn streaming through the bedroom window was the same as before; so was the smell of the horses on the market. But I had changed.

 

Two: Getting in Touch with the Spirits: The First Discoveries

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In the Protestant Christian tradition in which I was raised, it was held that the only way in which a human could communicate with the beings inhabiting the alternate reality was by prayer. But in the view of the vast majority of other traditions, speech, as the mode of communication of ordinary reality, is singularly unsuited for this purpose. It is but a hardly audible knock on the very thick wall separating humans from the spirit realm. In fact, humans have to make a truly heroic effort to be noticed on the other side. Merely talking, falling into a worshipful mood, feeling “transcendent,” “numinous,” or “oceanic,” or whatever other pompous words are listed in the dictionary, simply will not do. Instead humans, if they have the urgent necessity or desire to squeeze through the chinks in that wall, need to change the very functioning of their bodies in the most radical way. The term summarizing these changes is religious trance, one of a large group of altered states of consciousness of which humans are capable. It is termed religious because observation shows that it is the one occurring in religious context, that is, when contact is made with the alternate, the sacred, reality. (For the problem of defining “religion,” see Goodman 1988.)

 

Three: The Old Ones Remember

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Without eager company, even magic gardens can be lonely places. So after returning from the anthropology meeting, I bundled up my notes on the mysterious postures and turned to a different topic. It was still part of the same field of study, the religious trance, but this time it concerned the experience of demonic possession.

My interest in this subject had been triggered by news stories about a German university student by the name of Anneliese Michel, who supposedly died as a result of being exorcized. From the American magazine item that had called my attention to the case, I had learned that the girl insisted that she was possessed by demons, but that her psychiatrists maintained that she was psychotic, most likely an epileptic.1 From the start, I had the impression that this might well be another one of those cases where a religious experience was confused with epilepsy, just as was often done in descriptions of shamans. The German courts decided that the two priests who carried out the exorcism had contributed to her death, and convicted both them and her parents of negligent homicide, resulting in suspended jail sentences.

 

Four: A New Path Opens

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The letter from Adolf Holl concerned my paper about the discovery of the trance postures, which had aroused so little interest at the 1977 meeting of the American Anthropological Association, and which had been in the packet I had sent to his journalist friend. Holl asked if I would be willing to repeat those experiments with European participants. He was preparing a miniseries on world religions under contract with the West German educational television system, the so-called Second German Program. My research, he felt, would demonstrate to the viewers the common experiential base that all religions shared.

It had been a source of great regret to me during the intervening time that there seemed to be no way in which to continue working with the body postures and related trance experiences. So I was understandably elated at Holl’s suggestion and consented with alacrity. Soon after, however, I was beset by serious doubts. With only one series of experiments, how could I be sure that the same results would be achieved again? What if we would both be embarrassed by failure? But feeling that, after all, I had some powerful friends in my corner, I consented anyway and flew to Germany in April 1981.

 

Five: The Way of the Spirits

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The first workshop that Franz organized in the Buddhist Center in Scheibbs (Austria) took place in 1982. He published the announcement in the schedule of the center, and a few of the regulars became interested. Others had seen the television show. Kurt, also of the television workshop, told friends in Vienna about his experiences, and they came to Scheibbs to find out more. Yolanda of a later Scheibbs workshop was from Switzerland. The next spring, she got some friends together, they rented suitable quarters in a mountain resort, and we did a workshop there. A stop in Switzerland has become an institution since then, part of my yearly spring tour, which at this writing covers five European countries.

In this country, the development of the workshops took off slowly. For several summers in a row, I taught anthropology courses at Cuyamungue Institute. However, with the connection to Denison University, my home institution, weakening with the years, recruiting undergraduates became more and more difficult. Increasingly also, that was really no longer what I wanted to do. It was at this juncture that summer workshops comfortably fitted into the premises already available there.

 

Six: Going on a Spirit Journey

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What happens on a spirit journey? People fly away on birds’ wings, peacock clouds spread their shimmering tail feathers, a woman with stars in her hair guards the entrance to the world below, and humans turned into albatrosses alight on the waves of the ocean. These are some of the tales people tell when they come back. There are several postures that are specifically designed to take us either to the sky, to the middle world where humans live, to the lower world, or out to sea. Although brief sallies or “out-of-body experiences” also happen frequently during other postures, those described below have proved to be the ones needed for a prolonged trip.

The Lascaux Cave shaman’s posture. How we happened to try the posture, I told briefly in Chapter 2. Let me recapitulate briefly how it is done. You lie down comfortably on the slanted board (37-degree angle), your legs together, and letting your feet spread apart naturally. Somewhat bent at the elbow, your right arm is placed on the board a few inches away from your body in a leisurely fashion. As a result, your right hand rests on its outside edge, and your thumb is up. Although also resting on the board, your left arm is tensed by contrast, very straight, and your left hand is turned so that its back is turned toward your body, and your thumb is stretched stiffly down. You close your eyes, and you are ready to go.

 

Seven: The Many Faces of Divination

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Divining is as old as humanity. The hunters developed it as a ritual to discover the location of game, a matter of vital importance to them. As other types of societies arose, divination was adapted to the changing circumstances, but it continued to serve important societal goals. It is regrettable that in the Western world divination has been decried as irrational, antirational, or a fraud perpetrated on the ignorant and the superstitious, because divination is not that at all. It is soothsaying, that is, revealing the truth. What the diviner does is uncover to his clients some hidden truth about themselves, or about what is going on around them. There are certainly situations in everyone’s life where such insights could be of overriding importance. This is why within and outside the Western orbit, divining continues to play an important role, exposing that which is hidden, soothing anxiety, and aiding in decision making.

In Western-type societies, ours among them, quasi-mechanical means such as tarot cards are frequently employed for “fortunetelling.” However, the repository of much of divinatory knowledge is the alternate reality, and access to that treasure trove can best be gained in trance, and in the appropriate posture.

 

Eight: The Gift of Healing

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In Chapter 2, I described the posture of the shaman who is embraced from behind by a huge Bear Spirit (pl. 1). It took some time before I recognized that the trance experience mediated was that of being healed. The posture involves a more or less pronounced inclination of the head toward the back and a positioning of the hands very close to or right above the navel. As I began searching for other representations of this posture, I also came across examples where the hands, although in the same general area of the body, seemed to be placed too far apart. At first I thought we were dealing simply with a variant, but experimentation proved me wrong, and the observation eventually led to the discovery of the birthing posture. Although not involved with curing per se, historically the experiences it provided may indirectly have led to the development of the healing posture, and so I am going to discuss it here, in the way of an introduction, although it deals with a different topic, that of the fetus at birth.

 

Nine: Female Powers of Healing

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The forty-one girl knights. Although the Bear Spirit may on occasion appear in the form of a female bear, his power seems to be predominantly male. There is another posture, however, which apparently summons a special kind of female energy.1 The posture first came to my attention early in 1985 in a publication about antiquities from Tennessee.2 The stone sculpture, created about A.D. 700, represented a woman who had her arms placed on her chest in a special way, so that her right hand came to rest above the left (see pl. 31). Subsequently, I saw the posture also in Marija Gimbutas’s book about ancient Europe.3 The terra-cotta figurine, once more a woman (pl. 32), was much older (5th millennium B.C.), but there was no mistaking the position of the hands. I was anxious to explore the posture, but in neither case was there any indication about the position of the legs, and I was at a loss about what to do about that.

 

Ten: Changing Shape—The Shimmering Game

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In a tale of Rabelaisian abandon related by Indian fishermen of the Northwest Coast,1 their culture hero, the Raven, changes himself into a fisherman in order to make merry with the latter’s wife. When the fisherman unexpectedly returns and begins beating the intruder into a pulp, the Raven is constrained to revert to his original shape. The incensed husband ties him up and throws him into the pit of the outhouse. But the Raven, being immortal, eventually frees himself of his bonds and lives to see another day and more adventures of a similar nature.

Traces of such “softness,” as one anthropologist calls it,2 of the boundaries between humans and animals, when matters were in a state of flux between the species, are all about. Egyptian and Celtic and Hindu gods have animal heads or shapes. Echoes of the same tradition abound in the myths of every society of the world. They are known among the Australian aborigines and on the other end of the spectrum among the nineteenth-century Germans who were the consultants of the Grimm Brothers. And they are, of course, equally familiar to the Indian societies of our continent. There is a story current among the same Indian fishermen of the Northwest Coast, according to which a hunter once heard laughter coming from a cave. When he sneaked up to the entrance and peeked in, there were the animals hilariously playing at turning into people. In fact, the Haida Indians of the region recount that in those early times animals used to have both human and animal forms. As the Navajo singers put it, “In those times all the animals were like people. The four-footed beasts, the flying birds, the coiling snakes, and the crawling insects behaved the way that earth-surface people who occupy the world today behave” (Zolbrod 1984:98).

 

Eleven: Celebrations

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For the 1985 spring workshop at the Buddhist Center in Scheibbs, our friend Franz announced that we were going to have a masked dance. “Dear Friends,” he wrote in his flyer,

you have all taken part in an introductory course on trance and the religious altered state of consciousness with Felicitas Goodman. For this year, we are planning a more intensive project with Felicitas, to deepen our knowledge about trance and ecstasy and to practice integrating it into our daily lives. This project is not to be as serious as it sounds, however. We want to make it a celebration as it used to be in ancient cultures, a celebration of joy. It is to be a game between the dimensions of the world, a sacred event demonstrating our connectedness with everything that surrounds us.

I arrived late on the first day from another assignment. I had not seen the flyer; we had discussed the matter only in the most general terms, but in no detail, and I knew only that Franz had engaged Rudl, a trained Viennese maskmaker, as an instructor for our project. So I was understandably startled when after greeting the fourteen participants in the upstairs meditation room of the center, Franz turned to me with a confident smile, saying, “All right, Felicitas, so why don’t you just describe some native ritual to us, and we’ll proceed from there.”

 

Twelve: The Pit of Death and the Psychopomp

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The postures we have explored up till now have all dealt with life in its manifold aspects. They taught us new insights about spirit journeys and divining, about healing and metamorphosis, and about celebration. But they had nothing to show us about death. For that, we need to turn to two other postures that instruct us about the final journey awaiting all of us at the end of all the “sound and fury.”

The trip to the Realm of the Spirits of the Dead. It will be recalled (see Chapter 9) that there is a posture where the arms are placed on the chest in such a way that the right arm is up. We called it the Chiltan posture, because the healing spirits that Uzbeki shamanesses call on for help bear this name. In scanning the archeological record, however, I found that there was a parallel series, where instead of the right arm being up, it was the left one. It was known in Central America and in the thirteenth century in New Mexico (pls. 50 and 51), where it appears in two painted tablets, one a man, the other a woman, found hidden in a cave. Traces of it occur in sub-Saharan Africa and Polynesia, and early representations were found in prehistoric Central Europe and Eastern Anatolia (Turkey) (pls. 52a and b).

 

Thirteen: Life Everlasting

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In the first of the postures treated in Chapter 12, there was a clear indication that life’s story did not end after the vestments of the body were surrendered at the entrance to the Realm of the Dead in the lower world. After arriving there, Bernie received a new form, that of the bear, full of power and joy. This metamorphosis is rather restricted, however. There is another posture, which allows this theme to be played out much more fully. For reasons to be explained further on, we have come to call it the Feathered Serpent posture. It is one of the few postures the origin of which can actually be traced back reliably to our ancient hunter roots.

Plate 58

According to traditions still encountered among hunter-gatherers and some horticulturalists to this day, it was the task of shamans to descend into a cave, the womb of the earth. There they created likenesses of the animals surrounding them, and by no means only of those that provided food. They then lifted the soul essences from the drawings and took them up into the world of the sun, thereby helping the Earth Mother in the task of increase, of propagation.

 

Introduction

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My first reaction at rereading my notes about Edeltraut’s account of her experiences during the posture of the Feathered Serpent was amazement. Through the magic of the posture, the burning of a witch, the obscene crime perpetrated against uncounted women in centuries past, had here undergone a miraculous, a redeeming transformation. But at closer scrutiny, there seemed to be even more to it. As though witnessed from the inside, the event assumed an eerie reality. Joan of Arc might have experienced her trial this way, the Inquisitors tormenting her like the bothersome insects whose buzzing she could not stop; the distorted mask of the heretic that had been forced on her, and which hid the gentle girl who used to dance around the trees at her father’s homestead; the battering of the endless hearings that bruised her day after day. Finally there she is, standing naked at the stake, burning and yet not in pain, and flying through the blackness toward the light, a free spirit at last, an invisible companion of white birds.

 

The Emergence Story

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Two Indian friends, Rosemary from Taos and Joseph from Picuris, were participants in the first workshop I ever did in Cuyamungue, in the summer of 1982. We had done the postures together that I had worked through for the German television program, and then the question came up whether there were also others that I had not tried yet. So I got out the few examples that I had collected at the time, and we decided on the posture of a man squatting on a carved red sandstone pipe, an exquisite piece of art created about A.D. 1300 and discovered during excavations in Hale County, Alabama (pl. 63). The man is naked except for a cap, perhaps made from strips of hide. He has his tongue between his lips. His left hand grabs his lower left leg at an angle, his right hand is on his right knee, but stretching upward on the side of the leg, and his buttocks rest on the ground, a posture extremely demanding physically.

Both Joseph and Rosemary were shaken by what they had seen in the trance using that posture. It was dark, said Joseph, and the earth had burst open, as if an enormous volcanic eruption was about to take place, and the sky was lit up by exploding stars. Rosemary had heard people screaming, sighing, and moaning as if they were about to die. They both said that they would not try that posture again.

 

Coyote Comes Calling

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As told by the Navajo singers, the religious specialists who are the guardians of Navajo oral literature, Coyote is the child of the sky but was born from the embrace of the sky with the earth. It seems that one day, the people saw the sky swooping down:

It seemed to want to embrace the earth. And they saw the earth likewise looming up as if to meet the sky.

For a moment they came in contact. The sky touched the earth and the earth touched the sky. And just then, at exactly the spot where the sky and the earth had met, Ma’ii the Coyote sprang out of the ground. (Zolbrod 1984:56)

Thus in his parentage, Coyote bridges the earth and the sky, the ordinary and the alternate reality. But something else also entered into his makeup, for his birth happened at the same time the elders were involved in an important ritual. They were giving a penis to a boy who had come of age, and a vagina to a girl who had come of age, which they had not had before. Coyote went to where the people were, and meddler that he was and fascinated by sex obviously from the time he sprang from the ground, he decided to make the young people even more beautiful than having a penis and a vagina made them. And so he blew some of his own facial hair in such a way that it landed between their legs. However, First Woman, in charge of uncontrolled impulses, was worried that now the young people had become too attractive to each other, and so she ordered that they cover themselves.

 

The Man of Cuautla

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For years Ursula S., a Swiss painter, had been telling me about a figurine she had inherited from her grandmother. Her uncle had immigrated to Mexico and settled in Cuautla, not too far from Mexico City, and when his new house was being built, the workers came across a perfect little clay sculpture and brought it to him. During a visit to Mexico, Ursula’s grandmother saw it in her son’s house and liked it so much, her son gave it to her. Ursula was familiar with it from early childhood, and when her grandmother died, she inherited it. She finally brought a photograph of it to our workshop in Switzerland in the spring of 1987 (pl. 64).

The man is sitting flat on the ground, his legs apart and bent at the knees. His right hand is on his knee, the left arm is stretched a bit more than the right, and his left hand is placed somewhat to the side of his knee. He wears a feather crown, and his head is slightly tilted back. His tongue is between his lips.

What the Swiss participants told after we did the posture did not suggest any particular experiential type to me, healing, for instance, or divination. If anything, it seemed to be a spirit journey of sorts, but not a very productive one. Urs R. repeatedly saw three “pointed mountains.” Kathrin told about a wall and hearing rocks falling down a stone stairway. Monica had to look down, very deep down, past legs of stone. There were shadows of lions, according to Romana, but they had no manes. She came to a cleft in the earth; it was like a cave, and a shaft of light illuminated two or three more caves. Vrenie turned into a spectator:

 

A Maya Whistle

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In tomb 23 on the Rio Azul in Guatemala, archeologists came across a figurine representing a young man (pl. 65). He is sitting cross-legged and has his arms folded over his chest. The posture is also seen in a warrior from a classical Maya site at Jaina, on the western coast of the peninsula of Yucatán. Two features, however, distinguish the Rio Azul figurine from the Jaina one. The man from the Rio Azul has his tongue between his lips, and the figurine is a whistle.

When we did the posture for the first time in Cuyamungue in the summer of 1986, one participant was advised to heal a split in her body, another one was to guard something, and Isi was told, rather severely, “If you don’t have any questions now, come back when you do.” Although there were also other kinds of visions, of a hammock, of finely decorated pots, “as if from Mimbres,” of potsherds scattered about, we still decided mainly because of Isi’s report that the posture was intended for divining. However, when we did the posture once more in Columbus in November 1986 with a rather large group, Belinda was informed emphatically that divination was not what the Spirits had in mind: “No—that won’t happen here.”

 

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