Shamanism, the ability to leave this world and travel to the realm of the spirits, has always been part of the human condition. As anthropology developed as a discipline, there were many reports of shamans from traditional societies in places such as South America, Australia, Africa and, of course, their traditional heartland of Siberia. It seemed that wherever anthropologists ventured there were shamans to wave back at them.
Early reports attempted to explain shamanism by describing the shamans themselves: what they wore, how they arranged their ceremonies, and what type of tools and objects they used. No mention was ever made of the actual visit the shamans made to the otherworld. In fact, when such journeys were described to the anthropologists, they came to the ‘logical’ conclusion that shamans must be clinically deranged and they invented new illnesses such as ‘Arctic Sickness’ to explain it.
There was a clear gulf between anthropologists and shamans which, given that most of the anthropologists had never heard of the otherworld of the spirits let alone experienced it, was perhaps understandable. At least they didn’t behave like the evangelical missionaries a few centuries earlier that condemned the practice as consorting with devils and persecuted many shamans to extinction.
A change came when otherwise respectable anthropologists such as Carlos Castaneda (if he is to be believed) and Michael Harner threw academic convention to the wind and agreed to follow the shamans they studied beyond this world and into the other. To their initial surprise, once in the otherworld, they had similar experiences to those described by the shamans. Moreover, for those in the academic community waiting behind, it tentatively opened a new and now far more legitimate field of research.
What was soon established is that shamans go into trance in order to facilitate their entry into the otherworld. The experimentation in the laboratories of the 1960s and 1970s showed that certain hallucinogenic drugs could induce similar trance states and, not surprisingly, researchers found that some shamans took natural forms of the same drugs to assist their journeys to the otherworld.
All of a sudden much of the ethnographic record that had previously been unfathomable began to make sense. By ignoring trance experience of the otherworld, anthropologists could only understand part of the world shamanic people lived in. As it turned out, the otherworld and the existence of the spirits informed pretty much everything these people did.
This also had repercussions for archaeology, as archaeologists quickly realised that if traditional people today order a large part of their lives around trance experiences (and it has been shown that some 90 per-cent do), then the same is likely true of the past. But that was not all. The anthropologists had already shown that they could enter trance and journey to the otherworld as easily as traditional people; shamanic experience did not depend on where or, indeed, even on when you live. All human beings can enter trance and will undergo a similar experience and this was as true for the first modern humans to walk the earth as it is for us. To find out why this is so, involved the application of a little neuroscience.
All trance is facilitated by a given stimulus. Anthropologists already knew about drugs and, when archaeologists looked again at the environmental records from the past, they found everything from opium to burnt henbane seeds. Even the engravings on bronze razors turned out to show a hallucinogenic mushroom. Drugs, it seems, were rife.
But drugs are not the only means of inducing trance. Listening to repetitive drumming at a certain beat and frequency is also effective. This may be why Neolithic people designed the forecourts around burial tombs to resonate drum beats at just this frequency; trance states were probably part of any funeral ritual. Similarly, mounds of burnt stones in the Bronze Age may denote saunas and it is striking that shamans in Siberia induce their trance states by inhaling steam in a sauna. Other portals are less obvious, such as the upside down tree thrust into the sands of Norfolk. Again, this mirrors Siberian practice, where an upside down tree driven into the earth is recognised as a clear route to the otherworld.
Upon entering trance, many people see geometric shapes, and these are formed entirely within the eye itself with no outside stimulus. Scientists call them phosphenes. Discovering these patterns allowed archaeologists to recognise them in the past and they turned up in contexts ranging from the first scratched art anywhere in the world, on 70,000 year-old stones from South Africa, to fine designs engraved onto Iron Age mirrors. It seems that, once we knew where to look, the shapes of trance were everywhere.
Moving deeper into trance, these shapes rapidly coalesce into a tunnel and, if it is followed to its end, a new landscape reveals itself, which shamanic people the world over identify as the otherworld. The familiar pattern of a long tunnel leading to another realm may have induced Palaeolithic people to follow passages into the earth and, when these also opened out into huge caverns, they completed the symbolism by painting phosphene shapes on the wall.
These early artists also decorated the caves with images of animals and it is unlikely to be a coincidence that of all the entities that may be experienced in the otherworld, animals are the most common. Images of animals, either painted onto walls, modelled in clay, or engraved onto gold and silver objects, form a large corpus of representational art in prehistory. The phosphene shapes that overlay these designs, or the odd inclusion of mythical creatures such as griffins, may hint at their otherworldly source. In some cases, people incorporated animal parts into their houses, fixing them to the walls or burying them under the floor. One house even had half a cow that would have protruded into the room. It would have made an interesting conversational piece.
The deeper individuals go into trance, the more their identity dissolves and merges with whatever is before them. Since this is often an animal, shapeshifting results, where someone takes on the physical form and attributes of the creature. In the Palaeolithic, there are models of half-human half-animal forms and this appears to be a motif to which people continually returned. At Lepenski Vir in Serbia, recognising that sculpted boulders depicted people shapeshifting into fish has revealed an intimate portrait of the spiritual life of the inhabitants who once lived there.
It is not only animals that live in the otherworld but also dead spirits. In the past, the deceased often walked, and this explains many of the intricate rituals and traditions surrounding burial. In the Neolithic, people built huge tombs that, with their long passages leading to an enormous chamber, matched the trance journey to the otherworld; a journey that people seem to have believed that the dead also undertook. At Newgrange, there is even an interlocked spiral deep in the tomb and, every winter solstice, it is brightened by the rising sun, perhaps flaring into life the final portal the dead needed to transverse in order to reach the afterlife. Finally, as if to extinguish any doubt that entering the tomb was a journey to other realities, people carved phosphene shapes onto the walls of the passage: the imagery of trance.
It is not just the dead that have spirits which abide in the otherworld but all other items and objects from this world. This is called ‘animism’ and refers to the belief that all things are alive and are born and die just as we do. This is probably why Bronze Age people treated the creation of a sword as a birth and its demise as a death. They marked both events with great ceremony, mirroring their concern with human rites of passage. In the Neolithic, people considered objects that originated from otherworldly places – high in the mountains, deep from within the earth, or across the sea in foreign climes – as incredibly special, as if something of the place itself remained within the item. Identical objects from more mundane places were passé by comparison and people completely ignored them.
As the self disintegrates totally in trance, it can feel as if the body is rendered into many pieces before disappearing entirely. Siberian shamans identify this as ritualised dismemberment at the hands of the spirits and one shaman describes how it was followed by the resulting body parts being boiled in a cauldron. This matches bodies from the Iron Age that were also dismembered, albeit by human rather than spirit hands. In a cave in the Czech Republic there is even a cauldron next to these dismembered remains. It is as if the description of the Siberian shaman had been brought to life.
The recognition that there is more to shamanism than the mere physical characteristics of the practitioner and his or her rituals, has opened an entirely new window on the past. No longer are the thoughts and beliefs of prehistoric people out-of-bounds for archaeological enquiry. We can now, more than ever, peer directly into people’s minds and attempt to understand how they saw their world. It is a huge step forward, but there is more.
Since trance and the experience of journeying to the otherworld is common to all people, in all times, it also applies to us, here and now. The otherworld of the spirits that prehistoric people experienced is not made up, or a figment of a deluded mind, but is something wired into the brains of every human. This may be why, following the writings of Carlos Castaneda and Michael Harner – the first pioneers into experimental ethnology – the Western world has fairly exploded with shamanism. It is now possible to learn in a weekend how to journey to the otherworld, meet a power animal, and even talk with dead ancestors. It is as if the past and the present have met. Whether what people experience in trance is real or merely a result of coincidental wiring in the brain is, and perhaps will always be, beyond the scope of science. People in prehistory certainly believed that the spirits and the otherworld they inhabited were real but can we, should we, summon the faith to do the same? Perhaps, above all else, this is the real issue as to why otherworld experience is essential to any form of research. Without going beyond the veil, how can anyone decide?