“…we will have to rethink what myth is. It may be a fanciful tale about imaginary beings, or a repository for nearly forgotten historical events, or a story invented to give meaning to some ritual. But principally, a myth is a report about events that took place in the other reality and that involved people or beings who straddled the two dimensions.”
“…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 a most radical way.”
“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.”
–Felicitas Goodman, Where the Spirits Ride the Wind
In my blog and previous posts I have often referred to “ecstatic trance postures”, and I would like to share more about what I mean by that, how I discovered them, and why I think other pagans and polytheists could benefit immensely from what is essentially an incredibly simple technique.
Six years ago I read an article in Sagewoman magazine called “Visions of Crete”. Within the author’s personal narrative she referenced the research of anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, who discovered that the body postures in the statues and art created by hunter or horticulturalist societies are not simply arbitrary or aesthetic, but had been intentionally recorded because they are keys to certain types of religious trance experience. Goodman discovered that maintaining one of these postures for 15 minutes, combined with drumming or rattling at 210 bpm (beats per minute), prefaced by a simple ritual and sitting meditation, was an effective formula for almost anyone, even the most inexperienced, to have a vivid journeying/trance experience. Each posture was different from the other, but trends emerged and Goodman was able to place most of them into five major categories: divination, spirit journeying, healing, initiation, and shape-shifting/metamorphosis.
When I first read about this, I was immediately fascinated. I’ve always had trouble with trance, particularly with guided meditation and visualization, since I’m not a visual person. This sounded different and yet not overly complicated. I was also intrigued the concept of this sort of information having been encoded intentionally, in plain sight, by their respective cultures. Some of the postures even appear cross-culturally, like archetypes would. Were they discovered independently, or were they revealed to these cultures by the spirits themselves? I bought one of the few available books on the topic and a CD of drumming.
My first couple attempts were perhaps not as dramatic as I’d hoped (admittedly, I had high expectations) but were encouraging nonetheless. They didn’t automatically make me into a visual person, although sometimes I’d get impressions or flashes of things. Mainly I would have sensations, and sense of presence. Doing a metamorphic posture in my living room called the Tattooed Jaguar, I had the sensation of growing several times my size.
In 2009 I attended a workshop and retreat at the Cuyamungue Institute in New Mexico. It was a “Masked Trance Dance” workshop, where a group of us over the course of several days utilized different postures to journey to find a totem, and then divine and plan a group ritual to be performed at the end of the workshop. We also created masks of those totems. There were only 6 of us, but it was a powerful experience. In addition to the personal messages we’d receive, many of our experiences overlapped, or one person would get one part of a message and someone would get another corresponding part. Some people were incredibly visual, one woman was very auditory and heard everything in very clear recitations.
The posture experiences seemed amplified in the workshop… which I believe there are several reasons for. One is that simply being in a group of people focused on the same thing is exponentially powerful, which anyone who has attended an effective group ritual has experienced. Secondly, the land itself had been established as a sacred place for years, with a cumulative energy to it. And lastly but very importantly, I was at a very transitional, turbulent point in my life (most of us there were), which seems to make a difference as to how intense an experience you will have with a posture. I think of that whole year as THE time where I made a split between my past self and current/future self, to the point where I have a hard time recognizing that past person in many ways.
I’ve had several powerful experiences on my own, though. One, for example, called the Greek Youth/Maiden Posture (which seems to be connected to the Eleusinian Mysteries and possibly Egyptian as well), I have done twice. The first time, I had more visual impressions than usual – of starry skies, processions, caves – and I felt like my organs were being symbolically removed from my body. The second time was a year later, and I didn’t record/remember all of my impressions. But both times, immediately after completing the posture (like, walk out of the room immediate) I was slammed by some unfortunate revelation and subsequent break down in my relationship at the time. They were things that would have happened eventually anyway, but nevertheless, I have a very healthy respect of the Greek Youth posture now (which is categorized as an Initiation posture). I suspect this posture unveils truth.
Each of the postures categorized as “spirit journey” postures are particular in where in the spirit world they take you. Some will take you to the under/lower world, some to the sky realm, and others allow you to travel the middle world. (One of my current goals is to experiment with the best ones to use to facilitate communication with one’s ancestors, and there are several possibilities. There’s even one called the psychopomp posture particularly for assisting the transition of a soul.)
Some postures are associated with particular totems, such as the tattooed jaguar or the bear posture, and some are associated with particular gods or spirits. There are ones sitting, laying down, standing. Some are easy, some are really strenuous.
There are a lot of things I’ve personally noted but is not explicitly mentioned in any of the books about ecstatic trance postures. One is that the postures are more effective when you have a specific need for doing one. For the divination postures, it’s essential, since you need to have some sort of question if you want any answers. Like modern shamanic techniques for any type of journeying, intention is important.
As I’ve continued to use postures as a supplement to my spiritual practice over the years, I have begun to trust more in those otherworld senses which we all possess. What I used to be hesitant to say I was actually experiencing at all in the beginning, I’ve slowly cultivated a confidence that I am in fact “seeing” and “hearing” things, and that there is a validity to even subtle perceptions.
There are many aspects of the postures that I’d like to research more fully. I wonder whether certain postures are more effective at certain moon phases or seasons, or how entheogens might help or hinder the experience with a posture. And being a polytheist, the fact that some of these statues are of specific deities seems even more significant – beyond the “purpose” for the posture, are they effective for simply communing or opening a line of communication with these deities? Most recently I’ve been experimenting with certain Minoan images as possible postures. This is actually what the author of that Sagewoman article did, as the Minoan Snake Goddess is not in any of the books of ecstatic trance postures to date. I used this particular posture myself two years ago as part of my observance of a festival for Ariadne, with meaningful results.
The technique as described by Goodman and her students are meant to be accessible to people of any faith or spiritual path, although it assumes the reality of the spirit world and the spirits encountered there. I’d love to see more pagans and polytheists learn about this technique — I think it has a lot to offer, particularly to those on a shamanic or devotional path who are new to journeying and communing with spirits. Trance postures can be used in the context of a ritual or festival. (There are even a couple that do not fit into the typical categories and are labelled as simply “celebratory”.) One might also use a divination posture for the purpose of divining and planning the needed elements of a ritual, as we did at Cuyamungue. Or you can just use them as needed (a healing posture when you need to send or receive healing for example) or devotionally. In my devotional pithos I have a slip of paper for each category of posture. (If I draw one, I would basically see it as Someone or a group of someones telling me to “pick up the phone!”)
And why are these called “ecstatic” trance postures, anyway? Because they transport you from normal consciousness, exalt you from your normal senses, into communion with the spirit world (or “Alternate Reality” as Felicitas would say). And the need for ekstasis is a basic human need. Which Dionysians know well! So if for some reason you can’t drink wine or use entheogens, this is another tool or path of ekstasis you can use.
Again, these are not going to make you a shaman or spirit worker overnight, but in my experience they do open the ways between the worlds, help direct your journey, and heighten your sense and perception. Imagine your body is the antenna, and a particular posture will adjust your “frequency”, your physiology, in specific ways. When combined with need, intent, and the right mindset, the results may be incredibly transformative.
If there’s interest, I can showcase a few individual postures in separate blog posts for people to try. I was hesitant to write this for a long time, because I don’t feel anywhere close to expert on this topic. But being that this might be immediately useful to the members of the Thiasos, I am compelled to share what I know. We have an emerging tradition, an ecstatic tradition, that requires our full engagement and participation with the gods and spirits. Anything that brings us closer to that is a boon. Though I may not know what the best posture is for journeying to the Underworld, or communicating with the dead, or divining the intent of a festival… perhaps we can figure that out together.
Here’s where you can look for more information. The ones I starred are the ones I recommend most. (I haven’t finished Brink’s book yet. )
Books (Theory & research):
*Goodman, Felicitas. Where the Spirit Rides the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences
Goodman, Felicitas. Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality: Religion in a Pluralistic World
Books (How to):
Goodman, Felicitas & Nana Nauwald. Ecstatic Trance: New Ritual Body Postures
*Gore, Belinda. Ecstatic Body Postures: An Alternate Reality Workbook
*Gore, Belinda. The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys (Includes CD)
Brink, Nicholas E. The Power of Ecstatic Trance: Practices for Healing, Spiritual Growth, and Accessing the Universal Mind
*Ecstatic Trance: Rhythms for the Practice of Ritual Body Postures and Ecstatic Trance by Nana Nauwald (This is my preferred music for the trance postures. The quality is much better than the one included in Belinda Gore’s book. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a good place to find this anymore. Email me if interested and I will try to send you the MP3’s. Of course you can always set a metronome or research online what 210 bpm sounds like and record yourself playing!)
Aridela Pantherina is a Dionysian and polytheist of no particular consequence (or perhaps too many consequences). Her passions are changeable but generally include music, dance and hierobotany. She currently resides in the deserts of the Southwest and she looks forward to being struck by lightning. She blogs at ariadneinexile.blogspot.com