Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Mythical and Experiential Process of Ritual

Three articles have been examined in this essay with the key themes between them being ritual and altered states of consciousness. The first article Towards an experiential analysis of Shamanism written by Larry G. Peters and Douglass Price-Williams examines the ritualistic practice of a shaman, and the ecstatic state that can be reached during these ritual practices. The authors have provided different anthropological interpretations of shamanism, and what the ecstasy experienced constitutes in these rituals. It can be believed that ecstasy in ritual involves the possession of spirit, and extreme control by the shaman (Peters, Price-Williams, p. 398). This allows the shaman to become a part of the natural and metaphysical worlds at the same time, through extreme control over a dual-world experience. Common themes of ritual are explored such as the intensity of involvement in the ritual, the ability of control of this intensity and ultimately the memory of the disassociated state, which is discussed following the ritual process (Peters, Price-Williams, p. 403). Techniques of trance in these rituals vary, but are similar in many different elements. This includes fundamentals such as fasting by the shaman, dance, chanting, music and at times hallucinogenic drugs will be used to assist in the ritual process. The rhythmic progression of music, dance and chanting allows the ritual to go for extended periods of time, allowing a shaman to hold a trance and continue his ecstatic state for the healing process. Trance and ecstasy experienced by the shaman can be considered as the possession of spirits through the control of the dual-world experience, viewed as a disassociated state subject to the cultural beliefs of the community.

Ralph Metzner’s article Hallucinogenic drugs and plants in psychotherapy and Shamanism differs to that of Peters and Price-Williams, as Metzner explores the roles of hallucinogenic drugs in ritual, and the relationship between psychotherapy and shamanism. Metzner looks at the use of drugs in psychotherapy, as a way for patients to open up to their therapists to resolve issues that stem from their individual worldview and upbringing. The study of drugs within psychotherapy influenced anthropologists to look at the use of drugs within cultural communities and shaman rituals, to analyze how hallucinogenic drugs assist in the healing process of the shaman (Metzner, p. 4). Anthropologists summarized through their case study that the “intelligence associated with plant medicine in Shaman rituals communicates to the individual who ingests it,” allowing for an experiential link to a metaphysical world (Metzner p. 3). Metzner reflects on the different elements of shaman rituals, similar to the previous article discussed. These include elements of dance, music, singing and rhythmic beat which contribute to an overall energy expressed during the ritual. Metzner touches on the Huichol culture and the Peyote ceremony. It is believed that the use of plant drugs within these cultural ceremonies allows for the shaman to access the spiritual world through visions and conscious dreaming (Metzner p. 3). To summarize Metzner’s article, he looks at the comparison and similarities of the shaman and psychotherapist. The common elements of these rituals is they both have a guide to lead the healing process, the importance of set and setting applies to each, and the process of healing is shared (Metzner p. 5). The significant difference outlined between these two processes of healing, is that shaman rituals include the exploration of a metaphysical world with the incorporation of spirit guides, whereas psychotherapy is purely based on the natural worldview (Metzner p. 5).

These two articles differ to anthropologist Penny Bernard’s article Fertility Goddess of the Zulu, which looks at a case study of the Fertility Goddess in Zulu culture and reflects on Bernard’s own personal experience with the feminine fishtailed deity, Inkosazana (Bernard, p. 1). Bernard gives a brief history of this divine healer through mythical narratives that are embedded in the Zulu culture. It is the belief of the Zulu’s that the Inkosazana calls individuals to specific water locations through their dreams, and she is believed to have powers that allow her to transform and manifest herself in any shape or form (Bernard, p. 1). Bernard speaks of her own personal calling that came in her dreams, to find a specific pool in which she journeyed to with her Father and four diviners (Bernard, p. 2). The diviner’s stood back from Bernard during this process, and she was encouraged to pray to the water and the fertility goddess. It is within the Zulu culture that they believe the fertility goddess will take an individual underwater for long periods of time in the form of a snake, as she wraps her body around theirs and holds them under the water (Bernard, p. 4). The Zulu’s truly believe this to be a physical experience, in which Bernard struggled to personally understand. In Bernard’s experience, she was called to the pool through specific dreaming in relation to the deity, and the people with her during this experience were certain she would be taken underwater (Bernard p. 2). She in fact was not, and explored this phenomenon through asking individuals from the Zulu culture about their experience of being physically taken underwater (Bernard, p. 8). Bernard concludes that the physical submersion does not occur, but the use of hallucinogenic drugs during this ritual can ultimately place the individual within a trance, allowing them to believe that they are physically being held under water by the deity (Bernard, p. 8). It is physically impossible for a human being to be submerged underwater for hours at a time, which reinforces that this cannot be a physical experience, thus emphasizing previous use of hallucinogenic drugs during the ritual. It is believed that Inkosazana is a mythical figure connected to the rain, fertility and water (Bernard, p. 19). Her presence is experienced by the Zulu’s, and was personally experienced by Bernard. The personal experience of the author reinforces to readers that the mythical goddess does exist, despite that she was not physically submerged underwater during the ritual.

Furthermore, the three articles discussed explore different elements of ritual. The first with focus on the experiential element of the shaman, the second with an analysis of the use of hallucinogenic drugs within ritual, and finally the third article outlines an experiential case study of the Zulu fertility goddess, Inkosazana. Despite the differences between these three articles, there are common themes that occur between them which include the different processes of ritual such as rhythm, dance, music and singing, the experience of the dual-world process, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs as a way for the community to further immerse themselves within the mythical and experiential processes of ritual.

by Arnikka de Kort

Works Cited

Bernard, P, ‘The Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a Calling to Inkosazana's Pool,' In Sylvie Shaw and Andrew Francis, Eds., Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature Religion and Water, London: Equinox Publications, 2008.

Metzner R. 1998. ‘Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism,’ Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 30, 4, 1-10, 1998, 22 Mar 2010.

Peters, L and Price-Williams, D, ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism,’American Ethnologist, 7, 3, 397-418,1980.

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