Aesthetics in the Healing Space of Sangoma Trance States

ART AFRICA, issue 07. Guest edited by Kendell Geers.

Ingo Lamprecht during a pre-graduation dance. Image courtesy of Ingo Lamprecht.

 

Aesthetics is the inter-subjective space in which meaning and experiences of the world are processed. This is similar to a healing, therapeutic space, in which the inter-relationship between symbols, thought and body are processed. Art facilitated emotional reconciliation. In this reconciliation, the aesthetics of the ritual, as in the rituals of therapy are holding, creating a container to heal. In the shamanic and spiritual world of many people, rituals, art, song, and words engage with transitional spaces and trance states.

It could be said that altered states of consciousness or trance states occur in transitional spaces, just as in the space of art or play. Equally, amongst the shamanic traditions of many indigenous people, mind and space are closely related to transitional spaces. Rituals have become interpreted historically by the British anthropologists as reflecting social systems, whilst French anthropologists find symbol systems and cosmologies.1 Aesthetics traverse both symbolic and social structures.

Different from religious rituals, in which the form of the aesthetic ritual is the meaning; in shamanic rituals, the form not only holds meaning but also creates a transitional space to alter consciousness. Aesthetics is in fact a part of the technology that alters the mind. For this article I will hold the somewhat contentious position that common to most shamanic traditions across the world is the shifting of the mind, even if the specific rituals are different.2 It is true that for rituals repetition is never the same − this is especially true of shamanic rituals. The repetition of ritual is like stepping into a field of resonance, where the process becomes the ground upon which flight occurs, and new forms appear. This is true for music, art, psychoanalysis, and altering consciousness.3

The Aesthetics of Sangoma Healing

It is worth considering the above statements in the context of a specific traditional healing practice as in sangoma trance states. The sangoma plays a central and important figure within South African traditional health practices. Research shows that 84% of the South African population will consult a sangoma more than three times a year, after or in place of going to a Western medical doctor or clinic.4 It is estimated that there are 200 000 traditional healers in South Africa.5 My sangoma teacher was Daniel Baloyi, who at the age of eleven years became very ill, entered an initiation crisis, and began his training at Bushbuckridge in the Eastern province. His training lasted for three years. For the last forty years he has practised as a sangoma in Snake Park, close to Soweto. He has also been my gobela (sangoma teacher), positioning the author as both a clinical psychologist as well as a sangoma. 

In traditional societies throughout the world, a specialist with gifts of trancing and healing has commonly been referred to as a ‘shaman.’ Anthropologists focusing on Africa have, however, been reluctant to use the term ‘shaman,’ preferring terms such as ‘spirit mediators,’ ‘traditional healers,’ or ‘diviners.’6 While these terms identify important facets of this specialisation, they do not encompass all the various roles of the sangoma. Consequently, the term ‘sangoma’ or ‘South African shaman’ is applied to a diviner, mediator, or herbalist (isangoma, isanusi, inyanga, igqira, or ixhwele) who practices and achieves a trance state. The purpose of this is to communicate with the ancestors, to achieve extra-sensory perception or to develop paranormal abilities. In addition to this, the role of the sangoma includes divination, healing, directing rituals, as well as narrating the history, cosmology and myths of her/his tradition, all of which cannot be separated artificially.7

The sangoma is an important figure within the social and political context of the community. They are involved in finding lost cattle, protecting warriors, and ‘smelling out’ witches. Their involvement during the political struggle of South Africa was one of offering protective medicine or muti to freedom fighters. Amongst the Nguni people of Southern Africa especially, there is a high presence of women in the shamanic profession who suffer from politico-structural and ritual inferiority.8 To become a sangoma is often the only way for women to attain some of the power and freedom from men.9 Furthermore, the oracles of the ancestors delivered during trance states provide a discursive arena to express resistance, articulate contradictory values, or raise unpalatable issues in an acceptable format.10 As a result, these practices have always been a form of social activity or political performance. I argue here that these trance states also hold significant aesthetic qualities and dimensions.

The essential distinction between a herbalist and a sangoma is the shamanic characteristic of healing. Although the sangoma uses herbs, s/he also heals on a psychological and interpersonal level. Levi-Strauss stated that a shaman is the first psychoanalyst, which is definitely true of the sangoma.11 Shamans represent the ‘first healers’ in that they apply healing methods that closely parallel contemporary behavioural therapy, chemotherapy, hypnotherapy, milieu therapy, family therapy, and dream interpretation.12 In a more psycho-dynamic framework, the healing and therapeutic function of trance states are the result of the lowered tension and the release of ‘bad objects’ through abreaction, thereby creating a restorative emotional experience, and enhancing creativity.13

The sangoma enters trance states in order to heal her/himself and others. These states are oracular in nature as they give information about illnesses, and the best ways of curing them. The ancestors then speak through the sangoma, who unfolds future possibilities, reveals hidden agendas, interprets puzzling dreams, and finds lost articles. The lucid dreams of the sangoma reveal the medicinal plant of the patient before they arrive. During divination, the ancestors speak to the sangoma in a softer voice during a gentler trance state. In my own experiences of following the rhythms of the drums and focusing on the dancing, a single focus is created, which in turn leads to a gradual clearing of the mind. Sometimes colourful fractals appear during dance and slowly images become visible. At other times, there is a pull towards a void, when the voices appear. It is this void that emerges just prior to the sangoma becoming embodied by the ancestors. Sangoma trance states are therefore richly embedded in specific colours and sounds.

The three major causes of illness and misfortune (which a sangoma seeks to divine and heal), are the ancestral illnesses, those caused by witchcraft, and those that are due to pollution or ritual impurity, such as menstruation, miscarriages, or shamanic novices. Importantly, healing occurs within a mainly symbolic and holistic nature.14

Colour symbolism within sangoma medicine is central to these practices and reflects a religio-alchemical approach. The important symbolic colours are black (mnyama), red (bomvu) and white (mhlophe).15 Treatment with such coloured medicines is intended to establish a balance between the person and the environment. The symbolism is related to the cosmic order of day and night. White, for example, is associated with light, day, brightness, positivity and health; whilst black is associated with night, dark, danger, purification, negativity, toxicity and ill health. Red lies in between the two, and is associated with dawn and dusk, with blood and transformation. It is the ‘between and betwixt’ position, as twilight lies between night and day. The method of cure is a movement through detoxification with the black medicine, followed by  transformation through the red medicine, and strengthening with the white. The interpretation of these colours finds its parallel in Western alchemy as well as in spagyrics or plant-alchemy.16 For Jung, the alchemist was a shaman transforming substances and the psyche through medicines and healing rituals.17

Equally, the dress code of a sangoma is determined by the use of symbolic colours. It also highlights the importance of the sangoma’s ancestral relationship. While there is great variety within the dress code, one characteristic uniform of the Nguni sangoma is to tie the goat’s gallbladder into the hair. This gallbladder comes from the goat that was slaughtered at the time of their graduation, and is said to call the ancestors.18 That most novices wear red is symbolic of the transformative process that the apprentice is undergoing. The author’s own novice dress included what his sangoma teacher called a “skirt,” suggesting a symbolic synthesis and overcoming of sexual differences. This highlights the shaman’s marginality and the liminality of her/his androgynous state as expressed through cross-gender identification. The colourful androgyny of dress code and behaviour is central to being a sangoma. It expresses (both aesthetically and symbolically) the liminality of the position of the sangoma between the material and spirit worlds.

My beads are red and blue; red, signifying my parental ancestors; blue, referring to my maternal ancestors. As I learnt, this was the way of the Tsonga, a people situated in Northern and Eastern parts of South Africa, who sought to integrate both the different genealogies of ancestors. My teacher also believed that the Tsonga people were more peaceful, as they sought to integrate both the male and female parts of themselves, whilst some Nguni sangomas only honour the patriarchal lineage. They are considered more aggressive and war-like; cultural and political factors that are subtly reflected through the aesthetics of dress.

Sometimes the sangoma’s body is painted white, the colour of the ancestors In some cases, bunches of goat horns and grass-woven baskets filled with assortments of herbs and medicines are strung from the neck, shoulders and body. Cow-tails may dangle from the arms, a square leopard skin might be worn, as well as genet-tails to cover the nakedness in front and behind.19 A cow-tail whisk and a stick are two other typical items that form part of the sangoma’s costume. The sangoma’s whisk, which signifies dignity, is used during dancing and to sprinkle certain medicines.20 In Swaziland, the sangomas wear strips of goatskin criss-crossing the chest, which is taken from the initiation goat killed by the thwasa (apprentice).21 Colours of beads, dress, and sounds of instruments are all accompany the sangoma in their trance states.

Dancing along Limits

Positioned at the very limit of the community, the sangoma becomes a wanderer of boundaries: confronting within her/himself the unknown spiritual terrain of the ancestors, while questioning the social limits imposed on the community.  It is a privileged and dangerous position, in that the initiation of the sangoma becomes the death of the old self and a re-birth of the new. The individual is ‘called’ by the ancestors through ukuthwasa (an initial illness), and as such is a good example of the dangers of such liminality. The initiation of the novice becomes the healing process. During the training the novice begins to establish a relationship with her or his ancestors. It is the improvement of this relationship during trance states that the sangoma experiences their transformation.

Divination 'bones'. Image courtesy of Ingo

Divination ‘bones’. Image courtesy of Ingo Lamprecht.

 

The Trance States of the Sangomas

It is impossible in this article to fully articulate the variety of sangoma trance states, which are outlined elsewhere.22 The trance states that I call the amadlozi trance state is a specific form of dance, and occurs in the presence of vigorous drumming, a specific dress code, and the gaze of the community. As such, these elements provide the aesthetic edges of a ritualised space: saturated through both the surrounding environment, music, and the symbolic cultural objects that colour the sangoma’s trancing body. This body resonates and expresses the aesthetics of embodied ancestors. Spirits become aestheticised by the bodies and spaces they inhabit.

The community functions as a Bionic container or a Bowlbian secure base.23 Much like an Ancient Greek choir (observer, commentator, record keeper), its function is deeply ritualised and culturally determined by symbol and structure. There are certain effective technologies that induce a shift of mind. The process starts long before going out to fulfil the ritual. The sangoma’s hut, for example, is colourfully dressed in certain garments. The memory of certain burning herbs, and the familiar, comforting repetition of singing and drums, is beguiling and capturing in its call. As a lived experience of resonance, you are trapped and held, embraced and pushed forward to that threshold. As you begin to dance, your body remembers those same practiced steps. Over and over it allows you to enter an inner, transitional space. In my experience this is like a dark funnel, a threshold that suddenly opens you up to the landscape of visions or the whispering of ancestral voices. The sangoma trance states cannot be separated from aesthetics.

One sangoma described her experience of drumming as intoxicating: “there is something knocking in your head, and then you will change […]. That time when the drums are coming, it hits you as you dance. It is like the liquors, your head is changing because of the drums.” Another sangoma stated that drumming helps the ancestors to “come out”.24 During the dancing, drumming and singing, the body and the mind are supported in letting go through the techniques of hyperstimulation. In the move towards exhaustion and hyperventilation, everyday consciousness is given up, and a certain openness occurs.25 It is worth noting that the linguistic root of the isangoma (Zulu) or mungoma (Venda) refers to the ‘drum’.26

The Aesthetics of Inner Voices and Visions

Lewis-Williams and Dowson note that neuropsychological research by Siegel into trance states has relevance here.27 Their analysis of San rock art suggests that the artists were shamans, depicting their trance experiences. The San shaman uses metaphors and symbols in their rock art that express certain cross-cultural features of trance. Given that the nervous system is common to all people, “the capacity to experience altered states of consciousness is a psychobiological capacity of the species, and thus universal, its utilisation, institutionalisation and patterning are, indeed, features of cultures and thus variable”.28 Elaborating on this, Lewis-Williams and Dowson point out that in the first stage of altered consciousness, entoptic phenomena are visible, regardless the cultural background the experiencer has. Stimulated through trance, these early first stages are characterised by neurologically predicted geometric forms and curves; such as dots, zigzags, grids, and vortexes, and seem to have a life of their own.29 Such catenary curves and zigzags appear in San rock art. The bees depicted relate to buzzing, which is explicitly associated by the San to the sounds heard while in trance.30 The second stage is characterised by the elaboration of entoptics into more familiar objects or constructs. The San shamans, for instance, drew honeycombs that occur in the wild in the form of U-shapes, or a zigzag line which transforms into a snake.

In the third stage, marked changes occur in the imagery. Some laboratory subjects report seeing tunnels and vortexes. Iconic hallucinations or iconics of people, animals, and other objects also take place. There is an increase of vividness, as well as a blending of different hallucinatory forms, for example humans and animals. One laboratory subject reported that when thinking of a fox, he became a fox.

“The transformation of sign to symbol is also apparent in the visual realm where constancies of space and time are replaced by geometric-ornamental-rhythmic structures […], whether electrically, naturally or drug-induced.” Thus the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals, the mandalas of the Tantric religion, as well as the rock art of the San, can be understood as ritualised hallucinatory forms, consistant throughout cross-cultural trance states.31 The rhythms of music, poetry and song correspond to the geometric-ornamental rhythms of the visual realm.32 All senses hallucinate, but the interpretation of these hallucinations is culturally determined. An Inuit (Eskimo) does not ‘see’ a rhinoceros but a polar bear. San rock art is not merely the result of neuropsychological speculations, but is also aesthetically and culturally determined.

The results of this research correlate closely with the reported visual experiences of shamans taking the substance yagé or ayahuasca in the Amazon Basin. I can concur that during my ayahuasca experiences with a South American shaman, Dr Luna, as well as during Santo Daime ceremonies, such entoptic phenomena are powerful and follow the path from points, to lines, zigzags, O shapes and forms. I had similar experiences when visions began to form during the amadlozi trance states whilst dancing.

The cultivation of inner voices and visions can be understood as occurring in two major stages. The novice is trained by first increasing the vividness of visual or auditory imagery and, secondly, controlling or mastering it. In order to do this, the novice blocks out noise and isolates herself from external stimuli. She may also use psychedelic substances or rituals in order to turn inward.33 During these extensive preparatory rituals, the shaman begins to access her concentration powers, shifting from one state of consciousness to another. Importantly, the prayer in a meditative state becomes the mental focus that formulates and gives power to the intent. The novices are informed that dreams in full colour or those that occur in series are significant. The first stage of a shaman’s visionary training aims at transforming ‘crude visions’ into ‘clear visions’ by systematically reinforcing colour, form, sound and meaning of images seen and voices heard.

In the second phase, the control of the inner visual and auditory imagery leads to a mastery of the spirits, focusing the intent of the prayers on interacting with the ancestors. Such clear visions can lead to a ‘magical flight’, as is evident in the experiences of the ‘land of spirit animals’, in various ‘underwater experiences’, and the out of body experiences (OBEs) by the sangomas I have interviewed.34

Conclusion

This brief outline highlights the importance of cultural artefacts and aesthetics in the induction or production of shamanic trance states of the sangoma. The colour symbolism, the sounds, and the cultural objects, as well as the places serve to highlight the central function of the sangoma as the mediator between the ancestors and the community through trance states. The aim of this mediation is to heal any imbalances that may have occurred in the patient’s body, psyche or social fabric. Aesthetics is deeply embedded and inseparable from this process.

Ingo Lambrecht PhD is a consultant clinical psychology and psychotherapist  with over 20 year experiences. He has written and presented extensively on the clinical-cultural interface.

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