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Trance 1, Requirement 4

Identify and describe three instances where trance is found in ancient Indo-European cultures. (min. 300 words each instance)

Irish tarbh feis and Celtic dream interpretation

There's a folk custom in some Celtic lands that appears to have involved wrapping the bard tightly in a bull's hide and laying him beside running water for a day and a night. Another variant of this involves the bard laying in a windowless house with two doors, one at each end, and making up poems upon waking. Often the Bard was said to eat the raw flesh of the bull, or drink its blood. Called tarbh feis in Irish, these things are similar to an incident in The Dream of Rhonabwy, in The Mabinogion, where the hero enters a dark hall, the abode of an old hag. He falls asleep for three days and nights on a yellow ox-hide and has a vivid dream of a chess match that influences a battle. Many, many people in Irish myth have dreams that involve foretelling the future, especially the downfalls or elevation of great men.

An interesting aspect of the tarbh feis and dreaming alike is that it is a process of incubation, where contact with others does not occur. Alone with their thoughts, wrapped up in the hide or in their blankets, they are alone in their world, which can be either truly frightening or extremely liberating. For those who find it liberating, it might almost be like freeing the mind to create a cosmos that can then be reimprinted onto the poet during what modern Chaos Magicians call "gnosis."

There is also a cognate Scottish ritual, called the tarnhairm, where the seer is wrapped in a bull hide and lays near a waterfall, combining the incubation with the sound of the falling water, which adds an element of sonic driving to the experience.

The relative function of such journeys is that it serves as a way to achieve inspiration (or Awen), provides an outlet for such inspiration, and opens a culturally acceptable and defined channel for the attainment of such contextualized inspiration from a source that is "authentic" and "authoritative".

The Norse gods and ecstatic trance

Oðin, as we know, hung for nine nights on the world tree, a sacrifice of himself to himself, and on the ninth night, he took up the wisdom of the runes. His underworld descents are spoken of in many palces, including the Havamal, the Voluspa, and Baldrsdraumr, among others. Very often these are pointed to as "shamanic aspects" of the god in question. It does appear that Oðin was fully involved in trancework during many of these, as the bear the marks of ecstatic trance and the sorts of things that are extended from it, including soul journeying and obtaining wisdom from the cosmos.

Many consider the practice of seiðr to be a type of ecstatic trance. Seiðr itself means "seething" and encompasses primarily divination in the ancient sense (though it has become more like channeling for groups like Hrafnar that have begun to apply modern interpretations onto the ancient practice).

The important thing is that the gods practiced seiðr, with Freya introducing it to the Aesir. While the pracice of seiðr is ergi, Oðin himself practiced it, or at least he is said to have. It is entirely possible, however, that he did not practice it, as Loki and Snorri are the two primary sources for this. While each is generally reliable, it is often hard to say just how reliable they are in a given circumstance.

The divination practice of seiðr seems to have been different from normal seeing in the sagas, though, and involved specific tools (such as a distaff and a high seat upon which the volva sat). The divination through seiðr is likely to have involved a different sort of trancework than other sorts of divination, such as by lots or runes.

As a final point on trance and the Norse gods, we might think of Hermoðr, who goes to Hel to seek the return of Balðr, which can be seen as soul retrieval.

The Delphic Oracle and halucenagenic trance

The Oracle at Delphi is one of the classical examples of trancework within in an Indo-European context. According to sources, the Oracle would cleanse herself in the spring near the Temple of Apollo, then (holding laurel leaves) descend into her chamber within the temple, seat herself upon a tripod chair, and gaze into a pool of water. From there, she would take questions and give answers to a variety of people from throughout Greece and beyond.

Plutarch reported that the Delphic Oracle was exposed to "fragrant breezes", and that these breezes allowed the Pythia to speak her prophecies. "Not often nor regularly, but occasionally and fortuitously, the room in which the seat the god's consulatants is filled with a fragrance and breeze, as if the adyton were sending forth the essences of the sweetest and most expensive perfumes from a spring."¹

It is not only possible, but likely that the Oracle was engaged in a trance state of some sort, particularly given the descriptions of triggers that are given (e.g., how she always washed in the same water, always carried laurel leaves, and always sat on her tripod). The repetative nature of the actions, and the fact that hallucenogenic gasses were likely involved indicates that entering a trance was part of the Oracle's job: in order to prophecy, she would go through these acts every time someone requested an oracle.

Perhaps a vitally important point in showing that this was indeed trancework is that there are ancient reports of glossalalia, or what is more commonly called "speaking in tongues." The Oracle would speak in an unintelligble manner to the priest who would then translate. If this was glossalalia, then we can be sure that the Oracle was engaging in trance, as academic work on this subject is nearly unanimous on glossalalia being dependant on a trance state.

  ¹ - Delphic Oracle's Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapors - National Geographic article


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