Using ecstatic techniques of singing, dancing, and drumming to draw down deities or get possessed by spirits is both an old ritual technology and a new one. It’s been used for thousands of years and you see this in the tribal customs of many religions that have continued on to the present day.
It’s a technique that also has become used more and more in modern Pagan groups, though many Pagan groups have had to rediscover it since certain traditions didn’t seem to use any ecstatic processes for this ritual function. Thus, as these techniques are rediscovered, the old is new again. However, it means we have to re-look at these techniques and look at what will work for us in our own traditions and rituals, and what won’t. And it also serves to burrow down a bit into why it works.
I was specifically asked via my Facebook group on Ritual Facilitation Skills how one could use singing and chanting as part of drawing down, but the answer’s a little more complex than that. It’s worth pointing out the framework of the person asking; she’s forming a small group, so perhaps 3-4 people to start with, and she comes from an Alexandrian tradition.
The TL:DR on this post is, if you want to use singing and chanting techniques in ritual, you have to learn how to do it, and you have to teach your group to do them too. More, you have to get their buy-in, their willingness to do it without you having to pressure them. If you have a very small group and some of them are reluctant to sing and aren’t willing to engage whole-heartedly, these techniques may fall flat.
If you have a group of five people, but only two are willing to sing, it’s like two people trying to carry a 200 pound cauldron while the rest of the group stands there and watches: not going to work out well.
What Is Aspecting, and what is Ecstatic?
Let’s start with definitions of terms. Trance possession, drawing down, invocation, and aspecting are all terms for the same basic function, but they have different connotations, as I mentioned in my last post. Trance possession is typically done with a lot of ecstatic support.
When I say ecstatic, what I mean is physically embodied techniques that take us into a deep altered state. We’re talking drumming, singing, dancing. Now, some ecstatic techniques involve sensory overstimulation, and some could involve sensory deprivation (dancing with a blindfold, sensory deprivation water tanks, etc.) Sometimes alcohol or entheogenic substances are used.
You will commonly see ecstatic work used for trance possessions in African Diasporic traditions like Vodoun when people are ridden by the Loa, or in traditional tribal cultures where the whole community is singing and dancing together and the shaman/spiritworker (or other specific people) go into shaking trances. I’ll go ahead and use the word shamanic in the anthropological sense of how the word is commonly used; these techniques are common in shamanic traditions where the tribal spiritworker is supported in their work by the singing and dancing of the whole tribe.
There’s a great documentary, Dances of Ecstasy, that I often recommend as it offers up video of several different world traditions that use trance techniques. The DVD is available on Amazon or you can order it directly from the people who created it.
Working Within A Tradition
It’s worth pointing out that I have little experience with Alexandrian or British Traditional Witchcraft, and that’s the framework the original question comes from. I’m familiar with what I’d call the “standard Wiccan ritual” format that comes from BTW since I’ve attended plenty of them, so I’m using that as sort of a guideline here for the rest of my response.
However, if you’re in a similar tradition, one potential resource is Janet Farrar. Janet trained with Alex Sanders so she comes from those traditions, but her ritual work has evolved over the years. She gave a talk a few years ago and spoke very specifically about how they are doing a lot more ecstatic trance work in their rituals, and the way they do drawing down is closer to what’s usually referred to as trance possession.
So if you’re working with traditional witchcraft and Wicca, it’s possible that Janet Farrar herself might be a good resource for how to do this within the constraints of your own tradition. She may have written about this as well, but I’m not familiar with the content of her books. (Feel free to comment or message me if you are and can recommend one of her books that might go into her approach on this).
Constraints and Intentions
One of the reasons I don’t work with what I call the “standard Wiccan ritual format” is in part because those traditions tend to offer too many limitations on the shape of the ritual. I could get into orthodoxy and orthopraxy, but the idea is that when you study in a particular tradition/religion and you’re told that the ritual must be done like this, otherwise it’s not correct, that becomes a limitation on what you can and can’t do in your ritual and still call it XYZ tradition.
I take a completely different approach. I’ve mentioned it in a few articles, but basically the way I do ritual is entirely geared toward engaging the group in a trance state. I build up layer and layer of participation to get people willing to sing, move, dance. I’m concerned with trance technique, not orthodoxy.
Some traditions have a set format for how things must be done, and sometimes those things make it hard to engage a group in participation. I talk about one ritual in my book Spiritual Scents where each person was expected to sage/smudge the person next to them, one at a time. With 60 people, that ended up taking 45 minutes, just for smudging. We were all bored to tears before the ritual even started.
The energy was flatlined.
Thus, I look at traditions and expectations around ritual and I may shift things a bit to make it more ecstatic. Cakes and Ale is one I have gone after in some of my articles too; in a larger group, Cakes and Ale is (in some traditions) supposed to be the Big Divine Communion Moment. And instead, it’s this long, annoying process of passing out styrofoam cups, juice with preservatives, cookies with preservatives…not very magical. People start having side conversations while they wait for their juice and cookie–the energy diffuses.
In my ritual work, I don’t do smudging or cakes and ale, and that’s for a few reasons but one is that if it’s going to take a long time and be boring for the group, that’s not going to make it easy to sing and build energy.
Thus, one of the pieces of advice I always offer up is, look at the intention of each piece of your ritual and what it’s supposed to achieve. If you’re told to do ABC format, and the intention is building communal energy, but the ABC format doesn’t do that…perhaps your tradition needs to be updated. Perhaps a different ritual technique would better serve that intention.
Take a look at each piece of your ritual and honestly explore whether or not the ritual techniques you’re taught to use actually effect that intention.
Ritual Logistics That Impact Ecstatic Work
It’s worth mentioning that my specialty is large group ritual; I’m not always the best at small group ritual. However, in large group ritual the challenge is getting a bunch of strangers to energetically connect and be willing to sing/dance/look like a dumbass in front of strangers. In a small group, you have the advantage of intimacy and connection. As the group’s connection builds, it can become easier to do the ecstatic work because you have that relationship and you’re not worried about looking stupid while you sing, dance, etc.
I mention all that because if you want to use singing and other ecstatic/embodied techniques, people need to feel comfortable enough to do them. In our culture, most people don’t feel comfortable singing. We’re taught that only “good” singers should sing.
I get away with it in large groups because, among other things, I’m loud enough to anchor the chant and keep the melody until the group starts to feel comfortable. Plus in a group of 50+ people there’s a certain amount of anonymity.
But the other reason I get away with it and get people singing that weren’t expecting to sing is that I’ve structured my whole ritual to build people up, to help them participate more and more until they feel safer. I don’t ask them to jump in and sing a complicated chant right away, I don’t ask them to jump in and dance in the middle. I ask for them to speak a word, or sing a tone, or to move their arms or maybe sway from side to side. And then a little later, I ask for more sound, more movement, more words.
I build it up layer by layer.
There’s an axiom of facilitation (workshops, rituals, etc) that what you do in the first five minutes sets the tone. That’s true, but it’s more complex than that. If I want the group to participate (not just watch) I do have to set that up in the first five minutes. But, I also have to layer that up through the ritual. I can’t expect someone to be comfortable anchoring a chant, or go into deep ecstasis, if they’ve been standing and watching me talk for 20 minutes. People go into “audience mode” and then getting them to do anything participatory is like stirring glue.
Now…as you can tell, this topic is deeper than just getting people to sing. I’m not explaining simple concepts, so this post has gone on pretty long and we haven’t even gotten to actual singing and chanting techniques. Part 2 will do just that, and you’ll really want to read it now that you have some background information. I also go into some of the chanting and music techniques I use as a personal practice and to train my voice. Sounds simple to say, but you can’t lead chants in ritual if you haven’t prepared yourself to sing.
Part 2 tomorrow!