- Shamans are sometimes distinguished from other religious or cultural leaders by their ability to deliberately enter altered states of consciousness. A trance may be considered a dissociative state of mind in which actors become unaware of their ordinary or physical surroundings. It has been assessed in completely contradictory ways: as either the equivalent or the opposite of possession. However, the work of Ioan Lewis and Caroline Humphrey, among others, demonstrates that both are performed behaviors and that the individual’s inner “state of mind” is hardly an issue for shamans, their clients, or communities. Both trance and possession, if they can be distinguished, are culturally recognizable patterns of behavior that demonstrate the presence and activity of otherworld beings, spirits, or other powerful other-than-human persons. That is, while many Western observers are interested in “trance” as a state of mind, what is significant to shamans and their (animist) communities is the active engagement or relationship between the shamans and their helpers and enemies. Since “entranced” shamans are supposed to be fully in control of their journeying in places and ways inaccessible to onlookers, and of their actions for others, to speak of “dissociation” is to miss what shamans consider most significant: their powerful association with helpers and clients. Trance is also important in a host of religious communities that are not normally considered shamanic except by those who equate shamanism with trance (and thus overgeneralize both terms).
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.